The current novel in progress (which has at last got a working title, Arrows of Mercy. Or perhaps it should be Mercy’s ArrowsArrows in the Hand…? Oh dear) ranks as the most research-intensive work I’ve ever tackled, barring only my first 18th century novel, Kindred, begun at a time when I was still hazy on what years the Revolutionary War took place.

For one thing, this story, whatever it means to call itself, spans a far longer time period than any story I’ve written before. Nineteen years, from the fall of Fort William Henry during the French & Indian War in the 1750s to the early days of the Revolutionary War in the mid 1770s. That’s two wars, one of which I knew little about, the other of which I’d skated around, writing stories set just after it, with little flashes of character history that took place during it, but never IT.

The story also takes place partly (admittedly mostly “off screen”) in England. One of the main characters becomes a scholar at one of the colleges of Oxford University.

This, this was the real Oxford, “with the sun on her towers,” the Oxford of Newman and Lewis Carroll and Tom Brown. There was the high, curving down to Queen’s and Magdalen, and the old Bodleian, with its high windows and chained books, and next to it the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre. And there, down on the corner of the Broad, was Balliol in all its glory. The Balliol of Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Asquith. Inside those gates was the great Jowett, with his bushy white hair and his masterful voice telling a student, “Never explain. Never apologize.” 

The clock in Cornmarket’s tower struck half past eleven, and all the bells in Oxford chimed in. St. Mary’s the Virgin and Christ Church’s Great Tom, and the silvery peal of Magdalen, far down the High.

Oxford, and I was here in it. In “the city of lost causes” where lingered “the last echoes of the Middle Ages.”

” ‘That sweet city with her dreaming spires,’ ” I said, and was nearly hit by a horseless carriage.

~ Ned Henry, time traveler to Victorian England, musing on the Oxford of yesteryear in one of my favorite books, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (I highly recommend the audio version read by Steven Crossley)

Aside from the above sort of passage, until a few days ago I knew nothing about Oxford. Even with the above sort of passage I didn’t know the sorts of things a writer needs to know to have a young man in the eighteenth century talk with accuracy and familiarity in his letters back home about his life among those “dreaming spires.”

So I did what I do. I visited Wikipedia. I ordered books. I figured out what questions I needed to ask, then asked a few fellow historical writers. I wished someone had written an Oxford for Dummies. And after the books arrived I took a trek through my favorite research hunting ground, their bibliographies, where this morning I found a listing for a book titled University Life in Eighteenth Century Oxford, by Graham Midgley. Bingo!

It can be daunting, facing down a new area of research (especially when the hours I spend reading and searching for sources will amount to a few lines of a book), but it’s also a great feeling as a heretofore strange environment, whether geographical or historical, begins to feel familiar, and in the guise of a character I walk with confidence through it, soaking in the sights, sounds, smells, and attitudes of Place and Time.

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