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When research inspires a new chapter

I’d reached the point in my current WIP that required a bit of historical background. As usual, I became distracted and ended up running down rabbit holes checking out details that may or may not end up in the final novel about Sarah, The Victualler. Typical really. But that’s the way things run in my brain. Until I came across Charles Dickens, and inspiration set in.

I thought I had a fairly reasonable knowledge of Dickens work, but it seems not. I knew, for example that some of his works were serialised. I hadn’t realised how many. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers published in 1836, was released in twenty monthly instalments over a period of nineteen months (the final two chapters appeared as a ‘double issue’).  Consider them akin to the modern-day weekly sit-coms and drama series with cliff-hanger endings that drew the reader in so they would purchase the next chapter. A clever marketing ploy, and gave Dickens the chance to modify the characters or outcomes in the next chapter according to the feedback. The cost? One shilling per instalment, at a time when books sold for around 31 shillings and 6 pence.

His last novel, following the same weekly or monthly format as all the others, was Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865) and contained 32 pages of letter press, 2 illustrations, various advertisements, and came wrapped in a flimsy green-paper front and back cover. In the intervening years he wrote numerous short stories, novellas, plays and non-fiction. He was prolific, with much of it drawn from his own life experiences.

The relevance to my story comes from the fact that those who could not read would pay a halfpenny to have each new episode read aloud to them, inspiring a new age of readers. A great achievement in anyone’s view.

What I have to decide now is, how educated is Sarah in the 1850’s when David Copperfield (Dickens most autobiographical work) was released, and again in 1853-1854 when Bleak House appeared, to be followed a few years later by Little Dorritt? Can she read, or is she one of the masses who paid her halfpenny? Which scenario is the most exciting to you?

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