word craft


Details, Details


I have a fond­ness for old books. The old­est on my shelf was pub­lished in 1850 and has the title, Hand­book of Lon­don, Past and Present. I believe I acquired it when writ­ing Traitor’s Gate. It was won­der­ful­ly use­ful when try­ing to track the streets and places in Lon­don at that time. The oth­er very old book I have on my shelves is Hen­ry Mayhew’s Crim­i­nal Pris­ons of Lon­don and Scenes of Prison Life. It is dat­ed MDCCCLXII (1862). This vol­ume is splen­did­ly illus­trat­ed. Here again, I believe I used it while research­ing Traitor’s Gate. There are scenes in this old book that pro­vide extra­or­di­nary details of life in an Eng­lish prison. Those details became an impor­tant part of my book.

Thus, infor­ma­tion such as the “Dai­ly Diet list” at the House of Deten­tion, Clerken­well: On Sun­days, Males and Females there were fed “4 ounces of meat, 2 ounces of gru­el and 16 ounces of bread.” Fur­ther­more, “All pris­on­ers are allowed to be vis­it­ed by their friends, from 12 till 2 dai­ly, Sunday’s excepted.”

The sub­text of this infor­ma­tion is that many work­ing peo­ple only had Sun­days off, which meant they could make no prison vis­its to fam­i­ly or friends on that day.

As I am sure you can imag­ine, this kind of detail is invalu­able when writ­ing about such times and places.

When I hold such old books, I have to won­der who else held them, and under what cir­cum­stances. And how did they even read them? Or use them? The type­face is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly small (by today’s stan­dards). Even more bewil­der­ing is to con­tem­plate how the type was set and proofread.

The old leather bind­ings have a sin­gu­lar musty smell of which I’m fond. Though the paper is old, it is in bet­ter con­di­tion than many recent­ly pub­lished paper­back books. I sus­pect it has a high rag content.

A recent­ly acquired book that was pub­lished in 1927 (for a cur­rent project) has on the back of the title page, a note: “Five hun­dred copies of this vol­ume have been print­ed from type and the type dis­trib­uted.” In oth­er words, only 500 copies ever exist­ed. I now have one of them.

In this con­text, I have sev­er­al dic­tio­nar­ies, such as one of medieval words, and a reprint of Grose’s (1785) A Clas­si­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Vul­gar Tongue. (“Vul­gar” here, means slang.) Thus a “filch­ing mort” is “a woman thief.” Some­where I have an edi­tion of Roget’s orig­i­nal (1851) The­saurus.

When doing research for The Secret Sis­ters — in which Ida goes to a 1925 high school, I got a hold of some text­books from that time.

Why else would I now have a 1923 Latin textbook?

Yes, such old books pro­vide details, but most of all they enable me to give life to my char­ac­ters, sit­u­a­tions, and even places. My read­ers tell me they love these details.

The truth is, so do I.

3 thoughts on “Details, Details”

  1. Years ago, when I was dream­ing up what became my first book, MAY B., a friend and I were in an antique store togeth­er. She found an old school primer from the late 1800s and hand­ed it to me, say­ing maybe it would be help­ful with the book idea I had. I took it home and decid­ed it would play a role in my man­u­script. It end­ed up being cen­tral to May’s story.

  2. Hel­lo, Avi, I love all of your work. My mom and I were talk­ing and the rea­son your books are so good is because of all of your details, we decid­ed. I would real­ly like it if you cre­at­ed anoth­er Crispin bok, maybe you could make it when he was old­er? I am also hop­ing of becom­ing a great writer like you. I would love it if you could reply.
    ‑Philip N.


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