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Chicken or Egg? Hobby or Character Development?

Where can I learn to be a blacksmith, I muttered to myself last week, as I decided to put a blacksmith in a new book/project. Might be fun to learn, I thought.

The night before I had packed away my (at this point fairly extensive) collection of chocolate molds and tools, having recently sold my new novel, Straight Uphill: A Tale of Love and Chocolate to Fireship Press.

So it made me wonder: which came first, the desire to learn something like confectionary, or the desire to have a character work in a trade that, for the sake of verisimilitude, I need to learn. I don’t necessarily need to master the craft, but I need to know the smell of it, the heat, the feel of the tools in my hand. One can learn the process from a book but there’s so that you have to actually experience.

So, which came first?

I wrote the chocolatiers in Straight Uphill because I was taking on chocolate as a hobby. (I’ve never actually had a hobby. Work, writing, motherhood, relationship, house; that was all I could handle. I had never even asked myself what I might want to do as a hobby, that’s how remote the prospect was.) Chocolates moved from a temporary pastime to a dedicated hobby when I realized that I had just spent hours, transfixed, as I worked with the stuff. The ‘languid quality’ described in the WWII section of the book is how I felt making my first ganache. So, in the case of Straight Uphill, the hobby came first.

I learned to ride a horse for two reasons: anyone who writes historical fiction set before 1908 (year of the Model T Ford) or even 1886 (year of its invention by Karl Benz) needs to know what it’s like to be on and around horses. I’m still hoping to go on an overnight trail ride at some point because horses at night must be interesting. The second reason is that I’m afraid of horses and I decided about 10 years ago that I would start confronting and disarming fears. (Some not so successfully: apparently there’s no way I can joyfully scuba dive or even snorkel.) So, in the case of horsemanship, the research came first.

I invented a character/project called The Baker’s Lass and learned a couple of extant medieval recipes for bread, but the story has faltered in the middle, (and bread is way more fattening than chocolate) so I’ve abandoned bread. That is, after I watched a zillion episodes of “Baking with Julia”, and became an avid fan of the very civilized “Great British Baking Show”. Breadmaking: research came first.

These hobbies or hands-on research are particularly important to writers of historical fiction. Everyone had a trade “back in the day.” And unless all your characters are queens and kings, you need tradespeople. Likewise, not all your characters can be bar-keeps or farmers and in the Middle Ages, there were few people who were just retailers since most people sold what they made or grew.

Today, a blacksmith is standing in the wings, hoping to be called onstage/onto the page, so next stop is The Crucible in Oakland, CA, and Blacksmithing 101. Can’t wait!


#JessWells #TheCrucible #characterdevelopment