From the Research Files: Bluebirds
One of the things I love about writing historical fiction is all the neat research I get to do. A ton of it never makes it even close to the story, but it does help me immerse myself in the period and the lives of my characters.
While I still wait for all the official stuff with my first historical release, I thought I’d give a little BTS glimpse into one of my research topics: Canadian Bluebirds.
Bluebirds were WW1 Nursing Sisters and so named because of their uniform – generally a blue dress with a white apron and the somewhat cumbersome nursing veil… can you imagine having to wear something like this all day? (I’m thinking they must have itched like crazy!) They served both overseas and at home (for a great story featuring a war nurse at the front, check out BLUEBIRD by Genevieve Graham). My main character, Nora Crowell, did her training at the Victoria General in Halifax, and when the story opens in the fall of 1917, she’s serving at Camp Hill Hospital – a brand new hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that cared for convalescing soldiers returning home from the front.
In researching nursing at home, I came across some stories of real women who fulfilled this role, and I gave a few of them walk-on roles during the time of the Halifax Explosion. One is Jessie Smiley. Jessie also trained at the VG and served overseas in England. At the time of the explosion, she was at Camp Hill Hospital. Because she’d worked with Ear, Nose, and Throat patients in England, she was well-suited for treating the facial injuries suffered by so many explosion victims. Another walk-on role is Matron Cotton. I took some liberties here; Dorothy Cotton actually did not return to serve at Camp Hill until 1918, after a varied and incredibly distinguished service during the war – including being in Petrograd and witnessing the revolution.
Not to be forgotten are the VADs – Voluntary Aid Detachment workers. These first-aid trained women worked at the hospital fulfilling more menial roles such as making beds, seeing to soldiers’ comforts, serving meals. The line almost seems a little blurred with the nurses at times as nurses were often not permitted to perform many tasks. But as the saying goes, necessity breeds invention. “Before the explosion, nurses could only do what doctors said they could do. After the explosion, the need was so great, they were doing things they had never done before, like removing glass, and suturing wounds. Nurses got together and said, ‘We can do more.’” (Gloria Stephens, VG Nursing Archives) Nora, my main character, has a fair hand at suturing – something she’s never done outside of her training before.
To be a nursing sister, a woman had to be single, between the ages of 21 and 38, a British subject (which Canadians were) and trained at a qualified nursing school. And while they carried the title “Sister,” they were not associated with any religious order. Canada was also the only country to give the nursing sisters a rank; they held the rank of lieutenant.
If a woman married, she was required to resign her commission. Let’s just say that that policy led to secrets sometimes being kept… including a secret in my story.
Love and Queen Charlotte
I’ll straight up admit that I ADORE Bridgerton. I adored the books, I adore the series even as it differs from the books. I love the costuming and the characters and the vividness with which it’s shot. If I told you how many times I’d watched seasons one and two your jaw would likely drop.
So it makes total sense that when Netflix and Shondaland and Julia Quinn decided Queen Charlotte was going to be a thing, I was all over it. It’s the Bridgerton version of “Droughtlander” – if anyone knows a clever term that matches the Bridgerton-verse let me know. Season 3 will be out late this year; this was just the thing to bridge the gap.
It must be noted that while Queen Charlotte and Mad King George DID exist, this is a fictional story. As a historical fiction writer, I’m fond of proper labeling. As long as I know going into something that it did or did not happen, I adjust my expectations and settle in for enjoyment. It’s what we, as readers and viewers need to do when we sit down to read or watch…but that’s a whole other blog post on fiction vs fiction inspired by real events vs fiction based on real people, etc.
Okay, that was a lot of preamble, but here’s my take. As much as I have loved seasons 1 and 2, Queen Charlotte is different. There is a seriousness and gravity to it that I think, for me, was because we know how the story ends. We know that George is ill. We know that the marriage has massive challenges because of his health, and that their road as a couple is not an easy one, so there’s not going to be a happily ever after at the end. What we’ll get is an unbreakable bond, a love that stands the test of time. We know we’re seeing marriage vows in action.
*** SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD ***
More than that, though, is that the series really delves into what love means, what marriage means, and how everyone carries their own baggage that defines and shapes them. It’s not just about Charlotte and George, past and present. It’s about Violet, who adored her father, had a fairy-tale wedding, and has mourned her husband for well over a decade. Her view on love and marriage is very different from Lady Danbury, who had no love for her husband, and who found love for a fleeting moment in time in the arms of another. Those memories are what have stayed with her, even as she reveals she never wanted another husband. It’s not the flush of young love but the fullness of love that can only be created through the echoes of years together (or apart). It’s about Brimsley and Reynolds and their forbidden love; it’s about loving someone even when they’re not with you anymore (the scene with Brimsley at the end made me cry). It’s about Violet and Agatha’s friendship, and how it is tested. It is, ultimately, about female strength and courage, resilience and endurance.
And in the end, it is not about a queen and a king, but a woman who is Charlotte and a man who is Just George.
There is a bittersweetness to this installment of the Bridgerton series that gives it more maturity. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend…and bring tissues. 🙂
IF NOT NOW, WHEN?
Time is funny. It can feel like it’s dragging, or feel like it’s whizzing by. Sometimes it feels like both at the same time. But I think all of us can agree that it’s like there’s some kind of hazy time warp thing that happens when we think about the Covid 19 pandemic. It’s like from 2020 to late 2022 or early 2023, time exists in this nebulous space, where it all runs together and is measured by illness, lockdowns, or gas price hikes. Just the other day, my husband said something and then furrowed his brow and said, “That was in the spring of… oh heck, during the pandemic somewhere.”
This liminal space had different effects on different people. I ended up finding it beneficial—it forced me to slow down, enjoy nature, think about the direction of my life. My husband knew he had a lay-off coming so we had to look at how that would affect our lives. He transitioned to working from home most of the time; we learned we needed separate offices but liked joint lunch breaks and after work walks. We celebrated our 25th anniversary but couldn’t take the vacation we wanted, instead opting for a single night in a local hotel. I got closer and closer to a milestone birthday, while actually feeling younger than I had in a very long time. We even bought a couple of kayaks and started hitting the nearby lakes.
I have this theory that things show up in our lives when we need them. In that first year of the pandemic, Charlotte Ledger from One More Chapter (part of HarperCollins UK) emailed me, asking if I’d consider writing something with a Canadian setting. First of all, having a publisher ask for Canadian-set books is unusual, so she had my attention. But what was more unusual was that she was looking for historicals. At that point, I’d been publishing contemporary settings for fourteen years. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked about historical, though…my former editor at Mills and Boon brought it up as well. It was like the universe was saying “nudge nudge, you know that genre you love to read? You need to write one of those.”
I was instantly intrigued, excited, and scared to death.
And really, the whole reason why I hadn’t tried this genre before is all about fear. Fear of getting things wrong, fear of it being crap, fear of failure full stop. And also… a little bit of fear about how much work it would be. Scared of the research, the scope of these kinds of stories…
Looking back, I think I was so afraid because I have a very healthy respect for the complexity of historical fiction, no matter the time period or what “flavour” it is. I thought about it, thought about soon turning 50 (yes, that’s the magic number), thought about this opportunity, and sent her an idea.
There’s a part of the Hero’s Journey called Answering the Call to Adventure, and while I’m not going to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, I do feel like this was a clear moment where I could either keep on doing what I was doing—it wasn’t like I wasn’t enjoying myself!—or I could take a leap into something unknown and challenging and just go for it.
You can guess what I did.
It really came down to me looking in the mirror and saying, “If not now, when?” What was I waiting for? I finished up my current contract while researching my World War 1 story, then dug into writing a tale of love and loss set during the Halifax Explosion, the largest ever man-made explosion until the atom bomb was used in World War 2.
Let’s be clear: there was a huge learning curve. At first, I had this story as a dual timeline between 1917 and the late nineties, but then I ended up axing the more contemporary timeline and instead added a second female point of view in the WW1 timeline. While the story did end up following my revised outline pretty closely—and the level of plotting I did is a blog for another day—at the revision stage I ended up changing one of the points of view from third person to first. Pacing, diction, balancing historical events with the characters’ stories… all new to me. But I finished it and was really proud of myself. I told myself that even if Charlotte ultimately passed on it, I’d done something out of my comfort zone and I could shop it around.
But she bought it. And so here we are, mid-process, and I’m experiencing things like they are firsts all over again even though I’ve been doing this for a while. It’s ridiculously fun, exciting, and hard work, and I wouldn’t change a thing. And I’m already working on the next book…
I guess what I’m saying is that stepping out of your comfort zone, taking some risks, not letting fear “drive the bus” as Elizabeth Gilbert says, can be a really great thing. Failure is never permanent; you just try again or take the lessons learned (there are always lessons) and move on. But the chances of having regrets is greatly reduced when you simply look in the mirror and say, “If not now, when?”