Who remembers Shorthand?

00015-Samuel-Pepys-DiaryPepys wrote his famous diary in shorthand, and I wanted to try to get a feel for the way it might have been translated. Pepys used a method that was common at the time, invented by Thomas Shelton.

Shelton taught his system for speed writing over a period of thirty years, improving it from the stenography of John Willis. Shelton published several books about shorthand which he sold from his house – ‘Tachygraphy: The most exact and compendious method of short and swift writing, that hath ever yet been published by any’. Between 1626 and 1710 more than 20 editions of this book were printed. His shorthand was used by Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Newton as well as by Pepys for his famous Diary (left).

Here’s an example (below) of the Lord’s Prayer from Shelton’s 1674 edition in the Folger Collection.

Shelton Lords Prayer

Shelton’s method employs simple straight lines and curves for the consonants and vowels. There is little punctuation in Pepys’ diary, as the commas and dots would interfere with the meaning of his text, when the same marks meant differentiations in vowel sounds. But one of my friends from my tai chi class reminded me of how she had studied Pitman’s shorthand at secretarial college, and that they also used little punctuation. Pitman’s Shorthand was very widely used when offices were run only by men and women worked as secretaries or in the ‘typing pool.’  Before the photocopier and computer, pools of typists were needed to type documents from handwritten manuscripts, re-type documents that had been edited, or type documents from dictaphones that had come from the ‘boss’. The video at the bottom of the page shows the typing pool of a large bank and the kind of work they had to do. Awe-inspiring!


I’ve found a video on youtube which shows some basics of the Pitman method really well, and explains that heavy and light strokes are used, which was effective when using pen and ink, when the system was invented in the early 19th century by Sir Isaac Pitman. The Pitman method is also based on the phonetic sound of the word and not how it is commonly spelled. Shorthand is a skill that is not so much used now, but I think it is fantastic to be able to write at the speed of speech, and shorthand is still used in Courtroom situations. I imagine Pepys used Shelton’s Shorthand because he had to take copious notes of Navy Board meetings and take official government minutes. I’m sure there are many readers out there who still have the skill of shorthand, and I wonder how close Shelton’s method is to Pitman’s.


Shopping with Elisabeth Pepys in Restoration London


Royal Exchange 1569Through the diary of Samuel Pepys, we get a remarkable insight into the City of London in the seventeenth century. Here, amongst Samuel Pepys’ political exploits, and his reports of the Navy, the King and the Court, we can also get a picture of where and how his wife Elisabeth shopped at the time.

Elisabeth loved clothes and fashion, and both she and her husband aspired to move upwards in society. The Restoration was a fabulous time for fashion as people reacted against Cromwell’s Puritan repression with lace, bows, frilled petticoat breeches, and yards of flowing ribbon, even for men.

In 1661 the diarist John Evelyn commented on one young man had ‘as much Ribbon on him as would have plundered six shops, and set up Twenty Country Pedlars; all his body was dres’t like a May-pole’.

Elisabeth often shopped at Unthank’s the tailors, a large shop in Charing Cross, where she was measured for her gowns, and would choose fabric and cloth. Unlike shoemakers and bootmakers, whose leather work could be done on stalls in the open air, tailors usually worked indoors out of the weather. ByV & A Ribbon Gloves the end of the 17th century more exotic and valuable fabrics from abroad such as East Indian chintz became popular.

Sometimes more expensive fabric, such as chintz or silk, was supplied by the client, leading to tailors being seen as cheaters, because the client suspected they skimped when making up the fabric and used the left-overs to make smaller garments they would then sell on. Many pamphlets of the time describe tailors in this rather unflattering way.

A range of accessories that were both decorative and practical were available. Decorative muffs acted as a place to store handkerchiefs, purses and perfumes. Hoods, both attached to, and unattached to cloaks were popular too, with some shops only selling hoods. Opposite – ribbon-trimmed gloves from the V&A.

In the diary, arguments between Samuel and Elisabeth were frequent, especially over money.  For example after the Duke of Gloucester died and everyone was in mourning, Elisabeth overspent the fifteen pounds she’d been given for her mourning costume, and Pepys says ‘after I had looked over the things my wife had bought today…they costing too much, I went to bed in a discontent.’

Elisabeth would have taken her coins and tokens (coins were in short supply during Charles II’s reign) and go to the Royal Exchange, which before the great fire was the great centre of commerce in the city. The coins illustrated read:  ‘Coffee Tobacco Sherbet tea and Chocolat retail’d in Exchange Ally’. The Exchange was officially opened in 1565 by Queen Elizabeth I, who awarded the building its Royal title. It had a central courtyard surrounded by more than 160 galleried shops. Some of these were little bigger than booths, and were so poky and gloomy that they had to be lit by candles, even in the daytime. The covered walks were decorated with statues of English kings.

London Bridge by Claude de Jongh
London Bridge by Claude de Jongh

Unfortunately, the Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire and had to be rebuilt. A statue of Gresham, who founded the Exchange, stood near the north end of the western piazza. After the Fire of 1666 this statue alone remained unharmed, according to Pepys’ records. Unlike today, only shopping, or the exchange of goods took place. Stockbrokers were not allowed into the Royal Exchange because of their loudness and rude manners, so they had to meet at Jonathan’s Coffee-House which was nearby.




Another street that was for fashionable ladies was Paternoster Row, which according to Stow in his book about London, ‘their shops were so resorted to by the nobility and gentry in their coaches, that oft-times the street was so stop’d up that there was no passage for foot passengers.’

Elisabeth also shopped for small linens in Westminster Hall, where it appears you were allowed to run up a bill on account. Mrs Mitchell and Betty Lane both had stalls there, where Samuel Pepys dallied with more than just lace and linen. Westminster Hall was a magnificent arched and lofty building, part of the Palace of Westminster, and some people were disgusted it should be used for trade. But it appears that chapels and palaces were all a part of Elisabeth Pepys’s shopping experience in the hedonistic era of the Restoration.

Pictures: The Ropleasing mr pepysyal Exchange, wikipedia

Leather Tokens: London Museum via the Guardian

My book featuring Elizabeth Pepys is out now.

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Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction: Ten Editing Tools. No 5 – Foreshadowing

Peter Graham – Wandering Shadows

As a historical fiction writer, I often want to include major events in history, and usually these are the ‘real’ history that inspired the book. By ‘major’, I don’t necessarily mean big battles, (though the Battle of Worcester forms at least one set piece for me) but they are usually pivotal points of changes in history or changes in character, or preferably both. One of the main pivots in my book Pleasing Mr Pepys is when Mrs Pepys discovers her husband in flagrante with her own lady’s maid, Deb Willet, on his knee. The foreshadowing in this case took the form of Mrs Pepys’s suspicions – her careful examining of her husband’s clothes for Deb’s hairs, and her bribing of the kitchenmaid to spy on Deb’s chamber.

So when editing, one of the things I do is to look for the big scenes, particularly the real events of history, and see if I can foreshadow them more. What I’m aiming for is a build of tension that will lead the reader, as if up a mountain slope, to the pinnacle of tension – by which time, the scene istelf arrives and is all the more satisfying for its release. I usually have about eight pivotal scenes in my books, but only the later few will be deeply foreshadowed, because the early ones are at the beginning of the character’s transformation and so don’t need as much development.

If you have a character that needs to show particular bravery in a late scene in your novel, you can foreshadow by making your character cowardly earlier on. This sets up tension, as the reader wonders whether the character will crumble under pressure. Opposites are a great way of stretching the character arc. For example it is much better to start with an overbearing character and make them humble by the end, than to start with a self-effacing person and make them humble by the end. The bigger the psychological distance travelled by your protagonist, the more impact it will have. Fear in the reader is a good thing, but you must then have at least one scene where the change is foreshadowed – where the character steels him/herself to be more courageous. Often this can be done with an object – ‘he looked at his father’s medals, glinting in the drawer, and knew he could not let him down’. (More on this in my next post).

Avoiding Blatant Premonitions

Every now and then I read books with sentences like, ‘Little did she know, all that was about to change,’ or ‘What I didn’t know then, was that it was the biggest mistake of my life’. These sentences always make me wince.  Especially the ‘little did she know’. They are so blatantly manipulative and only really work well in books which are supposed to be funny, or tongue-in-cheek.

Premonitions and dreams are another obvious form of foreshadowing. Actually, I have used both, but with extreme caution! (in Pepys’s Diary he reports that Mrs Pepys and Deb go to a fortune teller, so I couldn’t resist using it.) But – bear in mind the character’s intelligence and personality. Would they really take notice of the premonition, or would they dismiss it? Deb and Mrs Pepys have really different reactions to what they are told. Describe the premonition in an interesting way – hairs standing up at the back of the neck, tingling spine and clenching of stomachs are all clichés.

Foreshadowing is often a question of mood. This is something else I look for as I’m editing. A sense of instability can be conveyed through setting, rickety houses, a blur of rain, slippery cobbles that make it hard to stand upright. Weather has long been used for this purpose, but beware of making it stormy in angry scenes, rainy at funerals etc. The still millpond could be a better backdrop for an angry scene and reflect back the deeper things unsaid.

Do let me know books you think use foreshadowing really well, so I can pass them on as recommendations to my students.

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads

More on foreshadowing? Read this great post from NowNovel here

Picture from Wiki Commons


The #historical word origin of ‘Curfew’

As a novelist fascinated by the past, I love it when I come across words that are linked to interesting historical facts. This week I came across a peculiar sort of fire guard called a ‘couvre-feu’ (french – cover fire). A little research revealed that this fire-guard was the origin of the word ‘curfew’ which I have often had to take account of in my seventeenth century novels. The word was also used to describe the time of the extinguishing of  candles and lights. In Middle English it survived as  “curfeu”, which later became the modern “curfew”. Originally, William the Conqueror decreed that all lights and fires should be put out at eight o’clock, but at the moment I am working on a novel based around Pepys’s Diary, and in his day the curfew bell was rung at nine-o’clock.

The bell marked the end of an apprentice’s working day. As they had to be rung manually, and finding someone to do it was often a problem, the apprentices made up this rhyme:

‘Clarke of the Bow belle with the Yellow lockes,
For thy late ringing thy head shall have knockes’

The tolling of the curfew bell continued until Victorian times, when it was believed no longer necessary.

So what is this object, the ‘couvre feu’ ? Well it was a kind of metal dome that covered the embers of the fire when you retired for bed. Its purpose was to prevent a coal from tumbling out so that the fire could remain glowing overnight. The metal dome had a small hole cut in it so that bellows could be inserted in the morning to revive the fire. The one above, from the V&A Museum, is dutch and dated 1627.


In those days curfews and bellows were very common household items as fires were so difficult to start, requiring flint and tinder and a lot of patience!


Of Carrion Feathers by Katherine Pym

contrast cloudscape, dramatic sky just after storm
One weekend, while my sister and I visited, we both admitted we were intellectual snobs, but we had one fallen virtue in common: we both read historical romances.
How hard could it be to write one? I ventured, so we agreed to co-write a historical romance novel. We pondered on an era, and decided on the French Revolution. By the end of the weekend, we settled on the hero and heroine, some of the plot, but neither of us knew anything about the time frame.

My sister went home, and I took to the library. I found some really good books, mostly of Danton and Robespierre. While I read through those heavy tomes and took notes, I saw a picture of Camille Desmoulins, a pamphleteer and journalist whose real life reads like a tragic love story.The historical romance concept dropped from my thought processes. I scoured libraries from across the nation (book lending) until everything blurred. Historical texts always fill the pages with government decisions, not the people who gather to make those decisions. Not all research texts have correct information. I found inconsistent time lines, out of order facts, and not a lot on Camille Desmoulins, so I sold everything lock, stock, and barrel, and moved to England, a nation that had been around during that time. Newspapers, journals, and historical texts should have something America did not. I wanted new and more interesting material.

Almost immediately, I found what I wanted, and in the months that ensued, The First Apostle was born.I digress, but not a lot…
One day, in between chapters of The First Apostle, I went to the town centre, grocery shopping. While there I wandered into a used bookshop and found a full set of Samuel Pepys diary. I bought it, and took it home, but did not read it until the French Revolution novel finished.Once done, I opened the first volume of the diary, and began to read. So many books with such little writing of everyday mundane stuff. I was overwhelmed. I had to find out what the whole was before I could understand the detail. I needed to learn early modern England’s language so I could see through layers of how good folk handled the incredible change that marked the Restoration.Current events packed every year of the 1660’s decade, from religion to advancement in the sciences. There was so much excitement, change, and confusion. I decided to write a novel per year, until the great old town burned to the ground in 1666. This meant my research had to deal with a particular year. I could not write of Isaac Newton in 1660 because he was still a youngster, and in school. I could not write of the rake Rochester because he didn’t come onto the scene until mid-1660’s.
So what happened in 1660 vs 1661, or 1662? In 1660 the king returned from exile, and in 1661 he was crowned. There had to more, so my head went down once again into mighty tomes, and found it amazing what you learn doing research.I read a comment from one man to another he was perplexed so many women came to him to beget children. It astonished him a large amount of men within London’s city walls must be impotent or sterile, and wondered what was wrong with the air. Ding! Stud service.

I took that and used it in Viola, A Woeful Tale of Marriage which takes place in 1660. Then, I found during the time, there was a great deal of misunderstanding of the rules of marriage, so the crux of Viola’s story is her clandestine marriage is a sham, and her husband a bigamist.
It’s usually the small statements while researching that make the difference. One day a footnote in tiny print, brought about Twins, my second novel (London 1661). There was a superstition that a man can sire only one child at a time. When a woman gives birth to twins, she was clearly an adulteress. Ding! Another novel.

The twins (a boy and girl, which makes it worse) must deal with this all their lives, but the story also involves a London merchant’s life, how he handles the loss of a ship in the Mediterranean to pirates and local corruption.

So, we come to London in 1662, and Of Carrion Feathers, the reason for this little essay.

I found a volume on espionage during Charles II reign which was really very informative. I also found another little story where bakers could be dishonest. I created a bakeshop as a den of nonconformist plotters against the Crown, and the heroine in this story is Beatrice Short.

Beatrice is a reflection of my mother who was a slightly naughty person. She was brilliant, and bored, an artist and a poet, and she drove my dad crazy. I love her for her beautiful soul and creativity, her bohemian nature, and her great sense of humor.Beatrice wants to go into the theatre, (King Charles II brought back the French way of theatre, which allowed women on stage.), but she is a servant and can’t afford to pay for music and dance lessons. She stumbles into the Crown’s burgeoning spy network, and her first duty is in a London bakeshop.

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