I’m in the depths of finishing up my book about a nursing student in Kingston, ON, back at the end of WW2. I’ve got the plot mostly finished, I know where it’s going, I have my characters in place and they are mostly defined, though I’m working on deepening their portrayal.
But I keep getting distracted.
The other day I was writing about charting, as in recording medical records. It’s unlikely they’d be done in pencil, since they could be too easily changed that way. Did they have ball point pens at the time?
It turns out, no they didn’t. The excellent Wikipedia (please donate) brought me to links about the Hungarian inventor, László Bíró, who noticed that newspaper inks dried faster and didn’t smear as much as regular ink, and created the first Biro. There was a previous design but it wasn’t fluid enough to use for writing on paper and so languished.
This was in 1931. The war intervened and Biro fled to Argentina, and subsequent development was vastly slowed. In 1945, Marcel Bich bought the patent and started with his Bic pens. He started manufacturing the steel balls for the pen tips, and apparently they are essentially the same construction now.
Back at the start, the pens were used for airmen, who found fountain pens leaked at altitude. They were seriously expensive, the first models at around $1000 our money, later ones still selling for $188. It wasn’t until 1954, when Parker got into the business, and competition lowered the price, that they started being ubiquitous.
So then I had to wonder about what sort of pens might have been used in hospitals at the time. Would they be pen and ink? Or fountain pens? Could the hospitals at the time afford fountain pens? Or would they just provide inkwells and cheap nibs everywhere?
And how did nursing students keep their aprons pristine while dealing with blotchy pens?
That led to another research hunt. Nursing students at the time sent their uniforms, aprons, bibs, cuffs, and caps to a local laundry. But my character gets bounced out of nursing school to work as a nurses’ aide. Where does she get her uniforms cleaned?
It’s like a link of puzzles, and at some point I am going to have to decide that’s enough, you don’t need that detail…
But it’s all so fascinating. I suspect by the end of writing this book I’ll have enough information for another. And that’s a good thing…I think!
I am ashamed and a bit embarrassed to state I don’t have any sweatpants at the moment. I certainly don’t have a set that matches my surroundings and computer, allowing me to lounge in peaceful positions. To be fair, my surroundings when I write are anything but peaceful, scattered with pens, notebooks, reference texts, a cup of something, and the occasional chocolate item (for strengthening).
Yes, despite being a writer with my head in the clouds and definitely not in sartorial splendour, I lack this essential garment. I’m wondering if I need to invest, just to speed my writing along.
Part of why I don’t have sweats has to do with hemming – every pair of pants I own has required hemming and even with the elastic bottoms of the average sweatpants leg, the ballooning of extra material over my too short legs is distracting and potentially a tripping hazard. We won’t get into how things tangle up in my under the desk bike I use to fool myself into thinking writing is an aerobic activity. (Undoing tangles seems to be, though. That bike is heavy.)
Plus, they are expensive these days, sweatpants. And unless this book actually gives me more royalties than my first one, (Recycled Virgin, coming in at roughly $20 so far this year) (please buy a copy as winter is coming), I may have to do without. Even used ones at thrift shops are more than that and, ummm, used sweatpants conjure up images of underwear not worn…
I do have writing clothes, though. I just read this article by an author, Heidi Soyinka, who bought clothing like her characters would wear, to put her into the mood. She bought vintage clothing of all sorts as she tried to get into her characters’ heads.
It made me think about what I wear to thrash through my novel. I suppose, for me to be in the mood, I should put on a nursing uniform, one of the old ones from the Kingston General Hospital School of Nursing, the ones with the aprons and starched cuffs and collar.
I rather suspect the excellent Museum of Health Care might have something to say about me filching same from them.
And, unfortunately, I gave away my old nursing student uniforms. Maybe I could get away with my kitchen apron, just pretend the food stains weren’t on it, tie it up tight so I had the necessary chest constriction…this would help keep the chocolate stains to a minimum, I suppose…
Fortunately for my writing, I remember my nursing school uniform days, the nylon stockings that always grabbed, the uncomfortable shoes that were the cheapest available, and which squeaked unattractively and ruined my arches. My student uniform was pink and white striped, with a white bib and cuffs and it was unspeakably horrid, fitted tightly over my already too round figure. I was furious that the one male student in my year didn’t have to wear pink stripes, and got to wear a much more practical scrub suit, with no nylons to be seen.
So no, don’t want to repeat this.
I suppose I could try coughing excessively, as I am writing about Tuberculosis and a hacking cough and sore throat would bring me into the scene – but in these COVID times I feel my neighbours would report me to the health police as a vector of infection.
I could open the windows wide, as they did in the sanatoriums of the time, bringing in bracing and clear air, but it does get chilly sitting and writing, and besides, my companion birds would object. They dislike chills. Even in the slightest cross breeze they puff up and glare at me with their beady eyes. It’s disconcerting.
So I’m left with my usual not-so-glorious clothing for writing. These involve some jeans-type things (inexpertly hemmed) with elastic waists so they don’t compress, and some sort of overly loose top. These are things that I never wear out of doors as they are too disreputable for polite company – after Covid lockdowns I’ve worn the seams off some of them, and they look chewed. Could be I’ve chewed them in agony over some unexpected plot twist (characters WILL misbehave)–I can’t remember.
But something about putting them on does set me up for writing. It says, to myself and anyone who happens to come to the door, that I am not going out anywhere, that my focus is internal that day, that I don’t want to be disturbed. Add unwashed hair and anyone who doubts I am really busy would quickly grasp I didn’t want to be seen. I have frightened Amazon delivery persons on a writing day, and they are tough.
And in them, I’m comfortable enough to sink into my story, let my brain go play. That’s more difficult with fancy clothes. They distract, as I tug and rearrange them. But perhaps that’s only because I’m trying to cycle as I write?
I think, instead, I’ll turn on some music from the 1940’s to generate atmosphere – that’s easier than having to change, and the birdies even like it.
Keep an eye out for my upcoming book, Spit and Polish, expected Spring 2023.