The Gifts of a Pandemic: Writing the Book, Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague

Let’s face it, the past year or so has been pretty rough. There have been days when I cried for no reason at all and days I felt like I could do lockdown forever (as long as there was books and we didn’t run out of tea). It has been HARD but one of the gifts of these troubled days has been time. More time for being with family (even if they do drive you mad sometimes and you dream of some alone time), more time for pursuing your dreams and nurturing your talents, and more time to just be and achieve nothing at all except discovering more of who you actually are (what a pandemic-soaked revelation that has been!).

Motivated by the concept of Shakespeare using the arrival of plague to further his genius, I pressed on with the idea of writing

One of the things I always imagined for myself is that I would one day be a writer. But imagining something and actually achieving it are separated by a vast gulf. It’s called effort and it is hard work. I never really appreciated the process that goes into writing a book, from initial idea to publication. It is arduous. There are times you sit down and wonder what on earth you are going to say. But there are also times when it is EASY, because the characters want to speak. They tell you what they want to say and what they want to do (this is exactly how I ended up with a sex scene; that was all Elizabeth!).

I had always been fascinated by the story of Eyam. I have a vague recollection of the TV being wheeled into my primary school hall, COV ED printed in white letters on the side of it, and us all sitting ready for another history programme. I recall the boundary stone of Eyam, filling the screen with holes filled with vinegar. Decades later, sitting in front of my own class of young pupils as a Year 2 teacher, I would tell them the story of the village and how they battled to survive the arrival of the deadly pestilence. Emmott Syddall, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock all featured in a card trail I had devised for a history lesson and my pupils (and my faithful teaching assistant!) were all keen to know their fate. It is a story of human survival that captures the imagination.

I first visited the village about 12 years ago, when by oldest son was still in a pushchair. We visited all the cottages and graves, reading all the distinctive green signs. In the Eyam Museum I was captivated by a display showing who had survived, died or never got plague in each household. I marvelled at their stories and the science that would have been unknown to them at the time but was guiding their fate back then. I found out that my sister-in-law was descendent of a family from Eyam; the legacy of two survivors finding love after the epidemic. The story of Emmott Syddall and her betrothal to a local man, Rowland Torre, particularly caught my attention. I walked out to the boundary stone and put my fingers in the holes, now filled with rainfall rather than the vinegar intended to purify plague seeds. There was a sense of story woven into everything I saw and touched and the Derbyshire hills provide a glorious backdrop, even for a story filled with sorrow.

Over time, my interest in this village grew, and with it the fascination with the women of the time in particular. Catherine Mompesson, the wife of Eyam’s rector fascinated me. Buried in the sacred soil of the churchyard while all other victims were buried near to where they perished, interred within an impressive grave, I wondered about her life leading up to her death tragically near to the end of the visitation. Elizabeth Hancock’s story, so shocking in its tragic totality (she buried her husband and all her children herself), needed some further investigating. The historical facts on these women are slim. I have read pretty much everything I could find on the story of Eyam, filling two notebooks and then transferring my notes onto A5 index cards, under different sections, an absolute necessity when writing.

My index cards cover everything from Eyam’s geography to dedicated character biographies
Over time, my sources and my own notes grew into an impressive collection
My collection of photographs provided me with a good visual connection with the village when physically being there was not possible

Eventually, after just over a year of research and several visits to the village, I had the realisation that this story needed to be written and that if these three women were going to have voices, I would need to be the one to do it.

So, when February 2020 arrived, I started to write. Initially it was slow. Every time I sat down I had to have my collection of photographs and a map of the village, a copy of the parish register from the time period, a list of the deaths. It was painstaking looking for characters who might have been friends, working out a time line for when characters were alive or dead and using the images to work a sense of natural geography into the writing.

Then the pandemic began. Quite quickly I was furloughed from my position with the education team at Coventry Cathedral. Not being someone who easily does nothing (those who know me well know I always have projects on the go!), I used my new-found gift of time to begin writing with gusto. I wrote every day, even if it was only a paragraph. I checked and rechecked my sources and I enlisted the help of interested girlfriends who were committed to reading and re-reading my early offerings. Over the months, a book began to emerge, and it was obvious it would be LONG.

Hours and hours spent at the dining table
Days when I could be bothered to get out of my dressing gown but the book needed writing anyway
Some days when politics and the news just got me down but my book was a source of solace

I wrote the stories of the three women separately and was then faced with the a difficult task of weaving their stories together and hoping that the sense of narrative progression that was present in their individual stories was still retained when the greater narrative was woven together. Keeping track of dates and the occasions when they cross paths was very challenging. There were lists and tables to help with that and I made use of literary plot devices I had learned from a FutureLearn online course I had taken the year before on writing fiction.

I worried that the three women would all sound the same, that essentially they would all be versions of Emmott, whose story I had written first, or myself. Thankfully, they emerged as three very distinct characters. I know it sounds cliched to say that a story writes itself but there were some definite times when I sat down at the MacBook and it just poured out of me, almost without conscious thought.

Finally, towards the end of the summer holidays in 2020 (by this time, I had a new job but thankfully it was term time only and so I still had plenty of writing time) the book was finished. It was read by at least 8 different people and each provided me with vital feedback, from grammar and punctuation mistakes to the necessity for vocabulary and language that provided both clarity and an authentic sense of time and place. Editing is my least favourite writing activity but it really is the most important.

There was one thing left to do; decide on a title. I had recently read The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. Not only was I captivated by the reverence with which she gave these women the foreground in a well known story, I was also in awe of the sheer amount of research I knew she must have undertaken in order to write the book. I wondered if I could use the word ‘Three’ in my novel’s title; foregrounding these three women in the well-known tale of how the village of Eyam navigated a year of plague. in 1665-1666

After sending my manuscript to over ten literary agents (I did get some nice feedback as well as the resounding ‘no’), I decided last month that I would just bite the bullet and self-publish, choosing Amazon as the easiest way for me to do that. After spending so long writing the book and accumulating over 100,000 words in the process, I wanted to give people the chance to read it and to let Emmott, Catherine and Elizabeth speak for themselves. My husband David, an industrial product design graduate, agreed to design a cover for me. I showed him front covers of books I liked and he set to work. We incorporated a motif for each character; the feathers to represent Emmott and her linnet, the plant to represent Catherine and her growing love of apothecary, and the spool of thread representing Elizabeth and the doll she makes for her daughter with scraps from the tailor. Each image holds a foreshadowing. The three women stand connected on the front cover and several people said it reminded them of the women from Hamilton; not a bad concept of female triumph to draw upon!

In the end I made the decision to title the novel ‘Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague‘, and on May 3rd the Kindle version went live, followed by the paperback version on May 7th. I was amazed to see the sales begin to take place. My friends are honestly amazing, and all the people I know on Twitter. and my local neighbours. I feel marvellously supported. To date (May 8th), I am approaching 80 copies sold and that honestly feels incredible to me. If you are reading it, I hope you are enjoying it! Do leave me a comment 🙂

Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague is available via Amazon:

Published by jenjenkins42

I am an author from a village outside of Rugby in Warwickshire. I love historical fiction. You will find me reading, hanging out with my husband, our two sons and our little dog, baking or walking.

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