The most obvious – and most necessary – way to research for a historical novel is in books. At libraries, online, wherever you can get the information you need about the period you’ve chosen to explore.
Spending three months in India hasn’t taught me anything about how to address a duke or what Regency garters looked like. But there are certain lessons I’ve learned here that will pay dividends in my writing, lessons that just don’t sink in when you read about them in books.
Example? Bathing. Most historical writers know that hot water was hard to come by in the past, but a lot of them still incorporate bathing into their books as a pleasant or relaxing activity. You know what I say to that? No. Not possible. Not even kind of.
Hot water is still hard to come by in India. Cheaper hotels don’t offer it at all. The bathrooms in most mid-range hotels feature electric or gas water tanks. You flip a switch, wait half an hour for the tank to warm up, and you can shower with hot water until it runs out. Even then, the water pressure tends to be weak. Only high-end hotels have unlimited hot water with which to fill a full bath or shower at leisure.
I’ve been staying at midrange hotels – so far 500 rupees (about $10) per night appears to be my sweet spot, but I’ve ventured on up the scale when I need a break – so I’ve been taking a lot of very short showers in hot water, very short showers in tepid water, and, yes, lots of cold showers. Even in the hottest places I’ve been, the very tropical Andaman Islands or lush Kerala, these showers are miserable. Forcing myself under the cold water is not relaxing in the slightest. I’m always careful to time the showers for morning or afternoon, when the sun’s still as high as possible, so that the chill of the water doesn’t follow me to sleep and keep me shivering in my bed.
But I’ve been to some chilly, northern climes here as well. Dharamsala, Manali, Darjeeling. Taking a cold shower up in the Himalayas isn’t just miserable, it’s an ordeal. The buildings aren’t heated. The bathrooms are freezing. You have three or four minutes to frantically scrub soap over your body, huddling into a trickle of hot water, before the warm runs out and then you’re stuck wet and dripping in the frigid air, rubbing desperately at yourself with a towel and piling on warm clothes to banish the chill as soon as possible.
People who would never dream of skipping a shower back home break down under those conditions. It’s just not worth it. Showering in the north was usually my least favorite part of the day. Not relaxing. Not refreshing. Not fun at all.
Conclusion? Bathing in the early nineteenth century, with a limited supply of hot water cooling rapidly in a tub or bucket, is a chore. An annoying chore.
Next up? Public spaces.