My obsession, since the age of seven or so, has been with workhouses and I’m not sure why. I mean, you wouldn’t ever want to end up there, as workhouses are always, nearly always, nasty, dark, and grim. And damp. And they don’t feed you very much. You get one thin blanket, and maybe a pillow if you’re lucky. Any yard where you might get some fresh air is covered with cinders or gravel or simply dirt.
Well, all of this has to do with the novel by Charles Dickens called Oliver Twist, which has to do with orphans and pickpockets and the gritty, grimy world of workhouses and the muddy streets of Victorian London.
My obsession stems from my early exposure to that story when I saw a movie version of it once, long ago. Since then I’ve seen pretty much every version that has ever been made, which I’m not embarrassed to admit, since I’ve already admitted I’m obsessed.
Here is the lad, Oliver Twist himself, asking for more. Spoiler: He will not get it.
Soon my obsession about Oliver Twist turned into my desire to write more about him and his little life, and, indeed, perhaps sad to say, I wanted to get him back inside of a workhouse to see what made him tick. Putting him back there would show me how he survived it the first time, and whether he learned anything along the way. And maybe I just wanted to torture him a little bit, because I had a feeling that he would come out on top, in spite of me.
So I started writing my Oliver & Jack series with an eye towards that workhouse experience. Even as I wrote the first two books in that series, I was picking out workhouses and determining the best (that is to say worst) series of events ever to befall a parish boy. The result was
First up, location. At the end of book two in the Oliver & Jack series, Oliver and Jack were in Lyme Regis, which is a nice place to be. So I had them arrested and thrown into the nearest workhouse, which just so happened to be located in Axminster. Isn’t that a great name? It’s got such a sharp-edged ring to it, don’t you think?
This map is from 1887, but the town won’t have changed all that much from 1846, which is when the story takes place.
Toward the bottom of the map you’ll see, very plainly marked, a structure called Axminster Union Workhouse. I studied that workhouse, trying to determine what it might look like at ground level. So I went online because, as you see, I’m obsessed.
Well, as luck would have it, the square workhouse with four internal sections is one of the main types of workhouses that they built, and is generally referred to as the square plan. It was designed by a gentleman called Sam Kempthorn and was meant to hold around 300 paupers.
So I probably could have left it at that, since nobody reading my book would actually ever have been inside of a workhouse. But no, I staggered on, bowed under with the weight of my obsession.
Here is a drawing of the exterior of the Sam Kempthorn Square Plan Workhouse. Doesn’t it look grim?
But wait, there’s more! I found some floor plans, so not only could I imagine the color and texture of the exterior, I could also trace little lines in my head as to how my characters walked from room to room. Here’s an image of the ground floor (aka the first floor in the US).
And, even better, I got an image of the first floor (aka the second floor in the US) where they slept.
Do you see the rabbit hole I’ve now gone down? I’m deep in the weeds of details that won’t make any difference to the reader or their enjoyment of the story. But to me, it’s this type of obsession that tells me I’m writing about the right kind of thing, and telling the story that moves me. Which hopefully means that it will move the reader as well.
Here’s the cover of my most recent obsession:
Do you have an obsession? Something that won’t let you sleep at night and makes you think about it all the time?
About the Author
Christina was born in Waco, Texas in 1962. After living on a variety of air force bases, in 1972 her Dad retired and the family moved to Boulder, Colorado. There amidst the clear, dry air of the high plains, as the moss started to grow beneath her feet, her love for historical fiction began with a classroom reading of Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
She attended a variety of community colleges (Tacoma Community College) and state universities (UNC-Greeley, CU-Boulder, CU-Denver), and finally found her career in technical writing, which, between layoffs, she has been doing for 18 years. During that time, her love for historical fiction and old-fashioned objects, ideas, and eras has never waned.
In addition to writing, her interests include road trips around the U.S. and frequent flights to England, where she eats fish and chips, drinks hard cider, and listens to the voices in the pub around her. She also loves coffee shops, mountain sunsets, prairie storms, and the smell of lavender. She is a staunch supporter of the Oxford comma.