I’m struck by two of the issues you raise, for they resonated with my experience in York, researching The Midwife’s Story, though in different ways.
The first of these is how you dealt with historical and fictional characters, for two of my characters Bridget Hodgson (the protagonist) and Martha Hawkins (her sidekick) are simultaneously historical and fictional. There was, in fact, a midwife named Bridget Hodgson who practiced midwifery in York in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, and I kept many of the details in place. My fictional Bridget lives and worships in the same parish as the historical Bridget, she comes from the same gentry background, and is daughter-in-law to the Lord Mayor of the City. We also know that she had a maidservant named Martha who she trained to be a midwife.
Now most of the things I did in creating literary versions of Bridget and Martha entailed filling in the blanks. I don’t know when or how her husbands died, nor do I know under what circumstances Martha came to work for her. But at a certain point it became clear that the historical Bridget just wouldn’t cut the fictional mustard; while I the historical Bridget dearly, there were aspects of her life that just didn’t work for the novel. The historical Bridget had numerous children – including a daughter named Bridget! – and I couldn’t figure out how exactly a young widow would balance her crime-fighting activities with single-parenthood. (There’s a reason V.I. Warsahwski and Kinsey Millhone don’t have kids!) An early draft of the novel included her daughter Bridget – nicknamed Birdy – but even that proved too much of a distraction. Birdy had to fly.
As I write this, I find myself feeling sorry for the violence I did to the historical Bridget’s life. With the click of a mouse, I eliminated all of her children; not simply killing them off, but writing them entirely out of existence. But at the same time, I tell myself, I have tried to remain true to the spirit of the historical Bridget. (For more on this, see the section on “The Historical Bridget Hodgson” on my website.) She really was a force of nature, and I have held on to that aspect of her existence with both hands. I suppose the question I’m trying to puzzle out is this: What do we owe the real people who we put in our books? I honestly have no idea, and I plan to return to this topic in a late post, but your reflections raised the question anew, and caused me to look at it in a different light.)
The second issue that spoke to me most loudly was the sense of place you felt during your visit. Shortly after I discovered the historical Bridget Hodgson, and began to dig into her background for a journal article, I wandered over to the parish church of St. Helen Stonegate, where Bridget had worshiped, and (according to her will) where she had been buried in an elaborate tomb. It was exciting to step through the same doorway that Bridget had used countless times, and through which her body had been carried some three centuries before. But as soon as I entered, it became clear her tomb was no more – at some time in the intervening years, the entire church had been renovated, and all the tombs removed.
I wandered around the church peering at the paving stones on the church floor (some of which had been tombstones!) and then I looked up at a faded plaque high up on the east wall of the church. I could barely read it, but damned if I couldn’t just make out the name “Bridget Hodgson” up there! I sought out the parish curate, who was kind enough to let me scale the wall to have a closer look. (This was as close as I’ve come to an Indiana Jones moment!)
And there she was! The plaque memorialized a donation by Bridget, but by her daughter (named Bridget Lawrence at the time of her death), who left an annuity to “to poor widows and poor housekeepers” the parish. But the marker explicitly refers to Bridget Lawrence as the daughter of Bridget Hodgson – my Bridget Hodgson! At that moment, I felt a connection to the historical Bridget that had somehow eluded me, even when I read words she had written in her own hand and held documents that she herself had signed.
The key, I think, was the space. It is one thing (and a wonderful thing!) to find long-ignored documents in the archives. But in St Helen’s church I stumbled across an object and a space that connected the past and present in an entirely new way. No longer was I an outside observer, conducting scholarly research on a woman’s life for an audience of a few hundred readers. Because I was reading that monument to Bridget Lawrence’s gift in the same space where she and her mother had worshipped, lived, and died, I felt like I was a part of the history of that space. And retrospect, I suppose I was. I suppose we all are.