Happy St. Patrick’s Day! One of the best things that can happen to a writer is to find a pot of “story gold.” That wonderful, juicy tidbit of information that lends credibility, interest, or detail to your story. My pot of gold? The Corn Laws.
(Yeah, I know…you’re scratching your head, saying, “Eh?” Stick with me, though!)
The Corn Laws were British tariffs assigned to imported grain or corn (anything that could be ground), but especially wheat. They were the result of a political dispute between the Conservatives (mostly land-owners, who were over-represented in Parliament) and the Whigs (which included a new class of manufacturers and industrial workers, who were under-represented).
The Conservatives figured that by forcing people to buy grain from British landowners, they could keep grain prices high (but just below tariff prices). Allowing the importation of grain would encourage competitive trade and more market-driven prices, which industrialists wanted, because they had to pay enough for workers to earn a living wage, one that would support themselves and their families. The less workers had to spend for flour to make bread, the less workers had to be paid.
The bill passed Parliament on Friday, March 10, 1815. In the weeks leading up to it, there were riots in London protesting them, primarily in the West End (the “nice” neighborhood…you can imagine who lives there — the landed gentry).
Several Conservative MPs, including Lord Castlereigh (who served as diplomat during the Congress of Vienna) had their houses looted in protest. Rioters broke furniture, ruined artwork, and tossed personal goods into the streets. Society columns from newspapers reported that many card parties and routs were poorly attended the week of the vote because the chaos in the streets made it unsafe to go out at night. The military was called in and many families had armed soldiers standing guard outside their homes.
So how is this event in history “story gold?” Here’s two ways I’m using this event in Three Proposals:
- Susannah calls for her friend Maggie to come over and help create a new list of marriage prospects. In my original scene, Susannah’s uncle was going to walk in and interrupt their conversation, so it didn’t happen. But now? Now Maggie won’t even make it to Susannah’s house, because the riots will make it too dangerous for her to go out.
- A few scenes later, at the party where Nate makes his ad-hoc proposal of marriage (Susannah refuses) and the viscount informs Susannah that they’ll be getting married in 3 days instead of 3 weeks, Susannah leaves in a panic. Originally, she was going to leave on her own accord, borrowing Maggie’s carriage (and giving the excuse of using the restroom–again–to get away from the viscount), but now she’s going to be forced to leave, as the riots will spill into the house where the party is being held. Chaos will ensue and Susannah will take the opportunity in all the confusion to lose her uncle and the viscount, who haven’t let her out of their sight since finding her with Nate.
What makes the Corn Laws even more interesting to me is that they were signed into law the week Napoleon’s return to France was announced in the English newspapers. Riots plagued the city in the days leading up to the vote. On Thursday night, March 9th, word reached England of Napoleon’s landing near Cannes. On Friday, the 10th, most of London knew. The Corn Laws were approved by Parliament later that day, but nary a stone was thrown after the vote.
England suddenly had a bigger problem.
What “story gold” have you found in historical events, either recent or long-past? How have you used them to shape your story?