There’s a scene in the movie Little Women, when Jo March finishes her novel, and gently tucks a bloom under the bit of twine she’s tied her manuscript pages with, and it’s all done – off to find a publisher!
Louisa May Alcott books are near and dear to my heart, and Little Women is top of the heap. I’ve watched the newest movie adaptation several times, and this particular scene always makes me smile, and then cringe when I think about what a complete pain it must have been to be a novelist back then. Just think about writing hundreds of thousands of words with a quill pen that was not equipped with a delete key! Writing without the ability to cut and paste! Without the opportunity make countless and endless revisions with the simple click of a keystroke!
Hmmm… On second thought, that last one might be actually be an advantage!
As an author, handwriting is a device I use to get my creative juices flowing. I always begin a writing session with pen and paper. My pen of choice is a medium tip Liquid Flair, and the paper, an 5” x 8” spiral bound notebook. With these two tools I can curl up in a chair or a window seat and let my mind wander off to the 18th century. Once my margins become cramped with notes and swinging arrows, and the writing starts to become illegible for the scratch outs and carrotted inserts, I take the pages over to my trusty Mac to be finessed and endlessly revised.
It is said Louisa May Alcott was a very fast writer, able to finish thirty handwritten manuscript pages a day. Keep in mind, novelists of yore had to contend with the mechanics of the quill pen and the often uneven quality of paper made from cotton fiber. A writer had to be a master of the penknife, able to shape and cajole a nib from the heat-tempered quill of a feather into the precision instrument of her craft.
The quill dip pen reigned supreme for over a thousand years. Illuminated manuscripts, Shakespeare’s plays, epic poetry, edicts, law, letters to loved ones – all written by the dip and scratch of a feather. Luckily, bird feathers are a sustainable commodity, as quill pens were notorious for wearing out quickly. Feathers taken from living bird in the spring were considered the prime source for a long lasting pen. The five outer quills of the left wing were most prized by scribes, as the plumes curved outward for use by the right-handed.
The type of feather used made a difference in the quality of your stroke. Though goose feathers were most common, scarce swan feathers were the “Mont Blanc” of the quill pen world. Crow feathers were preferred for fine line work, but the feathers from the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey could all be used in a pinch. Charles Dickens was famous for his need to have a large array of different types of quills at his disposal, so he could easily switch pens to match the quality of his penmanship to the prose he was writing.
And it didn’t end with paper and pen. Beyond the aforementioned penknife, a writer needed all manner of accouterments to write even a simple letter. A sprinkling of powdery pounce – a mixture of cuttlebone, pumice and gum sandarac – was dispensed from the salt-shaker like pounce pot to speed the drying of the ink. Extra absorbent blotting paper was manufactured specifically for the purpose of dabbing up the blips and blobs and blobs inherent in dip pen writing. Wells made of silver and glass held inks made from lampblack and linseed oil were essential, and a mahogany writing box lined with leather kept your writing gear in good order.
As I tap out this blog post, I think about future writers as they access holographic images of us 21st century folk slaving over iMacs from their bionic nanochip implants. I imagine they will shake their heads with bemusement, smile, cringe, and then telepathically communicate with the entire collective, thinking, “Keyboard and mouse! What a pain that must have been!”