Rocket yourself back into the past: Go WWOOFing to research your next historical novel!
Out-of-the-Box Solution 1
How It Works 2
Other sample experiences 5
Writing schedule: 14
But . . . 14
Other Organizations 15
by Christa Bedwin
I have been writer and editor for twenty years. (I now write time-travel romances with my characters exploring various cool time periods and places in the past, mostly but not completely in Europe.)
Even ten years ago I realized a big problem with our job – too much time with the bum in the chair just isn’t healthy. An editing colleague died of an aneurysm at her desk, working on a late deadline, and I vowed to make my health a priority. (Sometimes I do better, sometimes I do worse, but the intention is always there!)
As a single mom, though, budget matters. I pulled years of working all night on editing deadlines to make ends meet and feed my son and I. On top of this, I really wanted to homeschool my son when he reached his early teens… how to break out of the loop and feed my writer’s soul at the same time?
Enter WWOOFing, stage left. Fitness, budget, historical research, and teenager management all solved at once.
Here’s a picture of my hands after I’d washed them as well as I could, on our second week. No callouses yet, but at least you can see I was getting time outside! My hands were dry and cracked and I was happier than I had been in years.
WWOOF is a worldwide organization of organic farmers who welcome volunteers. Depending on who you talk to, it stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or maybe Weekend Warriors on Organic Farms (this last one hints at local opportunities – you can find incredible adventures and inspirational exercise outside your daily box, right on your own doorstep).
How It Works
You sleep and eat for free in exchange for usually about a half a day’s labour – that leaves you the afternoons and a couple of days off per week to write, tour the area, get to know other WWOOFers, or just nap. On top of this, WWOOF is an organization of people who are committed to teaching others organic farming technologies, and, you guessed it, history writers – a lot of these techniques mean returning to the past.
That’s not to say it’s the easy life – it’s work, and the living conditions are often primitive, but it’s work that is so worth doing, satisfying, great exercise, and for learning about things your historical characters might do in their daily lives, the experience is second to none.
WWOOF hosts take the time to do things right. You’ll meet artisans, committed organic warriors, builders, doers, growers, musicians, teachers… so many wonderful people. Real characters – strong and admirable people who you’ll find yourself modelling your characters after. Here are some WWOOF farmers learning about old methods of making charcoal in a burner through the Shropshire & Edges Permaculture Network.
I met one woman on an ancient island who had an unlimited heart and space for adding wwoofers to her table and her home and finding us work in her garden. She was passionate about passing on organic living and growing methods, and ancient ways of life, from learning to use the willow trees and harvest their long, supple whip branches with the seasons, to how to use the compost from the composting toilets. She was by no means wealthy in terms of money, but she is one of the wealthiest people I have ever met in terms of endless resourcefulness and a thriving belief there was enough for everyone, with a little creativity. Her methods ranged from collecting food that grocery stores threw away to feed her animals to trading services with other islanders and both constantly giving and receiving. Surely this is how the ancients lived in survival economies.
I helped another woman in the mountains of Abruzzo who was the same way. She had hardly any money, but she is one of the richest people I have ever met! She had a house on a hill and food growing. People were constantly giving her things – in fact, it was a friend of hers who had sent me along to help – and she was just as quickly giving things away. Everything from food, to clothes, to building materials and furniture… and of course, Italian food. It was there that I had my first taste of carob pods, harvested straight from the tree and dried to keep year-round… now, definitely one of my favourite foods and one that I ate throughout our subsequent Italian and Croatian travels. If you ever get a chance, you must try them. They’re divine. Here’s what they look like straight from the tree. YUM.
You’ll also meet wwoofer host pets – helpful dogs and fierce cuddly cats. Fluffy sheep and friendly horses. Irascible goats and curious pigs. Sweet poetry-singing chickens who help you with the weeding. All of these little people add so much flavour and sweetness to romance stories, woven in as comic relief or simple emotional sweetness. [Aside I’ve learned, if you make the pet a dragon, they can help solve a lot of plot problems too! But chickens, the dragon’s close relative, are also a sweet and delicious addition to a day of weeding the garden or as an emotional support. Alan Bradley gave Flavia de Luce Esmeralda the chicken for a pet.]
By the way, many of us writers need our cats, and would not travel long without them. No worries. You can bring your pets wwoofing to many farms. Here are our two cats, totally blissed out in the sunshine and warmth in a Victorian-era glass house. To answer what you’re thinking, the cats quickly adapted to the travel and to meeting and negotiating relationships with the other pets at our various destinations. The grey one you see here always tends to fatten herself up when there are dogs around. When we stay places with no dogs, she slims down! But she’s definitely the clan defender. In this photo, the cats are fifteen and eight years old, and the older black one still, at seventeen, behaves like a kitten when there are new adventures to be had – especially if it’s a new barn full of mice! Travel and exercise are good for writers’ cats, too.
WWOOF hosts also tend to be the people who keep heritage breeds – one of my favourite discoveries in recent years are adorable little Ouessant sheep. The lambs are literally cat-sized. (You can say it – I’m thinking it! Squeee!)
They originally come from a French island off the coast of Brittany called Ouessant island, and the story is that the menfolk were often away fishing, and so the women enjoyed having these smaller sheep, since they had to do all the work.
(If you’d like to learn more about these adorable sheep, I poached these two photos from the following web page:
Soon after I discovered Ouessant sheep, I rhapsodized about them in a chat with my favourite textile historian https://woollyhistoryofbritain.wordpress.com/ and her first reaction was that the black colour of those sheep would have been considered quite valuable in Medieval times, as black dye was formidably expensive in the past, but many people wanted black clothing.
Then, in a future historical farm detail, an old sheep farmer somewhere in my travels (I really can’t remember where or when, but I remember the man!) explained to me that if you want to keep the sheep as black as possible, you need to give them little blankets or keep them indoors, as they tend to bleach out in the sun.
Yes, I might have learned all those details on the Internet… but the story and the characters in your head develop so much more when you’ve had an opportunity to feed the sheep, participate in the spinning, speak to the people who are raising the animals, living the life, really doing the things that people did in the past.
There are WWOOF organizations in most countries of the world, and you can join any one you like for a small annual fee and surf their listings of farmers looking for help. Just go looking on the internet and you’ll find wwoof.us, wwoof.ca, wwoof.fr, wwoof.it, etc.
Other sample experiences
Other recent but very historical learning experiences that I’ve had recently with WWOOF hosts (and this isn’t all, but there’s only so much room on this page…)
- Making French goat cheese the same way it’s been done for centuries– incredibly simple, and incredibly delicious! Summertime entertainment on this French island includes storytelling evenings on a Saturday in the barn, all the adults and kids on haybales and quilts and the stories (in French) the same as they’ve been for generations. I still play Breton music at the pub with the farmer that taught me the cheesemaking at the pub, most Sundays. He also kindly organized for my son to spend a day with the local vet (as that’s my son’s career aspiration). Volunteering just gets you “in” on experience you never even know about as a hotel-staying tourist.
- Helping to restore an Irish castle – I absolutely loved limewashing the walls, the way humans have been doing to our homes for twelve thousand years or so! For a day or two I got to work with a young Michelangelo-grade attractive charming Italian man who would answer the deepest of philosophical questions really, really slowly, but so sweetly – he admitted that I got a lot more work than he did by the end of the day, but it was all so fun.
We were preparing some of the old stables for a Buddhist retreat group from France’s Plum Village that would be coming to stay at the farm. We were so inspired and deliciously well-fed at that WWOOFing place that all of us volunteers showed up to work on our day off to help meet the deadline. Not at all because we had to, but just for the joy of meeting the goal and in respect for the owner and the crew… and because we were having so much fun despite the hard work, I guess!
[As a side note to learning about characters, when wwoofers are not well-fed, or feel less well-loved or appreciated, the amount of work they/we get done really drops off. It is not any bad intention of the volunteers, but I saw it happen in several different situations, and was clearly just a function of human nature. Doesn’t that explain so much about poverty through history, and why certain real and fictional characters have behaved the way they have? These lessons, absorbed through your daily meals and conversations, settle so much more deeply into your writer’s psyche than simply reading about them in history books.]
My son had an opportunity to help repair and restore ancient farmhouse windows and to enjoy the company of good working men (any other single moms in the room will understand how valuable and irreplaceable this is) and to study their Irish accents (in other words, try to keep up and understand anything they were saying!). He’s turning into quite a comedian, my son, and the sense of fun and good “craic” he had with that Irish crew sure set a tone for our travels, and our humour and jokes often roll back to the sort of way we learned of talking there. Just being there, at the castle, part of the crew, interacting with people while we worked with them, was invaluable for his development as a characterful teen. And of course we have a whole new perspective on Irish characters and Irish speech!
Here’s an example of some language problems we had with a friendly local who tried to speak to us in the pub one day. I understood that he was being friendly, but I couldn’t figure out why he thought we were just like two horses in a garden. Was that some Irish idiom? What did it mean? I asked around, but nobody seemed to know.
We were all in the pub a few days later and had the following exchange. You can see not just the fun trickiness of understanding a new language and culture, but also the poetry and play of Irish thought and conversation. No wonder Ireland’s full of writers!
My son also got to learn Buddhist philosophy from the Lord of the manor while helping him to prepare incredibly delicious and varied vegetarian lunches in the manor house kitchen (that’s right – he was chopping vegetables and preparing meals in a centuries-old stone-floored, wooden-countered kitchen, while I was outside working in an enormous, equally ancient high-walled garden). Here’s a picture of the garden. Conrad restored it from a bramble patch, but a hundred and two hundred years ago, it had twelve gardeners growing food for a huge number of people. There are also orchard trees inside the wall. (The wall is mainly to keep out rabbits – important to keep the doors closed!)
My twelve-year-old son wasn’t too sure what to make of Conrad’s lectures on Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist ways of life, but we had great talks about those ideas gleaned over vegetables while we were weeding the garden or walking to town in the afternoons. Now, two years on, some of those ideas have definitely helped to form his framework of understanding of people in the world.
And for me, the writer, I have another inspirational, generous, sexy, mysterious, can-do-anything, can-manage-employing-dozens-of-people, is-an-artist-and-invested-in-inspiring others, hero to model some future fictional hero from.
And we definitely grew a root there in Ireland, too. Someone asked me about “putting down roots” once on our travels, and I realize that rather than loosen any of the strength of our root to home, living for a little while and getting completely stuck into the soil of various places has allowed us to put down more roots, giving the trees of our life more stability. We definitely feel a root of home there at Creagh Castle – a place where we have experiences and people we love and miss. A community we could go back to, roll up at the pub, and be greeted with open arms.
They say that you should write what you know. You should write about your home. That’s definitely easier. But writers may be surprised to learn just how quickly you can sink into what may have seemed a foreign place, to start with. To understand and play with the language and the humour. To contemplate the lives of those who have lived and do live there. To feel, really feel, the atmosphere of a place in the bricks and mortar and stone and trees and soil.
By the way… if we ever doubted the rumour we heard in the local pub that our host was related to English royalty, the truth of it is proven to us over and over as we see his face on many portraits from centuries past in museums from Scotland to France.
Our room at that farm was in the old dairy, used for centuries to milk cows and keep cheese (delicious Irish cheddar!) and milk – and yes, it was exactly as cold as a fridge in there, except when we had the fire going. We had glorious French doors onto a balcony overlooking a river valley that was just absolutely painted with flowers that spring. Across the valley was another large manor farm with ancient buildings, which led me to dream of relations between the people living on those adjacent hills over time. Did they love, or hate, each other? Both manors had been there for centuries, so I suppose they’d been through their cycles of both those options, through the generations.
We didn’t have a car at the time, and that meant that we walked the mile or two to the pub in the village, often – an excellent opportunity to feel history in a way you never do when you go everywhere on wheels. In most periods in the past, most people walked. If you want to write the past, do that. We did. We walked ancient roads through enchanted flower-strewn forests and through muddy farm fields. This – really, no joke – was the walk to town.
And here’s a little stream we cross on that road, with holly and ivy actually growing together – something I never saw, growing up in the Rockies as I did.
It wasn’t even until we were leaving that I heard there was an ancient ring fort buried in the forest at the bottom of the drive. It was so commonplace to the people living there that they hadn’t thought to mention it.
At the bottom of the drive (this painting of the drive is by the castle’s owner, Conrad Frankel), there is a creaky old castle gate, and a real gate house (we met a man who was born and raised in that gate house on the way home from town one day, and in the course of our month there, we met his brother, too!)
One Sunday, we took the ten-inch key and opened the giant door to the crumbling 15th-century castle and just went in and looked all around and dreamed and dreamed of the real medieval families who lived there. You can still see the remnants of the plasterwork and imagine the furniture and the fabrics and the lives in those rooms with the high corbelled ceilings and the giant, giant fireplaces… you can’t really get that same feeling in touristy castles. There’ve been so many people through, spreading their excitement and their energy around. But when you volunteer to help restore things that have just been quietly owned, lived in, crumbling for centuries…. for a writer’s spirit, this is gold.
- Bottling apple cider made with apples from the farmer’s own orchard in Cornwall, and then using the natural yeast from the bottom of the carboys to patiently make absolutely delicious sourdough bread that week in our own wwoofer kitchen. Dave, pictured here, from Cotna Eco Retreat, and who is a sourdough expert as well as a cider expert, tells me that in the past, people made sourdough starter for bread just using the natural yeast found on the apple skins. All it takes is a little feeding and patience.
- While he was teaching me to prune the apple trees, I could hear the medieval church bells ringing from the church in the village just down the valley (you get a good view of the church from the horse field). That farmer also took me on a walk all around the neighbourhood (by which I mean the various fields and vales, with very few houses left), showing me homes that had been abandoned and telling me why that had happened for each. Showing me ancient footpaths that led straight to the church steeple – which we now couldn’t see over the trees, but you would have been able to see it a hundred and two hundred years ago. On that walk, he educated me about how in the past, when rural Cornwall was more densely populated than now, people made much more optimal use of the field areas than they do now, and in the hedges, there were not just hedgehogs, but all kinds of birds, all the trees that yielded firewood, the bushes that yielded the berries…
I’m using knowledge gleaned during that visit to now write about my hero building his best friend an extension to his wattle-and-daub hut in post-Roman, Pre-Christian 5th Century Cornwall.
- Sara, pictured here with Dave, also had so many good stories to tell. She has a glorious yoga studio on the property, and, actually, her tale of her romance with Dave (they met in India) is something worth hearing. Something that gave me hope for my own romantic future…
- Want to bottle wine the traditional way in a little stone backroom of an ancient farmhouse? I did that in Tuscany, and helped weed tomato fields with the same farmer with glorious views of the ancient Neolithic settlement and ancient pope’s hideaway town of Orvieto. That host was also an incredible historical resource when I later e-mailed him to ask details about things I wanted my characters to do in his neighbourhood in Renaissance times, adding a wealth of detail about neighbourhood relations and inter-town arguments and battles that happened back in the day that I never would have gleaned online (as most of it would be in Italian).
- In Sicily, I helped a Sicilian stonemason build a wall out of very heavy (pessandra!) rocks (pietri) for a few days. Working with someone is a great way to work on a language, too. Being surrounded by hot white limestone really got me into the Italian mood. Then I went along to the coast of Sicily, slept in my tent with my cats by the sea, toured Ragusa province’s incredible Baroque towns, and finished writing my latest novel in cafés no more than 20 steps from the sea, where the coffees were excellent, Italian, and 80 cents.
There was also a 17th-century Scottish castle with views from my room to the sea that were like paintings, and a 16th-century Irish farmhouse lovingly rebuilt by a fascinating romantic figure named Aidan. There were other homeschooling families, musical geniuses, donkeys and gardens and milennia-old-towns torn by war and communism… and so many characters to meet… but I have to stop some time! I will write here again, so if there is something specific you’d like to know about please ask me. ☺
Hopefully I have inspired you to give this type of historical adventure a try yourself. If you’d like to chat more about it, please find me through my website, www.christabedwin.com or on Facebook or LinkedIn (as Christa Bedwin).
A key to successful wwoofing is that you have to roll with the situation. You may not have the freedom to dictate your schedule all the time… and actually, I have found that this requirement to simply accept circumstances and do what you are asked to do is probably one of the most relaxing and rejuvenating states of being for the mind. It just takes the stress away from thinking all the time, and really gives you time to just be, to soak in the beauty of nature and the quirkiness of people, to relax our modern stressed minds, and to ponder and dream about plots and characters and settings and ideas.
As I mentioned with Sicily, when I first rolled up there, I didn’t really have any plans aside from enjoying some time in that place, meeting people, and helping to weed gardens or build walls or whatever presented itself. I just let myself unwind.
Then, when I did go to the seaside, 27,000 words finished my novel in a mere four days! Though I hadn’t really seemed to be working on my novel while I built walls or marvelled at Baroque architecture or tried to talk to the Sicilian neighbours about their milk cows that they’re driving back and forth from barn to pasture the same way Sicilian peasants have done for centuries, my head, peaced out and content in a historical way of living, gentle, with a rhythm instead of a schedule, as people lived in the past, delivered the words when the time opened up to do so.
But . . .
But I.. have kids… don’t speak the language… travel with my pets… don’t have a vehicle… have a disability… whatever your “but” reason is for not getting out there, rethink it. If you don’t really want to, if it’s not your bag, fine. I understand that this kind of opportunity is not for everybody.
However, if you are feeling the pull, if you would really like to try, then don’t swallow any idea of “I can’t.” You can. Just as we all have different life circumstances, so too do wwoof hosts. There are wwoof hosts with children, who accept pets, who eat special diets, who speak English and Japanese and Esperanto… everything. The essential core of the program is that they can use your help to accomplish their work, and they are keen to teach you. As long as there is willingness, generosity, and good will on both sides, many hurdles can be surmounted.
That’s really the message of this blog post: just relax into the history. Go find the people of this world who are preserving and living the past, and help them do what they do. Get your hands dirty with it. Help build. Help grow.
In exchange for your willing labour with fascinating projects, you will receive a wealth of experiential knowledge and colour for your historical writing that is unmatched by anything you can beg, buy, or steal anywhere else.
You can get involved in real projects through other organizations and initiatives, too, of course.
Eco-retreats where you get involved:
Cotna eco-retreat, with Sara and Dave above, is just one of many ecoretreats that takes paying guests as well as volunteers. cotna.co.uk. These exist all over the world – wherever you want to find your history!
Historical reconstruction projects to get involved with. Here are some examples of organizations:
- https://digventures.com DigVentures do crowd-funded archaeology where you can buy a day/weekend/week’s experience digging, cleaning, documenting finds, etc.
- Britain’s National Trust offers many historical volunteer projects.
- If you speak French, you can volunteer to actually help rebuild a 13th-century castle in France with only medieval tools and methods https://www.guedelon.fr/en/how-can-i-participate_95.html
Eco and animal rescue voluntourism is also growing – be a part of elephant sanctuaries in Asia, scientific studies of koalas in Australia, or turtle breeding in the Galapagos. That’s not as historical, of course, but maybe it ties into your novel about the love between two servants of a maharaja…
Christa Bedwin grew up in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains on a cattle ranch and started her career as a chemist and chemistry teacher. She now enjoys her life as a world-travelling freelance writer and editor, finding fascinating settings and experiences to help shape her historical time-travel novels. Occasionally but not always, funny wise dragons and/or magical realism leap into her books and her real life, too .
She has travelled to almost fifty countries and has worked as a rancher’s daughter, logger, inspirer-of-women, casino girl, chemistry and math teacher, lime wall restorer, road works flagperson, coffeeshop baker, laboratory chemist, heavy equipment operator, security walker, oil company secretary, fundraising organizer, homeschooling travelling mom of teen, Mensa national newsletter editor, youth worker, ranch hand, jilleroo, construction worker, artist’s model, organic squash picker, yoga, belly dance, mantra, meditation instructor, and of course, writer and editor… what next?