What do you do when historical facts don’t match your story? This past week I went back and reviewed my research on pigeons, and found something I had glossed over before. Dovecotes, the sturdy round buildings that housed pigeons during the middle ages, came to England from Normandy after 1066. Well, darn. I had dovecotes in my story two years before William the Conqueror arrived.
In medieval England, pigeons were raised for food, their feathers, and for their droppings, which make an excellent fertilizer. Only nobles were allowed to own pigeons. Pigeons were an important protein source during winter, when fodder for cows, sheep or goats was limited and the number of these animals were trimmed back to a bare minimum. Pigeons, on the other hand, foraged for themselves. The villeins (i.e., the laborer class), probably found the pigeons a nuisances, since the birds were apt to forage among the freshly planted fields of corn, rye and millet. Released at sunrise, they’d leave their nests to find food and water on their own. They’d be back in their home before sundown, where I image they were locked up overnight, and prime squabs (young pigeons) were then harvested for butchering.
When setbacks like this occur, I look a as many options as possible. I need Hastings’ dovecote in the early part of the story, and I need the fact that only nobles were allowed to raise and breed pigeons. Eliminate these plot points and I would have to do a major revision, something I’d rather not do.
What are my options? I could, I suppose (I say rather hesitantly) replot the story. But wait. With dovecotes in Normandy, and with Normans taking hold in England even before the invasion, it doesn’t appear to be that far of a stretch to have a dovecote in Hastings started by a Norman. The Romans bred homing pigeons when they controlled what is now England back before 400AD, but once they left, and the Anglo-Saxons took over, raising pigeons become a thing of the past in that region. In Europe, however, there were still homing pigeons and pigeons raised for food, feathers, and fertilizer.
For this new approach to the dovecote and to the main female character’s storyline, I will need to add details about a lord or high ranking clergy, a bishop perhaps, a generation or two in the past who demanded that pigeons be raised. Way simpler than taking the dovecote out of the story.
I have hit several bumps like this during my research, and I’m sure this is normal for historical fiction. I would say it is even normal for any type of fiction. A story, regardless of genre or dependency on facts, must be consistent within itself. Sometimes this consistency requires major rewrites.