Today I welcome Historical Fiction author Tom Williams to my blog where he talks about how much research is too much, and goes into a nice little aside about how to forge bank notes...
Kirsten's background in the antiques business means that she is very aware of the historical artefacts that appear in her books. In fact, Fifteen Postcards is based around things that she might have found in her antique shop.
In writing historical novels, authors will be continually concerned about the items that their characters see, talk about, or use in their day-to-day activities. Getting them right is crucial, but continually shoehorning them into the plot to prove that you have "done your research" can lead to appallingly turgid writing.
Different novels, for different audiences, will emphasise different aspects of the past. Historical romances tend to dwell on clothing, often described in loving detail. I struggle with descriptions of clothes. I'm not generally that interested in what my characters are wearing, although I do usually check some images of people at the time so I have some idea of what they would have looked like. Of course, in my James Burke books, set in the Napoleonic wars, there are a lot of characters in military uniforms and these provide obvious descriptive opportunities. Still, I do try to avoid the trap that many specialists in military history seem to fall into when every uniform is described right down to the decoration stamped onto the buttons. I suppose, though, that this is again a case of who you are writing for – there are clearly people out there who love this sort of military minutiae and probably resent my failure to go into quite so much detail.
In many of my books there are some items that seem crucial to characters or plot or both. For me, getting these right can be central to the writing process. In Back Home the idea for the book came from accounts of 19th-century coiners and I decided that I wanted to be as accurate as possible in my depiction of their activities. I read a lot about coining in Mayhew, whose account of criminal life in London (in London Labour and the London Poor) gives a great deal of detail. I was lucky that while I was writing there was an exhibition on crime at the Museum of London and this included items that the police had confiscated from forgers, letting us see the actual tools they used in producing fake money. I read some modern accounts of electroplating, which was used to put the finish on the coins, and studied these until I was reasonably confident that I could make my own coinage using items I could readily have obtained in 1859. Most (but not all) of this information did make its way into the finished book, but, more importantly, it let me imagine the practical realities of turning out significant quantities of coinage in a basement workshop. With the core of my story firmly established in my mind, I was able to relax more with the tale built around it.
Writing about 19th-century London was relatively easy, because, living in London and with ready access to 19th-century prints and novels – let alone a plethora of television dramas – I, like many people, have a reasonable "feel" for the place and period. Even so, it's easy to find yourself completely lost. If somebody walks in to the lodgings of a poor person in 1859, what would they expect to see? Again, I often fell back on Mayhew. He provides masses of descriptive passages with street scenes, interiors and the characters who inhabit them. My loiterers in Seven Dials are unashamedly stolen from him and the back story of some minor characters is also taken from his book. I used contemporary maps to plot the paths of my characters’ walks around town and visited some of the locations myself so that I could imagine, from what they look like today, what they must have been like then. Imagining “then” was helped by descriptions in Dickens’ novels.
Most of my historical novels have included significant references to real people, but only one of the characters in Back Home is an actual historical figure – Karl Marx. As with other people I have included in my books, I read his letters to get a feel, not only for the facts of his life, but for the way that he talked about them. He is only a minor character in Back Home, but his dialogue reflects the way that he wrote. Of course, we can't know how he actually spoke, but I suspect it was like that.
Overall, then, I try to give my imagination a lot of space to move around a few fixed points, some of them defined by the objects in my characters’ lives, some of them by pictures and documents referencing them, some of them by place and, whenever possible, some of them in their own words.
There's a lot of real history in many historical novels, including mine. Part of the trick, though, is that this shouldn't be immediately obvious to the reader. A novel has to work firstly as a story – the items in the lives of our characters are the set dressing. It is our words that are the script.
The James Burke Series
Tom Williams used to write about boring things for money. If you wanted an analysis of complaints volumes in legal services or attitudes to diversity at the BBC, then he was your man. Now he writes much more interesting books about historical characters and earns in a year about what he could make in a day back then. (This, unfortunately, is absolutely true.) He also writes a blog (http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/) which is widely read all over the world and generates no income at all.
Besides making no money from writing, Tom makes no money out of occasionally teaching people to tango and then spends all the money he hasn’t made on going to dance in Argentina.
Tom has a wife who, fortunately, has a well-paid job, and a grown-up son who has resolved that he is never, ever, going to write anything.
Tom on Twitter