Setting Your Scene - How Much Research is Enough?

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.

BOOK LINKS

The White Rajah

Cawnpore

Back Home

The James Burke Series

Burke in the Land of Silver

Burke and the Bedouin

Burke at Waterloo

Bio:

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's blog

Tom's Facebook

Tom on Twitter

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO NOW?

Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870), created some of the world's most memorable fictional characters and is generally regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period. (Thanks Wikipedia).

The Old Curiosity Shop

The catalyst for writing Fifteen Postcards can’t be narrowed down to one event. It is a combination of events over a number of years which lead me to sit down and to start seriously on tapping away at my computer keyboard.

I believe most people have an inner ego (and many people have an all-to-obvious outer ego), but my inner ego wanted to leave something of me behind. Something that says ‘She existed’. 

Its been argued that my children should be proof enough of my existence. It was my children who moved me away from my life path of being a dedicated Customs Officer, with a goal to work for the World Customs Organisation in Brussels, where I had planned to leave my mark on history. So once my life path was undeniably altered by the arrival of my daughters, and the unexpected death of my father, I spent seven years essentially treading water working at Antique Alley not really knowing where my life was going.

So once both my girls were at school, the question I was asked (and am still asked), by everyone in my family and circle of friends was “What are you going to do now?”. So my answer is this:

Now? Now I am going to do something for me. Something for my personal ego. Something which has bubbled inside me for the past seven years helping customers at Antique Alley, seeing the happiness on their faces when they find that perfect piece of china to add to their collection. Experiencing vicariously the joy of avid collectors as they fossick through the shop. I love it. And I want to write about it. Just as Charles Dickens wrote about ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and the terribly sad tale of Nell and her grandfather.  So ‘that’ is what I am going to do ‘now’ that the girls are at school. I am going to publish a novel.

My novel may not be on the reading lists 150 years after its been published like the novels Dickens wrote, but I am happy that I am following a dream. Everyone in the world should be free to follow their dreams. And I want to encourage all of you to follow yours.

13 MARCH 2014

WHO WAS I KIDDING, THINKING MYSELF AN EXPERT?

This is a blog entry I originally wrote for the blog of Tom Williams, author of the Burke series, Cawnpore, and The White Raja. You can access his blog here: http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.nz

An Expert in Antiques?

Enamelled Coins

Fifteen Postcards has just been published by Accent Press. A novel incorporating three continents and traversing two centuries: historical fiction written from a modern perspective. I like to describe it as a blend of ‘The Far Pavilions’, with a touch of ‘The Time Traveler's Wife’, rolled together with a smidgeon of the ‘Antiques Roadshow’. But I haven’t always been an author.

Nine years ago I was working as a Chief Customs Officer with the New Zealand Customs Service. It was a career I adored, and one I appeared to be particularly good at, according to my performance reviews and peer feedback. Then unexpectedly my father died, leaving my mother a widow without an income.

My brother and I quit our jobs. Someone needed to run Antique Alley, the business my father started in 1971. My brother worked full time, whilst I went part time, as my first daughter was born six months after Dad died. The timing was brutal.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ states that the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill requires practicing, correctly, for around 10,000 hours. I’ve roughly estimated that since my father died, I’ve worked in the shop for 5,616 hours. I don’t work full time, and I’ve had two children in the past nine years, but I do know that I now have roughly 5,000 hours of additional knowledge of antiques. With that, I thought I had enough knowledge to sit down and write a novel about a girl who works in an antique shop. So I did.

I sat down, with my MacBook one day, and started writing, with no idea of where to go, or how the story was going to evolve. Who it was going to involve, or what the future plan for my writing was. But damn it, I knew antiques, I liked writing, so it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

First off, I started writing about postcards. One of Dad’s passions. He collected them personally. We sell them at the shop. I know that real photo postcards are more collectable than others. That Tuck’s postcards are highly sought after. And that... That’s when I stumbled. What else did I know about postcards? Highly embarrassing, but I had to turn to Google, to the library, to the reference books at work. Those 5,000 hours may as well have been 5 hours, or five minutes watching the Antiques Roadshow for all I knew about postcards. Fortunately William Main had published an exquisite book titled ‘Send Me A Postcard’ which had somehow appeared on the bookshelf at home. Fate? Google is great, but nothing beats a beautifully illustrated piece of research. And so it continued.

Green stone adzes (axe heads), made by the early Maori in New Zealand? I’m a New Zealander, born and bred, albeit with a British passport as well, I know everything there is to know about Maori adzes. Ah, no. Just like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, I knew nothing. A research trip to Auckland’s world class War Memorial Museum proved how little I knew. These are just two tiny examples of the level of research I did for my novel - the one which was meant to be easy because I knew at least half of all I (thought) I needed to know about antiques.

I can hear your readers asking why I bothered with all that research. Surely ‘Fifteen Postcards’ is a fictional account of Sarah Lester’s life in her antique shop in London. It’s not an autobiographical account of Kirsten McKenzie’s life in an antique shop in Auckland. I’ll tell you why. Because my father would have known.

My father was a walking encyclopaedia of back stamps, and hall marks, of fakes and reproductions. He knew gemstones from glass with barely a flick of his eyepiece. He would have been mortified if I’d placed a Victorian dining chair in a Regency setting (I didn’t). I also expected that people who read historical fiction probably knew as much, if not more, about some of things I wrote about. Given that my father won’t ever read my book, I didn’t want to upset the readers who will. It was embarrassing enough when my editor David Powell highlighted that I’d used the wrong currency to describe when Sarah is counting her coins in her bedroom suite in the Savoy in London. His words are burnt into my brain when he gently pointed out that Sarah probably wouldn’t be using George V coins. But that’s what editors are for, and I am eternally grateful.

I wanted every description to not only be beautifully written, but I wanted them to be accurate. That ormolu on the edge of the table? I needed the reader to be able to see it as it was then - in 1860s India, not how its presented in some poorly funded TV commercial for tea bags.

So instead of pumping out an 80,000 word novel in a few months, I wrote a 130,000 word novel over a period of one and a half years, edited it, had it accepted for publication by Accent Press, where it was edited again (and again) and here we are. I’m writing a blog piece for another historical fiction author, one who understands and appreciates the quest for historical accuracy in his research for the Burke series.

I leave you now to carry on with my next manuscript, where I’m immersed in colonial New Zealand just prior to the outbreak of the Maori wars in the 1860s. Wish me luck.

16 July 2015

THE HAND OF PUBLISHING FATE

I was very pleased to be asked by UK author Jenny Kane to write a guest post for her blog. I wrote a post about the strange coincidence of fate:

My first book has just been published by Accent Press – ‘Fifteen Postcards’. A novel traversing three continents and two centuries. A blend of ‘The Far Pavilions’, with a touch of ‘The Time Travelers Wife’, rolled together with a smidgeon of the ‘Antique’s Roadshow’. If it wasn’t for my father dying, it would never have been written.

I had a pretty standard upbringing in New Zealand in the 70s. Dad had his own business – an antique shop, and worked long hours. Mum raised my younger brother and I. She was the one who went on all the school trips, picked us up after school, and took us to our after school activities. In the school holidays, my ideal day was helping Dad at the shop, Antique Alley – a literal treasure trove, and described as an Auckland icon. A shop heaving with stock, which invariably overflowed onto the floor, and filled the corridors, very much like how I described ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ in ‘Fifteen Postcards’.

Initially I was allowed to sit in the corner and sell postcards. As I got older I was promoted to serving behind the counter, helping customers choose gold bracelets for gifts, or give advice about which dinner service looked better. I worked off and on at the shop, and at antique fairs up and down the country, right through school and university. By osmosis I picked up a small amount of knowledge about a lot of things.

Then in 2005 Dad died.

My brother and I both quit our jobs (I was a Customs Officer), and started working at the shop. Ostensibly to provide our mother with an income, but it was also a job I had once loved, and although I’d never pursued it, I was more than happy to stand behind the shop counter and carry on where I’d left off in my late teens.

Working at the shop was a way to reconnect with my father. Antique Alley was such a part of his personality that walking into the shop became a way to keep his memory alive. Even today, nine years after his death, when I unlock the front door, and close the world off behind me as I sprint inside to turn off the alarm, I’ll murmur “Hello Dad”. Often followed by a little “Let this be a good day Dad!”. That may make me sound slightly nutty, but it gives me a sense of connectivity with my father, whom I miss everyday.

Writing ‘Fifteen Postcards’ in 2013 was part homage to my father, and part the realisation of a long held desire to write a book. Scattered throughout the book are snippets of his life and his quirks. My parents really did live above the shop before I came onto the scene, just like ‘Sarah’s parents in the book. My grandmother papered the lounge room upstairs in an appalling mixture of prints and floral paper (as described in the book), which Mum still detests to this day (there’s so much stock in that room now that it would be a marathon effort to strip it all back!). It was amusing remembering all of Dad’s foibles and fantastic sayings, weaving them into a plot worthy of his knowledge and expertise in the antique industry. It also became abundantly clear that my ‘small amount of knowledge about a lot of things’ wasn’t at all sufficient for a historical fiction novel, but that’s the basis of another blog post!

They say finding a publisher is one of the hardest parts of writing a book. I had rejections, five to be precise, but one of the publishers I submitted to, Accent Press, offered me a publishing contract. Which I signed. Why did I submit my manuscript to them? That was partly to do with Dad. He was born in Wales, moving to New Zealand when he was three. As an adult he returned to Wales to work and to reconnect with his extended family. I like to think Dad had a small part to play in me choosing Accent Press, who are based in Wales, and in them choosing me.

This is where it starts getting slightly more ‘Twilight Zone’. Bear with me as I talk you through it… David Powell was the incredible editor who worked on ‘Fifteen Postcards’. Without him, my book wouldn’t be anywhere near as awesome as it is. Weirdly, my father’s name was David. Fate? Coincidence? It keeps going. Accent Press released my book on the 21st of May, Mum’s birthday. Yes, yes, a strange collection of coincidences, but as someone still living with the grief of losing my father unexpectedly, these coincidences have given me some measure of solace, a belief that there has been a higher power at work, helping and guiding me.

The only time I haven’t felt Dad’s presence at work, was when I was held up at gunpoint in 2009. With a gun to my head, I was forced to sit on the ground whilst two men stole the jewellery from our cabinets. When Dad was alive, he’d always counseled that nothing in the shop was worth my life, and if anyone tried to rob the shop, I wasn’t to fight back. With that counsel firmly imprinted in my brain, I did just that. I sat there. I screamed a few times, hoping to attract the attention of someone outside, but stopped when they told me to stop screaming or they’d shoot me. I shut up after that. The armed robbery also made it into the pages of ‘Fifteen Postcards’. Writing that part of the manuscript was more difficult than I initially imagined, but also cathartic. I’ve never watched the CCTV footage of the robbery although I can give you a frame by frame playback, as the memory is still so vivid. Putting it down on paper has helped me get over it. Many, many bottles of red wine have also helped…

I am in the wonderful position of loving my job, as my father did, selling other people’s treasures. Everything in the shop was once loved and desired, all just waiting for their new home. It’s the ultimate in recycling. But isn’t that what writing is? The recycling of memories?

The writing of ‘Fifteen Postcards’ has captured some of my memories, hidden amongst the fictional plot and a cast of nefarious characters. And for that I am truly grateful to the hand of fate, or the confluence of coincidences.

22 July 2015

WHAT TO DO WHEN A GUN IS POINTED AT YOUR HEAD

How many bottles of red wine does it take to get over an armed robbery? I’ll let you know when I’ve finished drinking them.

On a September morning six years ago, I was at work in my antique shop on Dominion Road when a well-spoken young man entered the store, lifted the corner of his T-shirt, and took out a black pistol from the waistband of his trousers. He pointed it at my head, and ordered me to the ground. I was holding a handful of wristwatches in various states of repair. A customer was looking around down the back of the shop.

I said to the gunman, “You’ve got to be joking.”

He wasn’t joking.

When the police asked me how long the gunman and his accomplice were in the shop, I estimated four to five minutes. CCTV told a different story: 50 seconds. I’d had a gun pointed at my head for 50 seconds while another man helped himself to our antique jewellery, stuffing trays of gold rings into a bubblegum pink sports bag. I recall screaming at him not to take the men’s rings. Men’s rings were always so hard to get.

The last words the gunman spoke to me were, “You’re okay now.” Then he ran out of the shop. I ran out behind him, calling the police, the wristwatches still in one hand.

My memory is a little hazy after that. The neighbouring shopkeepers, undoubtedly alerted by my screaming, came out to help. It’d be interesting to hear the recording of my 111 call. I remember asking the woman from the Vodafone shop to check that the customer I’d left in the shop wasn’t stealing anything.

Hours later – after I’d relived the robbery second by second with the police – I was delivered home into the waiting arms of my first bottle of red wine. Victim Support rang to offer their assistance, but I had my mother, my husband, and my wine. I was fine.

Fine apart from the fact that after the robbery I never – and I mean never – sat down at work anymore. I was constantly on edge every time a customer entered the shop. I was always up and about, hovering by the newly installed panic button, calculating the intentions of everyone entering the shop.

I never watched the CCTV footage of the robbery. I didn’t need to. It played in technicolor glory over and over in my mind.

After my youngest daughter started school, I decided to write a book. They say write what you know, so I did. I wrote Fifteen Postcards, a novel about a girl who works in an antique shop. You could almost describe it as the back story behind the antiques in the shop – the journey those antiques had been on before languishing on the shelves. Before I knew it, without planning it, my protagonist was looking up the barrel of a gun.

I knew guns. I’d had a fair bit to do with rifles through the Air Training Corps – the Lee Enfield No 8 to be precise – and then the much lesser quality Norincos. I’d even passed my range safety officers course through the New Zealand Defence Force, and I’d qualified for my marksman badge. I used to seize the things when I worked for the New Zealand Customs Service. When I looked at the end of the gun pointing at me, I wondered whether it was real or a replica. But regardless of how familiar you are with weapons, when your whole world shrinks to the size of the barrel of a gun, you’re simply not in any position to make a rational judgement.

Writing about a traumatic experience can go two ways. It can act as a trigger to something similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Or – and this was my experience – it can be cathartic. By writing about the robbery, it’s mostly ceased to be the big scary bogeyman that I’d allowed it to become since it happened. I allowed my protagonist to escape from the hold-up when I wrote about it in Fifteen Postcards, and it was as if I’d escaped too.

Trust me, though, when I say I much prefer my fictional ending. It remains the single most traumatic experience I’ve ever had.

As a tribute to my Welsh father, who started Antique Alley in 1971, Fifteen Postcards was published by Accent Press, based in Wales. Having the book published has done more for my recovery than the New Zealand Pinot Noir industry – although credit where credit’s due, their grape also helped immensely.

Note: This post first appeared on The Spinoff : http://thespinoff.co.nz/

29 September 2015