Having recently blogged about research for historical fiction set in ancient Greece, today I welcome fellow Crooked Cat author Carol Maginn, who gives us insights into her own experience of researching a very different period and place, and offers her distinctive take on the pleasures and pitfalls of history. Over to you, Carol …
It’s a real pleasure to be on Tim Taylor’s blog and in the company of an accomplished historical novelist, and Kirklees Writer in Residence. I’m going to try to add, very briefly, to his thoughts….
History, as I think he’ll agree, can be irresistible for a writer—partly because we know how it comes out, and partly because we don’t know how it was to be alive in the past, and can only guess. It’s a great combination.
Having spent time in the present in my first two novels, Ruin and Daniel Taylor, I found Victorian Liverpool had drawn me back for my third, The Case of the Adelphi. I should explain that Liverpool is my native city, and I spent some time in my youth working in the Central Library’s Records Office. It’s an extraordinary place, containing everything from the annual reports of the first Medical Officer of Health (the renowned Dr Duncan) to the Minutes of the Workhouse Committee, the handwritten manuscript of Liverpool novel Her Benny, the births, deaths and christenings of the city, and a great deal more besides.
Add to that the astonishing nineteenth century boom which meant that Liverpool was the second city of Empire (there were Liverpool banks with branch offices in London), and the intense contrast between burgeoning wealth and growing poverty, and there’s a world just inviting the writer in… I tiptoed into the splendour of Liverpool’s Adelphi. It was a leading city hotel then as now. I created a character who believes that the hotel is in danger from evil forces, drawing on the nineteenth century’s fascination with spiritualism and the supernatural. I had a great time.
So much so, that my fourth novel (currently just 4,000 words long) is set at the same date, 1856, in New York. Why? Partly because there was a constant traffic between Liverpool and New York back in the day, and partly because the history of New York is just fabulous. Heroes, villains and rogues abound, and will soon be joined by my doughty fictional heroines.
I’ve tried to avoid what I dislike in historical fiction. This includes over-long descriptions (The Minaturist springs to mind, perhaps unfairly) and tedious language. Of course the dialogue must be credible (I did check that the phrase ‘blithering idiot’ was actually current in 1856) but deliberately archaic language, I would argue, is just annoying.
With The Case of the Adelphi, I’d already absorbed lots of reading whilst the City Libraries were mistakenly paying me to work for them. With The Devil of New York and his Downfall (a working title) I’m wading my way through several magnificently huge histories of the city. But…. it’s all too easy to get lost in the background. The advice I was given, and which I’d pass on, is to write the story first, and then check details. Would there have been sidewalks then? Did women wear bonnets? Amanda McLean, who wrote the fabulous The Flaxflower recounts how she constantly rewrote as she checked: the wealthy didn’t ride in carriages in her era in her part of Scotland because there weren’t any roads; they rode horses. Peasants bought, and didn’t bake, their bread, as they didn’t have ovens.
And I’m trying to emulate what I like about historical fiction: a sense of time and place, an insight into other ways of thinking about the world—an experience which, in the hands of a master like Hilary Mantel, can feel more real than our everyday world.
And behind it all lies the knowledge that all of us, even while we’re heading into the future, are…slowly….becoming….. history….
Many thanks for those insights, Carol! I’m currently reading Daniel Taylor and enjoying it very much. I look forward to hearing more about The Case of the Adelphi and its successor.