For anyone writing historical fiction, the research required can be daunting. Fortunately, I love it, and over the years my collection of reference books has grown. The genre requires a writer to explore practically everything in their chosen period from idioms used, to mourning protocols. As my era of choice is the late Victorian/early 20th century, my library includes Mrs Beetons Book of Household Management (with hilarious cures and advice, by our modern standards), Bradshaws 1895 Railway Timetable, and one of my favourites – Murder Trials in Ireland: 1836-1914. These particular tomes have been invaluable.
My current work in progress, the second book in the Lucy Lawrence Murder Mystery Series, is set in Victorian Egypt. As I have always been fascinated by Ancient Egypt, it was inevitable my poor heroine would end up there. Finding contemporary descriptions is the ultimate goal, and I was fortunate enough to come across Amelia Edwards’ A Thousand Miles up the Nile on a visit to the British Museum. Her travel memoir was written a decade before I set my novel. Fortune smiled on me once more when I found a scanned online version of the Baedeker’s Guide to Lower Egypt, published in 1885, two years before my heroine lands in Alexandria. These two books provided accurate detail and gave me an insight in how the Victorians behaved when on their travels. Then, as I delved into the history of Victorian Egyptology, I uncovered the animosity which existed between the British and French archaeological teams. I knew immediately this was a scenario I could exploit in Footprints in the Sand, with the added satisfaction of being able to use the glorious setting of ancient Egyptian monuments.
No Stone Unturned, which was published a few months’ ago, is the first novel in the series and it often threw up some interesting questions for me. For instance, did Victorian households use rubbish bins? What was the nearest mortuary to Vine Street Police Station in London? What type of train ran in the London Underground in 1886? My collection of research books failed me, as did Amazon and Google.
Since the publication of my first novel in 2015, I have discovered that contacts online can be a useful source of information when you hit a research wall. Lee Jackson, a fellow historical fiction author, has written extensively on Victorian life and several of his non-fiction books are on my shelves. I contacted him on Twitter and he was able to tell me what I needed to know about Victorian rubbish and its disposal. And, within half an hour he had come back to me with the name of the mortuary that would have been closest to the police station in 1886, i.e., Dufour Place (sadly no longer in existence – well, sad for me as I would have liked to have visited it!).
The train question was a little trickier as I also wished to know how long a particular journey took. Thankfully, I found the London Transport Museum online, and within 24 hours I had not only answers to my questions but copies of relevant timetables. To my astonishment, they used steam trains on the Victorian underground in those early days. As I delved deeper, I discovered that the engineers hadn’t allowed for ventilation in the tunnels and this had to be retro-fitted, much to the relief of the commuters, I’m sure.
But what to do with all this wonderful background information? It is imperative to get the balance right between creating authentic settings, characters and believable plots, while not boring your reader with the minutiae. So, unfortunately, most of it does not end up in the novel. However, as a writer I could not create without it. The information gleaned from all these sources helps me get inside the heads of my characters, enabling me to see their world through their eyes. But of even greater importance, many of my sub-plots and ideas have sprung from the very fertile soil of research.
As a backdrop to the mystery element of No Stone Unturned, I also wanted to explore how a relatively young Victorian woman, with a strong personality and high intellect, would cope within the confines of a troubled marriage. Would she accept her lot or chafe at the bit? But, in Lucy’s case, with no money and estranged from her family, she could not walk away. To do so, would mean social ruin. However, when circumstances finally release her (her husband’s sudden death), she struggles to cope. Pretty much every man in her life so far has betrayed her on some level for their own ends. There is a pivotal scene in the story when Lucy realises she must shape her own destiny, and she sets out on a dangerous adventure in pursuit of the truth about her late husband and his less than legal activities. To make this believable would have been impossible without doing the research into Victorian women’s lives: Lucy had to be a woman of her time.
But, you may wonder, how can you bear not to use all this lovely information? And I felt the same and pondered the question for some time. Then it struck me that a series of blog posts based on the research would make the perfect pre-launch material. This worked very well for me and helped boost my pre-order sales, via my website.
There is nothing more jarring for a historical fiction fan than historical inaccuracy. Most will not give you a second chance if you get it wrong. As a writer, you owe it to your readers to put in the hours and effort to get your basic facts correct. Think of it as quality control for your brand. Luckily, next to actually writing, I enjoy chasing down wispy threads and popping down rabbit holes: you never know what juicy nuggets of information you may discover!
And just in case you are interested, the Victorians did use domestic rubbish bins which were collected by dustmen in horse-drawn carts twice a day – now that’s service!
(c) Pam Lecky
About No Stone Unturned:
A suspicious death, stolen gems and an unclaimed reward: who will be the victor in a deadly game of cat and mouse?
London October 1886: Trapped in a troubled marriage, Lucy Lawrence is ripe for an adventure. But when she meets the enigmatic Phineas Stone, over the body of her husband in the mortuary, her world begins to fall apart.
When her late husband’s secrets spill from the grave, and her life is threatened by the leader of London’s most notorious gang, Lucy must find the strength to rise to the challenge. But who can she trust and how is she to stay out of the murderous clutches of London’s most dangerous criminal?
Order your copy online here.