Researching Historical Fiction

Seventeenth-century Clock, Bolling Hall, Bradford
Seventeenth-century Clock, Bolling Hall, Bradford.

‘Write what you know’ is one of the cardinal commandments that hangs over the heads of aspirant authors, and if taken too literally, could be fatally crippling to the imagination, particularly with respect to the venture of writing historical fiction, for what do you, I, or anyone else living today, know of, for example, the nineteenth century? Nothing, in terms of direct experience of course. That said, there is still a great deal that we can ‘know’, should we care to take the trouble to find out, and it is this process of investigation, this uncovering and reconstruction of worlds long since lost, that makes the writing of this particular type of fiction doubly rewarding, if your interests happen to incline in this direction.

We can never fully immerse ourselves in first-century Rome, fifth-century Gaul, the Russia of Peter the Great, or seventeenth-century England, but neither can we truly know what it is like to have grown up in a country, or culture, of which we have no direct first-hand experience; the nature of the author’s abstraction from a particular context – whether it be geographical, cultural, temporal, or a combination of all three – is only a matter of degree. The interposition of time serves to make this exercise of ‘retrieving’ or ‘recreating’ human experience more difficult, but not impossible, and it is important to recall at this point that the author is creating a work of fiction, rather than a history. The author of historical fiction seeks to create characters, scenarios and behaviours that are historically plausible, rather than necessarily entirely accurate. The primary challenge could be said to be that of producing a work that is both authentic to its period, yet engaging for the contemporary reader, given the transformations in attitudes and beliefs that have occurred over the centuries and millennia that might render the reader unsympathetic to the characters depicted. One thing, however, appears to remain constant across the ages: the foibles of human character.

There are many ways in which we can access past experience and the worldviews that bounded the horizons of our ancestors, the most obvious of these being the use of contemporaneous written sources in the form of books, letters, official documents and archives. These do, however, possess their limitations, particularly as we travel further back in time, for within a couple of centuries we already arrive at a point when only a minority of the population was literate, resulting in a narrowing of perspective that becomes increasingly filtered through the attitudes and preoccupations of elites. Thus, although seventeenth-century England was a relatively literate society by historical standards, the level of literacy varied greatly between class, gender and region, and whereas we are at this point able to directly access the written reflections of the upper classes and many of the middling sort of folk – particularly of men – the voices of the lower orders of society and women are largely lost to us.

There are also the material remains of the past, some of which survive in something approximating their original form, and others which have been updated or repurposed. Architecture, monuments, the visual arts, furniture, personal effects and costume, even the landscape itself, all provide sources of information and inspiration relating to different periods and aspects of our past. The more places that you visit and the more attention that you pay to what you see, the more finely attuned you become to the flow of time and changes in architectural forms, interior decoration, style and the attitudes and beliefs that fashioned them. In the UK for example, visiting properties and sites owned by the National Trust or English Heritage will provide an insight into the lives of the wealthy elite in particular, although a glimpse into the everyday world of the lower orders can be had in the kitchens, stables and working buildings such as watermills, windmills and forges. If you are lucky, your visit will coincide with a day during which corn may be milled, metal worked or re-enactments of different aspects of everyday life staged. Should you have children, the latter will soften the ‘ordeal’ of being dragged around a historic property on a day out, and, hopefully, stimulate their imaginations.

There are also museums of course, which house invaluable collections of artefacts from the past, and a number of which are classed as ‘living museums’, meaning that they attempt to demonstrate a number of crafts, industries and agricultural practices that have now passed away. To witness a defunct or rare craft being demonstrated provides the author with an invaluable aid to the imagination, even should that craft itself not be described in writing. Knowledge of a character having engaged in a particular line of work will have an impact upon how he or she carries and expresses themselves, as well as, potentially, upon the types of aches and ailments that they may suffer from.

London’s Geffrye Museum, whose focus is the domestic sphere, contains a series of reconstructed interiors spanning the period from 1630 to 1998, and is well worth a visit if you are on a trip to London (who knows, a visit may even provide you with the inspiration to remodel your own domestic surrounds). Many living museums tend to focus upon one particular time period, although often also possess exhibits relating to other periods, thus Butser Farm spans a vast expanse of time from the Stone Age to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, whereas Morwhellam Quay focuses upon the Victorian era. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, and St Fagan’s National History Museum in Wales both feature collections of vernacular architecture reassembled onsite. Londoners are spoilt for choice, home as their city is to the great national art collections in the National Gallery, Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, but there are also many provincial art galleries that are worth visiting. One quirky establishment worth visiting if you should be in the vicinity is Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which caused quite a furore when it initially opened in the village in 1960. However, it should be borne in mind that much of its content focuses upon the distinctly modern English invention that is Wicca (or it did when I last visited many years ago. I shall give an update on my impressions following a forthcoming visit early in 2017).

One of the most important concerns for the author writing about the past is avoiding anachronism, which can be difficult. A good rule of thumb with respect to diet is to remember that all of those foodstuffs originating in the New World would not have been available to the inhabitants of Europe, Asia and Africa before 1492. There should thus be no mention of potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, chocolate or chillies, to name but a few, in any work set before the European discovery of the Americas, nor indeed of that noxious stinking weed named tobacco, unless that is your piece should be set in the Americas. Diets around the world have changed greatly since the golden age of European exploration.

Technology is another sphere in which we encounter much potential for anachronism. It is particularly important to note that people’s sense of time has changed greatly since the introduction of the clock, for thinking in the sense of seconds, minutes and even hours, would have been alien to our forebears for the greater part of history. One’s sense of space, time and the wider world has changed greatly, with unified national time not coming into existence until the spread of the railways, communications being far slower during the era of poorly maintained roads than during that of steam and the telegraph.

Our forebears were attuned to the rhythms of the seasons, from which we have, to a greater or lesser degree, been largely insulated since the introduction of gas and then electric light and heating. Our bond with the natural world and sense of place within it has become increasingly attenuated on a practical day-to-day level.

The warp and weft of everyday life, which usually escaped specific thematic documentation and treatment in days gone by, is particularly challenging to reconstruct. What rituals of personal hygiene did people observe? How often did they bathe? How did they look after their teeth? How many changes of clothes did they possess, and how frequently were they laundered? If you are naturally inclined to writer’s block, writing historical fiction, throwing up so many questions as it does, may engender complete and protracted paralysis. Beware.

Once we have done our research and are satisfied that we have gleaned sufficient knowledge to commence writing our tale, the next task is how to create a text that is both ‘authentic’ and yet engaging and comprehensible. It is something of a conundrum, to which I shall return in a later post when I reflect upon creating the characters and voices that inhabit my forthcoming novel set in seventeenth-century Cornwall. Before closing, it may be worth mentioning that I find it helpful to track down and listen to music from the period about which I am writing. Even should it not be successful in eliciting an appropriate mood, it is at least enjoyable.

Gwydion’s Glastonbury: the Inspiration behind ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’

Glastonbury – the town rather than the festival – is a unique place both geographically and socially. Although there are other kindred locations across England which act as magnets for folk of a countercultural mystical metaphysical bent, such as Totnes and Hebden Bridge, none of them quite match Glastonbury’s mystique. Neither do they equal its quotient of hemp, crystal nor fairy based business acumen, as is plainly evident from the host of independent businesses that line its High Street. If you pop into a bookshop, you will discover more volumes devoted to aligning your chakras than to fixing your plumbing, although water has played as much a role in the town’s history as has mysticism.

The profile of the Tor, topped by the ruined tower of St Michael’s Church, arrests the eye of the first-time visitor to the Somerset Levels, its drama and aesthetic appeal self-evident, even when shorn of the myths and legends that have attached themselves to this spot over the centuries. Set amidst the low-lying swamps and marshes that remained hereabouts until being drained by the efforts of mediaeval monks, its former status as a peninsula would initially have attracted settlers, being both defensible, and possessed of a reliable source of good drinking water from Chalice Well. It would likely also have appealed to any aesthetic or ‘spiritual’ sensibilities possessed by those who set up home in this supposed Avalon.

Historically, Glastonbury has been a place of Christian pilgrimage, but it would seem that the publicity of canny monks, eager to raise funds to assist in the reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey following the fire of 1184, unintentionally gave birth, many centuries later, to the town’s association with myth and all manner of New Age beliefs. Their alleged discovery of the graves of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191 put the town firmly on the map as a place of pilgrimage, even going so far as to attract royalty, but the lead cross said to have been found along with the grave vanished during the turbulence of the English Reformation. Furthermore, the first mention of another key element of Glastonbury’s myth – the ‘Holy Thorn’ – appears later than many might suppose, for the first reference to it did not come to light, in print, until the early sixteenth century, not long before the Abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution.

‘And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon England’s mountains green’?  

I would hazard a guess that they did not. Still, it is not Christianity that dominates the town’s ‘spiritual’ life today, but an unclassifiable melange of eastern mysticism, magic and Neopaganism, most of those subscribing to these beliefs possessing a generally benign intent, whilst being innocuously ineffectual. If you should care to walk its streets today, you may not find Gwydion Turner himself, but you might well find someone with views not a million miles from those held by the character, and expressed in equally pretentious and portentous tones. His creation arose from my own personal observations of people immersed in the ‘alternative’ hippie subculture as it then stood some thirty years or so ago, of their attitudes, beliefs and mannerisms. He is representative of a type that seems intent to impose unnecessary complexity upon life, whilst pretending to some closely-guarded esoteric knowledge that transpires to amount to nothing more than a combination of solemn verbiage and a self-professed belief in some ‘deeper reality hidden behind the veil’. Such attitudes are ripe for satire, although they are so theatrical and outlandish, that those who possess them frequently lapse into self-parody without being conscious of the fact.

Many years ago, I recall happening upon a building in one of the back streets of Weston-Super-Mare that had once served as a temple for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but whether it remains there now, I cannot say. Given the absence of any pictures of the Osiris Temple on the internet, perhaps it was demolished some time ago. Still, the former presence of this occult network in Somerset suggested that it could provide fertile material with which to work in creating a Glastonbury mystery: an occult mystery at that, so doubly mysterious.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ is primarily a mystery or a comedy, but it was written with the intent of being both. You may, perhaps, detect a nod or two to Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Magician’ (which I read so long ago that I cannot honestly say I recall a great deal), with a touch of ‘Spinal Tap’ in Gwydion’s musical recollections, and ‘Hot Fuzz’ in the nature of local policing. Wells, after all, almost shares equal billing with Glastonbury in terms of where the action unfolds, and if you should ever find South Pennard, do let me know. I have heard it said that the peat has long since swallowed up the ‘Royal Oak’.