Today I'm handing the blog over to Liz Hedgecock, author of A House of Mirrors, to talk about research for writing historical fiction.
Today I’m going to talk about the place of research in my writing, and if I had to pick a title for today’s guest post it would be ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’!
Most of my books so far have been set in the late-Victorian period, and therefore I’ve had to do a bit of research along the way. I foolishly thought that having an MA in Victorian Literature would make things easier. However, it’s only when you sit down to write a book that you realise how much stuff you don’t know about day-to-day life in 1888 (or whenever).
The danger is getting sucked into a research wormhole - and this is where the rabbit hole comes in! I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve ‘just popped onto the internet to look something up’ and found myself, some time later, looking at patents for bizarre inventions, or the exact location of an island in the middle of the ocean, or the history of aniline dyes… none of which have anything to do with what I was originally looking for. I tell myself that it will come in useful one day. Maybe in a pub quiz.
Then, of course, there’s the question of how much of the relevant stuff you’ve found actually goes in. I’d referred to the gas lamps on the Embankment by the River Thames, so I thought I’d better do my homework and check that they actually were gas lamps in the early 1890s. As it turns out, they were electric at that point and reverted to gas later. Not quite so romantic … so now they’re lamps. Sigh.
A lot of the things I research never make it into the book, or are there as a mere hint. It’s like the tip of an iceberg. Unless the reader needs to know something, or a detail adds to the atmosphere, or serves a purpose, the research probably stays in my head. I’ve spent hours researching Victorian fashion (shout out here to the Liddell Hart archives at Liverpool John Moores University), but I figure you can live without knowing exactly what style of caped coat men wore in 1880. I’d rather get on with what my characters are doing.
All joking aside, though, digging into the details helps me to understand my characters better, and also think about how different day-to-day life would have been for them. Unless you were rich, food was available by the seasons. Washing your hair might involve a bar of soap, an egg, or vinegar; shampoo didn’t exist. Neither did the fridge, vacuum cleaner, or washing machine. Ugh!
In fact, that’s where the idea for my first full-length novel came from. I was reading A Study in Scarlet, which introduces Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and what struck me was how well they were looked after. Meals arrive to order, at a time of their choosing. Laundry and cleaning must happen, but presumably the fairies do that behind the scenes, or when the pair are out adventuring. Holmes and Watson never even have to think about domestic matters, but they are shored up by a mountain of silent effort. And who supervises it all? In A Study in Scarlet, the landlady’s name is never mentioned. Only later do we learn that she is called Mrs Hudson. That set me thinking about how different Holmes and Watson would be if you looked at them from Mrs Hudson’s perspective. Then I decided that Mrs Hudson deserved an adventure of her own … and wrote A House of Mirrors.
A missing husband. A secret life.
'What is your profession, Mr Holmes?'
When Nell Villiers' policeman husband vanishes on a routine case, her life is wrecked. Placed under protection by Inspector Lestrade, Nell is ripped from her old life and her own secret police work. Instead she must live as a widow, Mrs Hudson, in a safe house: 221B Baker Street.
Two years on, with the case still unsolved, Nell vows to defy Lestrade and use her skills to discover the truth. She takes a lodger to cover her tracks; a young man called Sherlock Holmes. How could she know what would happen?
'It's always been fun before — but now the police are the enemy…'