A warm welcome to Paula Harmon, my second guest on the new ‘Aspects‘ series. Paula’s books include some set in Roman Britain, and others in Victorian London, so I was interested in the type of research necessary to ensure authenticity.
You might wonder what ‘Underwear and Dormice‘ has to do with writing. Over to you to explain, Paula.
On a voyage to some far-flung parts of the Empire, it’s best to take old underwear so that you can throw them overboard or gift to the stewardess to avoid laundry. Or at least, that’s a summarised piece of advice from ‘The Queen’ Newspaper Book of Travel – a guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912. I didn’t remember I had the book before I wrote my most recent historical novel ‘The Wrong Sort to Die’ which is set in 1910, but then my character Margaret isn’t on holiday and only briefly visits one resort by chance so it wasn’t the end of the world.
I like to write in more than one genre but I tend to default to historical mysteries. I’ve always loved history, and started reading historical fiction by Geraldine Symons, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff as a child, adding Jean Plaidy in my teens and never looking back.
My own books are not heavy. They don’t involve the machinations of rulers, but ordinary people doing ordinary things until something throws a spanner in the works. That’s not to say the current political or social situation has no relevance since it creates the framework in which they live, and more often than not the restrictions they have to operate in. But primarily my books are about the characters themselves, and how they deal with the challenge within those restrictions.
So how do I approach writing them?
I feel that within certain limits, the way people interact probably hasn’t changed hugely since pre-history. They fall in and out of love. They can be content, bitter, angry, confused, greedy etc. They have families which are affectionate and supportive, or critical and cruel. There have always been ungrateful children, scheming parents, traitorous friends, unfaithful lovers, warring siblings, idle teenagers and obnoxious relations.
So I start with the characters themselves. Who are they? In the context of their era, how does their social class, their gender or race impact their freedom or lack of it?
Then I work out the central mystery and how will solving it shake their ideas about themselves and/or the world they’re in. Importantly for me at least, is the light relief. A mystery which involves a murder is by nature quite dark, so how do I find something to balance that off? And if my characters start taking themselves too seriously who will make them get a grip?
Of course it’s important to get the background right, so I consult books and watch programmes about anything which will help. Interactive museums are wonderful too. The ‘Back to Backs’ in Birmingham for example, provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the urban poor between around 1830 and 1970. Something spotted on a visit there ended up ‘The Wrong Sort to Die’.
I have maps including one of Roman Britain showing the road network, a London underground map showing all the stations which ever were, and a facsimile of the Booth maps of East and West London which colour-code the wealth of all the districts and is quite fascinating.
More modern settings are easier to research than ancient ones of course. Film and photographs help to describe things. On the other hand, it’s easy to overlook the differences between a nearly modern world and a modern one.
In my book I had to work out how long it would take for my characters to get from point A to point B in London in 1910. If they’d been walking or going by horse-driven vehicle, I’d have gone for an assumption of 3-4 mph. (A horse can only gallop or trot over short distances which aren’t impeded by city traffic, so I always assume they’re not going much faster than a pedestrian, and without the advantage of shortcuts.) As the characters were going by motor-car, I assumed a maximum speed of 20 mph but then thought I’d better check the speed limit. By 1910, it was 10 mph in town. Doubling that would have brought them more attention than I wanted, so I moved point B as its location wasn’t terribly important to the plot anyway.
Slang changes every few years of course. People didn’t ‘ring’ someone, they ‘telephoned’ them, and sadly I couldn’t have a character describe someone as a ‘slimeball,’ however apt. Like travel, people getting messages had to be thought about differently. While there might have been more than one post every day, it wasn’t instant. Most people had no telephone, and telegrams were relatively expensive and required organisation.
For ‘Murder Britannica’ and ‘Murder Durnovaria’ which are set in Roman Britain, records of normal life are harder to find, travel and communication quite different, and I had to learn about local political infrastructure. I discovered the town of Durnovaria (modern day Dorchester) didn’t have walls at the time when the book is set, because the Roman Empire was safe and no-one was expected to attack. That meant that in the first draft I had to remove an awful lot of people going through the town gates just before or after they’d closed because no gates existed.
The books themselves, although murder mysteries, are not serious at all. I deliberately didn’t try to make the characters’ speech sound archaic, because to them, of course, they’re speaking normally. However, I still have to watch for expressions which in context would make no sense such as ‘it’s like clockwork’ or ‘out of sync’.
At least with 1910, I could be certain of food. For the Murder Britannica series I had to ensure I didn’t include any foodstuff then still safely in South America and undiscovered by Europeans.
I did however, buy a translation of Apicius’s Cookbook so that I had an idea of what might be served up for dinner in a well-to-do household. Some of the recipes actually look appetising enough to try.
But I suspect I might just give dormice in honey or stuffed pig’s womb a miss.
So now you know. 😀 Thanks, Paula for a fascinating insight.
You can find out more about Paula and her books here:
‘The Wrong sort to die’ is available for pre-order now and due for general release on the 30th June.