The beginning of a new project always starts life for me in some archive or another. During initial research in 2016 I spent a few hours in the London Metropolitan Archives pouring over Foundling Hospital records but this time - now that I'm officially starting Book 2 - Kew and Senate House have been my springboards. There's nothing quite like the smell of parchment and book dust in the morning!
When it comes to writing an historical novel we are told that in order to make the finished product seamless we must not saturate it in historical detail. I agree, but it would be impossible to write believable historical fiction without first understanding the context. My advice to anyone writing HF is, simply, in order to work forwards you must first work back.
Senate House - I only needed one item here (a set of periodicals written between August and November 1819) but it gave me all the information I wanted. I hadn't planned on finding anything for the novel at this research pit-stop, but it's always a pleasure when you find something that could be useful and make for a very compelling detail in a scene. Granted I might not use what I found, but this is a prime example of why researching the past can bring your writing to life in the future - never underestimate the power of seemingly innocuous accounts in factual evidence.
The National Archives - This is the site where the majority of the Home Office Papers are stored. It's fascinating, sifting through documents from 200 years ago. The beauty of copperplate writing, the frustration at attempting to read an indecipherable hand, all of it factual, tangible, at your fingertips to interpret as you wish. And then there is the thrill of finding within it some tiny detail that is mentioned only in passing description but you know will bring a scene to life. I have two words for you at this stage: sliding candlesticks! My gem of a find though was a letter - written anonymously - which confirmed something I had only conjectured up until this point. Finding it was pretty damn special and that alone made my two days in TNA completely worth it.
To be honest, as much as I enjoyed finding those historical gems in London's archives, my main reason for visiting them was for non-fiction purposes. I am currently working on a chapter for an academic anthology - the topic of which matches my novel - and if you're familiar with the process, requires resources to support the argument you intend to make. My claim (under wraps for now) needed sufficient evidence to back it up, so trawling through over 500 pages of Home Office papers was a must. However, I'm very much a hands-on researcher; I like to literally step into the shoes of the people I write about ...
Mapping History - My last post gave a little snapshot of my plans using Cato Street as the starting point. To be brief, in 1820 an ultra-radical named Arthur Thistlewood orchestrated a plot to murder the cabinet ministers during a dinner held at Lord Harrowby's house, with the intention to create a 'people's government'. Alongside that plan was another, one that required several parties of Thistlewood's men to attack certain areas of the city. I spent the hottest day of the year traipsing around London visiting each of these sites:
In short I spent 5 days in London in total, and it took 3 to type up all my findings. Next step? Putting it all together ...
It's been a while since I wrote anything 'academic'. Ten years in fact, if we don't count a brief dabble in a supporting proposal for an arts grant that I never finished. Because of my fear of failure it took a while in starting this particular project, but I also knew that if I was ever going to move my career forward then I needed to get myself back on the wagon (looming deadline aside). I had written 70% of the chapter before I picked up this book (click the image to be taken to its Amazon page), and while the latter sections on exams and library use weren't relevant to my needs, the rest was massively helpful. The first edition came out in 2000, but being a notoriously lazy student I didn't take advantage of it at the time (though I was ordered to) and I suspect this was heavily to my detriment. Still, I've learnt my lesson now. I recommend anyone - 'adventurous A-level students' (see what I did there), university students and those coming into academia a little late - to add this to their trusty arsenal of resources.
1 Richard Marggraf Turley, Writing Essays, 2nd edn (Oxon: Routledge, 2016), p. xi.
On the right are just a few of the books I've immersed myself in during the research of both the novel and the academic chapter. But any writer will tell you that there comes a point when you simply must stop. Just stop. Turn away, retreat to the keyboard. You can research until the cows come home and build up an Aladdin's cave of literary treasures, but that's not going to get the words on the page. And that's my next step. To put all these resources to good use.