Researching Historical Fantasy

The first scene of Winterwood came to me almost fully formed. I knew there was a young woman paying a deathbed visit to her estranged mother and finding that there was still no forgiveness between them. I knew the young woman was dressed as a man and captained a pirate ship (later changed to privateer). She was also a witch. At that point it could easily have been set at any time period from late Medieval to Georgian. I had to settle on a time period. It would have been easy to set it in a Pirates of the Caribbean type world, more fantasy than history. Almost too easy. So I opted for 1800.

And then I had to start researching. Winterwood is a fantasy, so I could get away with inserting elements of magic, but it also had to have a certain amount of historical accuracy, or at least verisimilitude. 1800 was firmly in the Napoleonic era. Britain was under threat. King George III had already had his first bout of madness from which he recovered, but it left the country fragile. The loss of the Americas was still raw. To this historical background I introduced the Fae, shapechangers and a race of gentle bondservants called rowankind.

George III

I was starting from as close to scratch as it’s possible to get. I knew that what I didn’t want to do was involve high society, the ton and all the Regency romance stuff. (Strictly speaking the dates are earlier than the Regency, but it falls roughly into that period.) There are no balls or eligible dukes, but I do weave in some real life politicians (Pitt the Younger and Fox) and also King George III features in Rowankind as the trilogy is reaching its conclusion. Ross’ ship, The Heart of Oak, is a privateer vessel, preying on French merchant shipping, but when a peace arrives in 1802, Ross’ crew of barely reformed pirates has to go legitimate. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Also, without giving so much away that I’d have to shoot you, I have a real reason for King George’s madness that makes sense within the context of the book.

I’m not the sort of writer who does masses of reading and then decides to write a book. If I did that I’d never get started because it’s so easy to fall down the Great Rabbit Hole of Research and never find your way out again. I absorb some general background information and then I start to write the story. I research the detail of it when I need to. Initially, Wikipedia is your friend, but don’t get too cosy with the Wiki. It’s a good starting point, but you do need to cross check the information, and go into more depth either on the web and/or in book form. I like reading fiction on Kindle, but I have to have non-fiction in paper format because flipping back and forth via the index is essential for research. I don’t always read non-fiction through from beginning to end, I dip in and out.

Sail plan of a tops’l schooner

Since my knowledge of sailing is limited to being able to sing a few sea-shanties, I needed to do a whole lot of research on eighteenth and nineteenth century sailing ships. Firstly I had to determine what kind of vessel the Heart of Oak is (a topsail schooner, small but nimble) and then how to sail her through calm and storm, including effecting emergency repairs.

Paying attention to the details can help to give the book its authenticity. Sometimes I’m surprised by a fact and follow it up. A lovely little book on the Georgian fad of sea bathing (Louise Allen: The Georgian Seaside.) delivered the delightful information about King George’s bathing machine. It was painted red, white, and blue and had a ten foot flagpole on top, as if it wasn’t already obvious whose machine it was. And the ‘dipping ladies’ of Weymouth had GSTK (God Save the King) woven through their girdles. You just couldn’t make that stuff up. But once you know about it, you have to use it. Hence the sea-bathing set piece in Rowankind.

Vauxhall Gerdens

I used Vauxhall Gardens for a headlong chase sequence featuring hell-hounds, but this was out of season, which took even more research. There has been plenty written (and painted) featuring Vauxhall inhabited by crowds having fun, but not much to show what it was like in dank weather when the gates were closed.

I then sent my protagonists to ‘shoot’ London Bridge, i.e. risk the dangers of passing under the bridge in a small boat when the water rushing through between the arches, and the starlings that supported them, caused a waterfall effect that could be a six foot drop. This was the perdiod after all the buildings had been removed from the bridge, but it was still the same medieval structure that forced the fast flowing river between the broad starlings and under the narrowed arches.

Old London Bridge – Turner 1796

When I started researching Georgian Plymouth (for the opening chapters of Winterwood) I found a fabulous website with historical maps of Plymouth including the Sutton Pool area, the new Guildhall (very recently built in 1800) and the streets close to the waterfront. The site later disappeared, but luckily I’d downloaded some of the most useful maps. I also found a terrific set of maps of London in 1801 and 1806, which gave me accurate street names and enabled me to see which bits of the city were already there. Mostly the bits of London my characters inhabit are Wapping, Westminster and the river frontage that runs between them.

Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue 1811

I had to research everything from lock-picking, road transport, boat construction and sailing, to American slang of the era, and colourful British slang. If you look on Project Gutenberg for Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811, you will be amazed at some of the terminology. Did you know there was a term for a turd (a sirreverence) wrapped in paper and thrown over your neighbour’s wall’? It’s a Flying Pasty. I also needed answers to some fairly obscure questions such as who actually stitched together the red coats for the British army, and how were the contracts to produce them handed out? That took several attempts and a lot of Rabbit Holes.

I’m sure I’ve made some historical mistakes, but so far, readers have been kind enough not to point and laugh. One error I caught just before the last book went to press, was due to listening to a documentary on BBC radio. I had a scene in Rowankind, where Parliament is debating something important, and in that scene I had my protagonists viewing from the public gallery – which not only didn’t exist in 1802, but even if it had existed, women would not have been allowed. I had to make superfast alterations at the proofing stage where I should not have been doing more than correcting the odd typo. Luckily my publisher allowed me to make life difficult for them. Whew! I try my best, but I’m sure there are things that I miss. I was heartened by a best selling historical fiction author writing about crowds on Vauxhall Bridge (London) celebrating a British victory – some twenty years before the bridge was built. Thank goodness it’s not just me.

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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2 Responses to Researching Historical Fantasy

  1. I’m inclined to suffer from research procrastination when doing historical background checking for my novels. Just like you I often had to make alterations to the story line because of little historical inconsistencies. Keeps things interesting, but again, when it takes you too far, then it puts you off from the actual writing process. At a certain moment you have to decide that the average reader doesn’t need (or want) any further detail. It leaves something to the history buffs to put their teeth into.

    • Jacey Bedford says:

      Oh yes. That exactly. It’s too easy to get hung up of the detail. Bur then, sometimes, you com across a little detail that you simply have to work into the story. I was researching for my upcoming book The Amber Crown when I came across a gruesome method of execution… well;… I had to use it – though at one step removed otherwise it would have been too squicky. Don’t look up death by sawing unless you have a strong stomach.

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