Writing about times long past can be great fun, but how accurate do authors need to be with historical fiction? While most readers expect authors to just ‘make stuff up’, a bit of good old fashioned research can make a world of difference.
I’ve always believed that writers should use their imaginations – after all, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, being creative? However, sometimes the imagination isn’t enough and a bit of historical accuracy can really bring a story to life.
In my children’s series ‘The Maps of Time’ which mixes 1630s London with a bit of time travel, I didn’t do much research, though I did spend many hours poring over maps of the city and used dozens of the original street names in my books (Bellyns Gate, Spittle Feyldes etc). I also delved into the marvellous diaries of Sam Pepys to help me get a feel for the place, especially relating to the Great Fire of London.
However, with the second book in my Edinburgh-set Christie McKinnon adventure series, I wanted to include more details about everyday Victorian life, such as the kinds of food people ate, both in the working classes as well as wealthier families. Details of washing, bathing, dressing and even visits to the toilet add a touch of realism to proceedings (though the stark reality of the ‘privy’ might be less appealing to my readers).
One particular book, which covers all of the above and much more, is Ruth Gordon’s ‘How to be a Victorian’. There are chapters on men and women’s clothing (including undergarments), as well as cooking, going to work, school attendance (for the lucky few) and leisure pursuits. Gordon’s writing is fresh and exciting, resulting in a very readable volume that I’m sure will appeal to anyone interested in the Victorian period.
Having said all this, of course, does not mean that my books will, from henceforth, be crammed with characters that get washed, eat breakfast and go to the toilet every five minutes. My aim is simply to create writing that is more realistic and believable – an objective I’m sure the Victorians would delight in.