One of the things I like about writing historical fiction is doing research. Well, I’ll clarify that a bit – the thing I really like is looking at pictures. Trouble is, finding images that will fire the old imagination ain’t that easy, so sometimes it comes down to good old fashioned reading.
I mentioned in a previous post about my current bit of research reading (for my middle-grade novel ‘The House That Wasn’t There). The book is set in Victorian Edinburgh (1897 to be exact) and centres on a series of child disappearances.
Although my main areas of research have been around Victorian villains, such as serial kidnapper Amelia Dyer, what I really wanted to know is what these people looked like and what they wore. In Ruth Gordon’s book ‘How to Be a Victorian’ I’m currently on the section about clothing, and rather surprisingly, I discovered that the most authentic-looking Victorians (in terms of dress) were the villains.
Photography was still very much in its infancy, so most folks only got near a camera if they had a photography-mad relative, or if they sought out a professional in a studio setting. Given that having your photo taken would’ve been a special occasion, people dressed up for it (often in their Sunday best), resulting in a less than accurate portrayal of everyday wear. Conversely, the folks who were more likely to be pictured in their actual clothing, were generally snapped following their arrest for whichever underhand activity they’d been nabbed for. Not having had the opportunity to go off and have a wash, fashion a new hairdo and – most importantly – get a change of clothes, they presented themselves as they really were.
Husband-killer Mary Ann Cotton’s photograph (above) is reminiscent of Ms Dyer’s and it’s perhaps only the fact of knowing who she was (and the detached way the shot is set up) that gives us any clue that she’s anything but an ordinary woman.
As a writer, I naturally want to know something about my characters and having a photo of a real person can be helpful as a starting point. The only difference between the real villains and my imaginary ones, is that I don’t want any of my characters to be all bad – there has to be something in their makeup that allows them to give a little, to slip an extra slice of bread to their victims, or simply to acknowledge that if things were different, it could easily be them tied to the chair, locked in the cellar or chained to a post.