I hadn’t intended writing a blog post on historical fiction this week, but these pictures, which I took in a 17th century coaching inn a day ago, seemed to lend themselves to it.
Old places – I mean really old places – draw me like a moth to the flame. I have a fascination for the past and for how people used to live, which is why I set my Mellin Cove series in 18th century Cornwall.
The pub in the pictures isn’t in Cornwall it’s in Yorkshire. And believe me, visiting this place really was like taking a step back through the centuries. Flickering gas mantles lit up the rabbit warren of rooms, bathing the old hostelry in an eerie green light. Shadowy corridors and passageways with treacle coloured walls and stone flagged floors wound their way amongst a myriad of dim nooks and crannies.
Blazing fires filled ancient grates and warmed old gentlemen who supped their pints and read their newspapers in the sparsely (and not very comfortably) furnished anti rooms.
They call it Nellie’s place, even though the Nellie in question was a proprietor from generations ago. This was no theme pub. What you saw was what you got – and it was all authentic! Needless to say, I loved it. As I walked through the old inn soaking up the atmosphere, my head was already spinning with ideas and inspiration for future books.
I couldn’t have found a better source of research if I’d tried. Research is, of course, vital when writing historical fiction, and accuracy is everything…well, most of the time.
I’m not familiar with many 17th century Yorkshire terms. My interest lies a hundred years later, and in Cornwall. But if I were to indiscriminately use words of that era my readers would be searching for their dictionaries. Few would know that footpad refers to a thief or ruffian, or that a kiddliwink was a drinking place used by tin miners of the day, or that dumbledore was a thorn or bramble before it inspired JK Rowling.
I do use words and terms like these, but usually include them in a character’s dialogue to at least give readers a fighting chance of understanding what’s going on.
Most of my female characters are feisty. If I had made them typical of their gender and station they would have been too inhibited to carry off the actions needed for the plots.
So accuracy tempered with a smidgen of writers’ license is in some cases, I hope, tolerated. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your homework. However allowing characters to engage with their historical times, to stir readers to walk with them through the pungent unsavoury streets, and hear the rumble of coach wheels on cobbles while breathing in the nauseous smell of the tallow candles flickering in humble dwellings, is surely better than dumping a load of research facts – accurate or otherwise – on them.
Research is fun, but don’t get bogged down in it. The bulk of what you learn won’t even make it into your manuscript, and nor should it. There’s no point in shovelling a shedload of facts into a book just because you can. Readers won’t like it, and neither will you if they toss your book aside.
All that said, simply enjoy the experience of writing historical novels. If you have the will, the time, and wherewithal to do this then you are blessed. And your readers will love you for it.
Have a wonderful week, everyone.