Monday, November 23, 2009

Living in the Past: Part II

When I begin a historical fantasy set in a real time and place, I know that I have an unspoken contract with my reader. I’m free to create new adventures for real historical figures – events and situations that are not recorded in the history books; but I can’t – or at least I shouldn’t – relocate them in times and places where history tells us they couldn’t possibly have been. When I write in the cracks and empty spaces of documented history, I try not to change the things that we know to be true.

In the quest for authenticity, you find yourself searching out the tiniest details – what, for example, is the difference between benzine with an “i” and benzene with an “e”? Thanks to google, I now know that benzine with an “i” is a cleaning solvent, and benzene with an “e” is a highly toxic and flammable liquid; use the wrong one, and I could inadvertently kill my heroine.

In Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural, my heroine sets out in 1888 on a journey from London to Paris, with the help of a Baedeker’s travel guide. From the invaluable online used book site abebooks I was able to buy the original edition of that 1888 Baedeker's Paris and its Environs, and follow faithfully in Jeannie Guthrie’s footsteps. This is a kind of time travel available to anyone, of any age.

For me the writing of a new book is in itself a kind of detective story that leads me from one clue to another in a gradual process of discovery.

Obviously, I start out by researching the period for the sake of the plot. But very quickly the research starts to shape the plot, and steer it into unexpected and intriguing places.

As an example, here’s what happened when I was writing The Alchemist’s Daughter, set in Elizabethan England. I started out by reading a great deal about sixteenth century alchemy, which in turn led me to stories of unsuccessful alchemists who, having promised gold they couldn’t deliver, were very likely to be tortured and executed. That gave me my basic plot – how the daughter of a very unsuccessful alchemist set out to save her father from a foolish promise to the Queen.

It also led me to read about Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist who was rumoured to have discovered the philosophers’ stone and buried it at Glastonbury. That fit nicely into the plot – and set my heroine, Sidonie Quince, on the road to Glastonbury.

But then I chanced across another historical figure rumoured to have dabbled in magic and alchemy– Lady Mary Sidney,  known as the second most intelligent woman in England. At her family estate, Wilton House, not far from Glastonbury, Lady Mary conducted a famous literary salon, attended by most of the well known writers and musicians of the age; and meanwhile she grieved the death in battle of her much beloved brother Philip Sidney. At this point the ghost of Sir Philip Sidney made his way into my plot, along with some famous visitors to Wilton House – including Will Shakespeare, who got a walk-on part.

A little deeper research, and I came across the little known and seldom mentioned figure of Adrian Gilbert, brother of the much more famous Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Adrian was living at Wilton House as a gardener, but in earlier times, I discovered, he had been involved along with Dr. John Dee in an ill-fated search for the fabled northwest passage to Cathay. So here was a curious sidelight of history that I couldn’t resist including. Eventually all these twisting paths I’d been following seemed to circle around and meet.

During the writing of the book I discovered all sorts of other things I needed to know: how many miles you could travel in a day on Elizabethan roads, how much you’d pay for a loaf of bread, the cost of admission to the stands at a royal pageant, how often upper class Elizabethans bathed (more often than you’d think, actually).

And how to describe Elizabeth’s court at Hampton Court Palace, when the palace has been altered so much since Elizabethan times? I went back to biographies of Elizabeth I, where I found a reference to Travels in England in the Year 1598 by a German visitor, Paul Hentzner. So then it was off the university library to track down the book and make notes. Hentzner was so blown away by the splendours of Hampton Court that he described them in loving detail – details upon which I eagerly seized.

Without access to a time-travel machine, you can never hope to get the details exactly right, but I’m always aware of that obligation to the readers to come as close as I possibly can. Now I’m working on a new book, set this time in British India, circa 1914. A daunting amount of research lies ahead, but the reference on my desk at present is Margaret MacMillan’s Women of the Raj, a treasure chest of small, fascinating details of life in British India.