Is writing an historical mystery easy? I don’t think so. You need a great deal of knowledge about the period if you are going to get things right. People in history weren’t just individuals like us but in odd clothes.
Take the world of the Victorians – for those of us living in Britain, the Victorians can seem very familiar. They weren’t so different from us. We can walk and sometimes live in the buildings they did. Many of our institutions are the same as theirs. We face, often, very similar problems.
For the writer, this can seem reassuringly familiar. But there are differences too, despite some of our politicians wanting and often succeeding in crashing us back to Victorian Values.
There is much about the Victorian landscape that’s quite fascinating. But there’s a lot we don’t miss.
When I wrote The Shadow of William Quest, I concentrated on the appalling injustices of the Victorian Age. My character, William Quest, is a far-sighted reformer, a righter of wrongs. In the sequel, Deadly Quest, he plunges four-square into the unpleasantness of the Victorian underworld.
But, although I’ve a degree in Victorian history, I’m not writing a history book. I’m penning a novel, an historical mystery. What the Victorians themselves would call a Penny Dreadful, or a Shocker. Both the Quest books are adventure stories, thrillers, though they are very much rooted in the realities of mid 19th century Victorian England.
Some writers get carried away with their love of research. You will always find out far more about the historical period than you will ever use. If, when reading the novel, the research stands out like a history essay, then you’ve got it wrong.
You need to drip-feed information. If it’s not strictly relevant to the story, then it shouldn’t be there. However interesting the fact you’ve found out, if it holds up the story and its action it don’t put it in..
Readers read fiction to be entertained. They might welcome learning something new about the historical period, but that should be the limit. Save the detailed research for a non-fiction history book. It’s important that you should know, but you don’t need to pour it all out into the pages of your novel.
I’m now writing the third William Quest story – and this one will be set in the English city of York. A place famous now for its Roman and Viking history, more than its Victorian past. But in fact it had its own rookeries and criminal underworld. As someone who loves York, it is fascinating exploring and utilising a non-London setting.
And enthralling trying to write my own take on the Penny Dreadful or Shocker.
How did it all come about?
I’d always wanted to write a book set in Victorian times, not least because much of the Victorian world is still familiar to those of us living in the UK. As we wander through the streets of Britain we can – if we lift our eyes above the modern fascias on the shops – still see what our Victorian forebears saw.
The same street patterns, by and large, many of the same buildings, and the much of the landscapes they knew. Too much has been lost, and we should be saving what is left, but the Victorian street map may still be traced.
If we could travel back in time, we could enter the 1850’s world of William Quest with little difficulty. Though there would be some surprises. It could be a brutal world, not as settled as some people have implied. There are many Victorian Values that deserved to be relegated to the history books.
My William Quest is a radical. His ideas bore fruit, though it doesn’t always seem like it.
I’ve always been interested in Victorian Britain, since the subject was taught at my primary school. Much of our great literature was written in the 19th century. Reading those classic books plunges back into that world. We are – for good or bad – still little Victorians in so many ways.
I knew some Victorians, of course, though they were all born late in the period. Nevertheless, I remember them well, their attitudes and the way they talked. My grandparents were Victorians, though they were all very young when the old Queen died.
For quite a time, I moved away from Victorian history, into other periods. As some of you will know, I also write historical novels about Robin Hood – Loxley, Wolfshead and Villain, with a fourth book out next year, so I have a passion for that period. For a long time I’ve had an interest in the English Civil War. I like the Anglo-Saxons too.
The Victorians tended to go on the back-burner.
Then, thirty years ago I became an undergraduate of the Open University, doing an arts course that was almost entirely Victorian. After a couple of years, I went as a full-time undergraduate to the University of East Anglia.
My major was literature, though I did a minor in 19th century social history, some of which looked at the Victorian underworld. It all stayed in my mind, though work pressures kept the writing of fiction at bay. I did, however, write the texts for a series of topographical books about the towns and landscapes of England – and much of that was Victorian.
I spent nine years working as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, founded in 1883 and very proud of its Victorian campaigning roots.
The Victorians never quite went away.
I wanted to write a novel with a slightly dubious hero set in Victorian times, a kind of Penny Dreadful, the kind of pulp literature of action and derring-do that the Victorians themselves enjoyed reading – though they’d often pretend that their literary tastes were a tad more pretentious.
I’ve always loved such tales myself, and used to hunt them out when I was an undergraduate. They were all good fun, sometimes morally dubious. But a reading of them tells a lot about Victorian popular taste. I go as far as to state that you cannot grasp the complexities of Victorian society if you don’t read them.
While I enjoy the finer works of literature I also worship their slightly more questionable cousins – and that in itself is something I have in common with my Victorian ancestors…
To read the William Quest books, please click on the links below. They’re available in paperback as well as Kindle eBooks: