J D Davies

The Sandwich of Xanadu

Last week, I went along to the Historical Writers’ Association Christmas bash. This is always great fun – it’s good to touch base with one’s fellow practitioners, especially because our line of work is, by definition, pretty solitary. Above all, it’s always reassuring to find that author A has exactly the same issues that you do with editor X, publisher Y, or major retail outlet Z, or else that they’re encountering exactly the same problems with completing their latest works in progress.

Or, to put it another way…

These are the things that historical novelists obsess about, in no particular order.

Is it any good DEADLINES agents publishers royalties ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE OF CHOICE coffee editors readers ONE STAR REVIEWS accuracy research BERNARD CORNWELL contracts advances royalties DOES ANYBODY READ ME coffee voice show don’t tell ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE OF CHOICE genre accuracy FIVE STAR REVIEWS coffee Amazon DEADLINES character narrative research ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE OF CHOICE coffee Twitter Facebook HILARY BLOODY MANTEL Goodreads royalties publishers coffee blogging EFFING EDITORS dialogue authenticity coffee ONE STAR REVIEWERS WHO DIDN’T ACTUALLY READ THE DAMN BOOK research narrative ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE OF CHOICE coffee royalties REAL LIFE publishers IS IT ANY DAMN GOOD coffee OH MY GOD IS THAT THE TIME is it any good Aaaaaaaargh

More or less all of these got airings at the HWA get-together, along with such natural conversation topics as the death of Oliver Cromwell, the Glorious Revolution (there was a ‘seventeenth century huddle’ at one point), chafing Roman armour, Brexit and Viagra. Today, though, I’m going to focus on just one topic, namely research. I’ve touched on this before – indeed, this blog has now been going for so long that I think I’ve touched on most things before – but I’ve obtained quite a different perspective on it since I started working on my new Tudor naval stories for Endeavour Ink.

One of the big pluses of writing the Quinton series is that I’d already done the research – over thirty years of it, at a serious academic level. So in most cases, the stories have come ready hatched, and I haven’t needed to do that much supplementary research; besides, having now written three weighty tomes about late seventeenth century naval history, I’m in the reasonably comfortable position that if a reader wants to challenge something I’ve written in one of the Quinton novels, s/he’s going to have to go to one of my ‘serious’ books to try and prove me wrong. Result.

Not so with the Tudor era, though. True, I’d taught the Tudors at A-level for many years, so am fine with the key events and personalities, the issues and mores of the period, and so forth. But if one’s going to write something authentic – an issue raised previously in this blog, notably here and here – then the research needs to be a lot more detailed than that, so in some respects I had to start from scratch. In terms of the naval side of things, for example, a lot changed in the 100 years or so between when my new stories are set and the time period of the Quinton journals. Ships were very different, and so were some of the technical terms; by the 1650s-60s, for instance, the leading squadron of a fleet was the vanguard, but in the mid-sixteenth century it was the vanward. Yes, I know these are the sorts of things that anywhere up to 99% of readers probably won’t pick up on, but this is where the perfectionism, or pedantry if you prefer, of the average historical novelist kicks in (especially when said average historical novelist has worked, and still works, as a ‘pukka’ historian too).

In a sense, though, the naval side of things has proved to be the easy part – after all, some things were different, but very many were pretty much the same. But much of the land-based action is set in a very specific and unique place, and so as not to give the game away, I’m going to give this an alias, namely Xanadu. I already knew Xanadu quite well, and already had a number of books about its history. But when I realised that a large chunk of my new Tudor stories would be set there, I realised I needed to delve much more deeply than that, especially if I was going to try and reconstruct how the inhabitants would have lived and what their concerns might have been. Luckily, there’s an excellent book on religion in the Xanadu area during the Tudor period, not to mention other books and articles which give important insights into its history, so it was a case of heading off to the British Library and mining all of those. Then there are lots of detailed archaeological reports, which make it possible to reconstruct the topography of Tudor Xanadu in some detail, and most of those are freely available online.

Most importantly, though, I’ve been back to Xanadu and its immediate area for a couple of extended stays. As with the Quinton series, where I went to Gothenburg to do fieldwork for The Lion of Midnight and paced the streets of the City of London for Death’s Bright Angel, nothing beats actually going to your location to get the sense of place right. You can walk the exact routes your characters took, thereby getting time, distance and direction right; work out lines of sight and basic topography; maybe make some unexpected discoveries about the relationship of place A to place B that you’d simply never have realised from books and maps, or even Google Earth; and, if they still survive, you can go into the exact buildings where you’re going to set some of your scenes, both to get your descriptions as accurate as possible and, if you’re very lucky, to get that indefinable sense of atmosphere which will hopefully add to the finished book. Of course, it’s possible to get away with doing none of this – famously, Diana Gabaldon had never been to Scotland before she wrote Outlander – but it works for me; and, of course, it provides wonderful excuses to go and visit nice parts of the world!

Above all, though, it’s critical to bear in mind one of the most vital rules of historical fiction – the story rules the research, not vice-versa. That’s why I wrote the first Tudor story in full before doing what I’m doing now, i.e. putting in many of the points of detail and local atmosphere, and quite a few of my colleagues work in the same way (not just in the historical field; famous crime novelist Ian Rankin also writes first, then puts in most of the material from his research afterwards).

So in a sense, then, a historical novel should be like a sandwich: research first, up to a certain but not overwhelming level; writing, the real meat, in the middle; then a second slab of research on top to finish it all off.

Here endeth the lesson…and all of this talk of food makes me think it’s time for coffee and biscuits.