People have commented on how my books feel like they’re anchored in the time they’re set (predominantly the first couple of decades of the twentieth century). “What research do you do for that, Charlie?” they ask, and I go, “Ah…well…” Even the thought of the sort of research which means reading lots of books about an era makes me quake. I don’t want to plough through some learned tome about life in Edwardian England – I want this to be fun, then I’ll be motivated to do it properly. (Although I’m not knocking traditional references sources – they’re essential for checking facts, dates, etc.)
When I wrote a story set in 1908 London, I read a wonderful book about the Olympics of that year; it took place at exactly the same time and within a few miles of where my story does, so it was fantastic for giving me a real flavour of the times. In the book there are pictures of the athletes and the crowds – real, natural, ‘not posed’ pictures – so I can see the fashions and faces and body language better than in some studio portrait. I also get an insight into the weather at the time (rubbish English summer suddenly turns scorching, as usual), the newspaper mindset (the media never changes) and Anglo-American relations. I may not use any of these tidbits directly, but they’ve contributed to the background jigsaw.
Because that’s what I see this exercise as, creating a sort of 3-D picture in my mind, where I can ‘go’ when I write my story. The Edwardian 3-D ‘brainworld’ is different from the Regency one – and poles apart from the modern day one – so I have to slip into the proper universe for the piece I’m working on. Then all the rest flows naturally.
So, how does this world get constructed? By accessing material that’s as close to the era I want as possible. Writing Edwardian? Read Edwardian books – then you’ll get a feel for the dialogue, the words they used and didn’t use, the cadence of speech and writing from the time. Before you turn into my daughters and say “That’s soooooo boring”, can I just say that ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is from 1908, the Sherlock Holmes books all straddle the era and ‘Three Men in a Boat’ just predates it. I’d go so far as to say that, if you want to write about Edwardian England, you couldn’t go too far wrong by starting with reading ‘Three Men in a Boat’. (And if you want American sources, what about ‘Anne of Green Gables’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’, both from Edwardian times?)
I won’t bore you with a list of other places where you can get contemporary information (I’ll post a list in a later post) but I’ll pick out a few that I find most useful. The first is newspapers, either online archives of them, or originals (if you can turn them up at jumble sales) or even the repro ones which our papers sometimes give away to mark anniversaries of events. The stories themselves are great (mainly as they dispel the myth that no crime used to happen in ‘the good old days’) but best of all are the adverts – personal and commercial – letters to the editor, radio listings, sports news.
Again, it creates a picture of the time and can give you some brand names to slip into your story. Subtly, of course. And talking of names, please make sure that you use given names appropriate to the era and setting. Handy tip Number 2: you can pick authentic names up from online sources like ancestry.com or other genealogical sites. I’ll bet twenty pounds at least on the fact that no Edwardian lady was called Beyonce, nor was her beau called Sir Kyle. (Although my favourite – real – historical name remains Mr Savage Beare, who’s buried in Romsey Abbey.) Get the names to have the right sound and your characters will have the right feel.
I also like anything where ordinary people talk about what they did/are doing. It’s really hard to get information on the lives of the man/woman in the street so I was really pleased, when researching a story set on Jersey (old, not New) to find a book featuring picture postcards sent from the island during the twentieth century. The pictures are great – Edwardian women dolled up to the nines, hats and long skirts and all, within a foot of the sea where there children are playing – but the messages are better. Did nice girls eye up the local lads? Of course they did, and they told their friends about it. More surprisingly, did adults ask for glasses of milk to drink in restaurants post WWII? Yes, because this was a luxury after years of rationing. Another piece to put into the jigsaw puzzle.