Researching for Historical Fiction: Victorian London

Researching for Historical Fiction: Victorian London

In this week’s blog, I thought I would share some of my notes on how I’ve been researching my historical fiction series, The Clearwater Mysteries.

My Clearwater ‘bible’ and some research.

Let’s start with the obvious question. “What is historical fiction?” Now, let’s reply with the obvious answer. “Historical Fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past.” Clearly, that’s not yesterday, but some time further back, and in my case, we’re talking about Victorian times, specifically 1888 and 1889, and even more specifically, England, London in particular.

So, what do I know about Britain 130 years ago? History at school was either 1066, The Tudors, or the Arab-Israeli conflict of the 1960s, not really much help. I do, however, have an interest in Jack the Ripper (1888), have read a few books around the subject and the times, but, until recently, that was as far as my knowledge stretched.

Not the best foundations on which to build a historical fiction series set in the late Victorian period, so, what’s the answer?

Here is a tip: The answer is always research.

You don’t have to be an emeritus professor of literature and history to write historical fiction and, despite what someone might have told you, you don’t have to write about what you know. Tom Clancy didn’t know anything about submarines when he wanted to write ‘The Hunt for Red October’, so what did he do? He researched. Similarly, all I knew about life in Victorian London was from watching TV shows and films, which are not always the most accurate of study tools, nor are some documentaries. So, what did I do?

‘You researched.’
Good, you’re paying attention, but how did I do it, and can I offer any tips for anyone else wanting to write historical fiction? Rather, anyone who wants to write it well? I accept I am not (yet) in the same league as Hilary Mantel or Ken Follett, but whatever I am doing seems to be working. Coming into the genre untrained, as it were, I can also offer some examples of where I’ve gone wrong which may help you avoid the same pitfalls.

So, here are a few of my tips on making your historical fiction more accurate, and, as we’re talking about London in the 1800s, we’ll start at the Ohio State University in 2015.

I found a page on their website that summarised an article, ‘7 Elements of Historical Fiction‘ by author, M.K. Todd, and here, in brief, is my interpretation of those seven elements, with some notes on how I deal with them in the Clearwater Mysteries, set in the late 1880s.

Characters, real or imaginary, must act appropriately to the time.

I am writing about upstairs/downstairs life at Clearwater House and Larkspur Hall, and one thing Archer, Lord Clearwater, would love to do, is treat his servants as his friends. Simply put, he can’t, or at least, he can’t be seen by the outside world to do so, because it simply wasn’t done. That wasn’t how it worked, though there are records of noblemen treating their staff well, even having consensual affairs with, or marrying staff. So, what does Archer do? He promotes them, makes his lover his private secretary, his best friend, his butler, and, in the case of James Wright, makes him a businessman.

My tip here is not to push what was ‘the done thing’ too far, although I do it by making Archer an overly generous man, which, in turn, causes resentment from his peers, and thus gives me some juicy conflict to inject into what are generally feel-good stories.

Dialogue should be accessible to today’s reader with enough about it to appear real for the time.

Yeah, well, okay, but, you know… whatever. Recently, I realised I had used the word ‘okay’ in dialogue in a couple of the Clearwater books, but I am gradually editing out that and other time-inappropriate words. The word okay didn’t come into use until the mid-20th century. Similarly, it’s unlikely anyone said whatever in the way we hear it on TV now, so it’s not just words we must be aware of but turns of phrase. Similarly, many of my characters are gay, but they can’t be, because homosexuality wasn’t in usage until after 1900, and gay, even later, so those words are out.

Tip: If you want to check the usage of a word against your era, Google the word’s definition, and you will find the online dictionary gives the etymology and a convenient graph of instances of usage and popularity. If the graph is flatlining in your era, don’t use that word in dialogue.

Setting. The reader should be placed in the setting of the time from the start, and fall deeper into it as the story goes on.

Putting the date at the top of the first chapter is handy. I first did this in ‘Unspeakable Acts’, the third in the series, and I did it as part of a newspaper headline. The article that followed, written in a style inspired by newspapers of the time, also set up the place and background to the story. It also adds another layer of realism to the book.

That’s another trick I use from time to time, adding in realistic newspaper articles in the correct style as they can give the reader not only a feel for the time, but information and background which might otherwise sound clunky in the narrative. Bram Stoker did this masterfully in Dracula.

Themes must be explored within the context of the time.

The theme of the Clearwater Mysteries is male bonding, which we can then break down into bromance, gay relationships and acceptance of homosexuality. Or, if you like, the theme is about how my gay men survived at a time when prejudice was rife and homosexuality illegal. At the heart of the series is a set of characters who must survive being illegal and unacceptable, a state that surrounds their personal conflicts and happiness. I believe that, as the series develops, the reader takes in the theme subliminally and that heightens the romances and platonic friendships, giving us more fulfilling feel-good moments. You could use this theme in stories set in any era, but the pressures that bear on the characters will vary according to time and place.

Plot must be historically viable of course, and will be shaped by events of the time.

Some of my plots revolve around fictionalised real events, such as the Ripper murders of 1888 (in my case, the victims being rent boys, not women). Other mystery plots in the series involve real people of the time such as Stoker and Irving, places of the time, such as the Royal Opera House, employment such as telegram messenger boys and servants, and even real ships and trains. You’ll see in ‘One of a Pair’ (due out next weekend), there are references to chemicals and medical research that existed in 1889 but were called different names then, and genuine poisoning cases. Even the Adriatic sail-steamer of the White Star Line gets a look-in and description, but the 1871 ship that was replaced with a more famous steamer in 1906, and all travel details in the story are taken from timetables of September 1889, exactly when the story is set. Oh, and many of the laws referred to in ‘Artful Deception’ are, or were, real.

Conflicts must be appropriate to time and place.

Archer’s conflict (wanting his servants to be his friends) is time appropriate, and the gay characters living in times when homosexuality was illegal, are time appropriate, as are the troubles in Andrej (Fecker’s) Ukraine. There are other conflicts, such as Silas and Andrej surviving the streets of the East End by becoming rent boys, because many people turned to prostitution to survive. Other conflicts in the series include Mrs Norwood divorcing her cheating husband without losing her respectability, and Jasper’s treatment at the hands of Earl Kingsclere, which he can do nothing about.

World building. Readers must live in a world of your time beyond your story.

I take this as meaning, you can’t just tell a romantic story in a drawing room, one afternoon in late spring, not unless you are putting on a dodgy amateur dramatic play. The Clearwater world ranges from the intimate, i.e. Archer’s dressing room where his valet dresses him, to the wider world of the servants’ hall below stairs and their everyday life in service. It also ranges from the house to the city around it, and on to the country, and in ‘Artful Deception’, even to Europe. But it’s not just a case of location, there are also things like attitudes, religion, politics, beliefs, manner, etiquette and costume, all of which must be appropriate to the period. These things impact on the behaviour and attitudes of characters both major and minor, and their inclusion, makes the story more believable.

So, how do you achieve all that?
The answer, again, is and always will be, research, which brings me on to a few more tips and recommendations.

Be wary of documentaries.
I was watching an esteemed TV presenter narrating a respectable British series on the Victorians and chatting away knowledgeably about the state of London streets in 1870. One clip they ran showed cars driving around Piccadilly Circus. Er, maybe several years later post 1892, but certainly not in 1870. As the programme didn’t say when the clip was from, it was misleading.

Tip: I watch documentaries and make notes about dates and events, people mentioned and so on, and then double-check them elsewhere, just to be sure.

Read books
Other people’s historical fiction, yes, but again, I’d still check for accuracy unless I’m reading Hilary Mantel or someone I really trust – no offence to fellow writers.

As you can see from the photos, I have a wealth of books on my shelves that cover Victorian architecture, life in stately homes, books on 19th-century fashion, and in particular, ones written by scholars or people of the times. (Tip: Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens, is a good place to start, especially for the 1830s.) I also have a fair few railway timetables, maps and dictionaries of rhyming slang, dialects and the etymology of words. I love buying books, but when I need a quick-fix fact-check, I download to Kindle as it’s much quicker than waiting for a delivery.

Use the internet wisely
Double-check everything. Don’t take Wikipedia as gospel, it’s much better to search out specialist sites.

Dictionary of Victorian London (click to go to the site)

On which note, I want to finish by pointing you towards The Victorian Dictionary. This invaluable archive was compiled by the author, Lee Jackson, a writer of fiction and fact, some of whose books are also on my shelves. This website has become my first go-to place for research because it gives examples of the time. For example, there are descriptions by writers who visited the London Docks in 18-whenever or saw the depravity of the East End first-hand. Similarly, there are snippets from newspapers and periodicals and other writings of the time about all aspects of life. It has a searchable database with subject headings too, and a bibliography. There’s even a database of Victorian slang which I love to dip into. (It’s mainly from around London as the site is actually http://www.victorianlondon.org/) I’ll do that now and leave you with a couple of random words that you might want to use in dialogue when appropriate to your characters.

Tulips of the goes – the highest order of fashionables
Romoners – fellows pretending to be acquainted with the occult sciences, fortune tellers
Bender – a shilling
Diddle cover – the landlord of a gin shop

I could go on, but I’ve already gone on long enough. My last tip would be, when thinking about writing historical fiction, do your research and make it fun. I have learnt so much over the past couple of years, I am now at the point of being able to insult people without them having a clue what I’ve said!

I will see you next week with details about the next release, ‘One of a Pair’ the Clearwater Mysteries Book Eight.

Banyak and Fecks, A Clearwater prequel

Banyak and Fecks
A Clearwater prequel

In the last couple of years, since I’ve been able to commit more time to my writing, I have fallen into the habit of starting on the next book while the current one is ‘resting.’ I take a book through its however many drafts and reach the point of leaving it alone before I fiddle with it too much and break it. During this time, it waits for its slot in my proof reader’s schedule, and Andjela K designs the cover. Meanwhile, I turn my attention to what’s next. So, while ‘One of a Pair’ awaits proofing and layout, I have started on the book to come after, and it’s a prequel with the working title, ‘Banyak and Fecks.’

If you’ve read the Clearwater Mysteries, or if you’ve only read the first one, ‘Deviant Desire’, you will know how it all starts. Here’s the opening paragraph.

Silas from the cover of Deviant Desire.

Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate. Silas had no idea that the discussion taking place concerned him, or that it was even happening. He wouldn’t know the details for some time, but even if he had heard the conversation, he wouldn’t have believed it. It wouldn’t have concerned him if he had, because Silas wasn’t the kind of youth to shy from a challenge, not even one that might threaten his life.

Even though he is only 19, Silas arrives at the start of the Clearwater series with a history. We learn parts of it through the book, where he mentions his upbringing in ‘Westerpool’ (the Wirral). We see where he used to live in book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, but there is a lot of detail as yet unshared in the series. Hold that thought.

When we first meet Andrej (Fecker/Fecks), he also comes with a history. Remember we’re dealing with two young male prostitutes as you read Andrej’s first entrance:

(Silas) had deliberated at this window so often that some good had come of his indecision. That good appeared beside him, bringing the smell of apples and the reflection of a tall man of similar age.
‘Privet, Banyak,’ he said in his native tongue.
‘Evening, Fecks.’ Silas acknowledged his mate’s reflection with a nod towards a marble angel.
Fecker, like Silas, was nineteen and had picked up a street-name known only to his close mates. Silas had given it to him not long after they met. Andrej, his real name, knew that it was Irish slang for fucker, but he took pride in that. Unlike Silas, he wasn’t queer, and only rented when he was desperate. His cock was usually enough to secure him an income. There were plenty of men who were happy to pay for the youth’s substantial endowment, particularly as it was attached to a six-foot-two blond lad built like a docker.

This is how I imagine Andrej/Fecker

Again, as the series unfolds, we learn some of Fecker’s past, particularly when he is travelling with Archer in book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, and tells him why he left Ukraine and came to England. What we have never had, however, is the full story of that journey.

And that’s where ‘Banyak and Fecks’ comes in. I am currently writing a prequel to ‘Deviant Desire’ which tells the story of how Fecker and Silas came to London. Starting in two different countries at different times, these two characters eventually meet in 1884 and spend nearly four years living and working together on the streets of the East End before book one starts. I wanted to explore the beginning of their friendship. To do that, I decided, I had to go right back to the pivotal moments in their lives, the inciting incident, as they call it in scriptwriting circles, and that’s what I’ve started doing.

At the moment (this is only draft one), the story opens with Andrej aged about 14 (no-one, not even he, knows his exact age) surveying the ruins of his home following an invasion by the Russians who have taken his sister and killed his father. One brother had also died in the fighting, and another, Danylo, is missing. With nothing left and no-one to turn to, Andrej decides he must find a new life, so, when he has established himself, he can return to his homeland and search for what’s left of his family.

Serbka, Ukraine
Late summer, 1881

A Ukrainian farmhouse, 19th century. Fecker’s home before it was destroyed.

They were coming for him again now; he could see activity across the long field towards the village where the smoke still rose, and the wailing was louder than yesterday. They could come for him, but he would not go, and he gripped his grandfather’s knife as he said his farewell to his childhood.
Andrej put the pebble in his pocket. It gave him the strength to leave the past, turn his back on the land that was no longer his, face the west, and walk.

Fecker’s story begins a few years before Silas’, because Silas didn’t leave Westerpool until his mother died in 1884, and I am still playing around with how the two stories will be told. If I write it chronologically, the first quarter of the book will be about Andrej and the second about Silas, and they will meet at the halfway point. The second half will then be about them both, the lead up to the Ripper murders and the night they meet Thomas in The Ten Bells, and are offered the chance to meet Lord Clearwater. I’m still thinking about structure and, when the draft is finished, will see how it reads if I cut the stories together. My concern is that we’ll jump from 1881 to 1884, back to 1882 and forwards again to 1884, and so on. We’ll see.

This story won’t be a mystery, nor a thriller, nor a romance. It will be a simple story of adversity and friendship, and I have to say, some of Fecker’s story that’s already written isn’t exactly cheerful. It’s the story of a refugee walking across Europe to find safety, and we see a great deal of that happening today. As someone who has worked directly with refugees, I’ve seen the conditions, pain, hope and resolve first-hand, so I have some observations to draw on there.

The poor of Liverpool, 19th century. Silas when he was about 11?

Against that seriousness (in which there are lighter, happier moments, colourful characters and friendships), I have to balance Silas. He’s a cheeky scamp with a lot of self-confidence, speaks with the blarney of his Irish mother and doesn’t care what he does to survive, although, to start with, its petty crime rather than prostitution.

‘Ach, Father, if I were to confess me sins, we’d still be here come Christmas. Will you not take a pew?’

Here’s an extract from the first draft. Silas has come to tell the family priest that he is leaving Westerpool the next day.

‘A pair of shoes you’re wearing today,’ (Father Patrick) observed as they walked along the deserted aisle, treading on the tombs of the long-dead and once wealthy of Westerpool. They weren’t new shoes, but they were new for the usually barefooted Silas. ‘Now how did you come by those?’
‘Ach, Father, they were a gift from God, I’m telling ya,’ Silas replied, his accent a mix of his mother’s Irish and local slum. ‘The Good Lord himself left them for me on a windowsill only last evening.’
‘Uh hu.’ The priest was dubious, and rightly so. ‘And this windowsill, would it have been inside or outside the house it was attached to?’
‘Outside, for sure, Father. They were just left there, discarded.’
‘I’ll remind you, you’re in the house of Our Lord, Silas Hawkins.’ When the lad didn’t reply, he hinted with more vigour. ‘And I’ll remind you, you came to me, and as that only happens when you’re wanting something. You’ll be more likely to get it if you attach some truth to our discussion.’
They entered the chancel, and the priest paused with his hand on the sacristy door, unwilling to enter until Silas accepted his terms.
‘Aye, well perhaps the windowsill was a way on the inside of the house,’ the lad admitted sheepishly.
‘A way?’
‘More like…You now, an arm’s reach… Well, maybe it wasn’t a sill but the floor beside the cupboard… Or inside it, I forget now, Father, but they were left there for me by God, I’m sure of that.’

Silas, of course, is a great manipulator and mimic, and I’ve already started having some fun with him when he arrives in London, confident that he will make his fortune.

I’d tell you more, but I’ve already chatted on far too long, and I only wanted to let you know what I was up to. What I will add, however, is that ‘Banyak and Fecks’ is taking more research than any of the others so far. The number of times I’ve had to work out distances between Serbka and Brasov, Belgrade and Genoa, or look up nautical terms, Russian-Ukrainian words and sayings… That’s one thing. The other has been my ongoing research into the East End of London in the 1880s, from the street slang to the way of life, though it was hardly any life at all for the poor.

[I am using an excellent online resource, and if anyone is interested in Victorian London, I highly recommend The Dictionary of Victorian London, a site put together by author Lee Jackson. I have some of his publications on my shelves, and they are invaluable.]

On sale for $0.99c for International Buy a Book Day, September 7th.

There we are. That is an update on what I am doing right now, and there will be more about ‘Banyak and Fecks’ as time goes on. There will also be more about the Clearwater Mysteries Book Eight, ‘One of a Pair’ which you should be able to start reading in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t read ‘Deviant Desire’, now would be a good time to start as it will be on sale for International Buy a Book Day, on September 7th, Monday. You will be able to find it on Amazon Kindle for $0.99c, but only for 24 hours.

Coming Next: One of a Pair

Coming Next: One of a Pair

This week, I’m giving you a cover release, or at least, a draft cover release because it’s not quite finished yet. I also want to whet your appetite for the story – without giving away any spoilers.

The next book in the Clearwater Mysteries series is called ‘One of a Pair’ and it follows on from ‘Home From Nowhere’, starting about six weeks after that story finished. For those who enjoyed the start of Jasper’s story in ‘Home’ (and the feedback suggests that was everyone), you’ll be pleased to know that it continues in ‘One of a Pair.’

Now then, I can’t give too much away, but ‘One’ is a mystery, though not in the same vein as the earlier action-led mysteries like ‘Fallen Splendour’ or ‘Artful Deception.’ This is a calmer mystery, though still with tension, and a race to beat the clock. Our lead character is James Wright, now a private investigator in his own right. Here is part of the blurb for the back cover:

Enlisting the brilliant but scatter-brained Dr Markland for help while mentoring Jasper through the pain of first love, James embarks on a mystery that takes him from the Greychurch morgue to Queenstown in Ireland where tide and time wait for no man. It is a journey of discovery, both scientific and emotional.

I had great fun writing this one because it involves a suspected poisoning. Not that someone being poisoned is fun, but researching poisoning in Victorian times was. The fun part was finding something that was not your standard 19th-century toxin (and I can’t tell you what those were without spoiling the story for you), and I turned to my brother for help. My brother, by the way, is not a poisoner, but he was a chemist, as in, someone who works with chemicals. My nephew was of great help too as he studied medical genetics, and from that, you can see where the scientists are in our family! They were of great help in identifying the more unusual and little-known facts about certain chemicals and helped me put some of the scientific parts of ‘One of a Pair’ together. My problem was then finding out what such things were called in 1889 when the story is set. All I can tell you is that much of what you read is factual, or at least, possible, but some of the chemical names I have used are made up.

Don’t think that ‘One’ is going to be all formulas and compounds, it’s not. I have injected some humour into the story, as well as love and ‘ah’ moments, pace and tension. You’ll find Thomas isn’t too happy about… something, Mrs Norwood is playing ‘mother’ to the boys, Dr Markland shows his genius, and there’s a fair amount of domestic detail below-stairs at Clearwater House. As usual, I turned to another friend of mine for train journey details and all things railways, and the timings are accurate based on his ancient copy of Bradshaw’s Railways Timetables, as are the details about the White Star Line and their liners.

Enough about the story, back to the cover. I thought about this for a long time because I wanted to show a representation of one of the characters. I’m never sure whether this is a good idea, because every reader forms their own image of what the characters look like, and to put one so obviously on the cover can distract the imagination. I did it for ‘Deviant Desire’ where you can clearly see Archer and Silas, and the same model appears as Silas on the cover of ‘Unspeakable Acts.’ For other covers, Andjela K, my cover designer, has used silhouettes, so for ‘Twisted Tracks’ we see Archer and Silas running for a train, ‘Fallen Splendour’ shows a man on a charger, and the man could be Archer or Fecker. The cover of ‘Bitter Bloodline’ shows the back of Dorjan, the assassin, and ‘Artful Deception’ shows a man on fire, but we can’t see his face. ‘Home From Nowhere’ is obviously Jasper and Billy up on the roof, but we don’t see their faces, but for ‘One of a Pair’ I thought we should see Jasper… or is it someone else? The image isn’t yet finished because the chap on the front should be holding a smoking test tube which Andjela K hasn’t yet fitted in, but otherwise, it’s there.

Before you scroll down to the cover image, if you haven’t already, I just want to let you know that ‘One of a Pair’ is going off for proof reading on September 10th, and that means, it should be available around the 24th, maybe sooner. You’ll know when it’s available from my Facebook page, and you can always sign up to the newsletter to get more news. I send out a newsletter each month to keep in touch with everyone, and unlike other authors, I don’t use them to advertise everyone else’s books, only my own, so there is also a newsletter when a release happens.

And finally… The cover as it stands now.

One of a Pair

One of a Pair, the Clearwater Mysteries, book eight, draft cover

Ps. I had to disable comments on the blog/site because of spammers, but if you have any comments about the cover or anything else, feel free to put them on my Facebook page.

 

 

Other People’s Dreams Can Be Yours

Other People’s Dreams Can Be Yours

This week, I want to tell you more about myself, in particular, where I live and why. If you read my story on my Facebook ‘About’ page, you will see that I live on a Greek island. However, I was born on the south coast of England, so how did that happen?

Symi, Greece

I first came to Symi in 1996, and I came almost by accident. Somehow, I found myself able to afford a holiday and having been to Greece once before, wanted to go again. I found a brochure in a travel agent’s and looked for the place that had the smallest write-up and no airport. Symi leapt out at me because it is far south in the chain of Greek islands, and to get here, you need to travel by boat. I stayed for two weeks, and the first one was filled with exploration as the island offers wonderful walks as well as beaches.

My view when drafting ‘Other People’s Dreams’

While on a beach one day, ‘Nanou’ it’s called, I watched a yacht out in the bay. On it was a group of men (mainly naked), larking around, jumping off and generally having a good time. That gave me an idea for a story. Until then, I’d been writing cabaret material, songs and theatre pieces, not prose, but the sight of the boat and that thought ‘What if…?’ got under my skin. The next day, back at my solo studio overlooking another bay, I jotted down some ideas for a story, and the second week of my holiday was spent writing it, or at least, some of it. That story went on to become ‘Other People’s Dreams‘ which I first released under my real name, James Collins. Later, I decided to put into the Jackson Marsh catalogue because it’s more suited to Jackson’s genre. Once I’d finished it, I submitted it to Gay Men’s Press, and it was accepted for publication. However, before the editor and I could set about preparing it, the company fell apart, and it never happened. Years later, I published it myself.

Symi sunrise

The point there was that Symi, a small Greek island in the Aegean, had inspired me to write a novel, and I did. What Symi also did, though, was show me a place where I could find inspiration and have time and peace to write, and from then on, it became my dream to live there, sit under an olive tree, and write books. In fact, when I was up for a promotion at my old day job and they asked me that dull question, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ I answered, ‘Living in Greece, writing books.’ I was 34 then, and we moved here when I was 39 so that one was off the to-do list.

Recently, I’ve been hammering away at the Clearwater Mysteries and before them, the Mentor series, while also putting together some stories as James Collins in the Saddling mystery series. I’ve also, as James, released ‘Remotely’ a gay/straight body-swap comedy, and have written a few books about living on Symi. So, a lot of writing, but now I can work for myself, I have the time and place that I longed for when sitting on that beach wondering ‘What if…?’

Symi 5600

My Symi books are an honest collection. The first one, ‘Symi 85600’, is a collection of notes, emails, letters and jottings I made when, in 2002, Neil and I left England to try living in Greece for a year. It was my first self-published book, and actually, one of the first to appear on Lulu.com, the self-publishing platform I used before Amazon took over everything. ‘Symi 85600’ talks about our experiences of moving here and I’ve never actually edited the content, so it comes ‘warts and all.’ I don’t believe in glamming up travel experiences and don’t like those clichés one reads in books where the author has fallen as much in love with a country as they have with syrupy adjectives. It’s honest, as is the second one about our experiences of living here, ‘Carry On Up The Kali Strata.’

Part of the Kali Strata, Symi

That second book contains articles I wrote for the local newspaper and some stories, plus other observations, and also some photos taken by Neil when we had a photography business on the island. Later, in 2013, I put together ‘Village View’, which was the name of my column in that newspaper. The third book takes us through one whole year living on Symi. It’s made up of selected blog posts, as I write a five-day per week blog at www.symidream.com

‘Village View’ takes us through my 50th year. Jackson readers who have tried ‘The Stoker Connection’ and/or ‘Bitter Bloodline’ won’t be surprised to know I spent my 50th birthday in Transylvania having coffee in the house where Vlad Tepes was allegedly born. But I digress…

Symi

The fourth book in the Symi, Greece collection is ‘Symi, Stuff & Nonsense’ and is another compilation. This one includes some of my original diaries before and when moving to Symi, as well as travel anecdotes from my past and some other random observations. It takes us up to a couple of years ago, so if you read all four books in order, you travel with me from Brighton to Symi (and elsewhere) in consecutive order from 2002 to about 2017, and hopefully, enjoy the read as you go.

Before I go, I wanted to explain that the 85600 in ‘Symi 85600’ is the postcode, and the Kali Strata is a set of wide stone steps that joins Symi harbour, to the village where I live. If I take a trip to the post office, it’s about 400 steps down and then 400 back up.

And so, that’s where I live and what I’ve been writing since I got here. I guess Symi hasn’t always given me the inspiration to write, but moving here has allowed me space and time, the freedom to write, and now I’m lucky enough to be able to write what I want when I want while looking out at one of the most spectacular views in Europe. Well, that’s only my opinion, but I think my husband’s photos in this post speak for themselves.

I’ll be back next week with another catch-up and post. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in checking out my James Collins novels and Symi books, you can find them on my author page (link below). All bar one involves a gay character in some role. There’s a comedy set on Symi, ‘Jason and the Sargonauts’ that’s historically correct, and another one that’s set here, ‘The Judas Inheritance’ which was made into a film, and filmed on Symi. So, there’s plenty more reading for you there.

James Collins Author at Amazon
James Collins Author Facebook Page

Symi’s charm is in its people and the minutiae of their lives; James’s great talent lies in his careful observation of the absurd and the amusing, the dramas and the difficulties (because nothing in Symi is ever simple), and in reporting what he sees with kind humour and a writer’s eye for the details essential to lively travel writing.
Anne Zouroudi, author of Bloomsbury’s Greek Detective mysteries.

Mindset and Language in Historical Romantic Fiction

Mindset and Language in Historical Romantic Fiction
19th Vs 21st Century in The Clearwater Mysteries

Deviant Desire, The Clearwater Mysteries book one

This week, I read a blog post titled ‘How do you read historical romance?‘ written by Joanna Chambers, author of MM Romance novels such as ‘Unnatural’ and the ‘Enlightenment’ series. I found the post of great interest and very well written, and a paragraph towards the end made me wonder about my own historical fiction.

Joanna’s post first discusses what makes a reader exercise willing suspension of disbelief (a phrase coined by Samuel Coleridge, a fact I never knew until reading the post). Later, she talks about the mindsets of characters, and we’re talking about historical fiction here, remember, not contemporary. The part of the blog post that made me stop and think was this:

I will admit to not much liking characters who appear to have wholly 21st-century mindsets and who seem not to struggle at all with being at odds with the society they live in. I like to see the characters in historical romances having to wrestle with the norms of their time…”

I stopped and thought, ‘Do mine do that?’

I mean, do my Clearwater characters have 21st-century mindsets and do they struggle with the norms of their time? I asked this because I have read historical fiction, both MM romance and not, and have put books down after a couple of chapters because a) the language doesn’t fit the period, and b) the mindset doesn’t fit the period, and sometimes c) because there were too many clichés, but that’s another matter. Knowing that I’ve been critical of others’ work, I started to wonder if I was a pot calling out a kettle (to carefully ‘PC’ a phrase attributed to Don Quixote, and later, an anonymous poem published in a magazine in 1876), and I had a think about how I have written the Clearwater Mysteries.

Do my characters have a 21st-century mindset?

Well, yes and no. When writing the books, I am always aware of what surrounds the characters, and I mean not only the landscapes but the politics, the expected norms and the etiquette. They are the ‘shell’ that encloses all characters, particularly those who exist either side of the baize door. As Thomas (Payne, the butler) calls it, ‘The great divide.’

And there’s where my 21st mindset comes in. Archer (Lord Clearwater) and Thomas grew up together, they are a similar age, Thomas came into service at eight and Archer was allowed to befriend him when his authoritarian father was absent. The friendship they formed back then grew and came perilously close to a teenage love affair. By then, Thomas was a footman, and Archer was the Honourable Archer Riddington, so the gay thing aside, a friendship should have been out of the question.

Even when Archer takes the title of viscount, he is still held back by the ‘great divide’, although one wonders if Tom and Archer shouldn’t be the couple living together in love. That can never happen because of the expected norms of the time. A butler and viscount being so personally close was definitely not expected in the later 19th century.

But two men being friends (possibly more) is entirely within the mindset of MM Romance, or, as the Clearwater Mysteries are, romantic MM fiction.

Archer’s liberal views are progressive, and his perfect world would be one without this upstairs/downstairs divide. He treats his servants as friends, and if he had his way, there would be no baize door.

I think what I am trying to say is, if characters in the novels spoke and behaved exactly as expected in 1888/1889, there would be little or no room for what holds the Clearwater Mysteries together; the bonding and friendships between the characters, particularly the men.

Take the relationship between Silas Hawkins and James Wright, for example. Read book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, and you would be forgiven for thinking that what these two young men have is a ‘bromance’, a word that only came into use in the past ten years, and one which does not even appear in my 2006 OED. So, it’s not a word I could use in the stories, and it wouldn’t have been a ‘mindset’ of the time. It’s my job as an author, to convey the emotion and state of ‘bromance’ so the reader can relate and engage, but without the characters actually calling their friendship a bromance.

Which brings me on to language

Joanna’s post also made me think about language. There are two languages in my novels, that of the narrator and that of the characters in dialogue.

My characters speak with today’s attitudes (so readers can relate), and yet in a language that is appropriate to the period. In book eight (due out later in September), Jasper Blackwood behaves like today’s typical teenager, except he spends his time playing a piano not an Xbox, but his language is period-appropriate. For example, when James is trying to understand Jasper’s teenage sulk, Jasper says, “As I see it, Mr Wright, an older gentleman has me trapped in my bedroom, and he is inappropriately dressed. Some would consider this improper.’ James doesn’t have him trapped, but he is wearing a dressing gown, and if this was a modern scene, Jasper would be far less polite!

Language is where we have to be careful. While rereading one of the earlier stories in the series, I was horrified to see a character use the word ‘Okay.’ I was sure I’d checked this usage, but further research proved that the word didn’t come into use until around 1926. Oops! I am continually checking words and phrases to make sure they were in use in the late 19th century, and sometimes have to change the dialogue to fit. Researching chemistry and medical matters for book eight (‘One Of A Pair’, due out at the end of September) proved interesting as I was dealing with a batrachotoxin which, after consulting with my brother, a chemist, I learned was a phrase only coined in the 1960s, so that was out. I invented a term of my own instead.

What I try to do with my Clearwater mindset and language is to engage the reader with a modern mindset while telling a story set in the past. Contemporary attitudes are present, so the reader doesn’t feel detached from the characters and places, but they are bound by time-appropriate situations and expectations. Hopefully, nothing grates as being to 21st century, while the language remains free of Victorian clutter, though believable, allowing the reader to suspend their disbelief and get on with enjoying a good, romantic adventure.

I know I have wandered from Joanna’s original points, and if you want to read the article that inspired this post, you can find it here: How do you read historical romance?

Joanna Chambers
Blog https://joannachambers.com/
Author page UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Joanna-Chambers/e/B00MB8JFDM/

What’s behind Home From Nowhere?

What’s behind Home From Nowhere?

‘Home From Nowhere’ is the seventh book in the ongoing series, The Clearwater Mysteries, and it is slightly different from the other novels. After the wild and often dangerous adventures of books one to six, I thought it would be good to slow the pace and write what they call a ‘cosy’ mystery for Archer and his crew to solve. ‘Home From Nowhere’ is also a coming of age story and the beginning of a romance.

In it, we meet a new character, Jasper Blackwood, a hall boy from Kingsclere House who has lived all his 18 years in the workhouse or in service. In book six, ‘Artful Deception’, James briefly meets Jasper, and later learns that he has been used as a whipping boy by the evil Earl Kingsclere. When Archer, Lord Clearwater, hears of this, he poaches Jasper and his only friend, Harvey Holt, a footman, and brings them to Clearwater House in London. Jasper brings with him an old tin box in which is a book of folk songs, but this is no ordinary book of songs. Its uniqueness, and a handwritten inscription set Archer’s mind wondering. Calling together his newly formed Clearwater Detective Agency – his lover, Silas, his butler, Thomas, and his valet, James –  Archer sets about investigating the meaning of the book’s inscription: To Jasper Blackwood. A caprice in Lutèce leads to overtures which will, I pray, lead to a full life. Take this with my tears and my regret. FR.

An antique Blüthner piano such as the one in Archer’s library which was once owned by Schubert

And so the story unfolds. It is set against Jasper coming to terms with his new life working for a master who cares, and with ‘men of a similar heart’, which, by the way, is the working title for book nine. As Jasper accepts his good fortune, so he is able to develop his remarkable and intuitive skills in music. Allowed to be himself, and under the mentorship of James, he accepts that he has an attraction for Billy Barnett, another new character, and so a gentle love story begins. That story is continued in book eight, ‘One of a Pair’, due for release in September.

The historical facts behind Home From Nowhere

All of my Clearwater books contain a mix of fact and fiction. For example, in book one, ‘Deviant Desire’, we have the East End of London as it was in October 1888 when Jack the Ripper was stalking Whitechapel. In my story, however, ‘The Ripper’ is stalking male prostitutes in Greychurch.

In ‘Home From Nowhere’, we learn much about what goes on below stairs in a noble house. Jasper takes up a new position and must learn what it means to be an assistant housekeeper. Much of what you read on that subject is based on research, from ‘sad irons’ to boot polish, and it was fun to show below stairs at Clearwater House as it would have been.

The mysterious inscription leads to a discovery, and without giving away any spoilers, I can tell you that the characters the inscription leads back to, were real people. You would definitely have heard of one, but maybe not the other; a woman who was from where the book says she was from, did what it says she did as a profession, and who was involved with… the man I can’t name without giving away the ending.

And on the subject of the inscription, this piece of dialogue from chapter thirteen is, to the best of my knowledge, factual in its content:

‘Exactly, Tom, and that makes sense when you ask the question none of you has yet asked.’
‘I think I was just about to,’ James said. ‘Where or what is Lutèce?’
Archer grinned and hugged Silas tighter. ‘Lutèce comes from the Latin, Lutetia Parisiorum. Lutetia is Latin for mud, or a swamp, and Parisiorum…’
‘Is Paris,’ Thomas interrupted. ‘Lutèce was the old name for Paris?’
‘Which just happens to rhyme with caprice, a musical term more usually known in the Italian as capriccio, meaning lively or in high spirits, but with a different meaning in English. So, Tom, I leap to my conclusion with those few facts and suggest that this inscription sends Jasper a message…’

Popular songbooks similar to the one used in the story

With regards to the songbook: its paper was invented and used as I have written, as were nigrosine ink, the chocolate manufacturer mentioned, the concert piece (including the name of the lyricists which came as a surprise to me), and the makes of the pianos. The men Archer goes to for advice were the directors of the music colleges at that time.

The book is unimaginatively titled Chanson Populaire, which translates as popular song, or folk songs as they are fashionably called. [Also from chapter thirteen, and factual.]

Also, although the workhouses are imaginary, everything down to the forms where Silas finds information is based on actual forms still in existence in the records office, and the wording, again, is accurate. There was a Kingsclere Workhouse in Hampshire, and although my description of it varies from the original, the figures quoted in the story are real.

The music

Page from a piano catalogue (1890)

When you read the book, you will see that music plays a large part in the mystery and in Jasper’s development from cowering hall boy to, in book eight, confident youth with an incredible talent. In ‘Home From Nowhere’ he sees his life as a piece of music and talks about when he first played a church organ. The names of the organ stops are real, and the experience of playing such an instrument is taken from my memory – not that I could ever play as well as Jasper. The Oetzmann and Plumb piano was a real make, as is the Blüthner grand in the library, but whether Brahms owned it or one like it is debatable, but he did have a fondness for Blüthners, so it’s not impossible.

What’s next for Jasper Blackwood?

As I write, my husband is beta reading the first draft of ‘One Of A Pair’, the eighth book in the Clearwater Mysteries. This story starts six weeks after ‘Home From Nowhere’ ends, and it continues Jasper’s story, his growth and coming of age, and concerns his friendship with our other new, and often comical character, Billy Barnett. There is a mystery, of course, and in this case, fact and fiction are mixed like a chemical formula – and that analogy will make sense when you come to read the book. You can expect the usual combination of love, friendship, romance and mystery, fact and fiction, but also, a more significant role for the bisexual, brilliant but scatter-brained, Doctor Markland (who briefly appears in ‘Deviant Desire’ and other books in the series). I shall be redrafting that novel and improving it during August and aim to have it with you sometimes in September.

(The sunglasses were not mine!)

Look out for more and regular blog posts in the future where I will not only talk about the new books, but the published ones, the characters, their history, the facts behind the fiction and how I set about writing the Clearwater Mysteries, and other MM, romantic novels.

You can find my full collection on my Amazon author page here, and the full collection of the Clearwater adventures here.

Hot and busy here in Greece

Hot and busy here in Greece

My husband took this the other day at sunrise

Yesterday was July 1st. The temperature in the courtyard, in the shade, was 28 degrees at 6.30 in the morning. The day before, it had reached 36 at four in the afternoon, in the shade in the courtyard. For those who don’t know, I live on a Greek island (hence the photos). It relies on tourism to survive, but so far this year, we’ve had no-one visit. That’s starting to change now, and hopefully, local businesses will be able to start picking up the pieces. Meanwhile…

My latest story, ‘Artful Deception‘ was published last month (“I think this is one of the best in the series.” Amazon review), and the next one, ‘Home From Nowhere’ is about to go off to the proofreader, and should be out by the end of this month. Meanwhile, I have started tinkering with a new novel, another in the on-going Clearwater saga set in 1889.

To that end, I now have a shelf of books about the period including books about Jack the Ripper (1888), clothing and costume of the 19th century, real accounts from those living below and above stairs, Mr Beeton’s book of household management, a few more books about being in service, stately homes (including floor plans), and books about the railways with maps. I think I need a new bookshelf. I also have a couple more books on the way, one more about costume, a dictionary of Cockney rhyming slang with notes on whether the slang is new or old, 20th century or earlier. What I need to look at next is arsenic poisoning. Well, you have to, don’t you?

Draft cover

As for ‘Home From Nowhere’, this is a slightly different Clearwater novel. I thought it was about time we saw the characters from someone else’s point of view and found out what affect Archer’s generosity has on other people. There is a mystery. It comes in the shape of Jasper Blackwood, who you would have met briefly in ‘Artful Deception’ at Kingsclere House. Typical of me, the mystery revolves around music and messages from the past, and the ‘crew’ are the ones to solve it. This means we see Archer, Tom, James and Silas at work in their detecting venture while learning about what goes on below stairs with the other servants, mainly Jasper. Another new character is also introduced, Billy Barnett, and as you will see when the new book is out (hopefully later this month), Jasper and Billy will be an on-going feature for another book or so, at least.

Our home – on the right.

Anyway, I don’t want to give too much away, just to say, I am having so much fun writing these tales that I intend to carry on, even if the series runs to ten or more, I’ll keep going until the time feels right to stop. Although I won’t rule out pausing now and then to write something different, as I did earlier this year with ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge’, which, I am pleased to say, continues to do well.

That’s it for now. Stay safe wherever you are, remember to like and follow on Facebook and leave reviews where you can, drop me a line if you’ve got anything you want to say or ask, and look after yourselves. Right! Now I am heading back to September 1889 because I have Clearwater book eight to think about, and it’s time we had a poisoning…

Home From Nowhere

Home From Nowhere

Hello everyone. I thought it was about time for another blog post, just to check in and let you know what I am up to.

As usual, I have been writing. In this case, I have been working on a new Clearwater mystery, ‘Home From Nowhere’ (book seven). I don’t know how long a series is meant to go on for, but I am enjoying writing this one, so I’m carrying on regardless. However, I felt the murder and mayhem, wild adventures and on-going battles of the Clearwater Crew needed a breather, so book number seven will be different.

This chap reminded me of Thomas Payne, Archer’s best friend and butler.

I thought it was time we saw the crew from someone else’s point of view, and experienced life at Clearwater House from a new character’s perspective. So, ‘Home From Nowhere’ breaks from the two-word titles from the past and starts us on a different kind of mystery; no ‘meet a deadline or be dead’, no nasty villain, just a gentle mystery and the start of a love story that will continue in part eight. The sort of story you can put your feet up and relax with, and come away from with a sense of feel-good, like watching an episode of Downton Abbey.

This doesn’t mean there’s no mystery to solve, and Archer, James and Silas are the ones to take the mystery and work out the clues, but they are doing it on behalf of the new character who, if you have read ‘Artful Deception‘ you would have briefly met at Kingsclere House.

As usual, I have mixed real people, times, events and facts with some fictional ones, and there is a background theme, in this case, it’s music.

‘Home From Nowhere’ is currently in draft one stage, which means I’ve told myself the story on paper and now need to rest it for a few days before I return to it and a) check the mystery ties up, b) check consistency generally, c) see to as many of my typos as I can find, and d) improve, edit and cut.

Clearwater House ground floor (click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, my cover designer is working on a cover image and, to give myself a break from typing, I set about drawing a floorplan of Clearwater House. As you will see, I am no technical drawer or architect, though I based some of the details on a book I have that gives floorplans and elevations of Victorian houses – none of which fitted Clearwater House exactly. I doubt that if a house was built to my plans, it would stay up for very long! Still, I thought I would share my amateur attempt to give you an idea of how I see the house laid out (sorry about it being a bit squiffy and blotted with smudged felt-tip pen). I’ve only done the ground and first floors so far, I still have the basement and top floor to go. The shaded areas are the servant’s department, the backstairs and servery etc.

Clearwater House 1st floor plan (click to enlarge)

As for other news… Over here in Greece, the island on which I live is very quiet. We are starting to see a few tourists arrive, and we have had no cases of you-know-what, so people are worried about visitors coming from more infected countries. My husband, Neil, is working back at the bar he looks after seven afternoons per week until October, but so far, has had only local customers, while I am carrying on as usual, at home, writing. Which is what I will get back to now.

There’s no definite release date for ‘Home From Nowhere’ yet, I’ve only just let ‘Artful Deception’ out of its cage, but I am going to try and be more regular with my blog posting, so there will be updates as we head deeper into the year.

Stay safe, stay well and most of all, stay reading (and putting up helpful reviews on Amazon and social media if you possibly can).

Thank you for reading
Jackson

My Facebook page

Thank you, suzunh, for the 1st review of ‘Artful Deception’

I love this series
Reviewed in the United States on June 15, 2020
All of them are good. Sure, they’re a little wild sometimes but they are a heck of a lot of fun. I like that the same characters return for every book and I’m excited they are going into business together. Can’t wait to read the next one.

Clearwater’s London

Welcome to Clearwater’s London

It has been a while since I posted on my site. That’s because I was away for a while and spending much of my time working on the sixth instalment of The Clearwater Mysteries.

Book six is now going through its second draft, and it’s a bit of a belter. A twisting tale of deception as Archer battles to outwit his arch-enemy and stay one step ahead of the game. Titled, ‘Artful Deception’, this one brings back some of the more popular characters from previous books such as the barrister Creswell and young Jake, half-brother to Silas’ sisters. The action takes us from Kingsclere House in Berkshire to Clearwater House in London and on to the Netherlands where Archer has no option but to release his murderous brother and reinstate him to the title of Viscount Clearwater.

Or does he?

There will be more information about the book’s release in time.

Meanwhile, as I was passing through London earlier this year, I took some photos of locations used in the Clearwater Mysteries and thought I would share them with you. They’re not the best photos, sadly, but I thought it was a fun exercise to see places Archer and his comrades have trod. Things look very different now to 1888 and 1889 when ‘Artful Deception’ is set, but you can still feel the original Victorian grandeur of these places.

So, just for amusement, here are some of the locations I found when I was there.

The Royal Opera House where Silas nearly dies in Unspeakable Acts.

Bow Street police station opposite the Opera House. Fallen Splendour.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square. This appears in Artful Deception.

The National Gallery

The Criterion. Now a theatre, Silas and Jake had lunch here (Piccadilly) in Bitter Bloodline.

The Ivy, Seven Dials, which in my books is called ‘The Grapevine’ at Five Dials. Archer and Quill lunched here in Deviant Desire.

The side of the Lyceum Theatre from Bitter Bloodline. Silas found Jake homeless on this street corner.

The side of the Lyceum Theatre from Bitter Bloodline. I imagined Stoker’s office was at the top/back (round window), but I have no idea where it really was in the building.

Charing Cross railway station will appear in Artful Deception

The Garrick Club, Archer’s club in Covent Garden. It is mentioned in several of the books.

This street doesn’t appear in the books, but it is called Archer Street. Perhaps it was named after the viscount? The Windmill revue theatre beside it is famous for its nude revues. Silas would have approved; Thomas would not have done!

Students Book & Blog Tour

Students Book & Blog Tour

As part of the book tour of ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge’ organised by Other Worlds Ink, there is a unique guest post over at Midnight Café today. Am I a Plotter or a Pantzer? To find out, hit this link:

https://mm.midnightcafe.uk/mm/the-students-of-barrenmoor-ridge-by-jackson-marsh/

Over the next two weeks, there will be more unique posts, reviews and interviews about me, and here’s the list should you want to find them.

Feb 19th: Joyfully Jay

Feb 20th: Love Bytes

Feb 21st: Valerie Ullmer

Feb 24th: Books, tattoos and Tea

Feb 27th: Wicked Faerie’s Tales and Reviews

Feb 28th: MM Good Book Reviews

Giveaway

Jackson is giving away a $20 Amazon gift card with this tour. For a chance to win, enter via Rafflecopter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Direct Link: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/b60e8d47107/?