A Few Resources for Your Historical Novel (Victorian)

The Victorian Period

When we talk about the Victorian period, we are talking about the years of the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837 to 1901. It was a time of significant change in the United Kingdom. The industrial revolution, the age of the steam train, steam-powered factories, a rise in industry and exploration, inventions, and the growth of the British Empire across the world. It also saw the rise of the middle class, a great divide between rich and poor, and a move from agricultural labouring to factory work for many, because it was in the cities where wealth could be made.

When you’re sitting down to write a novel set in these times, you really ought to know what you’re talking about. Or at least, do your research.

Alison Weir, the writer of many a great historical novel, says that,

“You can’t write a historical novel without being familiar with the sources. You have to have an idea of how people lived. It’s a completely different world and you’ve got to get in the mindset, the zeitgeist, that informs the language.”

If you were writing a book set in, say, the 1990s or 1980s, you may remember what it was like to be around at that time. It depends on your age, of course, but if I was writing about the 1980/90s, I’d remember the clothes, the TV shows, the politics, the way of life, the new-fangled thing like CDs, DVDs and BluRay. I’d know what it was like to be a young person of the time because I was there, so my characters would be drawn from my experience of the zeitgeist, the culture, and the language of the time.

Zeitgeist is borrowed from German and literally translates to “time spirit” or “spirit of the times.” It comes from the German Zeit, meaning “time,” and Geist, meaning “spirit” or “ghost” (as seen in poltergeist, which means “a noisy ghost”).

Clearly, I was not around in 1888 when my Clearwater Series begins, so how do I know how the characters spoke? How did I know what the streets of the East End smelt like? How do I know what it was like to exist in a workhouse or live in Belgravia? And how could I tell what it was like to fight a villain on top of a moving steam train hurtling towards certain death?

I didn’t, and I still don’t. Not 100%, because I’ve never fought a villain on the top of a moving anything, and as a novelist, one must use imagination. But your imagination must be confined to the times in which you are writing. I have to admit, when I started writing the historical series, my mind wasn’t 100% in the times because I started Deviant Desire with the intention of setting it all in a fictional London. Now, with the Larkspur Series (and in the later Clearwater books) we are firmly in London and the world as it was at the time because I have learnt as I have gone along. It’s too late now to change Greychurch to Whitechapel, and Limedock to Limehouse, but it is never too late to learn from mistakes. This is why, a little way into the Clearwater series, I returned to the earlier books and struck out every use of the words okay, teenager, adolescent and others. I’d learnt by then that those words were not in use until the 20th century. They weren’t in the Victorian era zeitgeist. (Nor was homosexual, which was only used in medical terms from the 1860s, and which gets a mention in my next novel.)

Research Ideas

Where do I get my information from? You may ask, and that was the point of this post; to share a few resources with you. I have previously mentioned particular books, but today, I wanted to highlight a few websites I regularly use. These will be useful if you’re starting out on writing a book set in the Victorian period, or you might simply find them of interest. I currently have over 150 bookmarks in my ‘research’ bookmark folder on Firefox, and within it, there are several sub-folders such as ‘travel’ and ‘maps.’

My go-to source for writings of the time is the Dictionary of Victorian London at http://www.victorianlondon.org, an excellent resource created by author Lee Jackson. I have some of his books on my shelves, but I’m talking about online resources here. If you head to this link you will find the index for the Dictionary, which is actually a list of categories, and within them, you find collected pieces from various sources written in the Victorian period. Each section has subsections, so, for example, I want to look up Prison life, and within ‘Prisons’, I find Executions and Punishments, Prisons, Rehabilitation of Offenders and Remand. I go to ‘Prisons’ and there’s another sub-list. Following one of those links, ‘Pentonville’, I find several pieces from newspapers, reports and other publications written between 1843 and 1879.

The point is, at a site like this, I have reports and information directly from the time in which I am writing. By reading them, I gain a sense of the language and how it was used, and also the zeitgeist of the time.

I also use the British Newspaper Archive, where I can search for newspapers published on specific days, and read what was happening in the world on that day in 1891 or whenever. This archive is also useful for checking what day of the week a date was, the weather, finding advertisements to mention in my books to add authentic detail, and finding interesting asides, like actual cricket scores for my character Dr Markland.

Another of my favourite sites is The National Library of Scotland. Why? If you click the link, you’ll find an incredible resource for maps. Ordnance Survey, Military, County, there’s an endless list. I have a bookmark that leads me directly to a London map of 1888. It doesn’t give me street names, but I can see where the railways ran and other details, and, by using a slider, I can reveal beneath it the modern-day map of the city to make a comparison.

Victorian Gay

Specific to my novels is the theme of homosexuality, and if you wanted to know what it was like to be gay in the Victorian Period, you only need to head to Rictor Norton’s sourcebook. His list of articles dates from 1800 to 1891, and it is from here that I find inspiration for the court cases, characters and histories of some of my stories. There is a full collection of reports about the Cleveland Street Scandal, for example. If you have read ‘Speaking in Silence’, you can find the original reports here.

[Rictor Norton (Ed.), Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. Updated 1 December 2021]

A Few More Valuable Resources

I could blether on for hours and give you the full list of what’s in my research bookmarks folder, but instead, here’s a list of some others that you might find of interest.

‘Always put the weather in’ is a top tip from many authors, and I always have weather in my books. I also have accurate sunrise and sunset times, and phases of the moon too, and I get all that from Time and Date, where you can search by year and place for accuracy.

I have links to various dictionaries, such as Cockney Rhyming Slang, one for Irish phrases and slang words, and a dictionary of the Cornish dialect. I always check words were in use in my time period, and to do this, I use Google’s online dictionary because it gives a graph of printed usage of words. I have a dictionary of idioms bookmarked along with some oddments such as a list of Latin mottos, a Gothic glossary (Gothic architecture, that is), a glossary of carriages, and my favourite, The Vulgar Tongue (1785) for slang words.

The points of this post are:

  1. Always ensure your characters are acting, talking and thinking within the zeitgeist of the time, and make sure your/their language is time-appropriate.
  2. You can do this by reading novels written at the time, but better, newspapers and other journals, such as those you find in the online archives.
  3. Keep every useful page you come across and bookmark it, making separate folders in your bookmarks if necessary.

You can’t beat a book on a shelf, but for speed, I use the net. What I don’t do, however, is take a search engine’s results as 100% accurate in their information and I always double-check what I read on online encyclopaedias with a website run by experts. If in doubt, do your research.

[I’ll be back on Wednesday with an update on the work in progress, ‘Starting with Secrets’.]

Work In Progress: 4.2

Starting with Secrets

Well, I’m not sure how this happened, but by the end of today, I shall be at 50,000 words of the next book in the Larkspur Mysteries series, ‘Starting with Secrets.’ This is only WIP blog 2! One of the reasons this one is going so smoothly is that I have been planning it since starting book four, and it’s already plotted, I know all but a few of the characters, and I started writing scenes for it while I was writing ‘Speaking in Silence’, which, I am pleased to say, is doing well. Thank you for your reviews!

But 50,000 words? That’s like half a novel already and yet I am only a third of the way through the planned story. This book is either going to be another epic like ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’, or it’s going to end up being two books. It is, in fact, the first part of a two-part finale to the series, and I intend to write on and on until I reach the end and not worry about word length. Then, when it’s done, I will take a look and decide if it’s a) is over-written and needs massive editing, b) it’s a two-parter or c) it’s just a long book with lots of mystery, thrills and spills.

It is a very simple story: Archer is left a treasure hunt which he wants to solve. However, the clues are obscure and, it turns out, they are also many. This means the ‘crew’ has to split into three teams, including the academy men, and among them is a new character, Bertie Tucker. While not being sure of why he is at the academy, Bertie becomes a distraction for Edward and that means he becomes a concern for Henry, and it’s down to James (Jimmy Wright) to play the part of mentor while investigating one line of clues. Meanwhile, Silas takes the lead on a London-based hunt, leaving Tom to consider the last two cryptics back at Larkspur. Behind all of this, there is a villain trying to stay one step ahead and bringing in other characters to his evil team, and there will be moments of danger, excitement and, of course, bromance.

I’m putting a lot of background research into this one, as I usually do, but as the story is so big and diverse, so is my background reading. All will be revealed in time, but for now, I am ploughing on with chapter 14, and wondering what the word count will be this time next week. Be here then to find out.

Summer on Symi. August.

Having just released ‘Speaking in Silence’, I thought I would take a day off. Ha! As if. I can’t remember the last time I had a full day off. Because we live on a Greek island, people assume I spend my days sitting under olive trees jotting notes in a leather-bound notebook, watching the lazy world go by and popping down to the beach for a swim in the afternoons.

Not quite.

I’m not saying I’m a workaholic, but I am. If you’ve been following my Saturday blog, you will have read about my typical day. Up at 4.30am or a little later in the winter, cup of tea, and to the desk where I write up to 4,000 words per day for other people, because we have to pay the rent. I usually aim to get that done by around eight or nine, if I haven’t gone for a walk, which I sometimes do in the summer months.

A morning walk here on Symi is pretty inspirational

At some point during the morning, I can start on my own writing, and on days when I don’t have paid work in, I can get to my next chapter earlier. That’s on days when I don’t have to prepare a blog for my site like I am doing now.

My morning usually finishes around 11.00, certainly before midday, because by then I might have written 6,000 words or more, and my brain needs a rest. There then follows a two-hour lunch break, sometimes a doze, and I tend to go back to the desk to read through what I wrote in the morning. I’ll either finish at three and have a siesta, or carry on until around four when I might pop out for a drink and to rest my brain. Bedtime is often at nine, though the other day it was eight.

That’s my day and while it’s going on, other people are having a holiday because Symi is a holiday island during the summer. This year, we’re experiencing a milder August than we had last year when the temperature got up to 45 degrees or slightly over, and the days were humid. Currently, we’re averaging around 36 degrees in the shade in our courtyard, which is slightly lower than it was in July when we hit 42. That’s a far cry from the winter months when I spend the morning heating my office, typing with my gloves on and still don’t get the temperature past nine degrees.

Symi’s a popular place for sailboats in the summer, small yachts and massive gin palaces alike, and this summer is no exception. The last two years were quieter due to the pandemic, but this season has been busy from day one.

My PA, Jenine, housekeeps for a luxury villa in the harbour. This is a typical morning view from that terrace.

We have up to five day-trip boats per day come over from Rhodes bringing visitors for a few hours, and many regular visitors come to stay for two weeks or more; some come several times per year, and who can blame them?

We’re into festival season now and have already had the famous ‘Symi shrimp festival’ where the municipality gives out the island’s local delicacy (small shrimps that you eat shell and all) and where the band plays music, and people dress in traditional costume and dance. I try to avoid this festival because I once had a bad allergic reaction to these shrimps, and now can’t even stand the smell of them, but that’s me.

One of Neil’s photos of the Symi Shrimp Festival a few years back

There will be other festival events such as bands in the town and village squares, musicians in the church courtyards, possibly plays, art exhibitions and other cultural events too. The festival used to run for three months, but now it’s more like one month, and will take us to September.

This September, Neil and I will be celebrating living on the island for 20 years. We arrived on his birthday, and that is also celebrated on the same day, as is our marriage, which happened on his birthday too. We will also celebrate meeting 25 years ago around the same time, so early September is our own kind of festival season.

Before that, however, I must get back to the business of writing, and it is a business. Someone commented the other day, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ referring to my output. My reply when people say this is, ‘It’s my full-time job’ and it is. Even when I am writing for other people, my mind is on the real work; mine. It’s there when I am walking in the morning, having a shower, meeting people for drinks—I’m terrible because I’m often not there—and when I am watching TV of an evening. That is the life of a writer. It’s a good job I’m not keen on swimming anymore, otherwise, I might be tempted to sit beneath a tree on the beach, contemplating life and taking the occasional dip. Too many stories, not enough time!

On which note, if you want to follow the progress of the next novel, check into the Wednesday Work in Progress blog, where I will update you about ‘Starting with Secrets’, the Larkspur Mysteries book six. I am already 30,000 words in…

Work in Progress 4.1

Starting with Secrets

Okay, before we start on our next journey together, let’s just check in with the news.

Speaking in Silence, the Larkspur mysteries book five is now available on Amazon as a paperback, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited. Follow that link and you’ll be directed to your own country’s Amazon if necessary.

Now, onto the next one which I started while I was finishing the last one. That’s something I often do, but in this case, I did it because I knew that what happens next in the Clearwater/Larkspur saga has to relate back to what the previous novels contain. In the case of ‘Starting with Secrets’, we go right back to before even 1888 and Deviant Desire, the first in the Clearwater series. (Which, I notice, now has 75 ratings and many decent reviews. A few more ratings and we’ll cross the 100 mark, a milestone for me, so keep rating every book you read folks!)

I am already 25,000 words into ‘Secrets’ and am nearing the end of Act One. The thing is, this is the first part of a two-part adventure, and so the first quarter of ‘Secrets’ is actually the first eighth of the overall story. As a four-act story needs a turning point at the end of each act, when I get to 50% through ‘Secrets’, I will be at the end of Act One of the two-parter, if you get me. I have to bear all this in mind as I plough on.

So far, we have met one new character and we’re about to meet a couple of ghosts from the past. James and Silas have been called down to Larkspur because Archer has been set a treasure hunt. It will, ultimately involve the academy men, Fleet and various other charters we know and love (or hate). There will be trysts and triumphs, sadness and success, love and maybe a little lust if it is appropriate (am thinking of you, Charles).

I’ll keep you informed as I write on, so stay tuned to the Wednesday WIP blog, and check back on Saturday for my weekly ramble about all things books, me and creative.