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’.]