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’.]

Mapping Your Novel

Or, Getting From A to D via the B and C of it all

Today I wanted to talk about maps and mapping your novel, and how I use maps while mapping my novels. There are two parts to this.

  • 1) The way I structure the paths through the story
  • 2) How I use maps when creating a novel

Mapping Your Way Through Your Story

When previously talking about structure, I have recommended a couple of screenwriting books to read which were written by experts about story structure. ‘Story’ by Robert McKee, and ‘The 21st Century Screenplay’, by Linda Aronson. I can also add to that ‘Into the Woods’ by John Yorke. (I also recommend the Sondheim/Lapine musical with the same title as an excellent example of how to interweave stories together.) Read those books and you’ll know just about all there is to know about how to structure a story. Add in ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Vogler, and you’ll know all there is to know about character arcs and development, archetypal characters and plot structure.

Essential reading for the budding writer

There are various ways to structure a story, but let’s think simple for now. By the time your story ends, something should have changed, a character should have learnt something or altered his/her state, and you should leave the reader with a sense of things to come thanks to that change, either good or bad. In other words, the end state is far away from the beginning state.

You can start your tale partway through the overall story as I did with ‘Artful Deception.’ There, chapter one starts a few days into the story, leaving us wondering what was happening and how and why the characters were in that situation. Then, in chapter two, we start at the real beginning with the inciting incident that leads to the scene we read in chapter one, and then we carry on from there. That’s a way of drawing the reader in and is very common in films. The point is, the story still starts somewhere and ends somewhere else, and I don’t just mean physically.

To get your action from A to D, you need to go via the B and C, and that’s where you need to map things out. I make a list of ‘hit points’ or ‘plot points’ or twists if you like…

A, everything’s fine and dandy when something happens.

That leads to B, trying to work out what has happened and what we can do about it, which then leads to a twist or change of direction at halfway, and we’re off into…

C, how do we deal with what’s happened? Working through that, through difficulties and challenges, emotional turmoil and whatever, leads us to the crisis. Just when you think things couldn’t get worse or the hero is doomed, he overcomes his fatal flaw, takes a leap of faith, and pulls up his socks.

That done, we then get on the with D of the story, the climax, and, after that, we’re in a different story state. It’s done, and the reader can relax or sigh with relief. We have gone from the A state of normality, travelled with our characters through the B and C (the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune) to the final battle and the D, the resolve.

Don’t take my words literally. You don’t have to have a physical final battle, it can be an emotional one, but it usually involves a leap of faith or a difficult decision. That’s because the emotional plot (character arcs, development, overcoming fatal flaws etc.) runs parallel to the action, and also needs mapping.

There are loads of online resources to use to understand this better, and while searching for a simple illustration of the above, I found the graphic below. This shows you the points of the story I mentioned (inciting incident to climax, etc.) with a typical character arc set against it in a graph.

How I use maps when creating a novel

If you have read ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’ you will have seen a map of the route of the Orient Express circa 1890 to 1914. I had that map drawn because I wanted to include it at the start of the book, and because I love looking at maps. I can sit at my desk for ages reading a map, imagining the locations, revelling in the romantic place names, the terrain, contours and symbols, and I often have a map open when taking my characters on a journey. I have a map of the Great Western Railway routes, again from the late 19th to early 20th century, and I referred to it while writing my recent Work In Progress blog about ‘Speaking in Silence.’

I have a fantastic book about the history of maps and cartography, ‘The Cartographia’ by Vincent Virga, which sits in pride of place on my desk. Vincent also wrote ‘Gaywyck’, the first gay gothic romance novel. Along with the Cartographia, I have a Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World, a large book that talks about topography, geology, and geography, and comes with detailed maps of every part of the planet. I use this to find remote locations, such as the castle in ‘Negative Exposure’, so I can see where my characters are at any one time when on a countrywide chase.

Then, I have the more detailed Ordnance Survey maps, such as the one of Bodmin Moor where the imaginary Larkspur Hall is found. I have drawn on my copy, filling in a rough estate boundary for Larkspur and marking the location of the ring of standing stones Joe discovers in ‘Keepers of the Past.’ The OS  Explorer maps are great for detail, but if you’re not a map reader and want to see what a location looks like, then Google Maps is where you need to go.

Maps, maps and more maps

I use the Google map service a great deal. I find a place on the map, then switch to the image results to get an overview, and then switch to the Maps option and use the satellite view. With that, you can zoom in, and even place yourself on a street or in the countryside and really get into detail. I used this in ‘Speaking in Silence’ as you will read in the author’s notes at the end. That story is based on a real event, and the newspaper reports I found gave the address of one of the characters in 1891. I went to the satellite service and dropped myself onto the same road, found the actual house and had a look at it, as it is still standing.

Ah yes, you say, but that’s a good point. What we see now on these maps may not be what was there in 1891 when my current novels are set. You are right, I reply, and that’s why I often go to the National Library of Scotland. They have a brilliant online resource for old maps. If, for example, you head to this link: London map 1888 to 1913 you should see a black and white map of London that you can zoom into. In the bottom left corner of the screen is a ‘transparency of overlay’ feature, a slider that, when slid, reveals today’s Google map of the area, so you can compare then and now. The site has hundreds of maps of different scales and from different times and is a great online resource. Here is a link to their list of online digital resources. https://www.nls.uk/digital-resources/

Why am I Even Talking About Maps?

You might wonder why I am talking about maps at all. The reason is that the next novel in the Larkspur series involves journeys, as will the one after it. I am about to release ‘Speaking in Silence’, and have started working on the sixth book in the series, ‘Staring at Secrets.’ After that, we will have ‘The Larkspur Legacy’ and both books will involve characters from Larkspur and Clearwater heading off to various places, trying to put together a massive puzzle and find a ‘secret treasure’, as I’m calling it for now. Because I like to be as accurate as possible, I’m using maps of the time and other resources to work out distances, the time it would have taken to travel, and the means the characters would have had at their disposal. That’s why I also have a copy of Baedeker’s Egypt from 1892, and Cook’s Tourist Handbook for Egypt, the Nile and the Desert, 1897.

While the fun part is happening—the plotting, mapping and planning—I am also mapping the character’s arcs and developments, working out who will be the main character(s), what the emotional and love story will be, and those throughlines will be mapped against the physical action storyline. If you look at the photo of my larger notebook, you’ll see the beginnings of a rough chart that spans both books, as ‘Staring at Secrets’ is part one of the story. That’s good fun to do, but it’s also vital if you are to produce a well-structured action and emotional story through which your characters grow, and through which you take your reader from the ordinary world of A to the new world of D via the B and C of it all.

Newsletters and Other Resources

Newsletters and Other Resources

Newsletters

Before I get started, I wanted to draw your attention to the QRI Newsletter. Queer Romance Ink is one of the resources I use for book promotion. They list ‘coming soon’ titles, have a blog, lists of authors and their books, and they review new books. They have favourably reviewed many of my titles over the years, and this month, are giving away one of my novels, ‘The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge.’ This mentor novel is currently my third most popular title (after Deviant Desire and Twisted Tracks), and you can get a free copy plus three others when you join their newsletter list. This offer runs for a month, and the sign-up form is here:

https://www.queeromanceink.com/join-our-email-list/

You can also sign up for my newsletter, not that I send one out very often, and the link for that is here: http://jacksonmarsh.com/newsletter/

Meanwhile…

Other Resources

I am currently writing ‘Agents of the Truth’ (working title), the third Larkspur Mystery, and the 14th novel set in the Clearwater world. While doing so, I found myself looking for a PDF of a book I wanted to refer to, and went scrambling through folders on my PC trying to find it. ‘I know it’s on here somewhere… What book did I use it for?’ I tend to do this. To download a book or reference material into the current WIP file and leave it there. What I should do, is have a central folder for all books, make sure I change the file name to the title, and put them in categories.

I’m pleased to say, I’ve started to do this with the aim of one day putting the list on a page on this site, so other authors and interested parties can easily find the resources. They are all online and mostly free anyway, so it’s a case of knowing where to go, and if I can help point people in the right direction, all well and good.

I just checked into my new ‘Research Books and Docs’ folder, and the list is quite a healthy one, but it needs further sorting and labelling. I have, for example, the rather vague, and yet very specific, ‘Arsenic poisoning’ pdf. I know I read that for ‘One of a Pair’, but couldn’t remember exactly what it was, so I had a look…

Arsenic Poisoning by Dr D.N. Guha Mazumder, Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research, Calcutta.

Well I never.

I have a copy of ‘Monumenta Historica Britannica’ (or ‘Materials for the History of Britain from the earliest period to the end of the reign of King Henry II.’) Published by command of Her Majesty in 1848. That was of use when writing ‘Keepers of the Past.’ Well, the parts that weren’t in Latin, Anglo Saxon and Greek were quite useful.

I have two copies of ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ by Charles Dickens next to ‘Rent, Same-Sex Prostitution in modern Britain’, and nearby, a copy of The Vulgar Tongue. (Those last two titles are not related.)

Dictionaries

The list contains other gems, many from the past, such as Dickens Dictionary of London 1890. The dictionary was published every year, by Charles’ Dickens son, I believe, but as I am writing in 1890, this edition was perfect. It’s priceless for all authors working in the late 19th century, and I only wish I could afford/find a printed copy for my bookshelves. It’s the sort of thing I can sit and read all day. There are maps, advertisements, lists of historical and forthcoming events, and then a dictionary of all things London from the Bank of England to the Sanitary Assurance Association. Did you know that to subscribe to the Saville Club in Adelphi Terrace cost £5. 5s, and to become a member, ‘The committee elects; one black ball in five excludes.’ Or, you could join the (new) Salisbury Club in St James as a ‘town member’ for £10. 10s, assuming you are not black balled, and for £5. 5s if you are a country member. Foreign members only had to pay £2. 2s. Bargain.

The Vulgar Tongue is one of my favourites, and I have a hardback copy next to me on this desk. It’s a dictionary of cant (street language/slang) compiled in 1785. You can open it to any page and find a gem. Examples:

Page 165, India Wipe: a silk handkerchief.
Page 129, Fussock. A frowsy old woman.
Page 128, Frummagemmed. Choked, strangled or hanged. Cant.

If your darby consisted of a strike, your ready money was twenty shillings which you could have spent on ‘strip me naked’ (gin). Brothers were interesting things. A brother of the blade was a soldier, of the bung, a brewer, and of the gusset, a pimp. Yaffling was eating, to milk the pigeon was to attempt an impossible task, and a cock hoist was a cross buttock, something I have still to get to the bottom of.

I am straying. Sorry, that’s what happens when I open such a dictionary.

I shall return to the subject of resources in the future, as I have many more to tell you about, but I think my point, for now, is that I have collected an amount of useful or interesting recourses, free books in pdf format, newspaper articles from the National Archives Online (a subscription service), and other places of interest, and will set about cataloguing them, and sharing the most useful ones on a new page on my site. One day.

For now, the sun is coming up, and I want to take a walk while I plan chapter seven of ‘Agents of the Truth.’ So I will finish now, and leave you with a reminder to sign up to the QRI Newsletter and receive four free eBooks, one of which is mine.

Don’t forget to catch up with what’s happening with ‘Agents’ on my Wednesday Work In Progress blog.

View from my walk yesterday. Click to enlarge.