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Research and the Historical Novel

Pam Lecky on the challenges and virtues of writing historical fiction

For anyone contemplating writing a historical novel, the research required can be off-putting. Fortunately, I love it and over the years I have built up a collection of reference books. No Stone Unturned, is the first novel in my new series of Victorian mysteries and it often threw up some interesting questions. For instance, did Victorian households use rubbish bins? What kinds of trains were used in the London Underground in 1886? My collection of research books failed me.

I discovered that contacts online can be a useful source of information. Lee Jackson, a fellow historical fiction author, has written extensively on Victorian life. I contacted him on Twitter and he was able to tell me almost immediately what I needed to know about Victorian rubbish. The train question was a little trickier as I also wished to know how long a particular journey took. Thankfully, I found the London Transport Museum online, and within 24 hours I had not only answers to my questions but copies of relevant timetables.

No Stone Unturned has been bubbling away at the back of my mind for some time. The initial idea was one where the prodigal daughter returns home only to become embroiled in a crime, but I also wished to create a series in which I could develop the characters over time. This first book in the series centres round a suspicious death, some stolen sapphires and a rather large unclaimed reward.

As a backdrop to the mystery element, I also wanted to explore how a relatively young Victorian woman, with a strong personality and high intellect, would cope within the confines of a troubled marriage. Would she accept her lot or chafe at the bit? But, in Lucy’s case, with no money and estranged from her family, she could not walk away. To do so, would mean social ruin. However, when circumstances finally release her (her husband’s sudden death), she struggles to cope. Pretty much every man in her life so far has betrayed her on some level for their own ends. There is a pivotal scene in the story when Lucy realises she must shape her own destiny, and she sets out on a dangerous adventure in pursuit of the truth about her late husband and his less than legal activities.

I am often asked why I choose to write historical fiction. In my case, it was simply inevitable. Growing up, historical dramas on television enthralled me. I became fascinated by the costumes, architecture and the way people behaved. Something just clicked. As a teen I devoured books and I mean devoured. For those familiar with the 19th century world, I think I actually became a bluestocking. I munched my way through classics, and dined on crime and mystery (Dorothy L Sayers, P.D. James and Agatha Christie―what fantastically twisty minds those women had). Then I discovered the wonderful Georgette Heyer who is probably the biggest influence on my writing style. She was a master of character and setting creation; and all done with a sprinkling of subtle humour. But what Ms Heyer achieved isn’t easy at all. On the one hand, you need to explore practically everything in your era from idioms used, to mourning protocols. Then you must try to get the balance right between creating authentic settings, characters and believable plots, while not boring your reader with the minutiae. It can be challenging but I love delving into the past to build my worlds.

Oh! And just in case you are interested, the Victorians did use domestic rubbish bins which were collected by dustmen in horse-drawn carts twice a day!

Pam Lecky is an Irish historical fiction author and is represented by the Hardman & Swainson Literary Agency in London.

Her latest book, No Stone Unturned, was published at the end of June 2019. It is the first in her new historical mystery series, The Lucy Lawrence Mysteries.