How much research do I need to do? It’s a familiar question for writers of historical fiction. But author Robert Wilton has a confession to make…
Don’t tell anyone, but I do less research than people seem to expect of a historical fiction author. Less than they might think is seemly.
One of the reasons I started with a series that moved between different historical periods is that I’m not a real expert in any. I don’t have the immersive familiarity with Roman legionary life or Tudor society or Georgian domestic architecture, and I think readers respond to those authors who do. Enough detail to suggest time and place; that’s all I’m after.
I nonetheless believe deeply in the importance of accuracy, and of credibility. My aim is that the reader can’t see the join between the history that they can find on Wikipedia and the things I’ve interwoven that they can’t. I want them to wonder; I want them to go away and read more about the period.
With my Comptrollerate-General books dotted around history, the first step is always to settle on a period. That means finding the main story arc that I need: how was Napoleon’s invasion of England thwarted in the weeks before Trafalgar? How would a secret organisation, the power behind the royal throne, manage the transition to Cromwell’s republic?
Then I start looking for the story. What were the crunch points? At which moment did the world turn? How can I make a literary drama out of a historical crisis? Only once I start to see the context and the shape of the story, do I roll my sleeves up and start rummaging through the details of the historical record.
On 23 May 1914, English aviation pioneer Gustav Hamel took off from Issy-les-Moulineux airfield outside Paris in a new aircraft, heading for home. He never made it. The wreckage of his aircraft was later recovered from the Channel.
A little and unremarkable tragedy from the early years of flight – unless, that is, you happen to be a jobbing writer of historical espionage pot-boilers exploring the weeks before the First World War. For me, Hamel’s death was a great beacon of possibility, in the landscape where I was trying to locate a plot. Unexplained death? Latest technology? Just a month before the Sarajevo assassination?
It became a significant incident in the increasingly desperate battle between the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey and its German and Austrian enemies, fought across the continent in the fateful summer of 1914 and told in The Spider of Sarajevo. And then, looking for the diplomatic and political background to the Kiel Naval Regatta of the British and German fleets, instead I found a passing reference to a German pilot who died flying a British seaplane.
That’s what I’m looking for: not only the great shift of history (how do I chart the naval manoeuvring before Trafalgar? How do I show the changing balance of power between Royalist and Parliamentarian?), but the little fulcrum around which it turned (the Danish ship that gave critical information to the French fleet; the controversial failure of the scouting at Naseby).
And not only the cliffhangers and climaxes, but the oddities and mysteries. The 1792 theft of the French royal jewels and the discovery of royal documents in a secret cupboard a month or so later were extraordinary historical facts before they were highlights of Treason’s Spring, recounting another episode of human drama and European conflict in the shadows as France collapsed into the bloody chaos of the revolution.
On 17 April 1805, a young artist named Charles Gough set off to walk up Helvellyn, in the Lake District. He never came down. His body was found three months later – still guarded by his faithful dog. It was presumed he’d fallen. But with my head full of radical unrest and nefarious foreign subversion in the period before Trafalgar, I was intrigued by the local militiaman who had agreed to act as guide for the ascent, but who apparently never appeared…
Charles Gough and Gustav Hamel turned out to be dramatic episodes of context, rather than the focus of the plot. Thomas Rainsborough in my Civil Wars novel Traitor’s Field became more. He started out as a bit of colour for the 1648 siege of Colchester: the brute who, when some of the starving townswomen came out to beg for pity, had them stripped naked and sent back into town. Then I thought he might be a bit of the espionage background: he’d been a spokesman for the Levellers in the Putney Debates, and because of his sympathies his crew had mutinied when he’d been moved to the navy.
And then, skimming his life story, I read about his death: dragged out into the street and murdered, apparently by a Royalist raiding party from the town he was besieging; there were accusations of incompetence or even conspiracy; the Levellers were suspicious about the sudden death of their champion. Rainsborough’s death became the heart of the plot: the incident retold from the perspectives of the various participants, as they’re traced over the ensuing years; the puzzle that, solved, reveals a greater treachery.
And now I’ve embarked on a new series. There’s a sense of freedom, and possibility; like exploring a new city or learning a new language. But the Gentleman Adventurer brings with him new challenges. Writing a first person narrator is a blast, especially when he’s a first person like Henry Delamere. In Death and the Dreadnought he stumbles across a body in a shipyard, and in short order the police want him for murder, the workers of Europe have declared him their enemy, he’s hiding out with a burlesque dancer named Annabella Bliss and everyone’s trying to kill him.
As first-person narrator I feel I’m discovering everything that’s happening, rather than organising and presenting it for public display: the novelist as traveller, not museum curator. But of course I can’t show as much of the plot: so my approach to plotting must change, and indeed so must the plot itself. And I suspect that writing in first person character needs greater concentration, greater immersion.
More alarmingly, Death and the Dreadnought is the first of a series set in one period. So now I’ve had to get more serious about my period, and it’s only increased my respect for those authors who know their world well enough to write about it with consistent credibility. Fortunately, the Edwardian is a fun world to explore: the stuffy stylish Victorian age meeting the age of democracy, an old elegance coming to terms with motor cars and flying machines.
And, of course, there are the curiosities to turn up… Just why was there a delay in installing the latest secret fire-control technology in Britain’s battleships?
In addition to his historical novels Robert Wilton writes on the culture and history of south-eastern Europe and translates a little poetry.
He also runs an international human rights mission in Albania and is co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity, working for the education and empowerment of marginalised communities in the Balkans.
More about Treason’s Spring.
The Spider of Sarajevo was one of our top recommended books for Christmas 2017.
HMS Thunderer: Imperial War Museum Wikimedia
Gustav Hamel in the cockpit of a Bleriot Monoplane: Imperial War Museum Wikimedia
The execution of Louis XVI by Georg Heinrich Sieveking: via Wikimedia
The Battle of Preston by Charles Cattermole: via Wikimedia
Other images: supplied by the author