Research and Setting, by V. R. Christensen

Posted by on Jun 3, 2013 in 19th England, Featured Book, Historical Research | 5 comments

researchI both love and hate doing research. It’s often tedious, always time consuming. Sometimes I’m looking for a needle in a haystack, (like when, for another book, I needed to find an example of a kiss between bride and groom during a wedding ceremony). Sometimes I’m looking for information, bits and pieces of historical data that render the story more believable. Sometimes I’m simply trying to get a feel for the time in which I’ve chosen to place my story. Research helps me set the scene, after all. What good is setting without factual details to lend credibility?

I typically know the general time frame of a story before I begin to lay it out, but finding an exact time, a date, if you will, is key to getting it all just right.

Arthur PeelI knew from the beginning that Cry of the Peacock would be set in the 1890’s, for instance. I knew that it had to be late in the Victorian era to allow for the sort of social climbing my heroine would be engaged in. Another of my limitations had to do with the fact that I have my heroine engaging in her first social enterprises in late autumn and early winter. If the London Season began in February and extended to July, how was I going to accomplish this? Well, as it turns out, there were a few instances where the “Season”, or at least the parliamentary sessions, around which London’s social scene revolved, were extended. One of these was in November of 1890. In fact Parliament was supposed to reconvene in October, but since the Speaker of the House, Arthur Peel, was unavoidably absent on account of his wife’s grave illness, it was postponed until the latter part of November, and continued through December. The question of Mr. Peel’s wife, and whether Mr. Peel would be able to perform his offices was a matter of great concern and much talked about.

But was this extended season enough to lure the Crawford family into Town? At first I thought so, but then when I realized that the opening ceremony of the City and South London Railroad was also during this time, I found myself presented with an opportunity to capitalize on an aspect of late Victorian history that I had not before considered.

Technology!

This was huge. I’d always wanted to lend a little more depth to the brothers, one of whom couldn’t care a fig for new-fangled contraptions that were expensive, unreliable, and prone to breaking down, and the other brother who finds it the great interest of his life. Not only that, but the City and South London wasn’t just any railroad. It was the TUBE!

Here was an opportunity I could not resist!

In Lambeth the crowds were positively thronging. Was it the railway that drew so many out? Or was it the chance of seeing—and perhaps being seen by—the Prince of Wales? Abbie wondered, but did not much care. She didn’t like crowds, and she was nervous. But, with the crush of people from all walks of society—Dukes and Lords in high hats and long coats, their ladies in fur and silk, mingling alongside the city’s poor and dirty and hungry—she supposed she need not worry too much about her own appearance. Lady Crawford had not again thought to examine her. At the moment, she was wholly pre-occupied with the imminent arrival of Prince of Wales.

“There he is now,” Abbie heard Lady Barnwell say to Lady Crawford. She looked in the direction where others, too, had begun to point and look. The crowd bellowed deafening cheers. And then she saw it. The Prince’s procession. She watched as it made its way from the station, from which the Prince had arrived on the train’s maiden journey, toward the depot several blocks distant, where the luncheon was to be held.

That one man, and such a man, could inspire so much excitement fairly astounded her. She was conscious that she ought to be awestruck. She was unimpressed, save by the degree of excitement this railway project, and the presence of royalty, had produced. The crowd was moving now, filling in the path parted by the carriages that had passed, and flowing like a river in the wake of the procession as it made its way down Clapham Road. But it was here, at the station crossroads, where exhibits and festivities had been set up, that Abbie wished to remain. She wanted to see the train, to go into the tunnel and see for herself how it was meant to operate. Why so much to-doing if they were never going to see it?–Cry of the Peacock

Stockwell-opening-ceremonyAs far as doing actual research, there is nothing quite like the Victorian newspaper. Those articles are really detailed, as you can see in the sample I found here. This was a huge event, with thousands of people turning up to get a glimpse, not only of this groundbreaking, state of the art, underground train, but of the Prince of Wales, as well, who was there to open the ceremony. If you took a moment to peek at the article, you’ll see that it is very lengthy, and very wordy. But what a wealth of information it gives!

In the little park of land before the City and South London depot, a great marquee had been set up, beautifully decorated in blues and ochres—and gold—with intricately woven palampores to line the walls and to serve as doorways and curtains. It seemed to Abbie’s inexperienced eyes very like a maharaja’s pavilion, fit for a prince—which was, she supposed, its purpose, after all.

Abbie’s party was the last to be admitted, and their table was situated very near the back, the farthest from the Prince’s view. Or would be, when he arrived.

Sir Nicholas and Lord Barnwell excused themselves to speak with some acquaintances, while the rest of their party took their seats and waited for the Prince to make an appearance and for the meal to begin. Though Abbie was hungry, she was more conscious of the opportunity being missed. Would they not see the train, nor the station, at all? And as Lady Barnwell and Lady Crawford examined the room—the other guests, what they wore, who they were with—Abbie dared to ask the question.

It went unheard as the elder ladies chattered and gossiped, and as Katherine sat silent and cross. David, too, was too preoccupied to hear her, and James’ attention was wholly absorbed with Mariana, with whom he had resumed his conversation.

“He has come,” Lady Crawford whispered to them all.

The crowd suddenly grew louder, then quieted again. The Prince entered and took his seat, looking around admiringly at the oriental décor, and remarking upon it.- Cry of the Peacock

POW-at-Stockwell

The tunnel, once they arrived there via a hydraulic lift, was not quite the dark and foreboding place Abbie had expected. It was brightly lit by both gas and electricity, and the walls, the vaulted ceiling, too, were tiled in white, which shone and reflected and made the tunnel seem almost comfortable.

The train sat on one side of the platform, and an attendant, by way of opening the gate, encouraged them to board. David handed Katherine up, then turned to offer the same assistance to Abbie, who hesitated a moment before giving David her hand. His attentiveness seemed to her a trifle forced. He did not smile, would hardly meet her gaze. But he was certainly paying her every respect. Perhaps that was the best she could hope for under the circumstances. She only wished she knew what those circumstances were.-Cry of the Peacock

train-interior-1

Once inside, they examined the car—a single compartment—in close detail; the walls and doors of gleaming wood, the vaulted, whitewashed ceiling, the high backed and comfortable benches—one on each side of the long car—and the narrow row of windows above the seats’ backs. The train sat stationary today, allowing for a view of the platform without. Travelling through the tunnels, however, would be quite dark. Still, the windows offered a sort of optimism that Abbie found comforting.

In the reflection she caught David’s gaze, which altered its direction the moment her eyes met his. He looked to Katherine, who was apparently not so impressed by the spectacle as perhaps he had hoped.

“I can’t imagine who would want to ride on such a narrow, cramped thing,” she said. “Scores of people all in one car, trapped together underground, and with no way of knowing just who you might be sitting next to. It could be a Jack the Ripper for all anyone would know.” And she rubbed her fingers together as if she’d already acquired so much unwanted human filth. She turned and exited the car.

“I too find it rather cramped and close,” Mariana said, breaking the awkward silence. “Do you mind, Abbie, if I wait for you on the platform?”

“Not at all,” she said and watched as James accompanied her sister and Katherine off the train.

Perhaps Abbie ought to follow, but she did wish for a moment more. To see the train, yes, but also to speak with David if she could. –Cry of the Peacock

Research keeps me from writing, which I think is why I’m inclined, when asked, to say I dislike it. But it has consistently been my experience that such research, successful research, adds so much depth and detail to a story, to those pertinent and necessary scenes, that it becomes integral to creating a convincing setting. To me the hardest part of writing Historical Fiction is creating a convincingly period setting. The more abstract concept of atmosphere can be developed through period readings, literature, letters, journals and diaries. But the details, the nitty gritty facts of a thing, are the embellishments that make it shine.

Research? *groan* I love it! And I hate it. But mostly I love it! Really I do.

V.R. Christensen, June 3, 2013

One of Christensen’s short stories, Blessed Offense will be free on US Kindle and UK Kindle June 6-8

 

5 Comments

  1. Great article! I’m so glad that you didn’t assume the Victorian-era bride and groom would share a kiss the same way they do in modern wedding ceremonies. I sometimes wish I could download necessary research directly into my brain while I’m sleeping. It would leave me more time for writing.

    • The kissing issue is a whole other blog post. But it was interesting to research. There are no examples of it in literature, except in two instances a mention, and that by lower classes. But I did find an etiquette article on the issue, which raised more questions than it answered. Very interesting stuff.

      It’s the time, you’re right, that gets me. When I’m in the mood to write, I’m in the mood to create. Stopping to research is like switching gears. It has to be done, but it’s a different part of the brain. Plus, I’m not good at remembering things. I have to record and document and organize all my research so I can go back to it again and again. I’m rubbish at remembering things.

  2. Excellent article. I love research as well, sometimes more than writing the book. Nothing beats that magical moment where a plot aligns with historical events and gives your characters ringside seats. Good luck with Cry of the Peacock; I bought Of Moths of Butterflies just last month to read while on vacation.

  3. I love the research–and the fact you do it very well shows in your excerpts as the “color” of the scene.

    I can get caught up in research rather than writing, but thankfully there are several programs available for me to use to organize my research into something that can be found again (and when all else fails, I can resort to paper copies filed in three-ring binders that are marked up, highlighted, covered in Post-It notes–you get the drift LOL).

    Normally, I research first and then write so I don’t have to stop. If I need something, I just underline for a bit and change the color of the text as a placeholder until I go back and research/fill in the missing bits. It is definitely a back-and-forth process.

    Your attention to these details has shown me I simply must pick up your book when it is published! You already have me hooked 😉

  4. Mea Culpa; please forgive me. My new browser doesn’t show links (need to play with my settings I guess) and did not realize Cry of the Peacock was already available. I’m off to download it to my Kindle now!