Charles Finch author of the Charles Lenox Mysteries, shares with us his historical research process and how it's included in his mysteries.
The first thing to say about historical research is that any writer who claims not to use Wikipedia is a liar. Don’t trust them alone with your valuables.
I’ve written eight mystery novels set in Victorian England, all featuring gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox, and it’s true that I mostly draw the history in them from books about the period. My favorite of the bunch is the fifth, A Burial at Sea, which also happens to have required more research than the other seven combined. When I wrote it I was living in Oxford, England; every morning I went to the same carrel at the Bodleian Library, where the stack of books I’d left the evening before would be sitting there, patiently awaiting my return. They had enthralling titles like The Navy in Transition and The Royal Navy: An Illustrated Social History, 1870-1982 – in that one the butler did it, as I recall – because A Burial at Sea is set on a royal navy ship bound from London to Egypt. (I thought a shipboard murder would make a cool variation on the classic locked-room mystery.) I filled three notebooks before I wrote the words Chapter One…
And yet, very little of that information actually made it into the book. That’s because there are two ways for an author to give a reader history. The first is just to put it in. Example.
“I say, is that a corpse?” asked Lord Hoover.
Lord Hoover pondered this for a while, then said, “Did you know that there’s a seat in Parliament for a town that was washed away into the sea thirty years ago? It has eight voters.”
This is certainly an efficient method. Not very elegant, though. To me, the second way is better – which is for a writer’s knowledge to suffuse the text, to be present everywhere, even if it’s invisible. For every fifty facts I learned about the navy, one made it into A Burial at Sea, but my knowledge of the Victorian navy was, I hope, lurking behind every word I wrote. The more confidence the reader has in the authenticity of an author’s world, the faster and more unconsciously they can slip into the story.
This gets to a larger point: in historical fiction, atmosphere is what really counts. I love learning from books, but the facts in my favorite writers of historical fiction, Patrick O’Brian or Hilary Mantel for instance, are never obtrusive, never primary.
What matters, instead, is that a writer captures some of that ineffable quality that made a period of time itself – makes us believe that people lived back there, that it’s all more than a list of statistics. When I start writing a new Lenox book these days, I tend to read the writers who inspired me to write my series because I loved their worlds so much, Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, George Eliot. My next book, The Laws of Murder, took very little hard research in comparison with A Burial at Sea, and lots of this “softer” research. As I wrote it, I was constantly thinking: am I getting the voice right? Is this how they thought, how they felt? Are these the words they would have used?
That was what I obsessed over, not dates, not street names. After all: if I ever needed those, I could just run over to Wikipedia.