Tuesday 24 August 2010

How Much History Is Too Much?

This was written for the upcoming web site The Write Crime:

When you’re writing your history you have to know your period, and your place. Developing that depth of knowledge is obviously important if you’re going to make your book believable. But you also need to find a balance.

The reader needs to believe he’s there, but not be overwhelmed by it. Achieving that fine balance can be a difficult trick.

As someone who writes historical crime (my novel, The Broken Token, is set in Leeds in 1731) I’m very conscious of setting the scene well. That’s not just the streets and buildings but the other parts of life, especially the sounds and, above all, the smells. Cities in the 1800s stank. Now, putting that on paper might not be pretty, but it certainly is vital. People didn’t wash much, most of them were very poor, and didn’t both too much about barbers or being shaved. They possessed maybe two sets of clothes which were rarely laundered. Personal hygiene wasn’t a top priority – simply surviving until the next day trumped everything else.

Carts were pulled by horses, so you can guess what was all over the streets. In a city like Leeds, where dyeing and fulling were an important part of the wool process, urine was used extensively. It was also used in tanning, along with faeces. It didn’t smell pretty at all. And with no refrigeration, the butchers’ shops in the Shambles (which was along Briggate, by the Moot Hall – pretty much where Harvey Nicks is today) wouldn’t have smelled so sweet, either.

The rich dressed well, their servants looked after the house. But they weren’t isolated in a perfumed world. The things we take for granted, like daily showers and good cleaning of the teeth, weren’t part of their universe.

These are the minutiae of life that can tell far more than big political details. It’s history, but on a level every can feel and understand. I’m lucky, since the street layout of Leeds now is much the same as it was then, even if virtually no period buildings survive. So I can use names that anyone familiar with the city can picture.

Research is important when you’re writing a historical mystery. You have to read as much as you can, from libraries, online, every possible source. Leeds history was a passion of mine long before I began this book. However, I happened to be living in Seattle at the time (I was born and raised in Leeds). I’d pick up books when home, and go to the library and the Thoresby Society, but I was also helped by eBay. There I was able to bid on and win a few 19th century histories of Leeds that had never been reprinted; all grist to the mill.

So I knew the city, I knew the time. Leeds was just emerging as England’s leading woollen town, its merchants were growing rich. They controlled the Corporation, they made the local laws. The gulf between rich and poor was huge. Portraying how they both lived was important.

I also knew the bigger picture, the politics, the economics of England, with the South Sea Bubble a few years before and so on. To have that kind of knowledge of your chosen period is vital if you’re going to make the history convincing in your book.

The danger from all that can be trying to cram in far too much. A mystery is meant to entertain. It’s not social history or a textbook. It’s a mystery. That means picking and choosing, conveying the sense of the time to the point where the reader’s imagination can take over.

The writer adds the brushstrokes and just enough detail to suggest more. Readers don’t want screeds of background. They want characters, above all, and a story. As the writer you have to give it to them. That means pruning and shading the history until it flows as part of the narrative. Put in the details that set the scene and give it atmosphere, but there’s no need to do more than that. As to the bigger picture: unless it’s strictly relevant, forget it.

What about dialogue? A convention seems to have arisen among a number of writers that before the 20th century people didn’t use contractions in speech. On a purely personal level, I doubt this. People are naturally lazy in speech and probably always have been. They’ll find the shortest way to say something. This is why I’ll use contractions in dialogue just as if the people were contemporary (although some of the vocabulary will inevitably be different). It seems more natural and to the modern eye and ear it flows better. Whether strictly accurate or not it makes the experience of reading better.

Dialect can be important, too. It doesn’t need to be overdone, but use of some dialect words can help fix the story geographically. The words don’t need to be obscure, just associated with the area. For Leeds, choosing owt, nowt, summat, babbie, mebbe all work and give a feeling of location while still being very easy to comprehend. Think before you write.

Historical mysteries can be wonderful things, to write as well as to read, and the best of them are the equal of anything else published. But with more to be explained, the actual process of writing and creating has to be far more exact and careful to make readers feel they’re truly there.

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