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Historical fact or fiction?

September 5, 2010

Paul has disappeared down the editing hole, and is refusing to come out, muttering something about em dashes and ellipses ganging up on him. Until we can find a tranquiliser gun and a long stick to get him out, author Paul Lawrence has kindly agreed to fill in for our Paul. Enjoy!

The year is 1993. I was 30, kicking my heels, about to come home after my first stint working in Australia. The urge to write again had me in its grip. The first time I was so immobilised I ended up writing some rubbish fantasy novel, the second time a Tom Sharpe read-alike. This time though would be different! I had a vision, a picture of 17th century London – the Great Plague, the Fire of London, and lots of people doing nasty things to each other and having their heads chopped off. I wrote the first draft of “The Sweet Smell of Decay” in about a year. It then took me another year to type it up (I don’t think laptops had been invented, and I didn’t own a home computer). Then not long at all to realise it wasn’t very good – I actually didn’t know very much about the period. So I started doing some proper research and reworking the book over and over, until at last, 14 years later, “Sweet Smell” was accepted for publication.

In that time I learned three great lessons about writing historical fiction.

First – readers expect you to have done your homework. Of course you are writing fiction – but the reader expects to be able to tell what is true and what you’ve made up, and if you blur the lines unwittingly then you’ll seriously p*ss people off. The reader demands that you know your stuff. For example – in “Sweet Smell” there is a real historical character called William Prynne. I included him because he comes across as such a cantankerous old git, but also a passionate individual with the ideal history and outlook on life to include in my story. Trouble was I hadn’t done my homework. I needed to be told by an early critic that in real life he had had both ears chopped off and the letters S.L. branded on each cheek. At that point I realised I had a lot of work to do. So I spent 3 years doing half an OU degree in history and invested I-don’t-know-how-much on 50 books on the period (and still counting).

The GOOD news is that the internet is a wonderful thing. For example, I was reading Samuel Pepys diary of the year 1666 in preparation for my third book. He writes of reading a book called “An Interpretation of the number 1666” by Francis Potter – so I wanted to read it too. I found it on the internet, available for free and printed off my own copy – how good is that!

Second – you’ve got to find the right language. I cannot write my 17th century novels in 17th century English. Try reading John Evelyn, Daniel Defoe or even Samuel Pepys. I find Pepys pretty accessible, but in today’s cut and thrust competitive market – even his naughty prose wouldn’t work. Not if you want to get published. Neither is it easy to write in contemporary English if at the same time you’re trying to recreate the atmosphere of a time long ago. So you have to invent.

Over the years I found a language for my books, which takes time to write. I have my online etymology dictionary constantly open to make sure I don’t use any words that weren’t around in the 17th century. Given that I can’t use words from the 17th century that no one now would recognise (without seriously p*ssing people off), I have to use quite a restricted vocabulary. One of the devices I use in all of my books is to include quotes from 17th century texts at the head of each chapter. It’s partly because I enjoy being a bit cryptic, matching quotes to the theme of the chapter. But it’s also because the authentic 17th century language helps ground the reader in the period, and I have aimed to create a language for the book to bridge the gap between.

Third – just because you’re writing historical fiction doesn’t mean any of the rules change when it comes to writing a good yarn. There’s a temptation when you’ve spent days/weeks/months/years doing all that research to show it off – to paint the scene as vividly as possible. But every moment you spend out of the story painting pictures is time spent – out of the story. I must have edited out half a novel before finishing “Sweet Smell” just cutting anything that didn’t add to the narrative. A painful, painful process.

As Carrie Clevenger said, the good news is that once you’ve done all the work you can write more than one story set in that time. I’m currently on the third Harry Lytle novel, and have found myself sucked deeper and deeper into what is a fascinating period of history. Looking back to 1993 would I have started writing about the period if I knew then what I knew now? Absolutely.

Paul Lawrence lives in Sydney, Australia and writes about crime fiction set in 17th century England. He was born in England, and spent quite a few years in London, before emigrating to the land of sun and plenty with his wife and four kids. Being a generous kind of a bloke Paul lists many of his source texts at goodreads, has created a beautiful website called The Chronicles of Harry Lytle, and regularly updates a terrific blog on Facebook.

“The Sweet Smell of Decay” and “A Plague of Sinners” are both published by Beautiful Books.

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5 Comments
  1. September 5, 2010 3:08 am

    thanks Paul! great post and heaps for me at least to think about. I really enjoyed your post

  2. September 5, 2010 3:26 am

    Well thank you Paul for the wonderful elaboration! I’m interested in where the etymology dictionaries are? Wikipedia is fine but not so helpful in the accurate department. Love these history how-tos!

  3. Paul Lawrence permalink
    September 6, 2010 7:29 am

    Hi Carrie – I use http://www.etymonline.com. It’s gre-eat.

  4. Rick permalink
    September 7, 2010 2:07 am

    Sorry Paul,
    But if you truly want to find redemption through your writing, you might look into the extinction of the Tasmanians. Unfortunately, research will not do you much good. The only information that I can find concerns the interment of the skeletal remains of the last survivor of the race. She simply requested that her remains be buried in Tasmania. A museum in London seems to feel that her request is unreasonable…and the abuse goes on.

    This comment was edited by Paul Anderson on Sep 7, 2010 at 03:30 EST.
    Reason: removal of ad hominem attack

  5. September 7, 2010 3:36 am

    Rick, I have edited your comment as I do not feel that your last line was appropriate. Nothing in Paul Lawrence’s article mentions the political issue of the return of ancestral remains and to the best of my knowledge he is not a representative of any museum, nor of the Australian or British governments. As he is not a party to any dispute, the implication made was uncalled for and has been removed.

    Nowhere in the article is it stated that Paul writes to find “redemption”, and his writing does not concern the topic you have raised. As interesting as it may be, it is irrelevant to this article, and more generally to the subject matter of this site.

    I am allowing the initial comment to stand, but any further comments that are not related to the subject of this article will be treated as spam.

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