Guest Author: Sarah Pinborough
Sometimes the best stories can be found just sitting there the dust of years gone by rather than in our own imaginations. Since I was a kid reading Jean Plaidy novels, I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction, but as I grew up to become an author I always vowed I’d never write it. The research terrified me and I am nowhere near a historian. Well, as the old saying goes, never say never, and after reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror when I was coming to the end of writing the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, I was inspired to try something different. I loved the way he’d blended fact with fiction to create his own take on the fate of those doomed ships, and I really wanted to attempt something similar myself.
Given that my fiction leans towards crime and the darker side of life, the first thing I did was a Google search on unsolved crimes in London in the nineteenth century. (I wasn’t stupid – if I was going to dip my toes into history then I wanted to pick a period I at least knew a little about from films and Dickens’ novels). This very quickly took me to the Thames Torso murders, and from there I was hooked and the seeds for Mayhem and the follow up, Murder, were sowed. For those who don’t know, these gruesome murders took place in London at the same time as Jack the Ripper, and like the Ripper case, the killer was never found. Several of the same people were involved in both cases – Dr Thomas Bond the police surgeon (the first man to ever write a criminal profile), Inspector Henry Moore who would end up leading the Ripper investigation, and several others, who all would become my cast of characters.
The great thing about writing fiction based on real events and people is that you have a skeleton already prepared to put the flesh onto. Researching the lives of my main characters fed into how the story would go, and I had a fixed timeline of the murders and the investigation to work with. There is a real satisfaction to weaving your own elements on to those that already exist. I was lucky in that there was a huge amount of information available on the Internet as many of the Ripperologists cover some of the torso murders and could provide detail on instances where the police and Dr Bond overlapped with those (the Mary Jane Kelly crime scene for example), and there were two very good books on the Thames Torso case itself which were invaluable for me. However, I did learn a few useful tips for non-historian diving into historical writing which may or may not be useful but I thought I’d share them anyway. So, here they are:
1. Always do a quick search for important events happening in the year/s you’re covering before you start. I almost missed a dock workers’ strike which would have been terrible given that the docks feature in Mayhem. As with today, important events in the news impact on your characters’ behaviour.
2. Old newspapers are invaluable. Littered between chapters in Mayhem and Murder are real newspaper articles from the time. I got completely absorbed in The Times Archive, keyword searching dates and my characters’ names. You may have to pay for access to some of these, but it’s well worth it.
3. Research as you go! This tip was passed on to me and it’s a great one. Yes, it’s also good to read up on the era you intend to write in (and read other novels set in that period), but if you try and take in too much before you start, you’ll have forgotten it by the time you need it and you can easily feel overwhelmed. Is your character hosting a dinner party? Figure out what food they’d eat when you get to that chapter, not a month before.
4. And finally – and perhaps most painfully – just because you’ve spent hours researching something, it doesn’t mean it all needs to go in the book. Ultimately, people are reading for the story. Don’t bog them down in the detail of getting from A to B simply because you spent two hours pulling your hair out as you researched transport, for example. Add enough flavour to make it realistic, but then get back to the meat of the book.
Anyway, that’s all from me…I have to get back to the 16th Century and ‘The Cunning Man’. Sadly, there are no Times Archives for this one!
Sarah Pinborough is a critically acclaimed horror, thriller and YA author. In the UK she is published by both Gollancz and Jo Fletcher Books at Quercus and by Ace, Penguin and Titan in the US. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies and she has a horror film Cracked currently in development and another original screenplay under option. She has recently branched out into television writing and has written for New Tricks on the BBC and has an original series in development with World Productions and ITV Global.
Sarah was the 2009 winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, and has three times been short-listed for Best Novel. She has also been short-listed for a World Fantasy Award. Her novella, The Language of Dying was short-listed for the Shirley Jackson Award and won the 2010 British Fantasy Award for Best Novella.