Saturday, July 28, 2012

Historic Finds

As a historical writer I spend a lot of time researching. If you are a history buff like me it is easy to know and find information on the big things; wars, social rules, political structures, and even the climate of commerce. Non-fiction history books abound about the life of royals, the battles fought in wars and even interesting court cases throughout time but what is not so easy to find are the little details. In my view it's the little details that make all the difference with regards to a historical book or movie. Now that's not to say the little details should be a starring role, absolutely not, but little things intertwine together to form a three dimensional view of the world we are trying to escape to.

Most historical writers place heavy emphasis on research. We often hear that readers are brutal when it comes to historical accuracy and so it serves us well to get our facts right. But what if I am in the middle of a chapter, nay a sentence when it hits me, what kind of card game would they be playing? What types of buildings would my character be looking at right now? What headline would be on the paper that day? It's small details but ones that I want to include so my readers can feel like they are really there with my characters.

I ran into a wall recently in regards to research as I was trying to find information on bathing facilities. Because the Victorian era is a great time of change and progress the answer would be different for different types of houses. A country house, even a country manor house would be considered very primitive compared to some middle class houses in the city. It all depends on exact dates, the street or town or residence and the financial resources available to the family who lives there. Disregarding any of these key elements and the detail will not ring true.

But I came across an invaluable tool the other day that knocked my socks off. As many know I am writing a series set in Victorian London, and as much as I adore London and read about it there are details that get lost in books and essays. One of them is social class for certain districts and neighbourhoods. We all know the big ones, the poorest of the poor (Whitechapel) and the richest of the rich (Belgravia) but what about in between. I know many writers who would just come up with a name and plug it in. Not me. I want people to identify my stories with a genuine possibility they could be real. So I had to know where the middle class families would live, and this would help me pick an address for one of my secondary characters. Enter stage right; the internet. An invaluable resource for the modern historian.

I found a lovely site, London Street Origins, that outline the history of street names and neighbourhoods. Not all street names are listed here but a lot are and some are just filled with British history. I also found a interactive map that has been digitized from 1889 colour coded drawings outlining neighbourhood class and poverty levels. This was fascinating to look over and I nearly got completely sidetracked from my writing. The maps are called Charles Booth's 1889 London Poverty Maps and they are amazing. Just click on the section of the grid you want to explore and voilĂ , you can also zoom in for a closer look. I am so thankful Mr. Booth provided us with this amazing resource with which to gather a true picture of London's streets.

So in my quest for a neighbourhood, I used Mr. Booth's map to find a place within walking distance to the original St. Thomas hospital, but it must be a middle class dwelling. Thanks to his colour coding it was a synch. I found a street, did a search on London Street origins and then went to Google Maps to "walk" the neighbourhood to get a feeling for the architecture, and all from the comfort of my home here in Canada. It may seem like a lot of work for one of those small details but to me it's worth it if it gives authenticity to my writing. Beside with the Internet making history so accessible it's much easier than it use to be. We live in a great age.

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