I have always admired writers of historical fiction for their ability to transport their readers not only in place but also in time, and make it all feel immediate and real. This knack for time-space travel is a precious attribute, but is it an acquired skill or an intuitive talent? I have asked Tom Williams, author of the James Burke and the Williamsons Papers historical series, to shed some light on how he performs his time-space magic. Here is what he said.
Anna has asked me to write about how a writer of historical fiction captures the feel of a place during the period when they have set their story.
I don’t understand authors who can explain how they work their personal magic. I have no idea how I do this. I’m not being falsely modest or coy: I really don’t know. And the reason is that researching time and place is different for almost every book I’ve written.
Let’s look at my first novel: The White Rajah. It’s set in mid-19th century Borneo and it’s easy to tell you how I researched the place: I went there. In fact, the trip to Borneo came well before the book. It was learning about James Brooke in the place where he was once absolute ruler that inspired me to write the book. Back then (it was a long time ago) Sarawak wasn’t the popular tourist destination that it is now and there was little in the way of tourist infrastructure. We travelled upriver and stayed a couple of nights with local people, sleeping on the floor of the longhouse and sharing a meal which included a dwarf deer that our guide had fortuitously stumbled across and killed on our journey. It was an unforgettable experience – luckily, as it turned out, because we’d misloaded the film in our camera (this was well before digital photography) so we have only our memories.
A longhouse in the jungle back then wasn’t that different from what it would have been over a hundred years earlier, so the jungle and its people was easy to write. As to the town and the world James Brooke knew, I had to fall back on his diaries and those of other travellers in the area. There were even pictures that looked as if they may well have been drawn from life. So researching time and place was not difficult.
My second book in the John Williamson Papers, Cawnpore, was a completely different story. It’s set in India, a country I have never visited. I’m not sure that it would be terribly helpful if I had, because Cawnpore, the town where the action is set, is lost under the sprawl of modern Kanpur. Even some of the sites that survive have succumbed to neglect or, in some cases (given the political sensitivity of the events of 1857) have been destroyed. I was reduced to relying on descriptions by travellers of the time. Fortunately we have some very good ones. I was very nervous though, until an Indian friend reassured me that I had caught the feel of the country.
The final book of the John Williamson trilogy, Back Home, is the one closest to my everyday life. It’s set in Seven Dials, nowadays a chichi shopping district next to Covent Garden. Back in 1859, it was a terrible slum.
I know Seven Dials well, because it is home to my favourite tango club, so I’m there most weeks. It is also close to the area of Soho where my grandfather walked the beat late in the 19th century when it wasn’t chichi at all.
Quite what it really was like in 1859 is difficult to say. Some descriptions suggest poverty but not absolute degradation. Dickens is harsher:
“… the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined; and lounging at every corner, as if they came there to take a few gasps of such fresh air as has fought its way so far… are groups of people, whose appearance and dwellings would fill any mind but a regular Londoner’s with astonishment … [There are] streets of dirty straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed of buildings as ill proportioned and deformed as the half-naked children that wallow in the kennels.”
My favourite story is that of a man who bet he could cross Seven Dials at night. A crowd gathered on the edge to see him emerge and at midnight they were disturbed by the sight of him running desperately toward them, stripped naked by those who had robbed him on his way.
My Seven Dials is by no means the worst version and sometimes, walking home down the quieter streets at night, I can screw up my eyes and imagine it as it might once have been.
So there we are: I just don’t have a simple way to capture the time and the place because every book poses different questions and they have to be answered in different ways. Maybe it’s exploring some of the older streets of Buenos Aires or perhaps it’s crossing the Andes on horseback (both for Burke in the Land of Silver) or it could be walking the battlefield of Waterloo. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to visit some lovely places and call it work. But, honestly, Google maps and a good book is all you absolutely have to have. I wrote Burke and the Pimpernel Affair during lockdown and though I planned to visit Paris to check out locations, I had to do it all from my desk and it still worked. I am looking forward to seeing the places I describe, but it won’t be the first time that I’ve checked the location after the book was published and it’s usually not a problem. I did rewrite one description in Burke at Waterloo after I’d seen the actual building where I had based some of the story. It’s still there and very different from what I had imagined, but I was just delighted to be walking in the footsteps of my hero.
How do I voyage in time and space? A bit of book research and some actual travelling. Season to taste with a dash of imagination.
Tom writes (mainly) historical fiction. Besides the John Williamson Papers, he has written six books about the adventures of Napoleonic-era spy, James Burke. All are available on Kindle and in paperback.
The latest in the James Burke series is the Pimpernel Affair. It was published in January.
1809: when a mission running agents into Napoleon’s France goes horribly wrong, it’s up to Burke to save the day. With the French secret police on his trail, can he stay alive long enough to free British spies from imprisonment in the centre of Paris? And how does the Empress Josephine fit into his plans?
Burke’s most daring adventure yet sees him and his loyal companion William Brown using all their cunning and courage to survive as they move from the brilliance of Napoleon’s court and Society parties to the darker Paris of brothels and gambling dens.
A thrilling story set against a convincing historical background.