One of the key challenges in writing a historical crime novel is immersing yourself in the period. Difficult when in our modern world, surrounded by technology and mobile phones to think yourself way, way back into the 1600s. But that is what I’m doing at present with my lady investigator solving crimes in seventeenth century London. So how do I transport myself into a world where England has just come out of a civil war, your health was deemed to be governed by four mysterious humours, and the Plague regularly killed young and old?
Firstly, I read around my subject. There are standard reference works and I have a whole bookshelf full. Occasionally, with the wonders of the world wide web, you can also come across gems such as Mike Rendell’s ‘Georgian Gentleman’ blog. This is a little later than the century I am researching, nevertheless it provides valuable insights. Mike Rendell is lucky enough to have inherited a pile of papers, superb first person accounts from his ancestor Richard Hall, which he is kind enough to share with the world. Topics cover everything from phonetic pronunciation where we see Richard Hall’s original beautiful handwritten notes usefully advising us that ‘bosom’ was pronounced ‘boozum’ to depictions in art showing how the pastime of constructing a house of cards from playing cards is nothing new. These little snippets of days gone past are what can colour a novel and make it real.
Another thing I find essential is to visit the settings of my novels. They say the past is another country and you can still, today visit the past, particularly somewhere as ancient as London. In the City, you can go to St Olave’s, the church where the bust of Samuel Pepys’s beloved wife Elizabeth is on display. You can also walk down steps into the church and wonder why they would sink the building two feet or more into the ground. Research will tell you that on the contrary, the church wasn’t built into a dip. Instead the ground around was raised by default because the Plague resulted in so many bodies requiring burial that the constant heaping of bones and earth around the churchyard has caused it to raise up. Just thinking of those thousands of poor people perishing and the plight of those remaining who saw whole families and streets of neighbours disappear daily is something to transport one quickly back to a different age. The closeness of death for our forebears is something very different from our own lives today and something to be aware of when creating the atmosphere in a historical novel. Only recently, deep digging to lay the foundations for crossrail has resulted in the unearthing of bones from the Bethlem burial ground and an informative website has been set up to record the finds
Another way to get in touch with the past and to smell the atmosphere of open fires and meat roasting on the air is to visit the site of a civil war battle whilst people are preparing for the fight. Each Easter, Basing House in Hampshire is the site of a re-enactment by the Sealed Knot of one of the significant battles overseen by none other than Oliver Cromwell himself. The original house was destroyed even though at one time, with 360 rooms it was one of the largest private houses in England. Each Easter people dress in their authentic gear and are happy to talk for hours to anyone who will listen about the 1600s. These enthusiasts are invaluable and they really know their stuff. It is not just the battle I was interested in although I spoke for ages to a Master Gunner who revealed the secrets of how to measure the trajectory of your mortar to blow up exactly the piece of land you’re aiming at. In addition, there are many camp followers and I was rewarded for my visit by a fascinating discussion with a lady who was spinning flax to make linen and enlightened me on the underwear such a lady would wear. We were also let into the intricacies of the game Nine Men’s Morris. All fascinating stuff. More eerie was the trip I took to Knole house in Kent where they recently made an extraordinary discovery. In preparation for a visit by King James who wrote one of the seminal works on identifying and punishing witches, witch marks were etched into the beams near his bed. It was thought these would protect him. The theory was that witches flying down the chimney and in through the fireplace would become confused and tangled up in the strange circular patterns thus protecting the king.
But the thing I have found most evocative of the past is to own a portion of it. There is nothing like twirling in your fingers an object crafted by someone who lived over four hundred years ago, closing your eyes and imagining them holding that same object. The two things I own are firstly a roof tile which I picked up from the Thames foreshore opposite the tower of London. This was on a guided mudlarking session run by a river archaeologist. The tile has a neat hole in it and the archaeologist told us that any where the hole is blackened (the tiles were secured with wooden pegs) would almost certainly have come from the time of the Great Fire. The other treasure I have is a piece of lead shot. These are regularly dug up in Hampshire villages around Basing House and I obtained mine in a junk shop for the princely sum of £1. I fancy sometimes that I can see in the soft lead, the fingerprint of the soldier who made it, reputedly from the lead roof of the chapel at Basing House. Now that really is treasure for an author to own.
Cara Cooper has recently gone over to the dark side. She started by writing romance for My Weekly and People’s Friend magazines and has had serials, short stories and pocket novels published by them. It was after she wrote short stories for two anthologies, ‘Shiver’ and ‘A Case of Crime’ for Accent Press that she really developed a taste for crime writing. Cara lives and works in London and gets lots of her inspiration from that great city. At present she is writing a historical set in the capital in the 1600s which gives her an excuse to eat pies and drink gallons of coffee around Covent Garden, all in the name of research. She is often to be found haunting the Museum of London, and the Wellcome Institute in search of inspiration. Lately, mudlarking on the Thames has fired her imagination. A career which has spanned the civil service including a long stint spent in a Government Minister’s office and following that, in human resources for a charity has given her some useful insights into human nature. Cara can be reached on Facebook and at @CaraCooper1 on Twitter. She also blogs intermittently at caracoopersblogspot.co.uk.