Saturday, 29 April 2017

Footsore Research for Historical Novels

“If I die doing this, she’ll kill me.”

By Piers Alexander
“It’s set in 1692, is it? Errr… you must have done a lot of research. Did you?”

This is not an uncommon conversational gambit for historical authors to have to deal with. Hopefully, the answer’s yes: the writers I know spend hundreds if not thousands of hours poring through academic texts and maps, visiting museums, and talking to historians. Readers love discovering new historical nooks and crannies (and they hate it if you misrepresent a subject they know well), so sleeves must be rolled up.

Then there’s character research: spending time locked inside a Moleskine diary, nattering away to your fictional friends, listening to them tell you what they want, what they did, and what they really want to be.

Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they don’t know what they want, and it isn’t until the fifth draft that you catch them out, and have to rewrite the first three (bloody) chapters. Usually it’s a perspicacious editor or friendly reader who spots the incongruity, and forces you to go back to your character’s childhood, and realise that the premature death of their father has created a tyrant complex that can only be resolved with an act of brutal betrayal. [For example. That may be a plot spoiler for Scatterwood. Or not.]

And then there’s Footsore Research, my favourite bit. It involves getting on a train, or a plane, or a boat, and heading out to the novel’s location to walk in my characters’ footsteps, visit local museums, follow my nose into unnecessarily stressful situations, smell the air and taste the food.

Which is probably why I chose to set Scatterwood in Jamaica. Ian Fleming, Jimmy Cliff, Blue Mountain coffee, the spooky appeal of Port Royal (once the Sodom of the Caribbean, home to Henry Morgan and the Golden Age pirates)… I’d been thinking about it for seven years by the time I got out there.

The rules of Footsore Research are:

1. If your main character is on foot, you’re on foot

My protagonist, Calumny Spinks, is forced into indentured servitude and marched from Port Royal across the Blue Mountains to a sugar plantation on the north side of Jamaica. And if I hadn’t followed him, I might not have discovered the rufous-throated solitaire, a ventriloquial bird whose spooky whistling is like the whispers of the dead. I recorded it for you. I was completely alone on the mountain (one of the sub-rules of Footsore Research is, “Always go on a massive hike just before sundown. What could possibly go wrong?”)

I did get a puncture high up on the shoulder of Blue Mountain Peak, and remembered that I’d promised my wife Rebecca that I wouldn’t do anything stupid or on my own. Luckily a friendly family rushed out of their houses, changed the tyre for me and waved me off.

2. Talk to strangers

I’m not sure I’ve gleaned any particular plot points or historical nuggets that have made it into any manuscript from doing this, but I’ve had some hilarious conversations, and made a friend or two, by doing this.

One of my favourite memories of Jamaica is being flagged down - by scrawny elderly gentlemen, by schoolkids tramping up a steep road to get home from school, by ladies going to work in Kingston - with a yell of, “Whitey! I’m beggin’ a ride!”

Again, I’m not sure it was entirely what I agreed with Rebecca, but it did give me a feeling not far from Calumny’s experience of Jamaica: he’s forced to depend on complete strangers for his survival, and to protect his family.

3. If you’ve invented a location, find a real one that matches it. Follow your nose

Ahhh… this is the best rule. It took me up a long broken trail, past “Closed to the Public” signs, to discover an abandoned fortified plantation house. It led me to gap-toothed farmer Ivan, who gently shook me down for a thousand J-dollars in exchange for letting me visit the beach beyond his land, which so closely resembled the ship-wrecking Naggle Bay that I’d imagined that I could hardly bear to leave it.

And it took me away from the official tour of Reach Falls, and into the lower levels of the river, where I gave my worldly goods to a young fellow called Jonai, who showed me the caves that escaped slaves used to hide in. I swam through the pools with an increasing sense of contentment… until he showed me the underwater tunnel.

“Just dive in there, man. Swim towards the light. You’ll find the cave.”


“Yeah man. It’s easy!”

I looked at the underwater tunnel. It was about four feet down, and about two feet across, and it reminded me of (a) the Shawshank Redemption, and (b) that bit in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen where the kids are crawling through a narrow tunnel and discover too late that it’s flooded, and they can’t turn around.

I thought about my promise to Rebecca. If I die here, she’ll kill me.

“Sorry, man,” I said, my voice a little shrill over the pounding of the nearby waterfall. “I just won’t do it.”

“Yeah man,” said Jonai. Leaving my phone and car keys on the side of the river, he jumped into the pool, joined me in the cave and dived through the tunnel. That’s it, I thought, forgetting my promise again, if he can do it…

I banged my head a little on the tunnel. It was shorter than I’d feared. We emerged in a cave behind a waterfall, which shimmered softly in the dapple-light. We laughed. He plunged through the cascade. I took a microsecond to imagine myself as a runaway bondsman hiding from a search party, tucked in my chin, and threw myself into the thudding waters.

Piers Alexander’s debut novel, The Bitter Trade, won TLC’s Pen Factor, a Global Ebook Award and the Historical Novel Society’s Editor’s Choice (Indie Review). Both The Bitter Trade and Scatterwood were selected by WHSmith for their Fresh Talent list. Piers is also a serial media entrepreneur, and he lives in London with the singer-songwriter and author Rebecca Promitzer.


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