Guest author: Tom Hocknell on researching historical fiction

Welcome to my latest guest author, Tom Hocknell, whose debut novel The Life Assistance Agency, is published on 22nd September 2016. Good luck with the book, Tom, it sounds fascinating…

Writing a novel is hard enough, without needing to know which side of bed 15th century London Ferryman slept on. After ‘don’t write from the POV of a cat’, the best writing advice is ‘don’t write historical fiction,’ which is presumably why I ignored it.

I have kept it to a minimum – 4 sections of a diary – but it still presented the perfect opportunity to avoid writing by doing research. I’m not using period dialogue either, nor chasing authenticity by writing in a quill.

Another warning. Establishing historical characters is the easy part. Problems arise when they want to know things. Unlike contemporary protagonists, who can cut your word count by 5000 words via a Google search, historical characters have to actually meet people, or spend half their lives reading books – after learning to bloody read first, which doesn’t necessarily make scintillating fiction. .

Of course nothing tells you that you’ve finished a novel involving a historical figure such as Dr Dee like an exhaustive exhibition on him being announced; of the sort you had prayed for when starting your research. It’s like finding everything you’ve Googled in the flesh, well, perhaps not everything. In light of my recent searches for a used car, garden compost and cheap flights, not to mention the OCCASIONAL search for more intimate distraction, this is for the best.

Of course the most frustrating thing is to discover that your fascinating 16th century alchemist and angel-caller isn’t your historical figure, but other people’s too. A memo must have gone out a few years ago, because Damon Albarn wrote an opera on Dr Dee, Peter Ackroyd a book, and Random House eventually declined my novel because they had already signed a trilogy of novels involving, yup, you guessed it. Dr Dee. I got to the party late, but at least I got there.

My delaying a visit to the Dr. Dee exhibition at London’s Royal College of Physicians is the stuff legends are made of, were legends compiled of illness, train cancellations and chicken-pocked childcare. However, facing another day of children’s TV spent wondering how, when, or indeed why, Noddy got his helicopter flying licence, while looking for a specific Lego figure last seen a year ago, I wrapped up the 2-year old amidst promises of ‘going on a choo choo train’ and actually left the house.

On arrival at London’s Royal College, the 2-year old was chuffed with his lanyard like only someone can be who has yet to spend his life required to wear it. He frowned as I purred at the exhibition of glass cabinets containing what appeared to be neatly labelled 400 year old recycling. It’s the reunification of Dr. Dee’s library, the largest collection of 1500s England. He returned from Europe in 1586 to find it ransacked; as you do if you’ve chosen the wrong house sitter.

The exhibition was thrilling, although the sort of thing my teenage self would be aghast at my attending, but these days I get excited by shutting my eyes for 5 minutes. Like Dr. Dee’s, I hope my belongings are collated one day, even if they provoke little else than: ‘what’s this pile of crap?’ ‘How many broken hole punches is it necessary to own?’ And ‘why does anyone need 3 copies of Raze’s seminal Break 4 Love 12”?’’ I can actually answer that, but only on request.

It’s hard to know what the 2-year liked the most, but it was either De lateribus et angels triangulorum by Nicholas Copernicus which was protected beneath heavy linen to protect it from sunlight, or the foot-operated pedal bin in the disabled toilet downstairs.

The 2-year old grew bored before I was able to properly coo at the actual crystal ball Dr. Dee and Edward Kelley once used to scry angels; he preferred to play with the lift button. I guess that’s similarly lofty aspirations. There was also a Quentin Blake illustration of Dee from 2011, which easily justified taking the toddler, that and later throwing sandwiches at pigeons in Regent’s Park. However, there was something truly magical about seeing the items I have grown so familiar with while writing my novel The Life Assistance Agency over the past few years.

The Life Assistance Agency with its research mostly done before London’s Royal College of Physicians exhibition can be purchased here.

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