One of the constant debates among writers of historical fiction is “do you have to visit the places you write about?” Two schools of thought exist on this question. Naturally, they are yes and no. But more specifically, more directly, the question is “does it do you any good to go?” And again, the answers are yes and no.
My first published novel was set in London, 1602, onstage at the Globe Theater. I wasn’t in a financial position to go to London, so I used my money to buy maps and books, anything, everything that told me about Shakespeare’s London. And it worked. I felt good about my period detail, and the book garnered positive reviews for its accuracy. All without having gone to London. But here’s the obvious point: going to London in the present day does little to help you grasp the London that Shakespeare knew. And when I did go to London, I had the rather bizarre experience of feeling as Shakespeare would if he were to return. His city had disappeared.
The Globe is gone, merely a paved parking lot behind a converted 18th century brewery, although the reconstructed Globe gives visitors a feel for how it might have been. But the original Globe is reduced to its foundations, still under excavation when I first went there. His lodgings on Silver Street now lie under a parking garage. He would recognize St. Paul’s, looming as it does over the London skyline. The great London fire of 1666 stole many landmarks familiar to Shakespeare. His gatehouse in Blackfriars is long gone as are the jetties where he would catch a boat taxi across to Bankside and Southwark. Westminster, home to his friend Ben Jonson, was, then as now, outside the City, but then you could tell that it was outside the walls. Not now.
Later, I turned to expatriate Paris and a mystery set among the literary elite of 1922. But once again, I was hampered by finances. The wonderful thing with writing about writers is that nearly all of them left memoirs with exquisite details. And then I found Arlen Hansen’s delightful Expatriate Paris, which literally goes door by door and gives detail down to the bartenders’ names and even the names of the prostitutes. So visiting Paris, while a tempting idea, became unnecessary.
When I turned my hand to King Arthur, it was a completely different story, (no pun intended.) I knew exactly where I wanted to set Arthur’s seat, and the vast majority of the various scenes. Glastonbury, South Cadbury, Ilchester. And I could not have written about them without visiting. Of course, there have been changes in that landscape as well. Glastonbury Tor still rises above the Somerset levels like a great beacon. The countryside is still primarily rural. At South Cadbury, the abandoned ramparts still mark the slope. And I know that people once walked those ramparts and saw the majestic form of the Tor in the distance. I know that that the morning breeze smells much the same today as it did then. And I suspect that the sun sets beyond the levels in the same way.
Now, I have returned to Shakespeare, but travel isn’t quite the financial burden it once was. And as my new book isn’t strictly London-based, the journey made a bit more sense. It was one of the best moves I have made. While Stratford-upon-Avon has changed considerably since Shakespeare’s day, there are still a number of buildings from that time. The Birthplace, of course. Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, and her husband John Hall. Perrott’s tavern, now the White Swan, is still in business. Yes, you can still down a pint where the Bard did, and even spend the night in a chamber in use in 1616. Maps cannot and do not do it justice.
Today, we live in the world of Google Earth and other services that offer a bird’s eye view of even the most remote corner of the world. Unfortunately, staring at a computer screen is a poor substitute for breathing the air and feeling the ground under your feet. But with historical fiction, rather than offer inspiration, such a trip may just leave you saddened at how completely the world you love has disappeared. So, the answer to the question is really, “sometimes, it is necessary; sometimes it’s not.” The key, I think, is in recognizing the difference.
Filed under: Tony Hays |