To Go, or Not To Go

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Great post, Tony. I too love old maps and old photographs. For writing my train mystery, I studied the old timetables and dining car menus.

    • Those kinds of details are great, Janet. When I did the first Shakespeare mystery, I leaned heavily on John Dover Wilson’s Life in Shakespeare’s England. It has so many great period documents and descriptions. I lost my copy years ago, but I saw just recently that it’s been reprinted.

  2. I love anything to do with Shakespeare, Tony, and would risk my (slim) bank account to do first hand research. But as you suggest, where are the snows of yesteryear? On the other hand, when I was researching the late 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft, I happened upon venues/clues of my sleuth that I hadn’t seen mentioned in all her six biographies. So my advice: if you can, go to the source!

    • Nancy, I had been to Stratford back in 1996, and actually stayed at the White Swan. But it was a hurried trip, and I wasn’t then working on a related novel. I went back in 2008 while I was living over there, and then again this past May when I was in England for CrimeFest. Those were much more valuable trips. It helps so much to actually know how long it takes to get from point A to point B. And to touring the sites when you know what you’re looking for.

  3. Great post, and all very true. Bits and pieces of sixteenth century London still exist, but are rare, but in rural areas there are treasures. The manor houses at Cothele and Speke are wonderful, and gave me a much better sense of what Lady Appleton’s home at Leigh Abbey might have been like for my Face Down series.

    • You’re absolutely right about that, Kathy. The thing is though, as you know, you have to look for them. Although sometimes you can stumble into something. When I was living outside of Glastonbury in 2008, I would often take the bus over to Castle Cary and wander around town. Once, I was in a back street and there was an intact, 18th century gaol, just standing there.

  4. I thought the restored “Shakespeare’s Globe” (or Sam Wanamaker’s, more accurately I suppose) gave a real feeling of being transported back 400 years. The space feels so different to what we’re used to when going to the theater.But I saw it only on a tour, i.e. I didn’t see a play there, and I’m not an expert.

    • Meredith, one of the things that I always found interesting about the new Globe is that when they were preparing to build, they intended to use only materials and tools available in Shakespeare’s day. As it happened, there were only two companies who did that kind of work, if memory serves me. The one that was selected turned out to have strong family ties to the same Burbages who built the original.

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