Research and the novelist

On occasion, prospective writers will ask for advice on how to become a better writer. Join any faceache writers group, and you will see a dozen questions of this type a day. Occasionally those asking such questions will even listen to the answers, though often the advice they receive is contradictory. Often however they will cherry-pick the advice they want, so some of the more valuable advice gets ignored, usually because it sounds a bit too much like hard work. the thing is, however, writing is hard work, and there are some bits of advice that are invaluable, which often prove to be the bits of advice most easily ignored.

For example:

Do your research, research everything in fact…

Which is one of my favourite bits of ignored advice, the most common response to which is:

But I write fiction…

Well, yes, so do I, But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to do research. Currently, I am writing the 2nd draft of the 2nd Hannibal Smyth Novel, which is steampunk set in the 200th year of Queen Seldom ‘bloody’ Amused reign. So a fiction, set in a fictional timeline. Which is to say I make a lot of things up. Yet still, I have to do my research. If for no other reason than because if I am trying to create a fictional world it still needs to be grounded enough in reality that it works within its own internal logic, otherwise no one will feel invested enough to ‘believe’ in that world, and suspend their disbelief while they read the novels.

Luckily I enjoy research, for the sake of research some times, and because it makes me a better writer. For example, this is a bit of a throw-away sojourn I was writing today. In which Hannibal explains why he changed his name from Harry.

No one likes an upstart. No one wants you to carve a better lot for yourself. A man who raised from the rank, why he was an insult to everyone who hadn’t.  Sure most rank and file airmen may hate officers who came from the upper classes, but at least they were born to it. Some toff-nosed twerp of an officer giving you gip, well that was to be expected, and hating them well that’s just what you did, it didn’t mean anything. But here’s the thing, toff-nosed officer types didn’t start out in the gutter with you and climb out of it while you just languished down there among the other turds. Toff-nosed twerps didn’t rub your nose in the fact you’ve never amounted to more than just a lowly airman shovelling coal into a boiler, while they swaggered about thinking they were better than they had a right to be.

Which, in case you have ever wondered, is why I changed my name to Hannibal from plain old Harry. Harry was a boiler stokers name, not a toff’s name, not an officers name. No one would ever call one of the heirs to the throne Harry, would they?

Now you may wonder why this needs any research. Even the last line is little more than a joke about the name of a certain real-world ginger-haired prince of the realm. Harry, you see is not a name which the Victorians would have associated with royalty. But on the other hand, would they have? Is it a joke that works within itself, or merely within my imagination? Does it actually make sense? And isn’t there that bit in Shakespeare about a Harry? Has there actually been a king Harry? Will anyone other than me obsess about one throwaway line amid a little sojourn off the main plot for a couple of paragraphs?

Well, the answer to the last question is in all probability, no, no one will care. But I do. As for a couple of questions before that, well the Shakespeare in question ( and yes I had to look it up to be sure) is from a speech from Henry V, Act III


So why does Henry the fifth say ‘Harry’ and who is he referring to? Well, the simple answer is he is referring to himself, (again I had to look this up). There never has been a King Harry. However, Harry is often used as a nickname for the various Henry’s. In fact, Harry was not until recently a real name at all, but merely a nickname for people called Henry. Much like until recent times no one was ever actually called Bill, it was merely a shortening of William, (more research). The upper classes in late Victorian times, royalty, in particular, would not name a child with what is a common nickname. Though they may refer to each other within common parlance, Sticky Vic often referred to Prince Albert as her ‘dearest Bertie’ for example. The point being, Harry is not a name the Victorians would associate with princes… So that last line works and makes sense beyond just amusing me. You see research is good…

Oddly enough, (and again thanks to research) our dear recently wed Prince Harry, is also not called Harry… His real name is Henry Charles Albert David Winsor. So in the now unlikely event that both his brother and his brother children did not succeed his father’s mother, and Prince Harry ascended to the throne of dear old England, he would be Henry IX, and England would still not have a Harry for a king…

Harry you see, thanks to research, remains a boiler stokers name…


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