Readers are seldom aware of just how much research can go into writing a novel. It’s a neat trick of smoke and mirrors most writers perform, in that the research gets hidden beyond plain sight, so the reader never see the depth of the research that has gone into a book. Nor indeed should they, generally at least, not unless they sit and think about it for a while. A good book should draw you into the narratives world, the characters stories should take you through those worlds. Just like those Hollywood back-lot western towns that seem so real in the movies, you need to see the saloon, and the jail house, the brothel and the livery stables, what you don’t need to see is the work of the carpenters round the back, the scaffolds that the one-sided facades of the street are hung upon. The magic lays in the lighting and camera angles.
That’s what a well written novel is like, a literary movie for the reader. They don’t see the research that is the scaffolding on which the story is hung. As a writer myself I think I’m more adept than most at spotting the scaffolding, but that is because I can’t help but go looking for it. That is to say I can spot good research. It doesn’t mean that when I do so it detracts from a story. Quite the opposite in fact, because I appreciate good research, and in all honesty I am a sucker for the ‘behind the scenes documentaries’ extra’s on DVD’s when it comes to movies, and ‘about this story’ extras in a book. Not least because I know just how much research goes into my own novels, even the entirely made up world of Hannibal Smyth that diverged from our own history around 1870, has had far more research involved that anyone who is not a writer could probably countenance, hopefully to the good of those novels. Even if Hannibal has a habit of giving his own twist on everything, the truth behind his corruption of that truth has to be based on solid ground to start with. I may not want the reader to see the scaffold, but it still needs to be there to start with…
Now this may seem a bit of random wittering on my part, but mention of all this brings me to talk about an utterly charming Sunday evening I just spent in the company of a young Alice Kittyhawk, aka Alice Gunn, aka Liss Hawkeye, NIls Nisse Visser’s heroine from his Sussex Steampunk tales. More specifically an evening spent reading his latest Novella ‘Them That Ask No Questions’.
I make no apologise for being a fan of Nils work, he has a gift for story telling, and a gift for language. Both his character and the narration of his tales use words of Sussex dialect which should seem alien to those not raised within the folds of that county, yet within a few pages those odd words and strange expressions just slip over you and feel right. Drawing you further into his Sussex world of smugglers, pickpockets, and free traders. Its a neat trick when the reader (like myself) is not from anywhere near Sussex, and probably couldn’t pick a Sussex accent out from any other southern dialect, because somehow those words echo in your mind as you read and the characters voices just feel right. Those voices and the sense of place is beautifully drawn within this novella, just as it was in the first of this series The Rottingdean Rhyme which I reviewed earlier this year.
But there is more to Nils stories than just good story telling, they are researched impeccably. The Sussex of his stories lives and breaths, despite airships and questionable fashions among the wealthy, because it is the very real Brighton and Sussex coast of the 1870’s that is the canvas upon which it is pasted. Alice lives in ‘The Lanes’ a slum district of tenements, alleyways or ‘Twittens’ and yards or ‘Mews’, scratching out a living on the grey side of the law in order to keep her and her mother clear of brooding spectre of the workhouse. All the while avoiding being nabbed by the ‘Rozzers’, or being pawed at by any ‘gentlemen gone a slumming’ who might take a fancy to a young girl, and taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves despite draconian vagrancy laws (which are still on the statute I was appalled to learn) The Brighton slums are not a place for faint hearts, ingrained as they are with the nastier side of Victorian society, something other steampunk writers occasionally gloss over in favour of tales of the moneyed classes which have a more romanticised appeal. This is a dirty, nasty little world, but despite this and perhaps because of it the heroes of this world are those trying to make it a little better despite everything stacked up against the poor and disenfranchised who inhabit the slums, which makes it a rather uplifting tale and well as just a damn fine read.
The bonus tale at the end of this novella (which is wonderfully grim, twisted and yet entirely believable), and the behind the scenes extras in which Nils gives the reader a mere glimpse of the studious research that has gone into this story, adds an extra dimension to this novella that just add to the joy of reading this novella.
I find myself now waiting in some anticipation for the third of these novella, due later in the year, ‘Fair Weather For Foul Folk’. Not least because Nils gives me some small credit for the inspiration behind it due to my review of the first. Though I doubt any such credit is due, it is still nice to believe it maybe, and if so I point out that review was inspired by the first novella to start. Nils wrote a guest post for this blog last week on that very subject as you may be aware, but if not give it a read…
- You can find out more about Nils at http://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk
- Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/NilsVisser
As for ‘Them That Ask No Questions’, clicking on the picture below might just take you to it, as if by magic…