Research is an important aspect of the fiction writers tool box.
That may seem counterintuitive, after all its fiction, we just make it up don’t we?
But actually when ‘just making things up’ research can become more important than you might imagine. If you want the reader to invest in the world of your characters you need it to be convincing. Write something based in the mid Victorian period, for example, even a fantasy where the ‘rules’ of the universe are different, you still need to make sure all the little details are right. However you also need to accept something else, the unfortunate truth that some of your readers will have very odd idea’s about how people lived, spoke and how society worked in the past. In short you need to do your research, while accepting it will be entirely lost on some readers. (I might expand on that in a later post, if I do it will be a bit of a rant, just so your prewarned…)
The reason I bring up research, aside it being a subject that i think people might be interested in, is because of a little bit of kismet. The England vs India test match at Headingly is entering its third day, with England in a commanding lead after James Andertons devastating spell on the first morning ripped the India batting line up apart, while Joe Root notched up a century at the crease, and the new Harvey Duckman Anthology is out tomorrow.
Clearly these two events are entirely linked…
Okay that’s a little tenuous, I will grant you. But not as much as you might assume. This is because my own contribution to this Harvey volume, a short story entitled Mandrake, the titles namesake is a Victorian gentleman magician, by royal appointment to the court of St, James. A man with many secrets, and as it happens rather firm opinions on the subject of cricket… The latter being important to the story because a fair portion of it takes place in the lords pavilion, and I also used it as a backdrop to explore certain aspects of the quasi-Victorian society inhabited by Lucifer Mandrake and his compatriot Sir William Forshaw (who unlike Mandrake is a bit of a cricketing enthusiast).
Mandrake and Forshaw are, to an extent, analogous to a Homes and Watson. Though I say this only because its the most obvious comparison to how there relationship works. That relationship, one characters being exceptional and unusual in some way, the other acts as the conduit of the more mundane everyman, is one that existed in fiction long before Arthur Conan Doyle first put pen to paper. I also say it because readers will make that comparative link, which I will admit is partly my intention, though not for the reasons the reader might first assume.
However, the point of this post was to talk about research, and while reading Sax Rohmar novels etc might count as research, it isn’t quite what I was getting to.
Cricket, that most gentle of sports, where the players break for tea is often considered a sport of the middle classes. A sport played by sports men of a certain calibre, particularly if we are talking about the Victorian and Edwardian era…. At least that is the image that most likely comes to mind when you think of a Cricket match at Lords in mid Victorian England. Lucifer Mandrake however expresses a different opinion…
Cricket is, as any right-thinking Englishman knows, the pursuit of louts, drunkards, ruffians and gamblers.
Yet, despite all this, somehow the sport of cricket itself remains terminally dull.
On the face of it that might seem a bit strange, but actually its not. In the mid 1800’s that really was a common view of the sport and its spectators. It suffered from much of the same issues English football suffered from in the 70’s and 80’s. Drunken fights, and abusive fans were common place. Corruption was rife with betting syndicates bribing teams to throw matches. Questions were asked in the house of commons. There were moves to ban spectators or the sport entirely, for fear of the corrupting influence of the game causing the working class to skip days at work.
Why is this important? Interesting research though it may be. Well mostly it grounds a story in aspects of reality. Oddly enough however cricket only came into the story at all because I needed somewhere for several events to take place. Someone, it seems, is reanimating the corpses of dead members of the house of lords in order to influence a vote, and Mandrake takes it upon himself to investigate. He discovers this is taking place because quite by chance his friend Forshaw mentions in passing that he bumped into a former Lord both believed was dead. The man in question had been heading to Lords. The cricket ground, not the chambers in the houses of parliament. which Leads Mandrake to observe…
…if there was one place you are likely to find festering reanimated corpses engaged in a cruel mockery of life, other than the House of Lords itself, then it’s probably a safe bet to look to the members pavilion at Marylebone Cricket Club.
My course of action was therefore clear, I would have to face the tedium…
Mandrake as you may gather has a somewhat sardonic wit and little love for cricket. He also is more than he appears to be but who isn’t.
Cricket is not the only thing that required some research for this story, in fact several important aspects of the wider plot in which this story sits came about after research into the Sax Coburg dynasty from which Queen Victoria sprang, how she ascended to the throne and certain political issues involving the Sax Coburg family, the duke of Cumberland, and Hanover. The Hanoverian question was a major part of political life in early Victorian Britain, and indeed had things been handled differently, if for example a coven of magicians had tried to intercede in politics for their own reasons, then history could tell a very different story. Research is a treasure trove every author should plunder…
I predominantly write fantasy with a lent towards steampunk, or to put it another way, I make things up. But just because I makes things up doesn’t detract from the need for solid research and grounding fantasy and science fiction in reality before you twist it to see what snaps under the strain. research is, ultimately, everything.
Mandrake, is a product of research, so much research in fact that the short story I planned to write may well lead to a novel or two because the character, as so often is the case, took on a life of his own, and the research gave me a rich vain of narrative in which to plunder. But it may be a long while before any novels see the light of day, I have a rather a long list of works in progress, so we will have to see.
However, the short story named for the character does appear in Harvey Duckman Volume 8 , which comes out tomorrow and I am looking forward to finding out what the world thinks of the magician by royal appointment to Victoria Sax Coburg.
I chortled loudly at the idea of re-animating dead members of the House of Lords – I doubt anyone could tel the difference with some of them!
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