In the first of this series on research, I wrote about the manly Kurt and the sweet Gwendolyn in three different settings. The first was a modern day romance, the second was Victorian vampire hunters and the third was a fantasy adventure and I talked about how timings like sunset could vary and why keeping it consistent could support the plot. After all, if Kurt is escorting Gwendolyn through autumnal fallen leaves on Monday, it needs a very good reason for him to be meeting her under spring blossom on Tuesday.
In the second of this series, I had a quick browse around an unfamiliar location where Kurt and Gwendolyn could enjoy a gentle romance in a current setting. It’s unnervingly easy to find out menus for restaurants that are around 3000 miles away.
This time I want to write about the issues an author can have if they’re writing alternative history, such as steampunk. If you are an author writing an historically accurate work then you already know far more about research than I do. In those settings, details matter. However, in alternative history, it’s not quite as important to be immaculately correct. Instead, the author can insist that the detail may not apply to our world, but it’s like that in his work of fiction. There are pitfalls, however, when writing about the past, and it’s worth being aware.
In the first article, our heroes were chasing vampires in the foggy heart of London in 1875, and I’ll keep to that. And the first important note is that modern maps can’t be completely trusted. If you look at an online map of London today, you can see all sorts of details about roads and houses and features. It’s a great resource if you are going to visit, and a lot of London is exactly the same as it always was. The Tower of London is in the same place that William the Conqueror left it, and Buckingham Palace is still suffering bad feng sui at the end of the Mall. However a lot has happened to the city between 1875 and now. London was badly affected by bombing between 1940 and 1945, but it was even more damaged by the reconstruction, urban renewal and modern architecture that followed. If a detail of a road or building is important to the story, it’s best to check that things were the same back in 1875.
Let’s set the scene. It’s 10th November 1875. The fog is falling heavily and the streets are shrouded in a typical London Peasouper. Our valiant vampire hunters are stalking the bloodthirsty Count Dominic through the lamplit streets. Count Dominic sweeps his way out of a theatre where he has been charming the lords and ladies of high society and heads for the sordid slums of the East End of London. There are a number of contemporary maps around for London online but I’m going to use current Google Maps (other online maps are available) for ease of reference and to avoid getting sucked down my usual rabbit holes of research. I don’t know London well in real life, but I’m not letting that stop me.
Embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure where exactly the West End of London was in relation to the East End, so I put ‘West End, London’ into the search bar and found it. According to the map, it’s near the Ritz, the Savoy and the Embankment and includes Covent Garden and Soho. As this is not an exam under test conditions, I’m not going to stick rigidly to the area shown by the map, but it’s a start. I zoomed in and looked for theatres. The Garrick Theatre looked promising, but according to its website, it wasn’t opened until 1889. As this is fiction with vampires, I don’t have to stick to that. However, the reason I stick to things like dates is so that if I go back to theatres later on in the story, I don’t need to remember which ones I’ve made up, which ones I’ve opened ‘early’ and where I’ve put the dratted things. I can just quickly check online on the sites and move on. It’s laziness, but it’s also efficient.
I scrolled around a little more and found the Lyceum Theatre. This was a little better, as it had been on or near that spot since 1765. I had a quick look at the website, then went on to Wikipedia. That’s when I realised that I had been lucky. Not only did it talk about the famous Victorian actor, Henry Irving, being resident at the theatre, but Bram Stoker was a business manager there. The author of Dracula worked at that theatre! Now that I know that snippet, I have to use the Lyceum Theatre. According to Wikipedia, Bram Stoker started work there in 1878, three years after Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn are creeping through dark places, but perhaps he heard stories. Or I can fudge the dates as long as I remember what I’ve done. Looking around for locations has helped with plot and story ideas and that’s the useful side of research.
Back to the locations – how far is it from the Lyceum Theatre to, say, Whitechapel? It’s around three miles, which isn’t very far, certainly not for the vampiric Count Dominic. But if it’s a dark, foggy night with the cold creeping in, it’s quite a way for the intrepid Lord Kurt and the dauntless Miss Gwendolyn. They could get a hansom cab, but would a cab driver be willing to take them down Whitechapel Road at that time of night? If it’s useful for the story, then Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn can absolutely rattle through the dark streets behind a horse and driver. But perhaps they take the Underground with trains running underneath London?
Trains are tricky. Lots of people are really keen on trains and are willing to share their knowledge with the flimsiest of excuses. If you get details about trains wrong without a good reason in the plot, there may be complaints. The nearest underground station to the Lyceum Theatre is the Temple, and Lord Kurt could stride in and purchase tickets there without any problem as it opened in 1870. If he wanted to go to Whitechapel Station, however, he would have something of a wait as it didn’t open until 1884. It’s going to have to be a chase by hansom cab.
The slums of the East End of London were notoriously cramped, crowded and difficult to navigate, full of alleys and small yards. I personally wouldn’t try and use the exact streets of the East End in fiction. The chances of getting things wrong are a little too high for me even if I could find a decent map of the correct date, and it would take far too long to be completely accurate. Instead, I would focus on the things that I know that I could get wrong and that people would easily notice. That includes things like – is Whitechapel north or south of the River Thames? If Miss Gwendolyn is searching through documents in the British Museum (Reading Room opened in 1857), is it easy for Lord Kurt to hurry back to her from a meeting with a German professor, Dr Ernst Baum, at the Reform Club (the starting point of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, published in 1872).
And taking inspiration from Jules Verne, perhaps Dr Baum has news that Count Dominic has left London and travelled abroad for his own dark reasons. In the next article, I’ll discuss the pitfalls of charting Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn’s journey away from the well-trodden paths of Victorian London and into the wider world.
I’d love to hear what you think, and if I’ve made any mistakes I would seriously love to know as it will help me learn. Thank you for reading and I hope that you enjoyed this
You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts
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