by Anna Castle
The Internet is great for overviews, generating ideas and picking out clothes or cars for contemporary characters, but it can only get you so far. The library is indispensable for a writer of historical fiction like me. But the most fun can be had by getting out there and looking at the world in which your story is set.
My to-be-published-someday-soon Francis Bacon mystery series is set in Elizabethan England. I can't travel back in time and London has changed a tad since 1585, but many wonderful old buildings have been preserved. Museums are full of intriguing furniture, tools and other things my characters might have used. Places like Kentwell Hall (http://www.kentwell.co.uk/) host Tudor-themed events where costumed re-enactors engage in traditional tasks. I found a character at Kentwell.
I do a lot of walking, a major pastime in the UK. The cities may have changed, but parts of the landscape would still be familiar to my characters. I love the English countryside and trust me, it is all kinds of different from Texas, where I live. They have rain: lots of it. They have these soft, cool breezes drifting out from under dark thickets. In Texas, thickets are full of snakes and rarely cool or soft. Descriptions from my favorite British authors make more sense now that I've walked where they walked when they were writing. Christopher Marlowe might have walked up this very road on his way from Canterbury to Cambridge. How cool is that?
One of the characters in my current WIP, set in Victorian London, finds herself obliged to burglarize some Mayfair houses and country estates. (Her intentions are honorable, I assure you!) My problem was getting her and her crew in and out with the goods undetected. Crime fiction lends a whole new perspective to touring the stately home!
I study these houses like a villain, not an architect. If it weren't for those burglar bars (surely modern), could my gal get in these windows? Then how far is it to the library? Which rooms will she pass on the way? Do they have gas lamps on the landings?
To make the most of my trips, I do a lot of planning; online, of course. I look for houses in my period of interest on sites like the invaluable National Trust (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/). Wikipedia has lists of museums in most major cities with links to their websites, where you can get hours of operation and directions via many forms of transport. The Brits have lots of online resources for ramblers: favorite walks, long and short, all over the country. Everybody everywhere has lots of travel info these days. I know where my characters are from and how they spend their days, so I try to go where they would go and see whatever I can see. I hope these experiences enrich my books. And hey: nice work if you can get it!
Anna Castle is writing two mystery series. The Francis Bacon series is set in Elizabethan England. The first book, Murder by Misrule, will be published one way or another in 2014. The Lost Hat, Texas series is set in the present, in the hill country west of Austin, where Anna lives. Black and White and Dead All Over is under revision. Find out more at www.annacastle.com.