People often ask me, why I chose to write historical fiction. They usually end with, “Wouldn’t it be easier to do something contemporary?” The answer is yes, it would be easier to write something set in modern times. Writing historical fiction means that I don’t have the luxury of traveling around a city taking notes of streets, landmarks, daily activities of the people who live, work, and play there. I can’t taste the regional food. I can’t smell the spring flowers, or experience the different seasons. Daily life in a distant time in many cases is lost to us. While the city of London is a magnificent city, and one of my favorite places to visit, my London can only be found in books, and archives, that’s because my London is in the eighteenth century, and until someone invents a time machine, I have to rely upon historical documents and the writings of others.
I’ve spent the better part of twelve years putting together my own personal library that documents almost every aspect of daily life during that rough and dirty century of London’s past. From the underground criminal world, to what passed for the police with trials, prisons, and executions and then the extraordinary gaps in economies between the wealthy and the poor who were forced into the slums of the inner city where it wasn’t uncommon to have five or six families sharing just two rooms on one floor.
My fascination with the eighteenth century started with one book, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700 – 1830, by Rictor Norton. By the time that I had finished the last page, I was hook and had found my place to set up shop. I became obsessed with finding historical documents and other books that would give me a further glimpse into daily life in London. I wanted to be there, to walk the sludge and sewage filled streets, to take in the excitement that was London in an age of growing population, and expanding city limits.
Working at a University Library at the time allowed me access to historical texts from several electronic databases. It was here that I found the court proceedings and trial transcripts of nearly thirty-five sodomy trials dating back to around 1725. This of course is the backdrop for my first novel, Secret Societies. These documents are now printed off and placed in a set of three-ring binders. Those trials led me to others; murder, faking a pregnancy, treason, stealing wigs, and yes, even trials for stealing of a silver spoon or a bolt of silk fabric both of which if found guilty, came with the death penalty.
Shortly after finding the abundance of court documents, I found one of my greatest treasures of my eighteenth century library. A two-volume set of letters between what is believed to be four gay men. The Correspondence of Gray, Walpole, West and Ashton (1734-1771). This group of letters became my door to learning how men corresponded with one another, how they thought, how they lived, traveled, and built relationships.
More recently, I found a film entitled, “Where’s Jack,” which documents the life of the notorious eighteenth century criminal, Jack Sheppard and London’s leader of the underground criminal networks and legal magistrate, Jonathan Wild. You’ll learn more about Jonathan Wild in the second novel, The Thief Taker, which continues the story of Thomas Newton.
I have over fifty books in my personal on topics of: education in eighteenth century London, the dungeons of Paris and London, the legends and folklore and London society, and numerous dairies from the people who lived and wrote during those times. I even have a collection of etchings and renderings of London street maps from the late 1600’s through the early 1800’s. The entire city of London during this period is laid out and available to me in my writing studio.
Writing is my escape from everyday life. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life, I have so much to be thankful for, but it’s nice to step away for a while and be elsewhere. While I doubt time travel will ever be a reality, I can at least transport myself and my readers back to a different time and place – somewhere steeped in intrigue, interesting characters, and even more interesting stories. The one thing that I’ve learned in my eighteenth century time machine is that life in London may have been dirty, smelly, and full of criminal activity, but it was never dull.