Ariana Franklin once told me a story about how she had written a wild rabbit into a scene in one of her twelfth century crime novels, only to discover subsequently that there were no wild rabbits in England at that time – rabbits were then a recent introduction and were kept in warrens. It made her, she said, despair of the amount of research you had to do to get things right. PD James also opened herself up to criticism when she inadvisedly wrote about a motorbike reversing down a street. Motorbikes, readers smugly told her, had only forward gears (though later a better-informed corespondent reassured her that a Harley Davidson could be reversed, exactly as she had described). But if you’re not a bike rider, how are you supposed even to know that’s something should should check?
Once you know that you don’t know, it’s easy enough to discover the facts, but not realising that there is a gap in your knowledge is a problem for all writers. It is however arguably a bigger problem for crime writers than most. Few of us have first hand experience of what is central to our plots – violent and bloody death. Nor does even the most conscientious of us habitually mix with hardened criminals. We do a bit of research, we make a lot up, we cross our fingers and hope for the best. It’s only fiction after all.
For historical crime writers the problem is of course doubled, though fortunately nobody is going to write and let you know from first hand experience how it felt to be a seventeenth century lawyer. I could have foreseen the rabbit problem no more than Ariana Franklin, but I should have known better (in an early draft fortunately) than to have my narrator stare across the Thames in 1657 at the dome of St Paul’s – the trademark of the post-fire rebuilding of the cathedral. Spotting this howler, I changed ‘dome’ quickly to ‘spire’, knowing that the medieval Old St Paul’s had had such a feature, and thus it appeared in the book. I am still waiting for a reader to point out that the spire in fact collapsed in 1561 and that all my narrator would have seen was a tower …
In my latest book (A Masterpiece of Corruption) I begin with Charles II on the beach at Shoreham, waiting for a boat to take him to safety in France after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. I already knew the story well, as I thought – the nighttime flight across the Downs, the coal boat moored in Shoreham harbour, the delay while they waited nervously for the tide, the drunken captain who had no idea who his passenger was or that he had a price on his head – and who had to be kept drunk if the King was to evade capture by Cromwell’s roundheads. It made for a picturesque little tale. There was a certain amount of tension and a nice final paragraph in which the boat sails slowly out of sight under a full moon. Hell, it was only the prologue. It had little bearing on the plot itself, and I didn’t think it needed much more research. Then, late in the day, I stumbled on another more detailed account. The boat was delayed by the tide until well after dawn. So, no moonlit departure then. Moreover, Captain Tattersell had identified Charles in Brighton the night before and upped his price to £200 for a one-way trip, which spoilt the story about needing to keep him drunk.
Or then again … There are few historical facts that are beyond dispute of any kind. What we know of Charles’s flight has come to us via what the King told Samuel Pepys and Dr Bate and Lord Clarendon, who transcribed it many years later. Though they are broadly agreed what happened, there are variations depending on what the King chose to tell them and what they remembered. Like all history, it is a selective account of partially recalled incidents, told by somebody with a vested interest in portraying things in a certain way.
If our knowledge of twelfth century England were perfect, I have no doubt that we would have proof of at least a few wild rabbits, albeit that most were captive. In the same way, though some experts will assure you that nobody drank water in the seventeenth century (it was polluted and beer was the only safe option), Pepys records drinking water in his diary and does not suggest that this was in any way exceptional.
So, can we try too hard for an accuracy that 99% of our readers will not care about, and that may prove to be wrong anyway? Yes and no. As we all know, a good story can drown in too much historical detail – a fortiori a good crime story. But the historical crime writer must assume that his or her readers have more than a passing interest in the period they are writing about. They want a good plot but they want to be informed. The reader is aware that not everything we say will be true – it is fiction – but, the requirements of the plot aside, it should be as true as it can be and it should be made clear, as far as the author can do so, what is fact and what is made up.
In the end, I left Captain Tattersell drunk and ignorant, and I left his boat sailing away under a full moon. It made for a better story. But I added a note to the acknowledgments to say what I’d changed. For the reader at least there should be as few unknown unknowns as possible.
A Masterpiece of Corruption is published by Constable