Historical research is a tricky thing. It’s pretty much impossible to tell when you’ve done enough, and there’s always the temptation to google for another reference or to open another book. In my case, this comes from the ever-present fear that one day I’ll be 90,000 words into a first draft, merely weeks from my deadline, only to find a tiny historical detail that will render my plot completely absurd – luckily, that hasn’t quite happened yet!
This was a particular concern whilst writing A Mask of Shadows. The entire plot revolves around Victorian theatre and the real lives of some of the most famous personalities of the 1880s: Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving – even Oscar Wilde has a delightful cameo. It was a heavenly coincidence that the most celebrated theatre company of the time was presenting Macbeth in 1889, when my detectives Frey and McGray were solving their first spooky cases, but it was also a curse: with the plethora of on-line resources available nowadays, and the fact you can carry thousands of files in a tablet, very soon I found myself drowning in books, history journals, biographies and photographs. And what I kept finding was so rich I simply didn’t know when to stop.
Theatre back then was a dangerous affair. Special effects involved naked wiring, red-hot embers to create steam, explosives, live animals on stage, limelight that heats up to thousands of degrees… I wonder what they’d think of today’s safety assessment forms!
I also found all these wonderfully rich and twisted details about the famous Stoker, Irving and Terry – so juicy Jeremy Kyle would blush. Ellen Terry married three times, had children out of wedlock (in Victorian times!), had on-going affairs with married men… and yet was so charismatic she managed to remain the darling of British audiences, even performing privately for Queen Victoria. And Bram Stoker turned out to be entirely different to what I’d expected; I was surprised to find out he was rather shy, a workaholic, incredibly tall and broad-shouldered, and ginger (and then his private life…).
The more I delved the more possibilities came to mind. The plot thickened and I ended up with a fiendishly complicated excel spreadsheet, colour coded, so that I could follow every strand and loose end. I remember printing it out (A3 sheets were required), looking at the tiny font and thinking “it is time you stopped researching”. I knew there were still tomes upon tomes to look at… but I had a story to tell (and, ehem, a deadline!)
In the end, my fear of missing out an exciting detail did come about, though thankfully not in a way that would thwart my plot. In fact, it was something that planted the seed for a follow-up case featuring the celebrated trio. And that’s how addictive research can be: I finished the book a while ago, yet I can’t wait to delve into the lives of these fascinating people one more time!
A Mask of Shadows is published by Penguin