Setting and Characters In My Historical Novels, by Julian Stockwin
What comes first; characters or setting? It’s the chicken and the egg question.
I don’t think it matters whether characters or setting comes first. You can have a great main character idea then put that character in a certain historical time and place or you can take a time and place that holds a special fascination for you then populate it with memorable characters. I did the latter when I began my Kydd series.
Whatever your starting point, make sure you are passionate about it. Writing a novel is a long haul, not something to be undertaken lightly. You’ll have days of doubt along the way but a strong foundation will see you through.
I have set my novels in Nelson’s time, the great climax of the age of sail and a magnificent canvas for sea tales. This was an era when the sea was respected and wooed by people who didn’t have the brute force of steam engines.
Many authors have written books set in this period but I wanted to try something different: to bring the sea itself into a more prominent role. Initially, however, I was unsure how to achieve this.
Then I made the decision that I would take the perspective of the men who actually did the job out there on the yardarm, serving the great cannon or crowding aboard an enemy deck, rather than of the officers, giving out the orders. So the lower deck it was – but then I needed a focus from which to build a story framework.
This came when I read some statistics about the demographics of Georgian naval officers. Unlike the army, where commissions were bought, naval officers had to qualify professionally, and scattered among these were no more than a couple of hundred common sailors who made the awesome journey from the fo’c’sle to the quarterdeck, thereby turning themselves into gentlemen. Some became captains of their own ships; remarkably, some victims of the press gang even became admirals. How could it be so? Just what kind of men were they? It was from among them that my main character emerged.
For a number of years I lived in Guildford in Surrey, a town that’s rich in history. I decided to have my hero, Tom Kydd, grow up there, with his family being wig-makers. Much of Kydd’s Guildford is still visible to visitors today, such as the cobbled High Street, and The Angel Posting House and Livery. Using a location that you know well certainly helps build your confidence as a writer. I recommend it.
I am sometimes asked if it is necessary to travel to places you write about. Yes and no. Sometimes they have changed almost out of all recognition over time and a visit may not be particularly productive. However, in general, I have found location research to be vital in constructing a real sense of place. It is also tax deductible.
Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com
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