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Time’s tricks: the perils of researching historical fiction

Time’s tricks: the perils of researching historical fiction

The clock hand drives us remorselessly towards our uncertain futures. Time does not go backwards. Or perhaps it does. The clock I found in a small, dusty shop in a back alley close to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar bore the inscription George Clarke, Leadenhall Street, 1752, and that clock dragged me back bodily two hundred and seventy years, setting me down in a smoky, filthy London, the overpowering smell of horseshit blending with the sound of church bells and the shouts of hawkers. No traffic sounds, no aircraft overhead, no power cables.

I’m not sure why the clock captured my imagination in the way it did. It set me wondering about the connections between London and Constantinople (as Istanbul was generally known until the 1920s) in the 18th century. I learned about the Levant Company, in its day no less wealthy or notorious than the East India Company, and about England’s fascination with the orient, popularised by the more adventurous of those on the 18th century Grand Tour, and above all by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. I learned about the ‘clockwork space race’, as England and France competed to produce astonishing automata as manifestations of their political power.

My research led me to write a truly terrible first draft of my novel, laden with information about the Seven Years’ War, the Julian, Gregorian and Islamic calendars, the habits of Turkish sultans and the construction of automata. What I lacked was a voice for the story that I believed the clock was trying to tell.

I found myself back on the filthy streets of 1750s London. I heard a baby’s cry, a father’s agonised sobs as he held his wife’s lifeless body in his arms. A wet nurse had to be found, and from there the story galloped away, characters appearing seemingly without me inviting them into my book, telling me things I never knew. I had researched the history of midwifery, including the largely disastrous rise of the midwifeman in the 1750s (they never washed their hands; midwives often did) and the working conditions of wet nurses, who often had to abandon their own infants in order to earn enough money to live, but for this second draft the research melted into the background. The characters’ voices became real, to me at least, and propelled the story onwards, from London to Constantinople, from a clockmaker’s workshop on Leadenhall Street to the Sultan’s Seraglio and from the ramshackle estate of an eccentric aristocratic aunt to a windswept inn on the isle of Lundy.

The hours spent in the British Library reading diaries written in the 1750s, and visits to experts to learn about the remarkable mechanics of automata, or days back in Istanbul wandering the grounds of the palace now known as the Topkapi were not wasted. Thorough research is important because it gives a writer of historical fiction the confidence to tell the story with that sense of absolute authenticity which pulls us readers willingly into the past, whether the sixteenth century with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, or the time of the Iliad in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. But it is the story that must do the work, not the research – that must melt away as surely as the sounds and smells of two hundred and seventy years ago. Not that they have disappeared completely. Not quite.

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk is available now (Doubleday, £14.99)

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