While my enthusiasm for writing was waning, my interest in the past was burgeoning. Harking back to my comedy enthusiasm, I cannot deny it was the sitcom Blackadder that fuelled this. To satisfy my curiosity, I started looking into the reality behind the setting of the third series, which focuses on the Regency. Still, if you’d been playing word association with me and tried me with “history”, I would almost certainly have said “Great Fire of London”. There was something about this historical event that stood out above all others in my mind. For it to hit the year following the capital’s famous plague epidemic seemed almost to add insult to injury and just when the country thought it had left behind the restriction of the Interregnum not to mention the destruction of the Civil Wars. 1666’s Great Fire appeared to be a climax of the turmoil the mid 17th century had to unleash. Many claim historians shouldn’t feel emotional about occurrences from bygone days. All I can say in my defence is that I’ve never considered myself a historian. Like it or not, I was mentally putting myself in the place of those poor Londoners. They were mostly ordinary people. Chandlers, schoolchildren, apothecaries, maids – nobody in particular, but still somebody. It was only for my imagination to decide.
So ideas were germinating, but what was I to do with them? By this time, my proofreading and editing had seen me work on a real mixture of texts, and spelling, grammar and punctuation had become a joyous part of what writing was about. While I don’t believe they are essential to the creative process, they open up all sorts of new avenues for expression on the page, many of which are lost in spoken form. Prose now had a more significant pull on me than scripts, and there was no doubt I harboured a desire to tell a tale solely by use of the written word. But I didn’t think I had it in me. Then I got to meet an author I’d been lucky enough to work with remotely. I admired him and felt I’d be a fool to ignore his advice. It was a good job then that his opinion was “just go for it”. On the train home, I set to and wrote an opening scene. From there, I was hooked. While the rocking carriage whisked me through England, my mind was firmly transported into 1666 and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to leave.
That isn’t to say it wasn’t challenging. It took me about a year before I realised I was approaching it from the wrong angle or at least in the wrong order. Getting straight into the action was all very well but my characters, like anyone in the world, had pasts and, as their earlier lives developed in my head, another yarn was born. Then there were their futures. I couldn’t be so cruel as to leave them hanging, could I? Henceforth, the amateur trying her hand at a little story decided to commit to a trilogy of novels. Now that’s a lot of words. Without the history though, her pages would be blank.
The research has been one of the most fascinating tasks I’ve ever undertaken. With the Great Fire being the central focus, it was my starting point, but I soon branched out in different directions. The involvement of the King and Duke of York led me to read up on them both and delve into their personal stories a bit. This, in turn, introduced me to all sorts of 17th-century figures, who were fun to meet but seemed very distracting. I didn’t want to lose focus on the characters of my own creation. It was surprising just how much I learned about my protagonists by studying real people though. As John Donne pointed out, “No man is an island”. When the nation was still reeling from bitter, bloody conflict, figures of authority were despised and revered, while the emerging health crisis endangered society collectively. Emotions ran high, with events and opinions of those around shaping each and every individual. Even my fictional characters couldn’t escape reality, so, to recognise what went on in these 1660s’ heads, I had to correctly understand something of Stuart Britain.
I don’t think I’d have attempted this in pre-Internet days, although printed articles and books can shed light on subjects in greater detail than online resources alone. It’s amazing how gripping a read non-fiction could be, by the way. Special mention here goes to Adrian Tinniswood’s “By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London” and Rebecca Rideal’s “1666: Plague, War and Hellfire”. What I’d regard as my best research experiences came last year, through some of the many events commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. They weren’t always ideal for the obscure details, but talks by historians walk led by city guides, charred exhibits on display in museums and a fascinating new study into the cause of the fire drove my enthusiasm all the more. The atmosphere itself was excellent. Strangers exchanged comments and I no longer felt weird to be sympathising with the victims of the time. Looking to get more of a sense of the period, I remembered the UK didn't lack in preserved history. Banqueting House is a particularly good one, not only for its visual resplendence but also for its audio commentary talking through some of the happenings to have gone on in the building.
I’m armed with a notebook if on a visit anywhere of 17th-century relevance, but most of my jotting down is done electronically. Paper is too readily lost and overlooked. I mainly confine notes to historical facts and the majority of my plot devising is done in my mind only. If I catch myself tied up in knots over it, I sometimes resort to listing statements about what my characters have done and why. This can help clarify interlinking storylines and show me how to proceed if I’m lucky. Thinking up complex plots could well be my downfall, but it adds a sense of mystery that keeps me guessing myself.
I hope the scenarios will grab some interest and of course, I’d like to see my readers feel for the characters. Yet, if someone takes nothing more from my work than a little appreciation for Stuart Britain, I’ll have done a service to an era that has served me well. I may not have lived through it, but revolution, debauchery, conflagration, combat, mass perishing and scientific pioneering teach people an awful lot, even 350 years later.
Claire Canary is still working on her books and is so far unpublished but plans to seek literary representation soon. Meantime she freelances, as a proofreader/editor trying to write historical fiction #GreatPlague #GreatFire.