Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Louise Allen: From Fact to Fiction and Back Again

A truly fascinating account of what research can lead to from today’s guest, Louise Allen

I write historical romance, mainly Georgian-set, so I have every excuse for lots of fascinating (and work-postponing) research. My desk is heaped with books and original prints and my PC bulges with files of references and the big problem is knowing when to say “Stop!” and start getting on with the book.

A few years ago I had a light-bulb moment and realised that I could use the research I was doing for my novels and turn it into non-fiction, covering themes that interested me and which I hoped would also interest my readers. That led me to producing a book of Walks Through Regency London, which in turn led to Walking Jane Austen’s London (Shire) and a regular blog, also about Jane Austen’s London.

That, I thought, would be that, until I found myself wrestling with stagecoach timetables and Georgian road maps and lists of inns as I tried to plot my heroine’s journey as she first of all eloped, and then fled from her lover, in From Ruin to Riches. What I could not find was a book about the experience of stage and mail coach travel for the passengers – so I wrote one, Stagecoach Travel (Shire). Both experiences – the London walks and the stagecoach research – led me to even more fiction plots and a real feeling of closeness with my characters as I clambered in and out of stagecoaches, or had a conversation with a gas-lamplighter in an atmospheric alleyway in St James’s. (Yes, there really are lamplighters left in modern London.)

Researching stagecoach travel made me wonder how much of the most famous of the coaching routes, the Great North Road, can still be found, so my husband and I set out to travel it and found the inns and the old bridges, the spots where highwaymen were hanged and terrible coach accidents happened – and a deserted graveyard with the headstone of a man killed in a duel with his close friend. Once more my notebooks filled up with plot and character ideas and I felt more and more in touch with the travellers of the time.

My latest book is the third in a Waterloo trilogy (The Brides of Waterloo, with Sarah Mallory and Annie Burrows.) My novel, A Rose For Major Flint, begins on the morning after the battle when my hero, Adam Flint, rescues my heroine, a traumatised, speechless young woman he calls simply, Rose, from a group of scavengers.

So, of course, I needed to know what it was like on the battlefield that morning. To my amazement I discovered that there were tourists on the field almost at first light, interrupting Captain Mercer and his artillery troop as they ate their breakfast amidst the carnage.

Soon I was accumulating first-hand accounts by travellers who, in some cases, arrived on the scene within days. From their words I knew what the battlefield looked like and smelled like and what the ground was like underfoot. I discovered what the state of the roads was and what was happening to the dead and injured and discovered tiny, heartbreaking details, such as the patches of wildflowers left amidst the carnage. I read about the gardener at Chateau Hougoumont who stayed throughout the battle and was found wandering through his wrecked gardens, bewailing the bodies amongst his cabbages, the farmer’s wife who was annoyed at the field hospital set up in her barns, but was quite pleased to have had a general nursed in her cowshed and the local peasants searching for items they could sell to the tourists – the beginning of a local industry that endures to this day. From that research came The Road to Waterloo: the first battlefield tourists 1815-1816.

A Rose For Major Flint                                                                                   To the Field of Waterloo

It is definitely a virtuous circle – my novels demand research, then the research gives me the facts, and more importantly the feel of what I am investigating, and from that I can produce non-fiction books that I hope add something deeper to my readers’ experience.

Louise Allen’s 50th historical romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon comes out this year and she is also the author of five historical non-fiction titles. She lives on the North Norfolk coast with her husband and a garden full of bossy pheasants and travels as much as possible in search of inspiration and to escape deadlines.


Louise, you will have touched many of us today with your references to Jane Austen, Regency London, Georgian road maps and Waterloo. It would seem your knowledge is encyclopaedic. Cue for another book?

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Anonymous said...

Very interesting post especially turning your research into something others can enjoy while giving you the chance to indulge even more!

Elaine Everest said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing x