The centrality of the textbook

It is an axiom frequently ignored that any technology has to have a reason to exist in a class. The textbook is a technology. If one were to actually read it, that would be a huge investment of time in an era where attention is continually diverted. A chosen technology is either central to learning or it shouldn’t be there at all.

Students, understandably, won’t read the textbook without stakes (a quiz, a paper). Increasingly, many students cannot sustain the attention and access the vocabulary skills required to read one.

As a result, publishers and professors have developed ways to force students to read the textbook. Publisher’s courses read the book aloud to the student, provide embedded quizzes and pop-up vocabulary as they go, and assess performance before pushing the grades into the Learning Management System. Annotation systems like Perusall make it possible for students to annotate a textbook together. These approaches are far too much if we only want the textbook as background.

I confess that I’ve edited several textbooks of my own that I use in my classes. These are classes where I have substantial lecture material, so the book is context. For the first two years of the pandemic, I made reading them optional and eliminated book quizzes, but now that students are more accustomed to online learning, I’m bringing them back, with some regret.

             my new OER textbook

This regret is coloring my view as I design two “new” World History classes (I’ve only taught them in the classroom and that was many years ago). For the first, I’ve spend the last several months with the Cengage textbook I’ve chosen, and made it central to the short recorded lectures. In these lectures I explain the chapter, note its strengths and weaknesses, clarify points. The lecture itself is quizzed internally, using the quiz function in Canvas Studio. Class starts in a little over a week. I hope it works, but either way I’ve made the book central to the class.

Now I think about the other half of the course. For this one, world history to 1500, I have found an Open Educational Resource, a free textbook. Of course, it’s only free in its electronic form. So I’m thinking how to use it, since it must be central. I have no lectures prepared for the class, and am not sure I want them.

So, a new idea. Since it’s free and electronic, I could put it inside Perusall, the social annotation program. But instead of expecting students to annotate, or requiring that they do it (as I do with primary sources), perhaps I’ll put in the annotations little videos of me, glossing the text myself that way. Perhaps I’ll ask questions, invite participation, and grade it in Perusall.

In the old days we turned up our noses at “teaching from the textbook”, ridiculing those who tied their lectures to it. Perhaps we felt that we could leave students alone with the textbook, and they’d read and understand it. I doubt this was ever true, but in a world where we can chose to eschew the textbook entirely, create ungrading schemes, and have at our fingertips more resources to share than ever before, we should consider the textbook differently.

The WTF of publishing a book

Yesterday, January 5, was the release date for my first novel, Before the Time Machine.

It had been available for pre-order for a week or two, and during that time had taken its place on several vendor websites, including A-zon, at my suggested price of $9.99 for the paperback.

I got up in the morning and the price had been changed to $12.59, and the main page for the book had that price with the book sold by Book Depository rather than A-zon directly. An hour later, the price was over $16 with the same vendor. In order to get to the $9.99 price, you had to click the tiny “2 New from $9.99”, which popped up a window with A-zon itself selling the book.

I was irate, and posted in an author group for help. I was led to an article from 2017 about how upset publishers and authors were that Amazon allowed third-party vendors to purchase the “buy button” page. When I wondered why they would let another company usurp their sales, I was told that Book Depository is owned by A-zon anyway.

Now my paperback is printed by Ingram, so no matter what price a retailer sets I get $3.07 per sale. My profit doesn’t change regardless of the retail price. So Book Depository, if they sold anything at that absurd price, would make a clear profit of at least $13 for doing nothing but being the vendor ordering from Ingram.

But it gets weirder. Today, A-zon is no longer listed at all as a vendor for the book, and there is no $9.99 option. The paperback looks unavailable on the main page, and is only listed at $18.70 (!) with one vendor: a “californiabooks” with a residential address in San Francisco. If she sells any, that will be $15 profit for reselling my work.

I knew this wasn’t going to be fair, and I’ve read plenty of horror stories about the way booksellers mess with prices, and how the author can do nothing about the price of her book. I know that Ingram doesn’t allow the author to choose vendors. And I deliberately chose to publish with Ingram and vend at A-zon rather than have A-zon do the print publishing, and perhaps I am being punished for that (the listing for the Kindle version is okie dokie and at the original price). But I did not expect A-zon to refuse to sell my paperback all together, foisting it off onto a reseller who will sell nothing at their inflated price.

My whole intention was to get the book out there for people to enjoy, and like it or not, most people shop at A-zon and anyone who wants to buy my book will likely look there despite the fact that Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s, and Bookshop.org (support your local bookshop!) are carrying it at the right price.

All I can say at this point is that this is disheartening in a whole twisty way compared to the disheartening experience I was prepared for.

Printed! (or the ridiculous importance of scene separators)


I finally submitted the final (!) draft of my novella, Before the Time Machine, to IngramSpark for paperback printing and distribution, and Draft2Digital and Amazon KDP for e-book.

The process was interesting, and I need to learn it since I’ll be repeating it.

The companies

IngramSpark allowed me to upload drafts and check them until I was satisfied. Formatting the interior was easiest in Pages, with an export to Word and then PDF, and now I know it needs to go through Adobe Acrobat to save it again as PDF-X. I went through two dozen versions at least, in all three formats.

Draft2Digital wouldn’t allow my scene dividers to be font text, so I had to create images for scene dividers in Word to make them look like I wanted. I also had to use their title page to make things look right, and even then there were things I could do nothing about. Regardless of theme, if I had a non-indented date to start the scene (June 1883) then the next line indented no matter what.

Amazon was easier to use to upload the e-book, but I already had the Word copy from preparing for D2D so that part was fast. Again, they allowed multiple uploads until I uploaded the version that looked best in the Preview.

E-books: must we?

I’m doing it, but an e-book is still a mystery to me — it seems like the TV movie or Napster version of a novel. Although it is my creation, I cannot determine the font, layout, or size of text. That’s up to the reader instead of me. My e-book will have sans serif font, which is inappropriate for my story though I know it’s better to read on a backlit device. The “book” exists in ones and zeros, not the printed page. It’s more like a website than a book.

But, says fans of e-readers, I can have 1,000 books to carry with me! I have trouble imagining the circumstances where that would be important. I’m an inveterate reader of several books at the same time, but surely for a few hours I can read just one book? or if it’s a whole plane flight, perhaps two? Is my attention span so short that I would jump around different books as one would change channels on the television? How would I follow a sustained narrative? And I’d miss the sensual experience of book reading — the feel and smell and sound. All books would feel and smell and sound the same, impoverishing the experience.

Workflow

The workflow going forward will likely be:

  • Write in Scrivener
  • Export to Pages to do draft formatting
  • Export from Pages to Word for IngramSpark, then save as PDF, then use Adobe to make it PDF-X and don’t worry about my publisher logo being too big when it isn’t
  • Adjust Word file for e-book if necessary and save with different name
  • Upload to D2D and Amazon

Formatting

For interior formatting, both Vellum and Atticus made blocks of text look lovely but didn’t have fine enough control over themes or scene separators. Atticus was better than Vellum because you could customize themes and upload your own images, but I could just add them in Pages or Word and have more control over size and placement, so I couldn’t justify using it.  I returned both products for a refund within the 30 days.

I realize most people don’t care about scene separators (also called flourishes or dividers), but I do. My book is dual timeline, part modern and part Victorian era, so I wanted a suitable font for the text (Garamond), and suitable dividers. The few Victorian-ish ones I liked were too fancy, though they might be suitable for the Victorian mysteries.

I had used a special font originally, then later took a screenshot of it and edited the image out of sheer frustration at not finding anything as good:

I will say it felt like 1998 all over again to be spending the day searching the web for free clip-art.

A learning curve

I underwent unnecessary stress because people kept telling me the book’s interior had to be final draft, fully ready, so I got the impression I couldn’t make changes. But all three systems let me upload as many times as I wanted so long as I didn’t click “approve” or “submit”, all allowed me to save my place on the pages of form fields so I could come back, and all had some form of preview so I could see if things looked right.

My publication date is 5 January 2022, to allow time for fixes, which means the books are in “pre-order” status. After I approved at IngramSpark (~$3/book royalty on $9.99 price), Amazon had the paperback book up within hours on its websites, with the cover appearing the next day. Barnes & Noble was close behind. But that’s been all so far, 48 hours later. Supposedly, it will appear at Apple Books and Kobo, as well as others, but it hasn’t yet. I may have to do Google Books separately.

For the e-book submitted to Draft 2 Digital (60% royalty on $5.99), nothing has come up yet at a retailer after several hours. For the e-book submitted to Amazon (35-70% royalty on $5.99) it came up almost immediately, but the two versions of the book are on different pages and will have to be connected, or they may connect themselves within a few days.

None of the services were very good at letting the author know what happens in the process, how it happens, and how long it takes. You literally have to learn by doing, which in this case means doing the web forms and uploads. I had to ask at the Alliance of Independent Authors Facebook group for guidance and reassurance, and I may have to ask again if the book doesn’t show up everywhere it’s supposed to.

 

A better workhouse (or the joys of doing a prequel)

You know you’re in sympathy with your protagonist when you need to put him in a workhouse, and the one to hand has horrible conditions and you want to move the whole plot to a borough with a better workhouse so he’ll be more comfortable.

I’m researching my fourth mystery, which is a prequel to the first one. It’s 1860. I’ve already set up that the character spent time as a boy in a workhouse, and that he was allowed to work in a gasworks, where the murder occurs. I’ve also set up that the policeman on the case is a Detective Sergeant who’ll make Inspector by the end of the book. So it all becomes about location: the Detective Sergeant’s station house, the boy’s workhouse, and the gasworks all need to be in proximity to each other.

Because the boy’s father is in Queen’s Bench Prison for debt, I initially looked at Southwark, and was able to find the Phoenix Gasworks on the river and St. Saviour’s workhouse less than a mile away. The Division M station, hard upon the prison, was a wonderfully rowdy place where the young constables living there raised a ruckus and were often told to pipe down by the police court next door, and likely frequented the brothel on the other side.

But that puts me in Southwark, where my first mystery is already set, and half the fun for me is exploring new parts of Victorian London in each book. And in 1860 most (possibly all) detectives were run out of Scotland Yard, north of the river in Westminster, so likely detective sergeants were too, although the whole detective division had actually begun in Bow Street, near Covent Garden. I just got some books on police history, so I’ll have an idea soon how it was set up.

As it happens, my first book puts the inspector’s old home in Covent Garden (it’s not published yet — I can change it). Covent Garden would be a new area for me, but the workhouse near there is St Martin’s in the Fields, which was so horrible that the Lancet ran articles about it and it was shut down a few years later. Children died there of preventable diseases because of the filth. I can’t put the boy there, can I? Especially once I found out that in Kensington there was actually a good workhouse, with a school and medical facilities . . .

Let’s just say it’s very strange when you start worrying this way about a character.

 

 

 

Learning curve: I never thought I’d . . .

As I stay up late nights trying to format my first novel for self-publication (Scrivener-Word-Pages-eek), I have begun a list of things it never occurred to me I would ever do. For example, I can’t believe that I:

1. spent 30+ hours going through every interior formatting program I could find, on and off-line, only to finally decide that I would

2. select a program based on how the scene separators and fonts look, then

3. spend $250 on Vellum, a formatting program that still won’t do everything I want, and

4. be so picky about how the e-book looks that I’d even bother, and then

5. replace my carefully chosen scene separators by hand, not once but three times, for each of 76 separators, then

6. actually consider selling my e-book on Amazon, and worse

7. consider letting Amazon print my book even though I’d already uploaded to Ingram to get away from Amazon (you can do both), then

8. make a bunch of accounts at Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, etc. with an idea that I’d upload my e-book to each of these even though I will also use Draft-2-Digital, an aggregator that publishes to all of these, and

9. worry about how my website and images of the book appear, even though my website will likely have few visitors, and

10. finally upload a file for the paperback to Ingram, five minutes before I receive my Library of Congress number (which should be in the book).

No one told me this would be easy, but really, I had no idea.

My wildly inefficient workflow

So I start in Scrivener, which I love for its instant outline format, and write a book. I think that is the hard part. It isn’t.

My Scrivener is a mess, with pages of notes. Plus all the research is saved on my hard drive, except when it isn’t and is saved in Shaarli (social bookmarking) using excellent cross-referencing (“mystery2”, “Wells”).

Already inefficient, I can’t figure out the complexities of Scrivener’s export, which they don’t even call export but rather “compile”. It is so complicated I can’t even get the size I want, or figure out how to fix things it won’t do.

So I save it as .docx and open Word. Then I edit it myself, twice, saving each version with a slightly different name. I have to print it out to do this cuz I’m old. Then I send the third (fourth? fifth?) draft to an editor, who sends me back an edited version (commented in Word) and a clean version.

I load the edited version into Word and try to click on Accept or Reject for each edit, but some really need to be batched somehow (because I want to change all of x back to y) and there isn’t a way to do that. So I do each change one at a time, then realize Word hasn’t really gotten rid of those edit boxes — they are still in the document, just hidden. Little artifacts pepper my document. So I open the clean version and try to change back everything I want changed back.

And while doing that, I see some things I want changed, so I change them. Then I think I don’t like a couple of the scenes, so I rewrite them. Then print again for another self-edit, and by this time I am getting a little lost. I am distant now from my research and my original book in Scrivener. As George Carlin said in A Place for My Stuff, supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain.

So I decide to focus on the publishing for a bit. I want to publish the e-book in one place and the paperback in another, and I don’t want either of them to be Amazon cuz, you know, Amazon. Lots of research later, I decide (though not absolutely) on IngramSpark for paperback and Draft2Digital for e-book, plus more places later if I need to.

I am done with changes (I hope), so I need to format it for upload at Ingram, and I want to do the final proof in the final format. Book size! How to decide? I would love to go small, but then it wouldn’t look like books look now, so I go looking at my own books, measuring for size. Ingram has a list of sizes, so I pick one I like. Well, sort of like. I don’t realize till later that cream pages (as opposed to white) only come in certain sizes.

I can’t make Word look good with the size I’ve chosen, and the kerning (letter spacing) doesn’t look right — it looks amateurish, like I’m doing a newsletter. So I look into formatting programs, and Vellum is $249 and only has eight formats, although it’s so easy to use I am momentarily enchanted. I surf around and some people use Pages. I’m on a Mac, so I import the Word file into Pages.

Take a break to think about the cover. It will be both e-book and paperback, so I need a cover. People design covers in Adobe InDesign, a terrifying graphics program for those of us who live in word-land. I go to Canva and get a free cover, but it is only one image so can only be used for the e-book. To do a paperback cover, I have to go to Ingram, download an InDesign template that’s exactly the size of the book. This means I need the final page count. I can’t do the page count unless it’s formatted already. And it isn’t. Back to Pages.

My scene dividers have been achieved in Word by using a wingding-type font, so Pages doesn’t see them and changes them all to the letter “k”. Find and Replace won’t work because it’s a different font, so I go through them one at a time (there are many) and replace each one myself (having just done the same thing in Vellum). Then I export as PDF.

Only then do I discover, via a Facebook author group, that Macs only export as standard PDF, but Ingram printing requires something called PDF/X, which this isn’t and Mac cannot do. I open programs to try, and finally borrow Acrobat and I think I’ve exported it correctly, so I can print it now for the final proof. And now I have the number of pages, so I can do the cover. Except it’s InDesign. I start scrolling Fiverr for someone to do it for me, and I find a good candidate.

He needs all the information, including the copy for the back cover. Is that the same as a blurb? Yes, I think so. But my blurb is lousy — I used it to try to get an agent and I didn’t get an agent. That’s not why, probably, but it still doesn’t make the book sound exciting. Trouble is, the book isn’t exciting. It’s kind of a quiet little novella about a historian researching H. G. Wells (so the genre is clearly Fantasy, because who would be crazy enough to do that?).

No blurb, no cover. No cover, no book. And that’s where I’m at, starting the final (?) edit. I haven’t written anything in weeks while I’ve been doing this self-publishing stuff by the seat of my pants. It’s getting a little cold in here, and I’ve been in the 21st century too long . . .

 

 

Was there really a panic over War of the Worlds?

It has been a standard narrative that America panicked on Halloween eve of 1938. That night, Orson Welles presented his radio program rendition of War of the World’s, H. G. Wells’ 1898 tale of the Martians attacking Earth. Some people believed the broadcast was real news, either having missed the opening and interruptions where Welles clearly said it was fiction, or misinterpreting as they became paralyzed with fear. Those near Grovers Mill, New Jersey, packed to evacuate. Millions, it is said, were terrified.

Articles and books have been written about this phenomenon, the most famous if which is Hadley Catril’s The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic , originally published in 1940. It’s the text often used to support the story of the panic, since Catril was a respected social psychologist. It also didn’t hurt that the Martians landed near Princeton, where he taught.

People love telling the story of their stupid fellow Americans who fell for the Halloween trick; it’s used as an example of how gullible the public is, how fearful everyone was of what was happening in Europe at the time, how mass hysteria is created through media. These days, it’s fun to see it as an example of “fake news”.

Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way. Read the first part of Catril’s book, and he’s very clear. Although the publisher says “a million” were infected with terror, and he says “thousands” at the beginning of the book, he is quick to note that his sample size of interviewees was 153, two-thirds of whom were self-selected from people who said they panicked.

Every so often (usually on anniversaries of the radio broadcast), the panic myth is revived. The Library of Congress has an article on how the panic didn’t happen, and there are other places on the web where one can find some debunking. But as the WST article points out, when the tale is kept alive (as with the 2013 PBS documentary) it’s hard to get the truth in there. A current article explores the faith people have in their own trusted sources, in the context of the panic. It’s a good article, but it seems to assume the panic really happened.

Why did the myth take off so fast in the first place? One reason is that Orson Welles was a wonderful publicity hound who encouraged it. Another is that it sold newspapers. Radio competed with print for people’s attention, so the papers were happy to blame the broadcaster and Welles for being irresponsible.

Of more interest is what happened in 1940, when both Orson Welles and H. G. Wells were in San Antonio, and recorded a radio program together. Two years before, when asked about his book and the panic in America, Wells had reportedly been firm that he had not authorized the radio network to change place names. In 1926 in Britain there had been a radio scare when a fictional 12-minute broadcast had caused some to believe that London was being attacked, and Wells didn’t want to be seen to condone the same thing happening in America.

Two years later, he considered the radio show had just been a hoax, but he said that Americans could have their fun because “you haven’t got the war right under your chins”. Although the double interview is awkward at the beginning, by the end both Wells and Welles are clear that alienating Russia, despite its autocratic government under Stalin, would not be a good idea.

There’s an interesting historical pattern to the popularity of both Wells’ novel and Welles’ radio show. In 1898, there were small wars in a number of places, interest in eugenics, and a fascination with space and Mars in particular. In 1938, war was about to begin in Europe, and Germany was on the move. Hollywood made a major motion picture of War of the Worlds in 1953, and Catril’s book was reprinted in 1954, during McCarthyism. The 1970s saw another revival, at a time of hijackings and terrorism. And now again when reality TV, extremism in pop culture, the decline of civil society, and a gullible public are current issues, the story is here again.

War of the Worlds may be timeless; the story of the panic shouldn’t be.

 

Why are books so big?

I’ve got my ISBN numbers, my copy is nearing the post-edit phase, and I’m writing blurbs and looking at covers. I’ve joined the Alliance for Independent Authors. My account is set up at Ingram Spark, and I plan to do Draft to Digital for the ebooks. I will market widely, including through ‘Zon, but won’t have them publish my books.

Being a paper person, I want to see my work in print, not just online or on backlit devices. And although I would have preferred to have my work offset press printed, I can’t afford that and have to go with Print on Demand. Nevertheless, the book can be the size I want: Ingram has tons of sizes to choose from. It’s like standing in the cereal aisle — there are too many choices. No, really, it’s like standing the cold remedies aisle: will this work? what’s in it? what will be the side effects?

Even before I started studying the Victorian era, I was a fan of smaller books. Not teeny-tiny gift books on dogs or motherhood, but 19th or early 20th century size. Collins Classics were 4 x 6 until the 1950s, when they went bigger (4.5 x 7.25) , apparently for college use. Modern Library and Everyman’s Library books were also small, as were all the fiction novels I grew up with, many of which I still have. My old paperbacks are mostly a similar size.

Why were these books small? Paper is expensive, for one thing. The books published near the end of the 19th century by the University Tutorial Press (the arm of William Brigg’s correspondence college) can be taken apart to see that the covers are actually comprised of pages from older books, pressed together. You don’t waste paper.

A lot of text was printed on each page, to save paper but also to have room for a full novel (or even a three-novel set) without making a smaller book into a cube.

Books were also, before the era of transistor radios, portable entertainment. They still are. You can take a book with you for the waiting room, the train, the park.

Since I’ve been teaching, over 30 years now, textbooks have gotten larger and larger, even though the amount of text has gotten smaller. [In addition to issuing new editions for minor changes, textbook publishers have created huge margin spaces in which they print their own notes, I presume to make up for the fact that students don’t gloss texts anymore. One reason students don’t highlight or take notes in a textbook, of course, is because they are either renting the book (not possible 20 years ago) or intend to sell it afterward (easier now than ever). The more students try to avoid the cost of new textbooks, the higher the prices go, until recently with e-book textbooks, which make it even harder to take notes.]

But it’s the fiction paperback books that are a problem. They are now large and unwieldy. Almost all are “trade paperbacks”, which were the more expensive big versions I never bought. They were and are heavy and too large to put in your bag; to me they weren’t portable, because they were the same size as the hardbacks, only paper. You can’t hold them in one hand while drinking your cocoa in the other.

And, as with textbooks, this isn’t because there is more text in them. On the contrary, despite climate change concern, the vast pages have tons of white space: huge margins, massive line spacing, big kerning between letters, large fonts. The first few I bought I thought were an aberration, but it’s the norm. The books get shorter, but the format gets bigger, the prices get higher ($14.95 is typical). But it’s the waste that gets to me.

When I complain to people my age, they say are pleased with the new formats as their eyes age. Well, mine are aging too. Think about a 19th century book, with its tiny print, in an era without progressive lenses, and most importantly with much lower levels of light than we have today (I think this is why people used to read outdoors more — think of all those plays where the heroine is in the garden, reading a book.) We have much brighter sources of light now — we can deal better with smaller print than ever before, but we need it enlarged to kindergarten size? I think not.

I also don’t think a demand for larger print has been behind the change — the number of Large Print books at our local library hasn’t changed in decades. More likely it’s the money, the idea that something bigger is better, and the novels are shorter because people have a shorter attention span. Readers want a “quick read”, but you can’t charge them $15 for a novella unless you package it as a big book. And now that so many people are reading on their backlit device, physical books are becoming niche, so paper books need to be even bigger to attract attention, like boxes for cereal and toys (walk by the book section at Target to see what I mean).

Why do I care, other than the price and the waste? Because I’m about to publish mine, and have to decide what size they’ll be. The “trim size” determines the number of pages and the spine width and design. I have read widely on the subject of trim size, but I have no experience, like someone trying to pronounce a word they’ve only seen written. I have bought a number of self-published books, and find the quality execrable. Because most authors are at pains to not appear amateurish, they don’t indicate whether it’s ‘Zon, Ingram, or someone else who’s done the printing. But in general I notice books where the text isn’t centered properly on the page (with an obvious gutter), bright white paper that looks like photocopy paper instead of cream-colored book paper, and type that looks like what it is: reproduced digital text rather than printing. Choice of paper is also a big deal.

I walk around the house with a ruler, measuring books. I’d be bucking trends to go less than 6 x 9 for non-fiction, or 5.5 x 8 for fiction. If I’m going a bit large to be trendy, the biggest I would want would be 5.06 x 7.81, the UK “B” popular size. But I could choose an old paperback size; Ingram has 4 x 6 and various sizes up to 5 x 7. I just can’t decide. Much of the paper I’ve seen is thick and shiny, so it doesn’t bend well in a smaller book . A new option is “groundwood”, which is essential newsprint and looks like it, but at least it isn’t bright.

It seems silly to fuss, because if I’m lucky my books might sell a dozen copies, so it’s mostly to please myself. But nevertheless, it’s a puzzlement.

 

Three Wonders of Victorian Technology

I gave this 35-minute talk to the Long Nineteenth Century group last week. Its full title is Three Wonders of Victorian Technology, or how a little communication, education, and sanitation goes a long way. In it I discuss the London Pneumatic Despatch Company, the Magic Lantern, and the flush toilet. Enjoy!

Three Wonders of Victorian Technology from Lisa M Lane on Vimeo.

When a historian writes fiction

Of what use is it to know that if you were in Durham in 1869, you could go Thomas Bainbridge in Framwellgate in the early morning and find him baking bread? It is extremely useful, if your character needs a job that starts at 4 am.

Authors of fiction sometimes talk about “world building”, especially with fantasy. A believable world has to be created, with its own history, culture, and consistency. For historical fiction, it’s a little different, because the places were really there, and in many cases still exist.

There is disagreement among authors of historical fiction of how accurate one needs to be. I’ve read quite a few historical novels that do what I’m trying to avoid, treating the locations as mere settings for stories that could take place anywhere, anytime. In fact, I began writing historical fiction out of total frustration at several novels which, although supposedly set in Victorian England, did not in any way rely on that time or place for the story. I set out to do better.

I’ve done well with London, because I’ve found old maps for the years where my stories are set, from map-sellers, on the web, and in guidebooks. Street names may change, but often the street is still there. The 1860s and 70s were times of great change, so I have to be careful.


For example, there was no Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus in 1869 — it was Regent Circus (south) and Regent Circus (north) — apparently the whole Regent development project didn’t work out quite right. Shaftesbury Avenue hadn’t been cut through yet, the Holborn Viaduct hadn’t been built — this stuff is pretty easy, and fun to research.

In my current WIP (Work in Progress), the third novel in my trilogy of cozy Victorian mysteries, quite a bit of the book takes place in Durham in 1870. Durham is one of my favorite places on the planet, so it’s important to me that it be accurate. I want my character, who is fictional, to encounter places and people who actually existed. Because I was trained in the discipline of social and economic history, when he visits a business, I want it to have been a business that was really there.

I began by searching the web to find directories of Durham, because I’d discovered that directories of London listed both businesses and street listings, with who lived on a particular street. Durham, it turns out, had the same, plus a Slater’s Commercial directory, but I couldn’t find any for 1869/70 (the story takes place in April 1870). I tried using the two I could find, for 1852 and 1879, but of course these wouldn’t be fully accurate. While I was happy to find names and areas of towns where certain types of people lived, I didn’t have the actual facts for that year.

The Durham County Records Office came to my rescue*. I cannot go there right now, or I’d just look them up for myself. They charge £50/hour for research, but the Archivist suggested I go for a quarter hour and see how much they could do. And they did a lot!

I have listings of types of businesses, and their addresses. I wanted a character to live in Neville Street, because I stayed there and know the street. He’s an engineer for the coal mines. So I was able to see whether his sort of people (class and vocation) would have lived on Neville Street, and yes!

And then there’s just the fun stuff, like the fact that I’ve walked past this place a lot:

I can make sure there’s a bath house somewhere, since one character arrives in town having spent much time traveling. I can see how there are many Hendersons, because I want a scene at their carpet mill and I suspect the family must have been a huge employer and influence (turns out John was busy representing Durham in the House of Commons at the time).

I already know how far a walk it is from place to place, because I’ve walked it, but I looked up the phases of the moon for those days (and asked a friend of mine who’s an astronomer to be sure of its location for my moonlit scene), researched which hymns might have been used for the Easter Service (and hopefully at Durham Cathedral), and who might have lived at the old mill house by the river. I’ve checked the shape of vent doors on the range in the kitchen, whether or not they would have had bottled beer (yes), and what St Cuthbert’s shrine would have looked like then rather than now.

But I can’t finish the book because I don’t have a proper railway timetable for that year, which has made some people laugh at me and shake their heads. Too bad — if it isn’t real to me, I can’t write it, and whether the readers know it’s fact or not, I get a thrill out of knowing that it really was Mrs Duncan who ran the Durham County Advertiser and that the fever ward of the workhouse was added on in summer and so must have been being built in April.

And that’s what happens when a historian writes fiction.

 


*George Walker, The Durham Directory and Alamanack for 1869, Durham County Record Office (subsequently ‘DRO‘), Londonderry Estate Archives, D/Lo/J 59