Today B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree John Orton talks with me about writing historical Fiction. John was awarded an indieBRAG medallion for his first book The Five Stone Steps, (A Tale of a Policeman’s life in 1920’s South Shields), was born in South Shields, England, in 1949. Educated at South Shields Grammar School he read Law at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford and followed a career as a Solicitor in local government. He was County Solicitor and Clerk of Avon County Council when a stress related illness led to his retirement. Married with three children John now lives in Portishead, near Bristol and shares his time between writing, playing old style piano and gardening.
What are the periods of history focused on for your writing?
The 1920s. Writing about life in South Shields in the 1920s did not at first seem to me like history – it’s only a hundred years ago and my father was born in 1920; my Grandparents were born in the 1890s and my Nan was always talking about her life in the early years of the twentieth century. But when you think about how life was then and how it is now, and the changes that we’ve seen over just three generations then yes, it is history. South Shields was at that time a major seaport, a town with three coal mines, shipyards, glass works and other heavy industry all dependent on a resident work force who in the nineteenth century had flocked to the town for work. They lived in long terraced streets paved with cobbles – life had always been hard but with the recession after the Great War it got harder. The town had pubs galore where the sailors, miners, shipyard workers and others would take their beer – and if the men were hard then the Polis had to be harder.
Why Historical Fiction?
When I was in my teens I was taught how to play old style piano – Ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton, blues and boogie-woogie, – by Tommy Gordon, a noted old style jazz pianist. Tommy was a bit of a character and we became firm friends – he liked his beer and would tell all sorts of stories including some about his father’s time as a bobby on the beat in Shields. After my retirement I’d toyed with writing but nothing had really come off. I was thinking of writing a ‘whodunit’ set in my home town in the 1900s and asked Tommy if he could give me any background information about policing in those days. He handed me a dust covered, dog eared, hand written manuscript of his father’s memoirs. They were written when his father was in his seventies and had come to live with Tommy and his family. He would sit of an evening at a table by the fire, glass of malt at hand and write of life as a young bobby on the streets of South Shields in the old days. He was a Scot, had joined the Glasgow Tramways Battallion of the Highland Light Infantry, fought in the trenches and on demob had joined the South Shields Police Force.
The Memoirs were fascinating – as you read them you could nearly smell the whisky and hear the rugged Scottish tones of Tom ‘Jock’ Gordon. The Memoirs were not structured in any particular way, as Jock wrote down what came into his mind, but they did give not only a firsthand account of policing but also of the town and its characters. They inspired me to write The Five Stone Steps a combination of fact and fiction that tells the tale of Tom Duncan, a fictional Scot who joins the South Shields Police in 1919.
When did you know you wanted be a Historical Fiction writer?
Unearthing the memoirs after they had been gathering dust for more than thirty years was a stroke of luck. As I really got into the work of turning them into a fact based fictional narrative I realised that this was a genre I was really comfortable with.
How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?
I was fortunate to have one main source, the memoirs, and also a personal knowledge of the town itself together with the many stories my Nan, and my Dad, had told of life in the twenties. But to bring Jock’s memoirs to life I had to know the town as it was in the 1920s – the old town of Shields grew up along the riverside and many of these old houses and buildings, some dating from Tudor times were demolished in the 30s; Shields was hit hard by the German blitz raids during WW2 and many parts of the town had to be rebuilt. Much of the town that Jock Gordon knew in the 20s had gone even before I was born. Using old ordnance survey maps and old photographs in the South Tyneside Library’s collections I was able to build a picture of how the streets of Shields looked in the 1920s, with their pubs, lodging houses, cafés, theatres and picture houses. Two of the stories in the book are set in Holborn, a riverside area crammed full of pubs and seamen’s lodging houses – with a community of Arab and Somalian seafarers – the picture shows one of the narrow streets where you can see the Hop Pole Inn and Mrs. Camillieri’s lodging house.
The other type of research is ad hoc – you are writing a story line and you want it to go in a certain direction but you are not sure about the historical accuracy of what you want to include.
An example: in the Chapter ‘An early call’ a young seaman from Bristol had married a Shields girl – they had been living together but their landlady found out that they were living in sin and was going to evict them. His wife in Bristol finds out and he is convicted of bigamy. The story I wanted to follow had the girlfriend visiting him every week in Durham Jail – it was only when I was on the third or fourth revision that I stopped and thought – were prison visits allowed in the 1920s? It was not easy to find out but I sent an email to a Society that organises prison visitors and was pleasantly surprised to get a very helpful reply. I had to change the story line but it actually improved it – here is a short extract that tells you about prison visiting in the 1920s.
Constable Tom Duncan (the fictional version of ‘Jock’ Duncan) is the narrator:
Peggy came to see me afterwards and asked if I could help her to pen a letter to Davey in prison. She could barely write herself so I put down a few words for her which she signed, and I sent it to the Prison Chaplain with a covering note from myself. In those days there was no routine visiting for prisoners, and any contact with them had to be arranged with the Chaplain who was responsible for the moral welfare of the prisoners. I received a short letter back enclosing Peggy’s letter. The Chaplain had no intention of encouraging prisoner Honeywill’s immoral liaison with Miss Lampshine and would not permit any contact between them. He had been trying to persuade Honeywill to become reconciled with his wife, and had requested the Prison Authorities to transfer the prisoner to Horfield Prison in Bristol, so that he would be able to receive visits from his wife. We heard afterwards that she had only visited Davey once, had spat in his face, and left.
What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?
It stimulates the imagination in a way not always achieved by contemporary fiction but also brings history to those who might not otherwise take an interest. This effect can be multiplied many times if a successful novel or series is televised – in the UK there has been a lot of interest in the Wars of the Roses not only as a result of the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III in a car park in Leicester but also because of the dramatisation on TV (The White Queen) of Phillipa Gregory’s series The Cousin Wars. This reignited the debate over whether Richard III was a murderous, hunchbacked, child slayer or was a thoroughly good King whose reputation was sullied by a determined PR campaign by the Tudors and their playwright lackey William Shakespeare!
Who are your influences?
As I stumbled into historical fiction I cannot claim to have been influenced by any of the great historical fiction writers whose works I love: Sir Thomas Malory, Alexandre Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, C S Forester, Bernard Cornwell and the French writers Robert Merle (La Fortune de France) and Maurice Druon (Les Rois Maudits). In terms of the writing style I aspire to – easy to read, terse, with plenty of dialogue using idiomatic speech then I would give two American authors, Damon Runyon and Erle Stanley Gardner.
How much fiction (in your opinion) is best to blend with historical facts?
As much as you want. Fiction is storytelling and you will only hold the audience’s attention if you have a good story to tell. If the main historical content, for example the life of Richard III, is all ready a good enough story then you only need to add what you need to tell the story your way. If the story is your own, for example Ivanhoe, or more recently Uthred in Cornwell’s Saxon Stories then you just need to ensure that it fits neatly into the historical context. If in doing so you have to ‘change’ the history, for example dates of battles or other events, then you should tell the reader in a post script.
But one thing that is important is to put in as much historical fact as you can to make your story authentic. Tom ‘Jock’ Gordon was one of the team that carried out a raid on a street bookies house – in the Five Stone Steps, in the chapter A Sure Thing, my story line, based on the raid, revolves around the winner of the St. Ledger coming in at long odds. In the first draft I just made up a name of a fictional winner – then I thought that was not good enough – research on the web did not help and then I remembered that we had a book inherited from my father-in-law ‘Cope’s Racegoer’s Encyclopaedia 1949’ – and Lo and Behold! In the tables at the back there was a list of all winners of the St. Ledger since 1896 and in 1922 the race was won by Royal Lancer at 33 to 1 – a perfect fit.
What are the important steps in writing Historical Fiction?
Know your period inside out – research as much as you can about it even if you will not use it all in your work. Try and make your characters real to the life of that period – not as easy as it sounds. If your book is set in Anglo Saxon times, for example, don’t have your character washing his face first thing in the morning – Anglo Saxons never washed – under any circumstances! The Danes did, once a week on a Sunday in a near-by river, whatever the weather – they also combed their hair –an effeminate vice! (King Ethelred, who was heartily fed up with the Danes massacred as many as he could while they bathed on St. Brice’s Day (Nov 13) 1002.
What must you not do writing in this genre?
Not sure if there any red lines – but for me you do have a duty towards your readers. Many, including myself like to believe in the stories they are reading. So I don’t think you should change or alter history because you have a pet theory – leave that to the professional historian who has to back up any new version of history with evidence and will be harshly judges by his peers if he cannot prove his thesis.
When writing, do you use visuals to give you inspiration? Such as historical pictures of people, castles, towns and such? What about historical objects?
Definitely – I decided that The Five Stone Steps would be illustrated and each chapter has an old photo of a location used in the story – not usual in fiction – but I regard my work as ‘faction’ – fiction based on fact and wanted readers to be able to visualise where the action takes place. As mentioned above a lot of my research was done by looking at old photos of South Shields. This was made easy as a result of South Tyneside Libraries initiative in setting up a web-site Historic Images of South Tyneside – www.southtynesideimages.org.uk/ where you can search their extensive collection of historic photos. One of Jock’s stories related to a fire at a pub in Albermarle Street – at that time the Police manned the fire tender. The Policemen attending the fire would first of all set up a barrel of beer on a trestle to quench their thirst; then they would ‘rescue’ as many bottles as possible that would end up as breakages but before being broken would be transported to Police HQ, decanted into buckets and then drunk down. ‘Jock’ did not name the pub. I did a search on South Tyneside Images and found a photo of a pub in Albermarle Street called the Royal Arms and was able to use this in the story. (If you’d like to see the photo search for STH0000334)
So far as objects are concerned Tommy did have his Dad’s old truncheon, (which the old hands still referred to as staves)- called Fagan. It was made of solid hardwood which sank in water! In A Nip of Whisky (Chapter 2) someone has drank the pot of whisky left outside the back door of the Black and Grey by the publican for the bobby on night shift – Bill Spyles, an old hand. When Bill returns to the parade room he is not happy.
“Some bastard’s had me whisky.” We all looked up. “I was all right at the Scotia and the Bridge but when I got to the Black and Grey the pot was empty – same at the Golden Lion and the City of Durham. The bugger had cut the tie and left the pot on the ground.” He looked towards me and Alec and one or two other of the new recruits. “If I catch the sod that did it I’ll ram me stave right up his arse.” Bill didn’t make threats lightly and the truncheons in those days were solid wood.