To Travel, or Not to Travel  

Posted by Tony Hays

One of the constant debates among writers of historical fiction is "do you have to visit the places you write about?" Two schools of thought exist on this question. Naturally, they are yes and no. But more specifically, more directly, the question is "does it do you any good to go?" And again, the answers are yes and no.

My first published novel was set in London, 1602, onstage at the Globe Theater. I wasn't in a financial position to go to London, so I used my money to buy maps and books, anything, everything that told me about Shakespeare's London. And it worked. I felt good about my period detail, and the book garnered positive reviews for its accuracy. All without having gone to London. But here's the obvious point: going to London in the present day does little to help you grasp the London that Shakespeare knew. And when I did go to London, I had the rather bizarre experience of feeling as Shakespeare would if he were to return. His city had disappeared.

The Globe is gone, merely a paved parking lot behind a converted 18th century brewery. It's foundations were being excavated when I first went there. His lodgings on Silver Street now lie under a parking garage. He would recognize St. Paul's, looming as it does over the London skyline. The great London fire of 1666 stole many landmarks familiar to Shakespeare. His gatehouse in Blackfriars is long gone as are the jetties where he would catch a boat taxi across to Bankside and Southwark. Westminster, home to his friend Ben Jonson, was, then as now, outside the City, but then you could tell that it was outside the walls. Not now.

But when I turned my hand to King Arthur, it was a completely different story, (no pun intended.) I knew exactly where I wanted to set Arthur's seat, and the vast majority of the various scenes. Glastonbury, South Cadbury, Ilchester. And I could not have written about them without visiting. Of course, there have been changes in that landscape as well. Glastonbury Tor still rises above the Somerset levels like a great beacon. The countryside is still primarily rural. At South Cadbury, the abandoned ramparts still mark the slope. Did Arthur walk the hollow way that runs from the northeast approach to the summit? I do not know, no one knows for certain. But I do know that a Dark Ages lord feasted in the hall there. And I know that people once walked those ramparts and saw the majestic form of the Tor in the distance. I know that that the morning breeze smells much the same today as it did then. And I suspect that the sun sets beyond the levels in the same way. Without experiencing that myself, I would have been incapable of giving them a life on paper.

So, the answer to the question is really, "sometimes, it is necessary." The key, I think, is in recognizing the difference.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 5:19 AM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

1 comments

Hi Tony, "Murder on the Twelfth Night" does seem as if you had actually been there. Those long-ago details are part of the reason that I have reread it a number of times. Carrying us throughout the story is the mystery of who murdered the actor at the Globe where Will Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, another actor, and Allan's grieving girlfriend, Susanna a set out to solve the murder so the Globe won’t be shut down by the Puritans. I recall the details as they run desperately along the darkened, rainy streets of London, and then leading out of the city to Blackbriar, Ben and Susanna trying to escape the thugs who were out to kill them. And the scene on the jetty by the River Thames, and the murder that happened there, nd the many colorful people of the pubs. I could go on and on. You inspire me to do more research from home, and to travel. Good job. Sherri Sanders, writer

December 22, 2009 at 6:31 AM

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