Writing Historical Thrillers

By D.V. Bishop

When it comes to writing a historical thriller like City of Vengeance, research is both a boon and a bane. Boon because the author becomes their own sleuth, investigating answers to seemingly impossible questions - and bane because the more a writer knows about a place or a person or a period in history, the more that writer realises how much they don’t know.

I spent two decades not writing my novel because there was always more that I believed needed to know. Eventually I realised research – however rewarding and fascinating – was becoming a work displacement activity. If I was to ever tell this story, let alone share it with others, I had to step away from the bookshelves and start writing. But it wasn’t easy.

Research is the itch that never stops, no matter how much scratching takes place. It can be immensely pleasurable, whether the sources are translations of centuries-old documents or the sensory excitement that comes from walking the same streets as a character. But with any kind of research for fiction, it is easy to become distracted by extraneous details.

The vast majority of research that an author undertakes never makes it on to the pages of their novel – and nor should it. Among the many crimes found in fiction, one of the worst is when a writer can’t resist including all of those juicy little morsels in their manuscript, can’t help sharing each of their stunning discoveries and shocking yet true facts.

One of the reasons people read historical fiction is to be immersed in a period, to be taken to another time and place, to feel as if they are right there. Official records and documents can be helpful, but tend to be rather dry and dusty. They certainly do not reveal much about how ordinary people lived and loved and died. For that a writer needs other sources.

Diaries and letters are a great solution, if available. They are written in the vernacular of the time, and full of the little details of life that can give a narrative authenticity when used well. My novel City of Vengeance is set in Renaissance Florence during the winter of 1536 and mixes real people from the history of that period with characters of my creation.

I was reassured to read a letter by Maria Salviati, one of the real people who appears in my novel. In her letter the young widow protests plans for her to re-marry. Salviati describes her much older suitor as a man ‘whose body is unpleasantly formed, whose breath seriously stinks, and who has the worst constitution imaginable.’ Salviati might have lived 500 years ago, but that single sentence revealed her concerns were still current and contemporary.

I have already written the novel that follows City of Vengeance, a mystery set largely inside a Renaissance Florentine convent. One of my favourite research discoveries was the story of a nunnery that a diocese decided to shut down. But when the clerics arrived to do that, the nuns climbed on their convent roof and hurled terracotta tiles until the men all fled.

I would have loved to include that in my next novel – but, alas, it didn’t fit the story I was telling. I will have to save that for another tale, and another time…

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