10 March 2015

Where do you get your ideas? Research!

 My Tuesday Talk Guest - R.J.Lynch

An Historical Novel Society Indie Award 
Shortlisted Author

John Lynch writes contemporary fiction under his own name and historical fiction as 
R.J. Lynch

His novel, A Just and Upright Man, the first book in the James Blakiston series set in north-east England in the seventeen sixties was an HNS Editor's Choice and short listed for the Historical Novel Society’s 2015 Indie Award.

John says, ‘Most historical fiction is written from the viewpoint of the rich and aristocratic, or at least the well-off. I wanted to write about the lives of the people at the bottom of the heap – the agricultural labourers, shepherds, cotton spinners and miners from whom most of us are descended. Of all the reviews the book has had, the sentence that gave me most pride was this one from Romance Reviews Magazine: 

This novel is on a par with Thomas Hardy's meaty offerings 
of country life and the hardships of the less well off: 
those beholden to the super-rich of their day.

I don’t suppose there’s a single fiction author who hasn’t been asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?” If your stories are set in the present (as the ones I write under the name John Lynch are), it’s a question you sometimes have to dodge because you’ve written something that isn’t very nice about someone who wasn’t very nice and the someone who wasn’t very nice is still alive. Historical fiction (which I write as RJ. Lynch) is much easier; you give the single word, “Research”.

Is it true? Well, in a sense it has to be true because readers of historical fiction know the time they like to read about and if you get wrong some detail of clothing, food, furniture, policing or a hundred other things then – believe me – someone will draw your attention to the error. That is not to say, however, that there is no room for embroidery.

I spend a lot of time in archives around the UK looking at records. Sometimes what I find is routine and sometimes it isn’t – the times when it isn’t are the exciting ones – but it’s worth following even the boring things at least a little way because you never know where they might lead.

Here is one such case: Henry Walters married Rosina Challoner on August 12th 1852. I know that because it was fifteen years after civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in Britain and I have a copy of the marriage certificate. It doesn’t tell me how old they were – merely that they were “of full age”. It does say that Henry was a printer, that bride and groom both lived in Gough Street which was part of the parish of St Pancras in Middlesex and that the marriage took place in the St Pancras parish church. It also says that the marriage took place after banns, which means there was nothing furtive or hurried about it. So what made me place this marriage certificate in the centre of my desk and look into it more closely?

There were four things that excited the researcher in me. First, the marriage was conducted by H.W. Gleed Armstrong and he failed to add the word “Vicar”, “Rector”, or “Curate”. I hadn’t come across Gleed Armstrong before this but it didn’t take long to find out that – both before and after the Walters/Challoner marriage – he was rector of a parish in Buckinghamshire.

So why was he officiating at a Middlesex wedding?

Then there was the fact that both bride and groom said that their fathers (Richard Walters for him; Henry Challoner for her) were dead. Of course, I didn’t know how old they were and it was far more likely than it would be today that parents would be dead when children married. Nevertheless, all researchers know that “Dead” under “Rank or Profession of Father” on a marriage certificate does not necessarily mean dead in the sense of expired, ceased to be or passed on. Sometimes “Dead” simply means, “Mind Your Own Business”.

Finally, there were the facts that the witnesses did not include a member of the groom’s family and that Rosina signed the register by making her mark. Was it not odd that a printer should be marrying someone who could not write her own name?

Odd or not, I decided to follow the lead to see where it went and I was glad I did. What I found is that Henry Challoner was not Rosina’s father and could not have been for the simple reason that he did not exist.

Rosina’s mother was Louisa and she went for convenience under the name of Louisa Challoner. In the 1851 census she described herself as a widow and listed three children: Rosina, Matthew and Agnes. Well, okay. Agnes was eight, so she was born in 1842 or 1843, so Henry must have been alive then. So why doesn’t he show up in the 1841 census?

Now let’s look at Rosina herself. Rosina Crawley was born in 1831 in Islington Workhouse and baptised in St Mary’s Parish Church in Islington. Her mother, who at that time called herself Louisa Crawley, was 17 and unmarried. Louisa said Rosina’s father was Arthur Hemp, a horse dealer from Beckenham, and the Poor Law overseers believed her because they made an affiliation order against Arthur under which he had to pay 2/6d per week for Rosina’s upkeep.

In fact, he only paid it when he was sent to jail for debt. (None of this information yielded itself easily; it came, inter alia,  from the Poor Law Examination of Louisa Crawley when she was pregnant with Rosina).

The name Challenor only appears three times. First, in the 1851 Census, when Louisa calls herself Louisa Challenor and claims to be a widow – but there is no sign of a wedding in the ten years before that, she was Louisa Crawley in the 1841 Census, and no death of a Henry Challenor or Matthew Challenor is registered. Second, when Matthew marries: on his marriage certificate he says he is the son of Matthew (not Henry) Challenor who is dead. And, third, when Rosina marries Henry Walters, claiming to be Rosina Challenor and, like Matthew, saying that her father is dead (although she calls him Henry and not Matthew).

Frankly, I think Henry Challenor was a figment of Louisa Crawley's imagination. 

At 17, she was a single mother in the Islington Workhouse. On her death at the age of 63, she was living in comfort in Birkdale, which is really quite a posh area in Lancashire, with a son-in-law who employed eight people.

And here is where the answer “Research” to the question “Where do you get your ideas?” breaks down. I’ve got the facts – or as close to the facts as I’m going to get – and now I take my researcher hat off and don the one that says Writer. What can I do with what I have found? Well, suppose we guess that the Walters family disapproved of a serial unmarried mother. That does, of course, raise the question: how did Rosina marry Henry Walters in the first place? How did they even meet?

We can’t know how they met. But when they married, Henry Walters was 35 and a printer and Rosina was 21. With my writer’s hat on I’m going to say that Henry was a sad old bachelor, that Rosina was a looker, and that he fell for her and her mother made sure she got him. I can hear it now: ‘That’s not a half crown trick, Rosina. That’s a meal ticket. Land it!’

It also suggests an answer to the question: Why did they leave London and move to Liverpool? My take, once again, is that the society a master printer moved in would not take kindly to Rosina and her mother, so they moved 200 miles to a city where they were not known and invented a more polite history than the one they actually had.

That is what I intend to do with what I have found. (And, of course, Arthur Hemp – horse-dealer and impregnator of young women who just may already have been on the game – will have a starring role). Another writer, though, could take the same research and come up with a completely different story. If you decide to go this way, let me know what you do with Henry and Rosina. (And I’ll give you a clue to help you start. I haven’t discussed Henry’s early life here but there is reason to suppose that his background is no more polite than his wife’s).

A Just and Upright Man (the title is from the Book of Job) is the first in a series of five books set in the northeast of England.

It is 1763. James Blakiston, overseer of Lord Ravenshead’s estate and a newcomer to the Durham parish of Ryton, is determined to solve the mystery of old Reuben Cooper’s murder – but he has no idea how to go about it. As enclosure threatens to make the poor even poorer, Blakiston follows one misguided hunch after another. The only thing that he can really be certain of is his love for the beautiful and spirited Kate Greener – a love he is determined to resist, for Kate is the daughter of a penniless labourer and Blakiston has in any case not recovered from being thrown over by the woman he believed loved him.

A Just and Upright Man is a romance; it’s a crime story; but most of all it’s a picture of 18th century England not looked at (as is usual in historical romance) from the point of view of the wealthy and powerful but seen through the eyes of those at the bottom of the heap. Kate Greener, Tom Laws, Lizzie and Florrie–these people were as real and as human as Lord Ravenshead and the Earl of Wrekin and I hope I have brought them to life – the reviews suggest that I have. I’ve said a little more on this subject HERE.

The Historical Novel Society shortlisted A Just and Upright Man for its 2015 Indie Award. A couple of hundred historical novels went into the pot and the short list was down to nine. Unfortunately A Just And Upright Man did not make it into the final four - but hey, short listing isn't too bad an accolade! The winner will be selected and the award presented at the HNS Conference in Denver, Colorado in June 2015.

Read the book
Amazon.co.uk :  KINDLE   PAPERBACK
Amazon.com   :   KINDLE    PAPERBACK

John’s website
Facebook: click here

For more about :
the HNS Indie Award and complete longlist and shortlist  click HERE
HNS Conference Denver click HERE


  1. Talking about how rooted in real life the characters in A Just and Upright Man are (above), I say, I hope I have brought them to life – the reviews suggest that I have. I’ve said a little more on this subject here. And then I don't provide a link! I'm very sorry -- here it is: http://tinyurl.com/lc6eemt

    1. I think you bring your characters to life admirably John! (and the link is now included above!)

    2. Thanks, Helen, you're kind to say so. They certainly seem real to me -- but then, they invade the room I write in and talk to me. I sometimes have a problem I imagine most writers will recognise -- when I come out of that room my head is still in the 18th century and I may need to be forcibly dragged back into the present.

    3. Tell me about it! :-) The weird looks from friends and relations start,though, when you answer your characters back!

  2. I, too, enjoy hf about the non-rich and the non-royal. This was an interesting post and your work sounds fascinating, John. Congratulations on being shortlisted.

    1. Thank you Sheila. It annoys me that it is the publishers who drive the 'HF must be about kings ad queens' band wagon - especially the Tudor Kings and Queens wagon. Thank goodness for Indie I say!

    2. Thanks, Sheila. I've had people ask what I can possibly know about "ordinary" people from 250 years ago but I find that, if you spend enough time going through the old records -- the poor law notebooks; the parish registers; the court transcripts; the rector's wives' diaries -- then individuals do start to emerge from the shadows and look back at you. They couldn't write or read but they did leave a record.

    3. I agree, Helen. But I suppose in going against the tides, we run the risk of losing readers. It's a shame. Some of my favourite hf - by writers like Lisa See and Sarah Dunant - are not about the rich. Perhaps focussing on 'ordinary' people in unusual professions is the answer.
      I wish you all the best with your research and your book, John.


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