Skip to main content

Black Arts Blog Tour

Black Arts: The Books of PandemoniumAs you may recall, last week I went to the Launch Party for the paperback of Black Arts, a YA Tudor supernatural thriller. I promised something a bit special from the authors, Jonathan Weil and Andrew Prentice, and here it is! They have very kindly written about their historical research for their book. This is a subject that, as a historian myself, is of great interest to me. I hope you enjoy reading it too...

JW:  Hi, we are Prentice and Weil, and we’ve written a book called Black Arts.  It’s set in late Tudor London, and is a dark and deadly romp: we’ve got black magic, demonic influences, bloody revenge, deranged preachers, the robber king of Southwark…
AP:  All very accurate, if you look at the mayhem that actually went down in late Tudor London.  In fact, we often had to tone it down a little!  In this post we’re going to talk about how we researched the city and the period – and what we learned doing it. 
JW: Navigating the balance between fact and fiction isn’t always easy. What we’re trying to do is create a magical, exciting world that people can believe in and escape into – not necessarily recreate the past down to its every last detail…
AP – Of course, the best thing about writing a historical novel is that there are so many exciting, weird, and best of all real details. They’re the best possible resource for building that world. But that’s also a problem: there’s just too much detail!  You dig up all these gloriously ripe nuggets of super-shiny fact, and you have to throw 95% of them away.  This was a hard lesson to learn, and one we had quite a struggle getting right.
JW – you need to be picky. The right detail at the right moment makes everything work. But the details have to serve the story, not the other way round…
AP- A good example of this would be how we eventually chose to deal with magic.  In the first few drafts we wrote, we had a very complex, entirely invented magic system.  It had a glitteringly perfect structure.  It was colour coded!
JW – …and it just didn’t work.  It never felt real. It was too rational. What we needed was an injection of real-life craziness…
AP – All it took in the end was just one detail of what Elizabethans actually believed about magic…
JW – Summoning devils, and binding them into magical objects… and from that moment everything clicked into place.  Of course, the historical reality of Elizabethan magic was much more complex than we portray in our book. The key was that we found one really suggestive, true detail to hang our hat on.  Then we wore it to death.
AP – Are you saying we wore a hat-stand to death, Jon? 
JW – Let’s move on.  What is definitely true, is that the more research you do – even if you don’t end up using it all – the more the things you just invent will feel real and consistent.  For our dialogue, we used sixteenth century slang for about half of the thieves’ “cant”, and the other half we made up completely. (There are a number of cant dictionaries online, if you’re looking). We wanted it to feel old and real, but we couldn’t find a word for everything…
AP – …plus it’s just fun making up words! And if it had all been written in accurate contemporary slang, I’m not sure we would have understood it, let alone our readers.
JW – The same also applied to our characters. For example, we started off having Christopher Marlowe as a character. There’s a book about him – The Reckoning by Charles Nicholl, that was one of the seeds of our whole story: it showed us a whole side of Elizabethan England and especially London – the circles Marlowe moved in – this murky world where playwrights, blackmailers, courtiers, traitors, heretics, loan sharks, conmen, magicians and spies were all existing side by side (often they were the same people!)  As the story moved further away from real historical events and deeper into the realm of fantasy, the character mutated into ‘Kit Morely’ (which is in fact how the real Christopher Marlowe signed his name). Our Kit still retains some of the traits of the original – high-living, cynical, untrustworthy and intellectually unorthodox.
AP – But he didn’t have to die in Deptford tavern with a knife through his eye!  Another figure we really loved from the period is a superb rogue called Queen Moll.  She was a real life gang leader, a receiver of stolen goods and highwaywoman from the late 16th/early 17th centuries.  She was also a pipe-smoking transvestite, and the first woman to appear on the London stage, (singing dirty songs and accompanying herself on the banjo).   We took one look at her life, and decided we had to have her.

JW – But she didn’t fit with our story at all. After the first draft we were forced to cut her.  A while later, we were having trouble with another character – a 13 year old sailor’s daughter called Beth, who was supposed to be our female lead.  She was priggish, law abiding, a bit of a drag: she just wasn’t coming alive.

AP – Then we realised that we could take what we loved about Queen Moll, and put her into Beth. What happened then was that Beth went from being a slightly boring character to this incredibly badass robber princess, a master of disguise, who is also a stickler for the rules –the thieves’ rules . . . She became one of our favourite characters in the whole book.

JW – That’s when you realise all the research is worth it – when you can reach back and find just the detail that completes the puzzle.

AP – I call it ‘salting the radish’.  I struggled for hours with this one really simple scene.  I was about to throw my computer out the window and jump out after it, until, in desperation, I opened one of my history books at random and discovered that the Tudors ate salted radishes for breakfast.  After I put that in, everything else fell into place.

Thank you very much to Andrew and Jonathan for a very interesting discussion.

You can read my review of Black Arts here


Popular posts from this blog

Interview With The Vampire: Claudia's Story by Anne Rice and Ashley Marie Witter

How to Stuff Up Christmas by Rosie Blake

'Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you've found an intimate picture of another woman on your fiance's phone... Eve is heartbroken after discovering her fiance is cheating on her. Being surrounded by the joys of Christmas is more than Eve can bear, so she chooses to avoid the festivities by spending Christmas alone on a houseboat in Pangbourne. Eve gets gets an unexpected seasonal surprise when handsome local vet Greg comes to her rescue one day, and continues to visit Eve's boat on a mission to transform her from Kitchen Disaster Zone to Culinary Queen.But where does Greg keep disappearing to? What does Eve's best friend Daisy know that she isn't telling? And why is there an angry goose stalking Eve's boat?
This book illustrates how special a thing it is to have people send you books out of the blue; it's a privilege and a pleasure. I wouldn't have known about this book, let alone read and loved it, if it hadn't landed in my letterbox. I'm …

Reading Resolutions

Happy New Year!
That's 2015 done and dusted, here's to 2016 and let's hope it's filled with love and laughter, friends and fun, books and cake. And really, that's about as far as my resolutions go but I do have a few projects in mind for the coming year and beyond.

This year there are two anniversaries I want to celebrate. The first is the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth on 21st April.
Jane Eyre is one of my most favourite stories of all and I've lost count of the number of times I've read it over the years. I'll be re-reading it yet again come April, but before then I plan to read the other three novels Charlotte wrote starting with Shirley this month. I'm quite keen to read the new Claire Harman biography of Charlotte Bronte too at some point.

The other anniversary is that of Shakespeare's death 400 years ago on 23rd April. I've finally admitted to myself that reading the same half dozen plays over and over isn'…