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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


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