One of the things I like best about writing historical fiction (which I define as “fiction set in any past era other than one you lived through yourself”) is that history itself gives you a framework. And researching that framework is rather like a lucky dip – you never know what you are going to get.
Of course, when I chose to concentrate on a magistrate’s constable in the 1820s, I chose my period for good reasons. It’s sort of in-betweeny – not quite Georgian any more and not yet Victorian – which means that not so many people have set their books there. And from a policing and crime and justice perspective, it was a time of great change and development: first police force finally set up in 1829, spirited debates about the death penalty, and repeated financial crises. But each time I start a book, I allow myself a couple of days to swim around in the relevant year, doing free-form reading and research, to uncover anything that might enliven and inform my writing.
So “Plank 3” is set in 1826 (the discipline of setting each Plank book in a specific year suits my tidy mind: “Fatal Forgery” was 1824, “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” 1825, and on we go with the series, as explained here). For the past two days I have been Googling like a demon, using search terms such as “1826 london crime” and “1826 weather event”, to uncover anything that might amuse or explain. It would be disastrous, after all, to set a book in London in 1912 and not mention, at least in passing, the sinking of the Titanic, as everyone would have been talking about it. And the 1826 stories that might have diverted Sam include the founding of London University (renamed a decade later University College London), and the gin palace craze. Yes: thanks to the halving of the duty on spirits and the cost of a spirit licence, grotty old pubs around London were bought up, titivated and turned into glamorous gin palaces – a bit like the craze in the 1990s for wine bars. One consequence was that public drunkenness was everywhere, and Sam, walking to work, would have had to step over inebriates in the street. I can hear him tutting now.