LISA M. LANE -Author and Historian
Lisa writes novels, short stories, Victorian mysteries featuring authentic details, and scholarly work about the young H. G. Wells. When she’s not researching and writing, she can be found pontificating about online pedagogy, gardening in root-bound soil, or watching classic movies. She was born in England but has lived in California most of her life.
My thanks to George for asking me to talk about my writing practice and my books! I’ve chosen a few topics to address.
New! Murder at an Exhibition – A Victorian mystery about a photographer’s Murder and how his assistant Bridget and her friend Jo unravel the mystery.
Writing process challenges – The most challenging part of my writing process is that I keep interrupting myself to do research. Let’s say I am writing a scene where my character needs to get across town, and I decide she’ll catch an omnibus. I’ll actually stop and research omnibus routes in 1862 London, checking how often they run and where they pick up. As a historian, I find it’s unreasonably important for me to be accurate, and that means interrupting my writing to be sure.
I also interrupt myself for research just because I don’t know things. Once I even contacted an astronomer to find out which direction the moon would be coming up for a scene. Yes, I could just keep writing, make a note and get back to it later, but I get fascinated when I have a question! I love learning.
Character names – Don’t you just love it when a character’s name evokes something about them? Although I think Charles Dickens went over the top with this (Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times comes to mind), I do like the idea that names should somehow reflect the personality of the character.
Detective Inspector Cuthbert Slaughter, for example, has a very old English name, and he’s a fairly stable and old-fashioned person. Cyril Price, an actor/manager at the Surrey Theatre, has a stage-actor name. Jo Harris, who illustrates for magazines, has a strong name because she’s an intelligent and assertive person. Tommy Jones is the exception: he has a deliberately ordinary name, but he’s not ordinary at all.
Character names are also part of historical accuracy. I want to know what names people really used in the 1860s. So I look through lists of names common in Victorian England, but I also get great names from directories. Sometimes I can find out the real names of people who, for example, had shops on a particular street, so even the publican or grocer might have an actual historical name.
I also base some of my characters on famous or semi-famous people. And sometimes this happens on accident—I’ll read in the Illustrated London News that a person I’ve never heard of designed a building, or I’ll see a daguerreotype of a woman whose expression is just priceless. If I know the names, I’ll find out more about them and build sub-plots around them. Or I’ll just have them pop into a scene—I did that with Mrs. Catherine Dickens in Murder at Old St. Thomas’s. I have a lot of fun doing historical “guest stars.”
And yes, Thomas Crapper really was a plumber and entrepreneur who sold bathroom fixtures.
Plotter or Panster? You’ve probably gotten the idea already that I like serendipity when writing, which makes me an inveterate “pantser.” I have tried plotting; I really have! But it feels like stopping in the middle of a movie and guessing what’s going to happen. I know a lot of authors say the characters take on a life of their own, and sometimes so does the action. I may have a vague idea of the beginning and the overall theme, but I don’t know what’s going to happen until I start writing.
Historical Research – While historical research comes naturally to me after decades as a trained historian, researching for a novel is different. I need breadth more than depth. Rather than finding out everything, there is to know about one topic and then reading articles where historians analyze the perspectives on that one topic. I have many things to research at once—clothing, manners, food, water systems, building materials, omnibuses. And because I’m a stickler for reality, if I cannot find or access something (like a train timetable), I will change the story or the action to create something supported by the sources.
So I’m one of those historical fiction writers where the emphasis is on the historical. I use the newspapers, magazines, art, books, and material culture of the time. Accessing online databases, library resources, and city directories—these are all just part of deepening the story. My goal is to write novels and short stories that could only have taken place during the mid-Victorian era in England. The past is not just a passive setting but rather a place where our commonalities can be seen across time.
Contact me at https://www.facebook.com/grousablebooks
Books and buy links: https://grousablebooks.com/books/
Before the Time Machine (literary fiction)
Murder at Old St. Thomas’s
H. G. Wells on Science Education (1886-1897)
Sisters in Crime (and Partners in Crime San Diego Chapter)
Historical Novel Society
H. G. Wells Society
Social media groups
Facebook: Historical Novel Society (and UK chapter), Historical Fiction Lovers Book Club, SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers, Instagram (@grousablebooks), TikTok (@grousablebooks), Goodreads.
I love reading historical fiction, and especially so when it’s set in the Victorian era. I do feel research matters and gives a story better texture for entering the fictional world you’ve created. Your books sound terrific.
Interesting description of your writing process. The Victorian Age has always been fascinating and I’m glad you go the extra yard to get it right. Best of luck to you.
Thanks! Yes, If find interesting parallels to today’s culture: the reliance on science, the fascination with gadgetry, the discussions of morality. Seems a familiar time!
Fascinating interview. I can so relate to stopping writing to research. Must. Get. It. Right 🙂