I’ve always loved the period from 1775-1815*. These 40 turbulent years take us from the beginning of the War of Independence, through the French Revolution and Regency Period, to the death of the First Empire in the mud at Waterloo. I think I love it because it’s such a vivid, paradoxical time – an age of elegance and savagery, tradition and revolution, war and peace**.
When I set out to write Game Bird, I couldn’t imagine any other period that would quite do. What other period has the same mash and splendour? The Middle Ages you say? Bah, nothing but ignorant grubby men, doing grubby ignorant things.
Anyway… the other appeal of this setting was that I had already read a bit on the period. I firmly believe that the best and most exciting and most tangible fantasy writing knows its period really well, before it starts effing with it.
So, here is a really quick list of 8 nonfiction books that I think are a great starting point for any writer who is keen to write a Regency, Napoleonic or even steampunk novel and doesn’t know where to start. Not all of them are strictly within the period – but they all will give you a tonne of inspiration and background.***
If you like this list, you can also find my world building blog here.
The internet is justifiably full of articles poking fun at fantasy societies. Part of the problem (I reckon) is that a lot of fantasy writers only read fantasy. This means that cliché builds on cliché till you have an amazing cliché built house of cards, just waiting to be blown down by the long suffering reader’s sighs. I think there are only so many brave and lovable whores and tough little orphan pick pockets that the world can handle. An easy and lazy way to avoid these traps is to do a tiny bit of reading. These books will all give you a wonderful insight into the society of the period.
Published in the 1720s, this book is a perfect example of what I mean; Britain in the 1720s was a strange, brutal, alien place and Defoe captures it in beautiful and intricate detail. The land he describes is vastly more interesting and exciting than 99% of made up settings! The other great thing about Defoe’s work is that he is obsessed with travel and the countryside – so there is heaps for a author writing a quest to borrow.
Henry Mayhew, London Characters and Crooks
Mayhew is a tiny bit too late for the period, but that doesn’t matter. If you get one book of this list, make it this one. I got this as a present a few years ago and since then it has become my ‘city creation bible’. Mayhew was one of the world’s first social researchers and his mammoth body of work captures the life of London and her poor in intricate, hilarious and unsentimental detail.
Nothing else I’ve read has given me half as clear a picture of how a city of the 19th century actually worked and felt. If you want to write steampunk and you haven’t read any Mayhew – give yourself an uppercut.
William Hickey, Memoirs of a Georgian Rake
William Hickey’s autobiography is my personal favourite on this list. Hickey is a thieving, licentious and utterly charming narrator. His story, told with brutal candour, follows him through a riotous youth in London, out to Calcutta (because he embezzled from his father’s business) and then finally back into retirement in the Home Counties. I’m pretty sure the term ‘lively tale’ was invented to describe this work. This book gives a really incredible insight into the debauched life of London’s upper middle class and complements Mayhew’s picture of the poor very, very well.
Also, if you ever needed another reason NOT to catch an STD, Hickey’s story is it. *Shudder.*
Samuel Pepys, Diary
Pepys’ writes almost a century too early, but I’d be crazy not to include him. As he is mega famous, I won’t bore you with too much detail. Like Hickey, his diary gives us a brilliant insight into the trials and tribulations of a long dead man’s life.
Ships and sailing.
The less said about portrayals of ships and sailing in fantasy books the better.**** I’d never recommend boring your reader with skysails and halliards, but these two books will give you enough of a foundation to churn out a half believable ship if you need one.
N. A. M. Rodger, The Wooden World
This book does for the Royal Navy of the period, what Mayhew does for London. Rather than a story of battles, captains and campaigns, it paints a beautiful picture of this seaborne society. Jon Kenyon describes it like this; “a deeply satisfying book firmly based on new evidence but highly readable; it is enlivened by a multitude of startling and hilarious incidents, recounted with style and wit, and a whole gallery of amazing characters, from ratings to admirals.” So there.
This book certainly isn’t for everyone. It is an in-depth “how to” guide that describes how to work a square rigged sailing ship. Everything from the evolution of a sail change to dealing with running aground in a storm is covered in meticulous detail.
If your characters are only going on a quick voyage, go with The Wooden World, but if you want to really capture sailing for your piece, you can’t go wrong with this magnificent book.
War, like sailing, is generally handled pretty so-so in fantasy. These two works will provide enough background and colour for you to write a convincing (and gallant) bloodbath.
Richard Holmes, Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
This superb book tells the story of the British common soldier from 1700 to 1900. It is intelligent, enjoyable and packed full of historical anecdotes that are just begging to be pinched for someone’s novel. If you want a genuine idea of what life was like after you took the King’s shilling – read this.
Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot, The Memoirs of the Baron de Marbot
My copy of these memoirs has this quote from Conan Doyle on the cover; “the best picture by far of the Napoleonic soldiers.” I really can’t top or argue with that.
If nonfiction leaves you cold, a number of fantastic novels are set in the era. These novelists either lived in the period or did heaps of their own research (which you can steal). All these works are brilliant and, in order of usefulness and my love for them, I’d recommend; Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Georgette Heyer, Patrick O’Brian, Anthony Trollope and Bernard Cornwell.
* Which sounds a bit like an admission of guilt…
*** I’m a shocking anglophile. This is reflected in this list. Sorry.
**** Obviously this excludes Hobb and Novik, who both did ships amazingly well.