Recently I met up with V E H (Vicki) Masters to chat about her third in series, The Apostates, which has just been released. The story is partly set in Venice and I asked Vicki how she goes about researching the settings for her books and how important she thinks it is to visit the place she’s writing about.
Vicki: How to get a sense of time and place is inevitably something I’ve spent a considerable amount of time puzzling over since my books are set in the mid 1500s. The Apostates is partly set in Venice so I had the perfect excuse to go there, just as travel opened up after lockdown. And Venice, a city without cars, has not changed as dramatically as most places have in the past five hundred years. Visiting the ghetto (the word originated in Venice and referred to the area the Jews were required to live) and especially walking through the gateway which was locked each night to keep them in was very atmospheric. But I already knew all of this before I went and my imagination would have conjured it up based on my research.
Seeing the Torre dell’Orologio, the amazing clock tower in St Mark’s Square did give me an idea for a plot point – I hadn’t really registered up until then that astrology and the movement of the stars was much studied in the Renaissance.
So yes, it was useful to visit but sometimes too much familiarity with a place can get in the way. For instance my first book, The Castilians, is the story of the siege of St Andrews Castle, Scotland, in 1546. There are a number of buildings in St Andrews still standing from that era, albeit some of them in ruins like the castle and the cathedral, and some, mostly owned by the university, which are still in use like St Salvators and St Mary’s College.
I grew up in St Andrews and feel a visceral connection to its streets and of course I knew all about its weather – the haars that blanket the town in chill mists; the times when the east wind blows straight from Siberia, or so it feels; waves breaking onto the long stretch of the West Sands on a sparkling day. It was easy to portray the setting, almost too easy with a place I was so familiar with for of course it had changed significantly in nearly five hundred years. For instance the harbour then had wooden piers, which were actually longer than the current stone piers (built from the stone of the cathedral destroyed during the Scottish Reformation).
Because I was writing about my hometown I worried a lot in case I got some historical detail wrong and in some ways my knowledge of the town constricted me as a writer. However I was lucky enough to find a course being run by Dr Bess Rhodes of St Andrews University about the town in the 1500s, and she was kind enough to read my book and join us at its launch, so I’ve relaxed about it more now.
The Conversos is mostly set in Antwerp. It was written during the second year of lockdown and published in November 2021 and there was no possibility of visiting the city. As it happened I had been in Antwerp in 2018 but on business and had no notion then of writing a book set in what was, albeit briefly, the most powerful city in the Western World in 1547. I had a general sense of the place but not much more. Several reviewers asked if I’d been to Antwerp for research, to the point I felt quite defensive. And again I reminded myself I was writing hundreds of years later.
I found the maps of the period (this was the great century of map making and the wealthy displayed maps of their city on their walls) extremely helpful as well as endless articles from JSTOR plus trawling the internet. Wikipedia is very useful for sourcing information since there’s usually a list of academic references at the end of any entry. And often there are accounts or diaries people have kept. In The Conversos one of my characters is enslaved on a galley. I found a heart wrenching memoir about life as a galley slave by a French Protestant, written in 1713 but somehow I doubted things would have changed much, and then another booklet with stunning drawings of the different types of Renaissance galleys – apparently the Ottoman Empire didn’t use slaves on their galley as they found free men worked better, and harder.
Each place I’m writing about is very different and conveying the richness of setting and the world inhabited then certainly has me stretched. Three of my characters are Scots and I could sense how stunned they’d be to come from the relatively small confines of St Andrews, albeit one of the richest cities in Scotland of the time to what was, briefly, the most powerful city in the Western World of the mid 1500s, Antwerp – and then on to Geneva and ultimately Venice.
I think of the famous Dorothy Dunnett writing her Lymond Chronicles and doubt she visited Russia and Istanbul. What I do know is she researched what she wrote to the nth degree. There are even a couple of companion books available detailing her researches and sources. So, yes, in answer to your question, it can be helpful to visit the place you’re writing about (and is probably more essential if you’re writing current fiction), but of far more import is to do the research thoroughly… still my next in series is partly set in Constantinople so I definitely see a visit to Istanbul on the horizon.
Thank you, Vicki – and for those who want to know how readers feel – here is the blurb for Apostates and some reviews:
‘One of those books where you forget you’re reading and feel you’re there.’ Lexie Connygham
It’s 1550 and Bethia has fled Antwerp, with her infant son, before the jaws of the inquisition clamp down, for the family are accused of secret judaising. She believes they’ve evaded capture but her husband, Mainard, unbeknownst to her, is caught, imprisoned and alone.
Reaching Geneva, Bethia hopes for respite from a dangerous journey, but it’s a Protestant city state which tolerates no dissent – and she’s a Catholic. And why has Mainard not come?
Perhaps he’s already reached Venice where Jews can live openly, the Virgin gazes benignly from every corner and difference is tolerated, for the wealthy at least. Yet much is hidden beneath the smooth waters of this perilous city. Must they again flee to survive…
‘A series which never fails to get better and always leaves me wanting more.’ Esther Mendelssohn
On offer until 7 December at 99p/99c
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