Today I have a guest post from historical fiction writer Karen Charlton. An English graduate and a former teacher, she now writes full-time and lives in a remote fishing village on the North East coast of England. She is a stalwart of the village pub quiz and her team once won the BBC quiz show ‘Eggheads.’ Her other claim to fame is that she won a Yorkshire Tourist Board award for writing Murder Mystery Weekends. Her series featuring Inspector Stephen Lavender and Constable Woods are available through Amazon here. Her books are available on audio, in print, and on Kindle Unlimited.
My Detective Lavender Mysteries, published by Thomas & Mercer, are the fictional adventures of Stephen Lavender, who was a real-life Principal Officer with the Bow Street Police Office in London.
By the early 19th century, Principal Officers had a variety of different and important roles although they were still nicknamed ‘Bow Street Runners’ as if they were messenger boys. Apart from supporting their colleagues solve crime in the capital, they were often sent out to help magistrates in the provinces with difficult cases. They also took part in undercover work in periods of insurrection, for example, during the Luddite riots in the Midlands and were available for hire by wealthy landowners.
They were Britain’s earliest private detectives and they were famous throughout London. The exploits of Stephen Lavender in particular filled many column inches in The Times. He was a Regency celebrity.
They were the only policemen allowed into Buckingham House (the forerunner of the palace) and did security work for the Bank of England. On some occasions, they were even sent abroad to help with crimes and criminals who had spilled out over our borders onto the continent.
Unlike modern crime fighters, the Bow Street officers usually worked alone. However, successful crime fiction novels normally have a pair of heroes – or heroines – resolving the mysteries. So, I decided to change history and gave Lavender a side-kick, Constable Ned Woods, in keeping with this modern literary convention. Woods brings down-to-earth humour and kindness to the novels and is a great foil to Lavender’s slightly-introverted, bookish intelligence. Many readers tell me he is their favourite character.
I frequently find records of Lavender’s cases in the newspapers and often use them as the basis for the plots of my novels. For example, the third book in the series, The Sculthorpe Murder, is based around one of Lavender’s most famous cases which was extensively reported. In 1818, a gang of thugs burst into the home of an elderly man called William Sculthorpe who lived in rural Northamptonshire. They viciously attacked and robbed the eighty-seven-year-old and his son.
The newspapers are always vague about how Lavender actually solved his cases. They tend to be rather gory publications and prefer to dwell more on the horror; the size of the pool of blood and ‘the large quantity of clotted blood that had settled in the victim’s mouth.’ This lack of detail about the police procedure of the time gives me plenty of opportunity to flex my imagination and use artistic license. This is how I prefer to work. I take the bare bones of a real case and then make up the rest. My latest mystery, Plague Pits & River Bones (to be published: 11th January 2018) is a mixture of one of Lavender’s real cases and several other fictional sub-plots.
Inevitably, other real characters do occasionally appear in my books. These have ranged from William, Duke of Clarence and his mistress, the famous actress, Dorothy Jordan; to the artist, William Turner, other Bow Street officers and a range of British Politicians. However, Magdalena, Lavender’s spirited and exotic love-interest, is a figment of my imagination.
My favourite part of writing is usually the first 50,000 words. I tend to think about my books for over a year and when I start writing the words flow over the page with the smoothness of silk. By the time I’m at 50,000 words, it usually gets more difficult. I’ve often got three or four sub-plots running at the same time and dozens of loose ends to tie-up. At this point, I usually take a little break. I hate the cold, dark British winters and last year I flew south to the sunshine of the Canary Islands for a month to finish Plague Pits and River Bones.
But I normally spend this ‘break’ time pottering around my beloved garden, or reading a historical fiction novel by another author (my favourite genre.) Then I come back to my desk refreshed, and race towards the dramatic conclusion. The best two words when writing a novel are always: ‘The End.’
But it’s usually not long before the voices of Lavender and Woods are clamouring in my head, demanding another outing.