Today I’m really happy to host K.J. Whittaker on my blog, talking about the research and worldbuilding she did for her new alternate-history Regency adventure novel, False Lights. I’ve only just started reading False Lights, but I am really enjoying it so far!
(The first sentence of the book is: “Hester killed her first man at Castle Bryher.” So in other words, it is a rollicking adventure from the very beginning!)
This is the blurb for the book:
Wellington is in secret captivity in the Scilly Isles and the Cornish are threatening to join forces with France against the English. Against this tumultuous backdrop, Hester Harewood manages to escape from the French soldiers who have killed her black sea captain father. Her rescuer – Jack ‘Crow’ Crowlas – takes her to shelter with his aristocratic family in London.
But soon they are embroiled in a web of treachery and espionage, as plans are laid to free Wellington and lead an uprising against the French occupation. Meanwhile, Crow’s younger brother throws in his lot with the Cornish rebels and threatens to bring Hester and Crow’s elaborate plans crashing down, as this spellbinding story builds towards its violent and gripping endgame.
And here’s KJ’s post:
Research for False Lights
False Lights is an alternative history – in it, Napoleon wins the Battle of Waterloo and Britain is invaded by the French. As we all know, in reality Wellington won that battle and Britain was never invaded, although Wellington did afterwards admit that it was ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’. But even though I made an enormous change to the face of Europe in False Lights, I still wanted to get the details of the Regency period right as far as I could – as well as find a convincing way of not only allowing Napoleon to win, but also to paint a realistic picture of the battlefield at Waterloo as my hero, Crow, would have experienced it.
I definitely struck lucky whilst researching my Waterloo scenes for False Lights: I was invited to the site of the battle itself by Waterloo Uncovered, a team of archaeologists – many of whom are also veterans themselves. I actually got taken on a tour of the battlefield so that we could figure out exactly where and when Crow would be as Wellington’s defeat gathers pace, even down to the tree-lined drovers’ road he runs down, desperately trying to deliver a crucial message to the Duke. Waterloo occupies an iconic position in English history. Before my visit to the site of the battle, I was in danger of glorifying or even romanticising it. Many of the archaeologists at Waterloo Uncovered are veterans now living with PTSD, and I began to understand what it can really mean to experience a theatre of war – a valuable lesson that changed how I wrote the book.
As for the wider world of False Lights, I’ve been fascinated by the Regency period since discovering Georgette Heyer, the mother of all Regency romances – her novels are whip-smart and very funny, but it’s also clear how much effort Heyer put into carefully researching everything from clothes and modes of speech to the social issues she touched on. Georgette Heyer’s books gave me so many hours of pleasure that I couldn’t resist dipping a toe into the glittering waters of the Regency myself. The more I researched, the more I learned of a dark underbelly to a glamorous world of officers in scarlet regimentals, private balls and debutantes. I inhaled book after book – Napoleonic code, kitchen remedies, poisons, fashions and slang. One of the many books that has really lingered in my mind was a compendium of letters between several generations of Georgian women. For me, it drove home the restrictions even very privileged women lived beneath. Of course, I’d expected to hear that women were subordinate to men, but what I hadn’t truly appreciated until I heard those women’s voices in their letters was how they were expected to always present an amiable face to the world. Women’s thoughts, feelings and emotions were always policed. And these were highly privileged women – life was infinitely harder for others. One of the most profoundly moving research trips I made was to the Black Georgians exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. I listened to a recording of a first-hand account of children dragged from their parents in a slave-market, likely never to see them again.
False Lights changes history, but like all historical fiction it attempts to recreate a lost world: is it possible to ever really understand how people thought and felt two hundred years in the past? Their attitudes and lives were formed by situations thankfully unknown to most of us, even if you only consider how easy it was for women to die in childbirth, and that a six-year-old child could be hanged for stealing. I did my best to create characters who think and behave as though they were born more than two centuries ago, but also had to treat modern readers with the respect they deserve, without sugar-coating the presence of evil and injustice in our own history.
You English do not like to hear anything bad of your own country, although you are so fond of abusing other nations
—Napoleon, September 4th, 1817
K.J. Whittaker is the Carnegie-nominated author of six YA novels published by Walker Books under the name Katy Moran. She works part-time in a bookshop, and lives in Shropshire. You can find her on Twitter as @KatyjaMoran.