Writing historical fiction, even historical fantasy, places certain demands on an author that are different from those in writing science fiction or epic fantasy (with the possible exception of steampunk). Capturing the feel of a bygone era requires careful research in order to gain that fidelity of time and place. OK, not all readers might know the difference or spot anachronisms unless they’re obvious—like a Mongol warrior burning down a village with his Zippo—but many do. And there’s nothing that will kill reader interest faster than a clunker in the setting that breaks the spell.
Some of the crucial scenes in Gideon’s Angel are set in the palace of Whitehall in London in the year 1653. Today, the only remaining portion of that once huge and sprawling complex is the Banqueting House. Most of Whitehall burned to the ground back in 1698, never to be rebuilt. My challenge was to describe the palace through the eyes of my characters, a place I could never visit (unlike Hampton Court). Luckily, I had some help. There were a few architectural plans done of the palace in the mid to late 17th century and they still exist. Also, a couple of paintings show the palace from the same time period. This one by Hendrick Danckerts in 1675 was particularly key. It pictures the west side of the complex from St. James’s Park. By studying the floor plan and the painting, I was able to write a vivid climax that not just described accurately that part of Whitehall including a rickety external staircase and Oliver Cromwell’s apartments, but also used key buildings, such as the Cockpit theatre (the domed part of the palace to the right of the painting) to set an otherworldly showdown between good and evil. Probably the most amazing performance ever witnessed in the Cockpit!
Was this level of verisimilitude really necessary? True, I could have made up the whole layout and floor plan and many readers would have been none the wiser. But there was a reason for doing this other than for the sake of historical accuracy. The real incentive of using the surviving sources, these echoes in time, was that these gave me enhanced clarity and detail to fire my imagination all the more. And I honestly believe I’ve written a far better scene because of it.