The Joys & Struggles of Writing Historical Fiction, by Guest Author Christopher J. Lewis

Christopher J T Lewis relaxing at villa in Alps.jpgOK, let’s concentrate on the joys.

Of the Poyson of Cats

According to the ground-breaking French barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-90) in his book on poisons:

‘Not only the braine of a Cat, being eaten, is poysonous and deadly to man, but also their hair, their breathe, yea, and their very presence to some proves deadly… A certain German in winter time came with us into a [room with a] stove to supper, whereas were diverse of our acquaintance. A certaine woman, knowing this man’s nature, lest that he should see her kitling [i.e. kitten] which she kept, and so go away in a chafe [i.e. temper], she shut her [kitling] up in a cupboard in the same chamber. But for all that he did not see the kitling, neither heard her cry, yet within a little space, when he had drawn in the air… [the German] began to sweat, to look pale, and to cry out Here lies a Cat in some corner or other. Neither could he be quiet until the Cat was taken away.’

For me, much of the fun of writing historical fiction lies in doing the background research. I came across the passage above whilst researching poison in the 16th century. At the start of my historical novel Galileo’s Revenge, set in sixteenth-century Florence, Francesco de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, collapses unexpectedly whilst out hunting with his disgruntled younger brother Ferdinand. Poisoning was widely suspected at the time, though strenuously disputed by Ferdinand. The young Galileo Galilei becomes entangled in the ensuing power struggles and intrigues.

Consequently, I did a lot of research on poison – don’t say you haven’t been warned – but I wanted to have an accurate, historical understanding of the problems that Galileo would have faced when dealing with such a suspected poisoning. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning, say, are not so very different from the symptoms of cholera or dysentery. Modern laboratory techniques for detecting small (but potentially fatal) quantities of arsenic, such as the Marsh test, were only developed in the 19th century.

Sixteenth-century ideas about detecting poisons could be rather imaginative. In Galileo’s Revenge (bk.5.1), Galileo’s friend Professor Girolamo Mercuriale (1530-1606) gives him a bit of a lecture on ways to detect poisons. Bronze vessels, the professor suggests, or emerald jewels, and or indeed ‘serpent’s horn’, will change colour or even sweat in the presence of poison. Mercuriale was not some marketplace mountebank, but one of the most successful physicians of his day, at times attending the Holy Roman Emperor. I’m still not entirely sure what ‘serpent’s horn’ might be.

Neither Monk, nor Student, nor Courtesan

Apart from such technical issues, however, I always find the mundane details of everyday life delightful and inspiring. The English traveller Fynes Moryson (1566-1630) is a wonderful source of observations on the habits of the Italians of his day. (See my blogs on Moryson for more details.) A couple of Italian gentlemen, for example, passing each other in the street, will quite naturally doff their hats in respectful greeting. But (Moryson noticed) they will have to keep their hats raised until they have gone round a corner and out of sight, lest one or the other gentleman puts his hat back on first, thereby disrespecting the other!

Moryson first arrived in Italy in 1592, and decided to over-winter in the famous university town of Padua. (Did he meet Galileo, who had recently taken up a position there as lecturer in Mathematics? Of course he did!) In the following spring Moryson continued his journey:

‘Then we entered our boat again, and passed 5 miles to Venice, upon the marshes thereof. We might have had coaches, but since a boat passeth daily to and fro between these Cities, most men use this passage as most convenient. For the boat is covered with arched hatches, and there is very pleasant company… Commonly there is pleasant discourse, and the proverb saith, that the boat shall be drowned, when it carries neither Monk, nor Student, nor Courtesan (they love them too well to call them whores), the passengers being for the most part of these kinds. I remember a young maid in the boat, [who] crossed herself whensoever an old woman looked upon her, fearing she should be a witch; whereat the other passengers often smiled, seeing the girl not only crossed herself for fear, but thrust her crucifix towards the old woman’s eyes.’

I find such intimate glimpses of individual life especially moving, like an old photo or snatch of home movie. The young maid was genuinely frightened. How did the old woman feel? And I shall always remember ‘a certain German’ with a Cat allergy: did he forgive ‘a certaine woman’?

‘Blubberd jugs’: the joys of period language

Language presents particular joys and challenges for the writer of historical fiction. I am especially lucky, I think, in my choice of period. The sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries were rich, creative times for the English language. Even the advertising is vivid and fresh: ‘Other ladies in your company,’ promises one seller of face-paints, ‘shall look like brown-bread sippets in a dish of snowy cream or, if you will, like blubberd jugs in a cupboard of Venetian glasses, or earthen Chamberpots in a Goldsmith’s shop.’ Hurry while stocks last! Did the young Shakespeare perhaps find work as a copywriter?

Sometimes, I think, it scarcely matters whether you know exactly what a word means. But, since you ask, according to the wonderful Oxford English Dictionary, a ‘sippet’ was ‘a small piece of toasted or fried bread, usu. served in soup or broth (1530)’. (Might this be a timely moment to banish the ‘crouton’ and restore the plucky Old English ‘sippet’?) And, as well as its modern sense, ‘to blubber’ used to mean ‘to bubble, bubble up’; hence, I guess, here ‘blubbered glass’ meant inferior glass with bubbles in it. But you scarcely need to know, do you?

I love the variety: why do we no longer speak of a ‘kitling’ (‘1530 A young cat, a kitten (now dialect)’.)? I love the way the meaning(s) of a word slip and slide: thus ‘chafe’ in my period (1551) means ‘heat; rage, passion, fury; temper’; only by the mid-nineteenth century (1848) has it subsided to a mere ‘rubbing, fretting, friction’. Bring back to ‘go away in a chafe’. And lastly, I have to tell you that a ‘stove’ originally (1456) meant ‘a sitting room or bedroom heated with a furnace’, and only later (1618) the actual ‘apparatus for heating’ in the modern sense.

The awkward intrusion of shoe-laces and of M’sieur Silhouette?

Of course, there is literally no end to the amount of research that a writer could do in order to get the period detail absolutely right. I did eventually manage to establish to my own satisfaction that Galileo and his contemporaries probably did wear underpants or knickers. (Well, that was the case in Italy, at least. Apparently, England is a different story – what can I say?) But imagine my horror to be told by an eminent professor at an erudite conference that there were no shoe-laces at the time! What item of clothing could Laura struggle to remove if Galileo’s shoe-laces were not knotted? Was I bothered? Well, a bit, but I have since managed to find several illustrations in contemporary fashion books showing what look very like shoe-laces to me.

Constant vigilance is also needed to stop some clearly anachronistic word slipping under the wire. ‘Silhouette’ might seem harmless enough, but it is actually named after the eighteenth-century Frenchman Monsieur Silhouette (1709-67), who popularized outline portraits cut out of black paper. Annoyingly, it is actually quite difficult to find a good alternative (‘outline’, ‘profile’?), but such an obvious interloper cannot be admitted to the sixteenth century. I was very reassured to read Andrew Taylor’s comments about writing his very fine The American Boy, set in the early nineteenth century: ‘I wanted the language to be as authentic as possible… I spent my working life trapped inside the Oxford English Dictionary trying to establish whether this word or that phrase could have been used in the particular context I wanted.’

Anyhow, at the risk of being a bit too ‘cavalier’ (1657), I’m not sure it matters too much – consider, for example, the clocks striking in Julius Caesar. I am much reassured by the attitude of William Golding: when asked how he came to know so much about medieval stone-masonry, as meticulously described in The Spire, he is said to have replied, ‘I make it up’.

Struggles: Did Galileo smoke?

But, is it always such fun, you ask? Sadly, it isn’t. There can be the occasional small problem. At times of stress and uncertainty (his, not mine), for example, I keep wanting Galileo to pull out a packet of fags and light up. But sadly 1587 is just a bit too early, even for a pipe or snuff. And I can’t think of a good alternative. But then there are a few big problems. There’s plot, for example. I used to have terrific problems with plot, and pace, and backstory. It took me two or three years to write the first couple of chapters of Galileo’s Revenge. But then I discovered an absolutely infallible method for dealing with all such issues       [Here the manuscript breaks off abruptly, the last page being stained with what is probably red wine. Although it looks a bit thick for wine.]

Galileo's Revenge front cover.jpg

Available from all good bookshops; via my website



Paré, Ambroise. The works of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine by Th. Johnson (London, 1634).

Moryson, Fynes. An Itinerary, written by Fynes Moryson, Gent. First in the Latine Tongue, and then translated by him into English: containing his Ten Yeeres Travell through the Twelve Dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland. Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turkey, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland. At London. Printed by John Beale, dwelling in Aldersgate street. 1617. This splendid folio volume is ‘Divided into III Parts’, each of nearly 300 pages. (There is a facsimile edition: Amsterdam and New York, Da Capo Press, 1971.)

Pollard, Tanya. ‘Beauty’s poisonous properties’ (Shakespeare Studies, 1999, vol.27).

Taylor, Andrew. The American Boy (2003).

Willett and Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes (London, 1951; Dover, New York, 1992).

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