Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Details, Details, Details

One of the best things about writing a historical novel is that it forces me to dig up and closely examine details from history that I never would have noticed before. It turns out that details are much more interesting than the broad picture and often more informative and compelling, as well. Likewise as a reader of historical novels, reading a reference to a minor character or a long forgotten building can open new vistas for discovering the past. Let me give you one example.

London Bridge, 1799

The Old London Bridge is well-known for being crowded with shops and houses teetering precariously over the Thames, like a bloated version of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. At the time I am writing about, 1792, the bridge had been wiped clean of those structures. All of the houses and shops were torn down, so that the surface of bridge was a clean sweep. However, all of the original pillars, connected by nineteen arches, remained.

Especially interesting to me, the effect of all of those pillars was that they forced the river to run through nineteen separate channels, and when the tide was flowing, each channel was a separate fast moving ten foot waterfall! Daredevil boaters sometimes shot through the channel and sometimes drowned. Passengers from up river avoided the danger by disembarking above the bridge and walking down below the bridge to continue their journey. A whole other fascinating detail was the group of water wheels under the London Bridge, positioned there because of this flow, and which supplied London with much of its not-so-fresh water.

Much more information about the history of the bridge, including detailed diagrams of the water wheels, is available at the Old London Bridge website, here.

Details do bring the past to life, and one of the great virtues of historical novels is that they are informed by details, which can be jumping off points for the reader to do his or her own historical research. It makes history exciting, and that is the point.

London Bridge, 1710

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