Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Guest Post: Piers Alexander - The Bitter Trade

The Footsore Researcher’s Guide To Historic England

People often ask if I had to do a lot of research for The Bitter Trade: well, yes I did – in fact I am still researching 1688 London for a second edition – but it’s not just about spending days and weeks in the library.

I love reading, but I learn kinesthetically (through touch and physical experiences), which is rather challenging if you want to learn about people who have been dead for 300 years! But it’s taken me to some unusual places, and I’ve met some very interesting characters, and worn out a lot of shoe leather.

I really wanted to recommend some of those experiences to readers who plan to visit England, so here’s the Footsore Researcher’s Guide to Historic England.

Wandering the Buried Rivers

Many readers of Just One More Chapter will know that London has over a dozen hidden rivers, culverted and buried as the city developed. The best-known are the Fleet, the Westbourne, the Tyburn and the Effra, and they were important waterways in the past – unfortunately doubling up as sewers.

Much of the action in The Bitter Trade takes place on and around the Fleet: it wends its stinky way through the story, separating the poor hardworking Huguenot craftsmen from the corrupt but attractive world of commerce and conspiracy. Because it’s buried deep beneath Farringdon Road – you can sometimes see its waters seeping through the walls of the Circle Line at Kings Cross – I walked its length above ground, from Hampstead to Blackfriars. Along the way I saw the Hardy Tree, named for Thomas Hardy; and the original Clerks’ Well, a pilgrimage site where many of London’s riots and revolutionary movements have started.

Walking around the nearby area of Clerkenwell inspired many scenes in the book, and it’s become one of my favourite parts of London.

If you’re a bit more adventurous, you can take a kayak tour of the Thames, paddling from Chiswick to Westminster, and then riding the incoming tide back upriver. Along the way, the guides take great pleasure in pointing out the buried rivers, and their rather murky role as reserve sewers when it rains too much. It’s an amazing trip.

Kayaking the mighty Thames with my brothers

Entrance to the Fleet River by Samuel Scott, c1750

The Hardy Tree, growing between gravestones that were moved when a young Thomas Hardy worked at St Pancras Old Church

The Clerks’ Well being rediscovered in 1924

 The Floating Library

If your main character is remotely well-travelled – and mine, Calumny Spinks, is a cheeky, ambitious sort – then he or she will be spending plenty of time on board ships. My uncle and cousin were both Navy commanders, and my dad grew up sailing boats in Torbay, so I thought it would be fun to organise a day on board an old-fashioned three-masted sailing ship, the Lord Nelson, to celebrate my father’s birthday a couple of years back. Along the way, I thought I would get some more inspiration for Cal’s next voyage.

Big mistake!

The problem with writing is that you start to believe you have experienced what your characters have experienced. But of course I haven’t been in a swordfight or sailed across the Atlantic, and I got badly seasick. My dad was at the tiller, taking us out of Dartmouth harbor; the rest of us moaned and groaned below decks. Quite funny really!

I learned something very useful, though: most people do get seasick, and that was no joke in the age of sail. So I have an unpleasant trip planned for young Cal…

Jubilee Sailing Trust’s Lord Nelson: not for the faint of stomach!

Playing the Past

As a kinesthetic learner, I’ve come to find that going to reenactments and live history events really helps to connect with my characters’ lives – not to mention meeting plenty of kooky, generous people who inspire new characters.

I recently spent some time with the English Civil War reenactors of The Sealed Knot, experiencing the boredom, banter and adrenaline of close-quarters action with musket and pike ( It really brought home the reality of war for a typical tenant farmer, conscripted into his lord’s regiment and sent off to a lumpy battlefield with an unfamiliar weapon; and I’ve made some big-hearted new friends from it. Even if you don’t want to get dressed up, it’s a great family day out.

Georgia Ball and Colonel John Pickering’s Drummer Girls of the Sealed Knot

The Bitter Trade refers to coffee smuggling, and so I was delighted to hear about Dr Matthew Green’s coffeehouse tours round the City of London. Matt is a charismatic, erudite and witty historian who recreates the hustle, bustle and low morals of the seventeenth century coffeehouses. I rewrote a couple of scenes after going on his tour. Recently, I was lucky enough to hear his talk at the National Maritime Museum in connection with their Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition, which I recommend.

To launch the book, we wanted to recreate a seventeenth century coffeehouse atmosphere: low lighting, noise, music, and strangers meeting convivially. It was a lot of fun: eighty people unexpectedly joining in scurrilous three part harmony! (

Dr Matthew Green at the book launch

Footsore and happy

I’m not the only kinaesthetic historical writer out there. I sometimes laugh out loud when I see my author friends’ Facebook statuses: they are always zooming around England, tracking down obscure manuscripts, going to reenactments, dressing up… The next historical novel you read, just remember this: the author had a LOT of fun writing it!

Footsore Adventures
Sail on a tall ship:
Go to a Civil War re-enactment:
Kayak past the buried rivers:
Tour London’s coffeehouses and chocolate houses:
Ships, Clocks and Stars at the National Maritime Museum:

Piers Alexander is the author of The Bitter Trade, a historical novel set during England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. It has won the Pen Factor and a Global Ebook Award for modern historical fiction, and is a top 5 European historical fiction bestseller on

To buy The Bitter Trade ebook:

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