Writing historical fiction is a constant push-and-pull between what you can reasonably know about the given time period, and what you could not possibly know. In the middle lies the vast realm of conjecture. Having information readily available online doesn’t always mean you will find the answer to your query, and that’s when conjecture meets plausibility.
In the sequel to Skinners, there are some scenes I’m working on that are set in Port Royal, the infamous pirate haven that mostly sunk into the sea due to an earthquake in 1692, thirty years after my target time period (mid 1660s). There’s a scene where I need something like a policeman, and I guessed that “constable” might be the right term for such a person in English colonial Jamaica. I was correct on the terminology, except it turns out that the Jamaica Constabulary Force, still in existence today, was not founded until 1716.
Searching for more information, I found two novels with action set in Port Royal – Michael Crichton’s posthumous Pirate Latitudes and James A. Michener’s Caribbean. I’m sure there are others, but these have proved to be a good start.
Why consult historical fiction for factual information about history? It’s a fair question. One can assume that writers of the caliber of Crichton and Michener did their research, but… maybe not always, because for example Crichton’s lines for his Spanish characters speaking “Spanish” are, sadly and inexcusably, either a poor mix of several romance languages, or straight-up Italian. (Hey you fancy-schmancy New York publishing houses – really??!! This is not even the first time I see this kind of egregious disregard.) So I’m less interested in making that assumption about the research than I am in seeing precisely where these well-known authors may have jumped into the realm of conjecture and plausibility.
For instance, in Pirate Latitudes, coincidentally set also mid-1660s Port Royal, the law enforcement, such as it is, is the English Navy. There’s a Navy Commander character in the novel who is something like second-in-command to the colonial Governor, with a role akin to a sheriff’s. There is also a trial scene near the end of the novel that is useful for me in imagining how the justice system would have functioned.
What about public nudity? Crichton’s is obviously not a naturist novel, yet there are indeed some scenes that lend a sense of what would have been tolerated, and in what kinds of circumstances (not very good ones), regarding nudity in public.
Pirate Latitudes is also just a fun, action-packed read (highly recommended!), so there’s that too – one reads fiction that “works” as a model for how to do it, after all. Now, regarding Michener, a writer who never learned how to say no to including every last fact he uncovered in his research… well, I’ve read from his exhaustive and exhausting oeuvre before, and I will not commit to reading another one of his behemoths in its entirety, but I will indeed scour Caribbean for no-doubt very useful and accurate information about Port Royal. Onward!