Worldbuilding in historical mysteries: Alison Stuart (Writing as A.M. Stuart)

Thank you so much for inviting me to blog. I write historical fiction as Alison Stuart and historical mysteries as A.M. Stuart.

In my writing, the world in which my characters move … whether it is 17th century England, 19th-century Australian goldfields, or Singapore of 1910 … is as important as any of the human characters. I often liken writing to a painting … rough sketch through to finished oil painting and it is the attention to detail in the background that brings a painting to life.

I try to choose a setting for a book that I have travelled or lived in, such as the goldfield town of Walhalla or Singapore (where I lived for 3 years). Apart from the history of that place, setting in a book is more than just the buildings and streets … it is the weather and climate, it is the light and the smell and the feel of the air (I always liken stepping out of Changi airport in Singapore to walking into hot, damp cotton wool). So a good knowledge of place is the invaluable first step in setting my historicals.

When I start a new book, I dedicate a week to settle myself into the period. This will involve.

  • A scan of contemporary historical events on a macro level (politics, wars etc) and a scan of local events through looking at local newspapers online with Trove or similar. From these sources you can glean some wonderful stories and characters that can be woven into your story from the opening of a bridge in Singapore to a Smallpox scare in a small town in Victoria.
  • If my protagonists are professionals of some description, I will research how they were qualified and what their practice would have looked like. For example, I discovered I had set a book about a teacher exactly at the time that public schooling was formalised in Victoria by an Act of Parliament. That had the added advantage of giving me details of pay and curriculum.
  • The fun part! I am a visual person and image searches are my catnip! Contemporary images of the people and places my characters move in give me instant visualisation. I save the images on my Pinterest boards firstly for reference, and secondly for interested readers.
  • Maps and floorplans. These are vital to authenticity if your characters are to move around the city or town where they live. For big cities such as Melbourne, London or Singapore, I love a good, detailed map. For fictional towns, I will simply ‘make it up’. I have a journal in which I draw maps and floorplans and elevations. Knowing distances and travel times is vital.  
  • Primary sources. I have mentioned newspapers and journals. Then there are books – for example, the many detailed contemporaneous travel guides to the Malay Peninsula which provide invaluable information such as train timetables or the cost of a ricksha ride from anywhere in the town or how to get to the Lunatic Asylum!
  • And then, of course, there are the secondary sources … those invaluable books on costume, social custom and history that crowd my shelves.
  • Finally, I will print out a calendar of the time period I am considering covering in the book which gives the right day of the week and, often moon cycles. Information on major weather events is also useful e.g. I have incorporated a massive flood into my current WIP.

This sounds a lot to cram into a week but by choosing locales I already know, I am part of the way there, and good research is like spice. It should be used sparingly so that it doesn’t overwhelm the story. It should inform the character’s actions, never take centre stage.

Evil in Emerald will be out on 29 March in print, e-book, and audio.

Harriet Gordon turns her talents to musical theatre, joining the cast of the Singapore Amateur Dramatic and Musical Society’s latest production – Pirates of Penzance. However, tensions run deep within the company and, when the leading man is found murdered, Harriet and Curran are drawn into a complex web of lies and deceit.

To find out more about Alison visit her websites: or