I LOVED Department 19 by Will Hill - it was pretty much the best book I read in 2010, and I've been so excited about seeing it out in the wild and other people reading it. One of the best parts of Department 19 is the authenticity of Will's writing, and the sheer amount of research that went into the novel, and so I'm thrilled to welcome him to my blog today to talk about how he went about creating the vivid world presented in Department 19.
I’ve done a few Department 19 events in the last six months, that have given me the chance to say hello to some of the nicest and kindest people I’ve ever met; librarians, school kids, booksellers, buyers, and bloggers, including the writer of this very page.
At each of them, my lovely, annoyingly talented editor Nick Lake exposed me to ridicule by showing the audience some of the pages of research and planning I did before I really dug into the writing of Department 19. I’ll be the first to admit, the sight of page after page of A3 paper covered in lists of numbers, family trees, rules and regulations, doesn’t paint me in a very good light as far as my mental health is concerned. But I never really mind, because those pages were absolutely vital to my being able to write Department 19 at all.
The conceit behind Department 19 is the existence of a secret branch of the military with authority over the supernatural, an organisation founded by the men who did battle with Dracula in Bram Stoker’s classic novel. Jamie Carpenter, the hero of the novel, is descended from the first man who was asked to join the fledgling Department, in the very early twentieth century. Descendants of the six founding fathers – Jonathan Harker, John Seward, Abraham Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood, Quincey Morris and Henry Carpenter – are automatically asked to join when they reach their 21st birthdays, as a way of continuing the traditions of an organisation the public can never know about.
So far, so straightforward, right?
The thing I really wanted to achieve with Department 19 was to give the organisation as powerful a sense of reality as possible, to act as a counterbalance to the supernatural things that its members face every day and night. I wanted it to feel like Department 19 had been a fully functioning organisation before Jamie arrives at their base, since long before most of the people who will ever read it were even born. I started planning the story, and within a few pages I was tying myself in knots – the names of the men that Jamie encounters during his adventure, their ages, their relationships with each other, the geography of the base, the weapons the Operators carry, all began to very quickly pile up, muddying the waters, and holding up the story I was trying to tell.
So I stopped. For three months I didn’t write a single word of prose. In that time I produced the following:
- Family trees for each of the founders of Department 19, from the 1890s onwards
- Biographies of every single person on all six family trees, the vast majority of whom will never appear in the Department 19 series
- A definitive set of rules regarding vampire biology and abilities
- A timeline of every Commanding Officer of the Department, from its inception to the current Director
- Maps and cross-sections of the Loop, the secret Department 19 base
- Drawings and descriptions of the weapons used by the Operators
- Locations, names and callsigns of all the equivalent supernatural Departments around the wordl
- A new list of every major department of the British Government to fit around the highly classified Department 19
- A list of ID numbers for every major operative to have worked for the Department, from 1892 onwards, with wide enough gaps to fit in as many new characters as appear over the course of the rest of the series
When it was all done I took a few days off, then nervously returned to my laptop, aware that I might have just wasted three months of my life on an epic bout of OCD nerdiness. But mercifully, the words started to flow again. Quickly.
Writing the biographies and the family trees gave me new ideas that informed the whole series, never mind just Department 19. Seeing characters who were at certain ages during huge moments of history (e.g. an ancestor who was twenty as World War One broke out in 1914) led to the piecing together of a history of Department 19 throughout the twentieth century, which is what I’d always wanted – a living, breathing history of an organisation that doesn’t exist.
When I came to write the New York chapters of Department 19 I only had to grab the Carpenter family tree to see who was alive and active in the year I wanted to set the story.
When Frankenstein tells the sad story of Thomas Morris’s father, it was clear from the same pages who his friends would have been, who his contemporaries in the Department were. And every one of these men and women, as hugely important or insignificant to the story as they are, had a biography, a birthday, and an ID number.
When I came to describe the weapon that Frankenstein uses to rescue Jamie, I had a drawing to work from, and a rough description of how it worked.
When Jamie arrives at the base, and rides an elevator up to the surface, I knew exactly what was on each of the floors he passes, because I had drawn the cross-section that showed where everything was.
They were the most frustrating, ludicrous, tiring three months of my life. But the result, some of which you can see below, was the blueprint for the Department 19 series. Without the research Nick mocks me for, there would have been no book for him to edit. So I like to think he’s only teasing me.
That’s what I tell myself, at least :)
Thanks so much, Will! To all my readers - Department 19 is out NOW from all good bookshops. Go buy it immediately and join the Department 19 crusade!