Doug MacLeod on ‘The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher

Writing History

When you write a piece of historical fiction, even a comedy like The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, you have to make a decision. Will you be absolutely faithful to the period or will you cheat a little here and there, in order to tell a better tale?

The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher is fiction, but based on true events that occurred in England in 1828. In order to make things easier on myself, I invented the fictional coastal town of Wishall in which it is set. Some of the events in the book happened in the genuine Norfolk town of Great Yarmouth, which is further from London than my fictional town. Bolter’s Lane in Great Yarmouth was a place where some well-known body-snatchers hid out. I liked the name so I made sure that Wishall had a Bolter’s Lane as well. The body-snatchers really did remove the heads from some of the cadavers, so that they could be bent in two and bundled into a square wooden box. I don’t know if there ever was a ‘sea of heads’ under one of the warehouses, but it seemed too good an image to waste.

There’s a little more playing with history when I write about some welding equipment that is used to threaten our hero Thomas. Because Thomas has unintentionally caused a body-snatcher to lose his nose, (this book is sounding quite gory but I swear it isn’t) the injured body-snatcher decides he will remove Thomas’s nose with a blow-torch. Just prior to this, we have seen the blowtorch cut through a thick iron coffin. The torches of 1828 probably wouldn’t have been strong enough to do that. But it’s more exciting for the reader if a torch that has cut through thick iron is about to be pointed at Thomas’s nose. Once again, telling a story takes priority over historical truth.

London didn’t have a proper police force in 1828. I got around that by having various sheriffs and watchmen take their place. The language seems contemporary, because I didn’t want readers to trip over the dialogue. But I tried to use words that would have been in use at the time. ‘Barbecue’, which seems like a fairly modern word, dates back to the mid seventeenth century, so when villains talk about making a barbecue of someone’s nose (I promise, it really isn’t a gory book) that’s something that might have been said. But I had one character cry out ‘Piffle!’, which is a word that wasn’t invented until the twentieth century, so I changed it.

It may seem silly to worry about things like that, when the book features a publisher in Camden Lock who purchases manuscripts by weight, rather than content. Clearly, such a person never existed. That’s just my little grumble about why publishers think it’s necessary to put out such enormous books that could do with an edit. But in order to get away with ridiculous things like that, it’s only fair to include some genuine historical stuff. I researched the period, which gave me plenty more to write about. And I confess, from time to time, I did use Wikipedia. I’ll never say mean things about Dan Brown again.

Read an extract

Download the teachers’ notes

The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher has been shortlisted in the Older Readers category of this year’s CBC Awards.

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