There are many elements in a historical narrative, but one of the most important is setting. If your reader is going to trust you story, and trust you as a story teller, you have to make them ‘see’ the period and the way that people lived.
One of the reasons that I set my first two novels in the present/recent past is that I like to write about what I can see. A sense of place is important to me, both because it gives the story context and depth, and also because it can be used to illustrate or dramatize the themes that drive the narrative. When I switched to writing historical fiction and set out to write a novel set in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, this seemed like a huge challenge. My historical novel ‘Dark Aemilia’ tells the story of the relationship between two real historical characters: William Shakespeare and Aemilia Lanyer, the first woman to be published as a professional poet in England. How do you build a credible reality when you are writing about a world that has disappeared, and that you will never know?
The first step – and one that may seem daunting – is research. There is no getting away from this, and if you can’t stand the idea of reading (quite a few) history books or spending time in old buildings or library archives, then this genre of fiction may not be for you. I was surprised to find that I loved it, and that historical research can be addictive. I found that until I know what people would wear, what sort of chairs they would sit on, how, where and what they ate (and so on) I couldn’t see the scene myself. Another surprise was that research and concrete facts are inspiring in themselves, and many elements of my story – such as the belief in the occult and the spirit world that dominates the thinking of my main character – came from reading heavy tomes such as ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’ by Keith Thomas.
Historical fiction is a diverse and vibrant genre, and you can spin it any way you want. Your story may be set 50 years or go, or 500, and you can tell a page turning yarn, or write in an impressionistic and experimental way. You can retell familiar stories, dramatize the lives of people forgotten by time, delve into your family’s past or invent an alternative historical world.
Whatever approach you take, and whatever your ambition for your own story, I would emphasise the importance of being precise and specific in building up your ideas. Plot and characterisation are essential elements of story, and in my workshop I will be looking at ways of developing these using research, imagination and observation.
Research helps you unearth new knowledge that enables you to enter your chosen period with confidence with a sense of the rules and constraints that affect the choices your characters make. Imagination gives you permission to add your own supposition and invention to what is known about your period – Hilary Mantel has talked about writing in ‘the gaps in history’ and you can do the same. And observation is essential – weather, nature, physical sensations like pain or hunger, or emotions like fear, excitement, love – all of these aspects of the world you have experienced can feed into a story set in the past.
On Saturday 28th June 2014, I’ll be at the Omega Centre in Portsmouth to talk to WEA workshop participants about the importance of A Sense of Place. We’ll talk about the possibilities for setting a story in the past and exactly how much and what sort of research you may need to do.
I always wanted to write, ever since I could read. My father loved books and the house was full of them. Books were piled on the floor; bookshelves covered every wall. Trips to the library on Saturday morning became a family ritual, and I wanted to write like C.S. Lewis or Rosemary Sutcliffe – stories full of magic and strange glamour.
As an adult, I worked as a journalist and editor for many years, and then published two novels. Both are black comedies that deal with flawed relationships and family versus friendship. I have also written a third novel, about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, which is currently with my agent who is looking for a publisher. This last book has returned to my childish love of weirdness and witchcraft.
‘How to be a Writer’ is the book I wish I’d had to hand when I first got published. It’s based on my experience of being published and then not being, having a break-through and then having a series of setbacks. Because although this was a dream come true, it was also the beginning of one of the most challenging careers in the world. Being an author has no job description, no working hours, pension, career ladder or anything else. When you work as a writer, you are on your own, and most of us learn by trial and error.
So this is why I wrote this book – a guide to the pleasures and pitfalls of the writing life. Lots of books tell you how to write – but this is the one that tells you how to be a writer. How to get an agent, how to give a reading, how to find the right day job, deal with your money and get the words down every day.
My message here is that being published is still the gold standard in terms of success, but a writer writes, no matter what. And if you want peace of mind you will need to love the process as well as the prospect of the Booker prize.
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