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Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – the joy of writing extraordinary commoners

I’ve just started a new book and after quite a bit of research, this is the first week of actually typing anything for my new project, book two of a series set in Italy. I’m a pantser, so I just launch straight in and then try to write my first draft as quickly as possible, and allow a lot of time afterwards for editing, refining and re-structuring the story. I have an overarching view of the story in the form of two sheets of A4 paper which are my only outline, plus of course the memory of what happened in Book 1. So far this week I’ve managed just over 7000 words, which is average for me. It gets slower as the story develops in complexity and as I figure out where the characters are taking me and what new research I need to do.

The piles of books on my desk (above)represent the things I am working on. On the left – things I’d like to write about – the writing wish-list. In the middle, books about my last series (in case anyone asks me awkward research questions!) and the next two piles are books about the stories I’m working on right now. There’s a lot about poisons as my main protagonist is a poisoner.

Again, the second book in my ‘Italian’ series is about a commoner. Publishers are often keen that novelists should write about ‘marquee names’ – which means to say people they’ve heard of. They know they can sell any number of books about Anne Boleyn. If the book is about someone people have heard of, its much easier to sell.

This is not actually true. The Girl with the Pearl Earring sold well, despite having an unknown woman at its heart. As did The Miniaturist. Besides,  Royal courts have never much interested me. Instead I’m interested in individuals who have made their mark in history despite being supposedly ‘nobody special.’ My job as a novelist is to make them special and unforgettable. This is a joy, as unlike Anne Boleyn, where there are thousands of interpretations of her life, each of my characters can shine out from her historical past like a gem in a very direct way.

The three women I wrote about from Pepys’ Diary were women he mentioned in passing. Yet now I have re-imagined rich and vibrant lives for Deb Willet, Bess Bagwell and Mary Elizabeth Knepp. You won’t know who they are because they are footnotes in history. The only portrait of them that exists, is in Pepys’ Diary and my books, and so to me these characters are unsullied by other interpretations. I got to know them through my own internal imagination and Pepys’ direct descriptions rather than through some other biographer’s lens. These women now live as more than footnotes and have been given imaginary voices, and I hope voices that concord with their status in the period.

Pepys Library in Cambridge

Because of the fact my characters have no biographers, my research is mostly background. I read very few books that pertain directly to my main characters. I love old maps and take great care with the settings to make them as authentic as possible. Here’s one of old Palermo I used in Book I of my new series. Historical events, and their impact on the people in my stories are my main interest. The cities of Palermo and Naples at that period were subject to earthquakes, rebellions and the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Politics always looks very different from the bottom, rather than from the point of view of those who make the decisions at the top.

My new series is based around the life of Giulia Tofana, an Italian 17th Century poisoner. She allegedly killed 600 men in the cities of Rome and Naples. She is half legend, half real person. Her story has been embroidered and changed over the centuries, but no-one has written a biography of her. So I had to find an internal way to bring her to life, and one of the ways I attempt to do that is to give her a strong setting, and within that to furnish her with a strong set of opinions. For her poisonings to be convincing, her view of the world has to be skewed in some way by her life’s events. In the first book we see these events brought to life, but by book 2 she is now in a very different situation. From being a courtesan in the first book, she now finds herself a nun in charge of a family of young women incarcerated against their will.

The first novel in the series, ‘The Poison Keeper’, is finished and has been contracted to Sapere Books for publication early in 2021. In my first week writing Book 2, I’m wrestling with how much backstory a new reader needs to jump them into the story. I’m also researching the history of the silkworm which will play a big part in the unfolding events. And as always I’m enjoying breathing life into Giulia Tofana, a woman who has not yet been voiced in an English-speaking novel.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

My new WW2 novel will be published soon, and my latest book is here

Categories
Blog Reviews

The East India Company – The Palace of Lost Dreams

I’m delighted to welcome historical novelist Charlotte Betts today, to tell us the history of the East India Company.

My review of Charlotte’s most recent novel, The Palace of Lost Dreams is at the bottom of this article.

THE EAST INDIA COMPANY

India 2007 075

The Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies (The Company) was founded in 1600. It established a ‘factory’, or free-trade area, in Masulipatnam in India where local inhabitants could interact with foreign merchants with the consent of local rulers. In 1640 a further factory was established in Madras and this was followed by rapid expansion into other areas. Meanwhile, other companies founded by the Dutch, Portuguese, Danish and the French were also spreading their tentacles throughout India.

Dance-Holland, Nathaniel; Robert Clive (1725-1774), 1st Baron Clive of Plassey, 'Clive of India'; National Trust, Powis Castle; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-clive-17251774-1st-baron-clive-of-plassey-clive-of-india-102275
Dance-Holland, Nathaniel; Robert Clive (1725-1774), 1st Baron Clive of Plassey, ‘Clive of India’

The company’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 under Robert Clive, Commander-in-Chief of British India, established political and military supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal. Clive followed this by securing large areas of land, and its riches, in south Asia – Bangladesh, India and Pakistan – becoming a multi-millionaire at the same time. Together with Warren Hastings, the first Governor of Bengal, the foundations were laid for the British Raj.

The British government began an intensive effort to work with the East India Company, who already had armies in place, to snatch power and control over India as a whole. In 1797 the two strongest powers in India, Mysore and the Marathas, had declined in strength and it was a good time for Britain to grasp the upper hand. The Marquis of Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s elder brother, arrived in India in 1798 to take up his new post as Governor General at a time when Britain was locked in a life or death struggle with France all over the world.

Since Napoleon had set his sights on India, too, Wellesley had to move quickly. To achieve his aims, he set up a system of Subsidiary Alliances, which signed away an Indian state’s independence and right of self-defence. The Alliance system was advantageous to the British since they could now maintain a large army at the cost of the Indian states. The first Subsidiary Treaty was signed between Wellesley and the Nizam of Hyderabad on 1st September 1798.

A month later, the largest French force in India was disarmed by the British, who had only a third of their number, without any casualties or a single shot being fired. This turning point, combined with Admiral Nelson’s sinking of the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, effectively ruined Napoleon’s dreams of India becoming a French colony and allowed the Company, backed by the British government, to annex more and more of India.

Queen_Victoria_Golden_Jubilee (1)In 1813, Parliament renewed the Company’s charter but terminated its monopoly, except with regard to tea and trade with China, opening India both to private investment and missionaries. Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the rule of British India was transferred from the British East India Company to the Crown. In 1876 Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India.

Kistna_viaduct,_Great_Indian_Peninsula_Railway

During the hey-day of the Raj, the British civil service collected taxes, raised armies, which included local forces, imposed a system of justice and a postal service, instigated the building of railways, canals, schools and universities. At all times the British demonstrated a breath-taking level of self-confidence that their customs, religions and moral values were infinitely superior to those of the Indians whose country they had appropriated. The British system of governance remained until Partition in 1947.

The Palace of Lost Dreams is set in Hyderabad in 1798.

ThePalaceOfLostDreams (1)Newly widowed Beatrice Sinclair returns to the India of her childhood to visit her brother, an employee of the British East India Company. She’s astonished to discover he has married a beautiful Indian girl and lives with his wife’s extended family in a dilapidated palace.

As an outsider in an unfamiliar world, she faces many challenges.

 Meanwhile the French and British forces become locked in a battle over India’s riches, and matters are complicated further by the presence of the dashing Harry Wyndam: a maverick ex-soldier and suspected spy.

 With rebellion in the air, Bee must decide where her loyalties lie . . .

The Palace of Lost Dreams is out now. Buy it here

Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @CharlotteBetts1

Facebook: Charlotte Betts Author

Website: www.charlottebetts.com

Many thanks to Deborah for hosting me!

My Review of The Palace of Lost Dreams – perfect escapism

Set in the eighteenth century, in an India riven by political conflict, the era provides a rich, evocative setting for a romance and one full of tension. When recently-bereaved Bee returns to India she remembers her childhood friend, Harry, but he has a son by now, and this is not the only obstacle to their closeness. Whilst in the palace she must unravel the mystery of her mother’s sudden departure from India, and the simmering background to the loss of a rare jewel which is now the cause of intense feelings in her newly adopted family.

Bee is a lovely character, who picks herself up from tragedy and is determined to save the diapidated palace with her own new idea for a business.

Charlotte Betts fleshes out the history of India with detail and atmosphere. There is a glossary of Indian words in the back too, and historical notes for anyone who is unfamiliar with Indian history.

This is both an adventure and a romance and perfect escapism for a summer holiday read. Highly recommended.