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Building Blocks of Historical Fiction – no.1 Balance

 

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Each historical novel is different, and each requires attention to the balance of the book, depending on whether it is a thriller, a saga, a romance, or a  portrait of a well-known figure.  A recent historical novel I read was very heavy on the dialogue – and there is nothing wrong with that – the effect it had was to draw you into the characters conversation, and make the characters the major attraction of the novel. In other books the setting predominates, and gives us a feeling of being immersed in that time or place. So it is all a question of finding the balance you want to achieve. With this in mind I thought it useful to lay out the different elements you might find in what I call a scene.

  1. Setting or scene description – in the old days this often used to be a block of actual description at the beginning of the novel. Now we have become much better at inserting it into a scene, in between other moments of action or dialogue.
  2. Action – What people actually do in a scene. Sometimes people don’t actually do much in a scene; they talk, they think, they muse, they remember – I urge you to have someone actually do something physical in every scene.
  3.  Timing – time can pass slowly in a scene, or move quickly. Dialogue and short sentences shorten the perception of time. Long paragrapphs and sentences draw it out. So does musing, remembering and internal monologue. There is a sense in which historical feeling can lead to long convoluted sentences, in an attempt to sound ‘old-fashioned’. Notice what units of time are in your scene and how you are indicating the passage of time.
  4. Dialogue Some characters were denied the right to equal speech in the past, and their lack of speech can indicate their status. Not every character has to speak. Some  can act instead. Some successful novelists like to write books as if the events of the past are happening today – with all the modern colloquialisms. Others strive for authentic historical flavour in their dialogue. But the balance of dialogue in your scene, will affect the pace of your book, so note carefully how much dialogue you use.
  5. Interior monologue – Thrillers and action-centred novels (in general) contain less interior monologue than character-driven historical novels. Interior monologue slows the action because the person cannot converse with themselves so easily when moving (or being chased by an assassin!)
  6. Summary – When years or decades pass, you will need to summarize events. Also if something is habitual – e.g. ‘He returned several times, but she was never there.’ Brief summary is always better than long summary, so condense it as much as you can. Summaries are supposed to be brief.
  7. Background information – often unkindly called ‘info-dump’, sometimes it is necessary to explain technical, political, religious or other historical information so the reader understands the plot. Often this can be given as dialogue between two people, (the tenser, the better) but if not, brief and succint, is essential. If possible try to have the character do something in the scene.
  8. Narration – where the character is telling you about an event that happened. Often a first persoon POV novel is all narration that segues in and out of scenes. The trick with narration is to give the narrator attitude, and to try to reproduce elements of the character’s voice, so we see the event through their point of view. However, to be fully in their voice works best in a book with only one narrator. In a multiple POV novel, this can make the book choppy unless the scenes are carefully de-lineated.

Seeswa Winslow Homer 1874 Brooklyn

In striving for balance a good trick is to take just one scene and go through it with a highlighter, highlighting all the different elements one at a time with different coloured marker pens. If you find half your scene is background information – you might want to think about re-balancing the scene by moving some of it forward or back, or cutting it, for example.

The effect of these elements on pace can tell you whether the thriller you are writing is really thrilling, or whether it is bogged down in narration or interior monologue. On the other hand a portrait of an interesting figure might need more of these slower elements to flesh out their character.

Like more writing posts? Try this one on Status.

 

Just launched today! The Darkest Hour Anthology – Tales of WW2 Resistance

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Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue – The Life of the Earl of Rochester #Stuart

Hat & Flower smallI’m delighted to welcome Susan Cooper-Bridgewater to my blog today to talk about her novel about John Wilmot the second Earl of Rochester – one of the rakes and rogues of Restoration London that I am fascinated by, and wrote about here. Welcome Sue!

 John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester is known for his satirical verses and his wit, how did you get that across in your narrative?

Rochester was certainly famous for his infamous wit, verbal, poetical and satirical, even calling himself ‘The Wildest and Most Fantastical Odd Man Alive’. So writing in the first person so as to represent Rochester’s persona was, in essence, either a brave act or a moment of madness on my part, not to say a risky undertaking for any author to attempt, but scripting the story in this way seemed natural to me from page one. Nevertheless, I had to remind myself frequently to adhere to the era of the 17th century, and hopefully not let slip any 21st century terms which would irk a reader.

After researching the man for many years and with my Notes and Queries article on him back in 2011, three years prior to the writing of ‘Ink’, I felt that I had come to know his character to a certain degree. However, Rochester was, and I believe always will be, a mystifying individual. Many a scholar has tried to fathom him, and although at times you think you know him well; at others he quickly challenges your perceptions.

So, with imagination, I trust that I have given the reader a fair comprehension of this charismatic character, whether he be good or bad and more often than not he was the latter. I intermittently portray him in a more realistic role, as a loving husband, father, and ardent lover, and not just as ‘Rochester the celebrated reprobate’.

Ink wit IntrigueI included certain of his poems to show his prowess as the most brilliant, witty wordsmith. And throughout the story I adopted my own imagined Rochester retorts such as; in the rat incident – ‘Yes my dearest, it’s dead. It has a large gap between its arse and its head.’; in the fantastical Dr. Alexander Bendo affair – ‘As she and her companion entered the crowded street, I smirked. If Loveall could not oblige his wife, then I could all too readily offer my services.’; in his arguments with his mistress, Mrs. Elizabeth Barry – ‘Well there speaks a lady of breeding.’ I said to Beth, ‘If you wish for the finer things in life, then I suggest you whore yourself to His Majesty.’; after a bout of illness he replies to the King – ‘As long as the frailty of my body is surpassed by the sharpness of my wit, so as to divert you and your Court, what more could a man in the throes of death wish but to thus entertain His Gracious Majesty?’ Bowing gracefully, I then added, ‘To be the bringer of pleasure and jollity to the most deserving of enthroned Monarchs is all I could desire.’; To George Etheredge – ‘Best, George? I have long been the best, but now my feeble body is resorting to the worst. Let us not dwell on that damnation,…’ ; after a wager to covertly sleep with a Landlord’s two young daughters – ‘I shall be down shortly, gentlemen.’ I said quietly, and whispered to the one, ‘So have ready the fruits of our wager that you owe, only doubled if you please, sir.’

Apart from taking on the language of the century, you made this a diary. What attracted you to writing this book in diary format?

Well, someone once remarked that ‘Ink ‘seemed to them a cross between The Diary of Samuel Pepys and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I wasn’t sure whether I should take that as a compliment or not! Strangely, that was quite perceptive as I did read Pepys many years ago. Whether or not that influenced me to write the book in that way, I honestly could not say. As a researcher your head is full of dates, with mine usually beginning with 16. I expect with the book being a cradle to the grave story, and beyond, supposedly written by Rochester himself, it was inevitable that it would take the guise partly as a journal.

What were your favourite research books and did you use any real objects or artefacts in your research?

For my research on Rochester, which commenced in 2006, I read many books then in print; ‘Lord Rochester’s Monkey’ by Graham Greene; ‘So Idle a Rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester’ by Jeremy Lamb; ‘The Works of John Earl of Rochester: Containing Poems, on Several Occasions’ printed for Jacob Tonson, 1714;  ‘Enthusiast in Wit’ by Vivian de Sola Pinto and ‘John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Selected Works’, Penguin Classics, and various online out of print material. But my main source of study came from reading the brilliant, and in my opinion the definitive biography of Lord Rochester, ‘A Profane Wit’ by James William Johnson, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Rochester, NY. To compete with such an expert as Johnson in non-fiction would be a tough call, hence my decision to write a historical faction on the subject, as comprehensive novels on Rochester are a rarity.

As for real objects or artefacts, these took the form of visiting many places in the Cotswolds, where Rochester was born and lived a great deal of his life. These included; Ditchley, the place of his birth; the Old Grammar School at Burford, the scene of his early education; Adderbury House and village, where he lived with his wife and family, when not cavorting elsewhere; and High Lodge, in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where he held the office of Ranger for many years, and where sadly was the place of his demise aged 33, which historic event was famously recorded in Gilbert Burnet’s ‘Some passages of the life and death of the right honourable John, Earl of Rochester who died the 26th of July, 1680’. And last but not least the idyllic Cotswold village of Spelsbury, and its wonderful church, the scene of Rochester’s poignant burial.

Spelsbury Church
Spelsbury Church


It’s a massive undertaking. Does Rochester change through your narrative, which spans most of his life, and if so, how?

I am pleased you asked this question. The book does in fact span all of his life, beginning with his birth and ending with his death. With this in mind, I was able to portray the innocent young boy developing into a perceptive youth with a growing awareness of the changes that surrounded him as a boy, such as; his days at Burford when, at the age of 11, he inherited the title of Earl of Rochester in 1658 following his father’s death; His time at Oxford and then on The Grand Tour as a young, impressionable teenager. The narrative for these times is written as a light hearted, happy and courteous Rochester, with hints of a loveable, mischievous rogue showing their signs. But as the shackles of domesticity, illicit liaisons, love of the God Bacchus and the Earl’s insufferable declining health, cast a shadow upon this once promising youth, the narrative grows ever more disturbing to those closest to him and this is reflected in his insincere, capricious comments and amusing but disturbing poems.

But for the reader’s sake, so as not to end in utter despair, there is an Epilogue where one enters a chapter full of twists and turns and mystification.

Thanks for this insight into what was obviously a labour of love. Your obvious enthusiasm for his life and works really shines through, Sue.

Of Ink Wit and Intrigue is published by Troubadour. 17th century fans who want to know more can find out more here

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Three great books on The Great Fire of London

Rebecca Rideal – 1666 Plague, War and Hellfire

Plague War Hellfire

For most of my research books I prefer hard copy, and this is a brilliantly and evocatively written hardback, beautifully produced.

Here’s are some of the the opening sentences to whet your appetite:

‘Pale winter sun brought the dawn. Casting a mottled-grey glow on glazed windows and icy puddles, it offered light but little warmth. London was a month into a deep frost. Across the capital people woke to clanging church bells and the hubbub of the streets: barking dogs, clattering carts calling pigeons and chattering early risers.’

Written in three distinct sections covering the War with the Dutch, the Plague and the Fire, it is written chronologically beginning with the explosion of the ship, the London and ending with the Fire.  Lavishly illustrated with colour photographs and peopled by contemporary accounts, this is an account full of the vigour of the changing times. Just get it – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Ashes LondonAshes of London by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London is a murder mystery set in the burnt-out remains after the Great Fire. The opening chapter is a tour-de-force. We accompany James Marwood as he watches in amazement and horror as the edifice of St Paul’s Cathedral, the biggest landmark in seventeenth century London, burns before his eyes. He is spurred into action when he sees a young boy try to run into the flaming building. When he throws his cloak over him, he discovers the boy is actually a young woman, but before he can find out more, she runs off taking the cloak with her.

Who is she, and why was she taking such a risk? Later Marwood suspects she may have known something about a body, found in the smouldering remains – a man stabbed to death, with his thumbs tied behind his back.

The Ashes of London is about the search for these answers. Told in chapters alternating points of view between Marwood, and the young woman, Cat Lovett, we learn how little London has settled after the tumultuous events of the beheading of Charles I and the restoration of his son to the throne. The novel deals withn the fact that there is still a royal search for the regicides responsible for the execution, and particularly for the actual executioner himself.

If I have one criticism of the novel, it is that Marwood himself is rather passive; though I can see why – Cat is a vengeful and active protagonist, and two of those in one novel might have been excessive! However it does make for rather slow going in the middle of the novel. Persevere though, because the climax of the novel is another wonderful set piece and well worth waiting for. As a fly-on-the-wall re-imagining of seeing London go up in flames this is superb.

Permission HeavenBy Permission of Heaven – Adrian Tinniswood

As a novelist, I love the specifics – small details of time and place that are often overlooked in the tellings of history. Adrian Tinniswood gives me this is spades, in his book about the Fire of London. From the particulars of the evil portents, to the bungling attempts to control the spread of the flames, this is a close examination of the week that saw the end of Tudor London’s half-timbered houses and jettied windows, to be replaced with Wren’s elegant stone.

One of the things I liked was the use of maps at the start of the chapters to show the spread of the fire, and the extensive descriptions of fire equipment – the billhooks for pulling down hoses, the fire ‘machines’ that proved ineffectual against such a blaze.

The aftermath is also particularly well covered. More than 13,o00 houses were desroyed, innumerable churches and public buildings, leaving London economically impoverished, and half the population as refugees in Moorfields or other open spaces. Do get the paperback rather than an ebook, you’ll want to refer to it over and over.

Fire

Still on my list, is CC Humphey’s ‘Fire’.  And via Twitter, I’ve just heard of another – ‘The Prospect of This City’ by Eamonn Griffin. And if you have had enough of all this destruction , do try The Phoenix by Leo Hollis, which I really enjoyed and tells of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire.

So why all the interest? My third book in the Pepys series (still in the research phase) takes place during the Great Fire, but is scheduled for publication in 2019, so do enjoy these whilst you wait!

 

PhoenixProspect

 

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The Secret of a Welsh Medieval Manuscript

I’m delighted to welcome Mark Noce to my blog today, introducing his debut novel ‘Between Two Fires’, which is set in medieval Wales. I was particularly interested in this book because by coincidence I was just reading recently about The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin) which is the earliest surviBlack Book Daily Mailving medieval manuscript written solely in Welsh. It dates from 1250 and apparently has some of the earliest references to Arthur and Merlin. Now, researchers examining it with ultra-violet light have found that words and images erased by the scribe more than five centuries ago, can be seen lurking beneath the visible manuscript. See this article.

Professor Russell of the library believes a pumice stone was used to remove parts of the text in the sixteenth century. He said: “It takes off a slight layer off the surface, but the ink has penetrated a bit further so what we can do is use UV light to bring out that ink. On some bits of it you can’t recover anything as it has been rubbed so hard.” (BBC website) What is even more bizarre is that someone has a theory that these erased figures are actually aliens, and that there was a medieval conspiracy to cover up their existence. You couldn’t make it up. I suggest that if you want to know more about medieval Wales, you immerse yourself in Mark’s book instead.
Mark was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area of the US and is an avid traveler and backpacker, particularly in Europe and North America. By day, he works as a Technical Writer, having spent much of his career working at places like Google and Facebook. When not reading or writing, he enjoys listening to U2, sailing his dad’s boat, or gardening with his family. Find him at Marknoce.com or on Twitter/ Facebook

Noce

About Between Two Fires

Saxon barbarians threaten to destroy medieval Wales. Lady Branwen becomes Wales’s last hope to unite their divided kingdoms when her father betroths her to a powerful Welsh warlord, the Hammer King. But this fledgling alliance is fraught with enemies from within and without as Branwen herself becomes the target of assassinations and courtly intrigue. A young woman in a world of fierce warriors, she seeks to assert her own authority and preserve Wales against the barbarians. But when she falls for a young hedge knight named Artagan her world threatens to tear itself apart. Caught between her duty to her people and her love of a man she cannot have, Branwen must choose whether to preserve her royal marriage or to follow her heart. Somehow she must save her people and remain true to herself, before Saxon invaders and a mysterious traitor try to destroy her.

Amazon/ Amazon Kindle/Thomas Dunne Books

Lovely bookcover isn’t it?

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Recommended Research – Eyewitness books on the Stuart Period

Just found this great little hardback book whilst browsing Carnforth Bookshop (which has more than 10,000 second hand books!). Also in this series by A F Scott are titles ‘The Plantagenet Age’, ‘The Tudor Age’ and ‘The Georgian Age.’ Compiled as a series of quotations, each book contains observations about every part of the lifestyle and social concerns of the era, drawn from eyewitness accounts.

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Here’s a flavour from Thomas Dekker’s description of London in 1606;

‘In every street carts and coaches make such a thundering as if the world ran on wheels. At every corner men, women and children meet in such shoals, that posts are set up on purpose to strengthen the houses, lest with jostling one another they should shoulder them down. Besides, hammers are beating in one place, tubs hooping in another, pots clanking in a third, water tankards running at tilt in a fourth. Here are porters sweating under burdens, there merchants’ men bearing bags of money. Chapmen (as if they were at leap-frog) skip out of one shop into another. Tradesmen (as if they were dancing galliards) are lusty at legs and never stand still. All are as busy as country attorneys at an assizes.’

The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London

from The Stuart Age

Other books with eyewitness accounts I can recommend are:

Going to the Wars by Charles Carlton (English Civil Wars)

Voices from the World of Samuel Pepys – Jonathan Bastable (Restoration)

And talking of the Seven Deadly Sins, you might like my Seven Deadly Sins of Historical Fiction.

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Research Find of the Week – ‘Tudor Wimbledon’

Tudor Wimbledon I bought this from a charity shop in Kendal for £1.29.  As Wimbledon was a village so close to London (then 10 miles distant), it does include a few anecdotes about famous London personages, such as Catherine Parr, and Henry VIII. The King visited Wimbledon in his last days, when he was ill and could not travel from Nonsuch palace to Whitehall without breaking the journey. The booklet has a map of his journey, and records of what remedies were sent for.

It includes a few colourful snippets such as;  in 1564/5 the Thames froze solid and the villagers played football on the ice, and a description of the Wimbledon Militia who seem to have been the Tudor equivalent of ‘Dad’s Army’ with archery butts constantly ‘in need of repair.’

The book is mostly a record of written sources on this period, and so provides an interesting if patchy account. It also includes a chapter on the Puritan Walter family, and also on the Cecil family, who were visited by both Elizabeth I and James I at their manor house in Wimbledon. A short pamphlet of 120 pages, it was been written by a historian local to the area.

This, by the same author, also might be of interest:

Wimbledon in the English Civil War

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17th Century Research Find of the Week

My local bookshop has 100,000 second hand books. It’s a five minute drive, or a brisk half hour walk along country lanes. I always think I must have exhausted their supply oDSCN0739f Tudor and Stuart gems, but they keep getting more stock, and this week I was lucky.

Here is my find – ‘Rude Forefathers’ by F H West. The title doesn’t give much away, but the subtitle , ‘the story of an English Village 1600-1666’ made it well worth my £2.50. Since then, I’ve looked, and the book is also available on various online sites such as Abebooks.

First published in 1949, its chapters are focused mainly on the Churchwarden and the Constable and their role in village society, as gleaned from account books of the time. The study was undertaken by Francis West, the Archdeacon of Newark who collated the information from the Churchwarden’s book which dates from 1601-42, and from the Constable’s book from 1642-1666.

Nearby, Newark was under siege during the English Civil Wars for much of that time, so these records of one of the outlying villages make for great reading. ‘Rude Forefathers’ also has chapters on the English Civil War and the Plague. Although this is a slim volume, (90 pages) and somewhat knackered, it was a great find, and will be of interest to anyone who studies the late Elizabethan, Jacobean or Stuart period.

And talking of the Plague, which I am researching right now – I recommend Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of The Plague Year. Written only sixty years after the event, it is full of facts and figures of the weekly death toll, as well as being a wonderful (if gruesome) description of events.

More reading? A controversial Historical Fiction article that might be of interest is here.

 

 

 

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Fascinating old words for the historical novelist: ‘posnet’.

Whilst investigating something else entirely, I came upon an article in our local paper about the ‘Carnforth Posnet’. This apparently was a rare bronze vessel dating from medieval times. Amazing what sidetracks I end up on, when I get to our local library’s archives. (Side plea – save our local libraries!)

Carnforth Posnet

This particular object was found when a local woman was metal-detecting in a field close to Carnforth. Imagine that – digging up something so large and interesting, instead of the usual bottle tops and ring pulls. (Anyone watched The Detectorists?)

So what is a posnet? The word is first recorded in 1327 and derives from the old french ‘poçonet’ which means pot or vase. It is a cooking vessel with legs to stand over a fire, and a long handle, supported by a smaller hand grip. Ceramic versions of the same design become more common from the 14th century, and the word continued in use until the 16th century, disappearing by the Victorian era. So – early medieval until late Tudor.

The vessel is made from cast copper alloy and appears to have few signs of wear, so was probably buried new. (Why, one asks?) Apparently this is the second find of a metal cooking vessel from this area, as another metal cauldron was found in Skelton, Cumbria in 1999.

More information and original article here

The subject I was actually researching was about how the “Old Army” of the Commonwealth proved to be a sensitive issue even after King Charles II had been restored, and where demobilised veterans, injured and disabled soldiers and war widows (both Royalist and Parliamentarian) had  become a huge source of economic and cultural tension. My post on this will be later in the month on English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Meanwhile, you might like this:

The English Cavalier and His Stomach (food in the English Civil War)

Medieval Life in Pictures

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The strengths of a first historical novel #histfic

Before I came to write my first historical novel, The Lady’s Slipper, most of my writing was contemporary. I read a lot of contemporary fiction as well as historical fiction. A few years ago I would have been surprised to find I had produced a historical novel. So why write one?

The answer is that it wasn’t a case of me deciding on a period and then setting the novel there, it was more that my characters demanded certain conditions to flourish and tell their story. I started with a character who wanted to paint an orchid – I had seen the rare lady’s-slipper orchid myself and wanted to write (initially) a poem about it. This desire was subverted into my character’s desire to capture it in paint. From then on the character grew and developed. I thought for the flower to have impact I needed a time when ideas about botany and images of flowers were new and fresh. Perhaps a time before mass printing, a time when herbs and flowers were used for healing. This led me to the 17th century when herbalists such as Nicolas Culpeper were just making their mark on history and the science of botany was in its infancy. My journey into the past had begun.
Townend

Research, and the idea of the medicinal use of the lady’s-slipper then sparked the character of Margaret the herbalist, whose views on “the web of the world” were a very different religion from the conformist view of the time. I am interested in the different ways that faiths have shaped the world and this tied in nicely with the burgeoning Quaker movement, viewed in the 17th century as radical and dangerous. I couldn’t resist having a Quaker character, so Richard Wheeler was born. In addition, the Quaker movement started close to my home in Westmorland, and visits to the still surviving historical sites fascinated me. Left – Townend, a yeoman’s 17th century house close to my home.

I was also keen to exploit the enmity between two men, and needed an atmosphere of unease where people felt unsafe so that the developing plot would be credible. The English Civil War where the King had been beheaded by his own people supplied the background disturbance I needed.

So the idea of a historical setting grew organically from the characters, and their needs, and not from some idea I had about being a ‘historical novelist, ‘ or even about who my readers would be. It had nothing to do with sales, or markets, or social media. A first novel is often like that – it has a sort of innocence, despite its journey through agents, editors, re-writes and the breathless moment of its first appearance on a shelf.

A few years down the line, and I find to my surprise that I have stuck with the genre, and written five adult novels and three teen novels, all historical. I found that I love to discover new things about the past, and that forging into the research for a historical novel is an adventure all of its own. The objects and documents of the past are still available to us in galleries and museums, and the novelist’s job is to supply just enough detail in the setting, so that the reader will transform these into real environments. It is subtle, this balance – too much and the reader’s senses are overwhelmed. Too little, and the reader will not have enough fuel to imagine the scene. The more work the reader does – the more the novel is his own construct – the deeper will be the immersive experience.

Recently I have heard that the rights for my first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, will be returning to me. Mindful of some of the reader reviews, I looked over the novel to see if I wanted to change it. I was surprised to find I didn’t. Yes, it has flaws, like all creative works, but reading it took me back to my sheer delight at being able to convey the world of the past through words. This enthusiasm seems to shine through behind the text. And, if I change it, it will no longer be a marker for me – a visible sign that my writing has matured. I know more now; about language and plot, and how to structure a book. Since producing it, I have read books on writing, blogs on editing, endless articles on hooks, teasers and break-outs. But all of these are technical, and cannot replace the sheer momentum of a good story, and the fresh passion for writing history that I had just discovered.

So although I could choose to ‘improve’ the novel, I risk losing something by doing so – that barely discernible excitement that I found through discovering my metier and means of expression.

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Researching historical fiction – The Lady’s Slipper

lady's slipper woodcut

Many people have asked me about how I do my research and how much time it takes to write a historical novel. So in this post I will take a little about my process, and also tell you about some of the some of the books I found invaluable in my research for my first book, ‘The Lady’s Slipper’ – a novel of orchids, obsession and murder.

My approach was not to try to know everything, but to read some general books on the 17th Century to get a broad picture, and then to start to write the book, filling in the gaps in my knowledge later. I keep a large notebook which is full of questions, for example, “How much was a loaf of bread in 1660?” “In a small village would there have been a bakery, or did people bake at home?” “What sort of bread? Millet? Wheat? Rye?” The answer to the last question was that in Westmorland where the book is set bread was called “clapbread” and was a flat cake made of oats, and it would keep for nearly a month. Houses had special oak cupboards built into the walls to keep the bread over winter –  frequently the answers are not what you expect but even more interesting.

 

clapbread
Westmorland Clapbread – a form of oatcake

So after getting the overview I write my story, but I am left with a bulging and quite daunting note book full of questions. I take a deep breath, start at the beginning again and find out the answers and facts and decide if they help or hinder the story.  I enjoy the “detective” element of finding out the answers to obscure questions! I read a lot of non-fiction and I am eternally grateful to the “real” historians who supply me with the answers. Books such as The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser which gives a record of women’s lives in the Civil War in their own voices, and Restoration London by Liza Picard which was indispensable for information about daily life. Another favourite was Birth, Marriage and Death by David Cressy, which was always on my desk.

When I began writing The Lady’s Slipper I had no idea that my characters were going to end up on a ship, and of course I knew nothing at all about sailing ships, not even modern ones. No matter how many books I had read on the 17th century beforehand, it was unlikely I would have found out what I needed to know about Dutch Flute sailing ships without doing some very specific research. So I forced myself to read Patrick O’Brian’s books which are all set at sea, and what he doesn’t know about tall ships would probably fit on a postage stamp. They are the sort of historical fiction I would never normally pick up, but they are excellent. I found out by emailing The Maritime Museum that the cow was stabled “aft”, and that foodstuffs such as corn were often sealed in dried mud to keep them fresh on board.

To write about people’s homes I spent time at a number of old houses including Levens Hall, which helped me to create Fisk Manor, the home of Geoffrey Fisk in the novel. There is nothing like walking down a 17th century staircase and feeling the polished wooden banisters and seeing the light pour in through mullioned windows. At Swarthmoor Hall I sat and wrote a scene at a gnarled and polished oak table where George Fox the Quaker leader may have sat when he lived there with Margaret Fell. After such an immersion in the past it feels very strange then to get in my car and zoom away!

The botanical facts about the orchid I researched through interviewing members of the Cypripedium Committee, a sort of plant mafia set up to protect the Lady’s Slipper. They meet behind closed doors and the location of the last remaining plant in Britain is a closely guarherbalded secret even today. The single-minded enthusiasm of these men, and their dedication to preserving the plant for future generations gave me confidence in my heroine, Alice Ibbetson’s obsession with it. But I also read novels such as The Orchid Thief and Tulip Fever, which treat similar themes.

Having worked as a costume designer I could not resist the Northampton Shoe Museum where there are many shoes on display. In The Lady’s Slipper Ella the maid is envious of her mistress’s slippers, and below you can see a pair from the museum that I used as reference whilst writing.

Often the research throws up new plotlines and then I will re-write scenes or chunks of the book to incorporate little-known or exciting research. I think to write historical fiction you have to enjoy this aspect of it because you are going to do an awful lot of it. When people ask me how long it takes to research the novel they are thinking in terms of a finite time, but actually I am researching all the time, my living room always has a pile of ten or twelve “current” books I am dipping into, not to mention photocopies of the diaries of Pepys and George Fox and other helpful 17th century scribblers. Did I forget to mention the internet? Hard to imagine now, how I ever did without it. Invaluable for unearthing academic papers from all over the world.

George FoxBook dep slipper