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Wednesday, 17 November 2010

My love affair with historical fiction

This interview is reproduced courtesy of the Macmillan New Writers Blog. Aliya Whiteley asked me how I came to write historical fiction.

Before I came to write 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.

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.

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.

My second book, The Gilded Lily (on the editors desk) is set in the same period through necessity as it features Ella, one of the characters from The Lady's Slipper. It is a very different book as it is set in restoration London, a choice made so that I could exploit the desire for wealth and luxury which is a part of Ella's character. I will have to apologise to readers though, as the book features the Thames frozen over, which in fact happened in 1662 and not in 1661 as my book would suggest. This is because I didn't know I was going to write The Gilded Lily when I began The Lady's Slipper and unfortunately I cannot bend history - only apologise when I have had to do so.

The one I am working on now will be set in a different period. As with the first two I am looking for a time and place where my characters and ideas will collide in the most satisfying way. At the moment that seems to be turn of the 16th century in Spain. I can't tell you much more about it because I want to keep the excitement about it inside and not let it dissipate until I have a first draft in front of me.

Now though, I find I enjoy the researching period such a lot, and the wonderful excuse it gives me to hang around museums, historic houses, art galleries and libraries. And I have discovered some fantastic writers in the historical fiction genre, who have given me further insights into our rich heritage. So I cannot imagine that I will run out of ideas from the wealth of our history, and I guess that will keep me writing historical fiction for a while yet!

Aliya asked how I communicate my passion for the period to the reader, but I've really no idea. I just loved writing about the seventeenth century, and my revelling in it I hope will somehow be transmitted, maybe through the language of my characters.

Thanks Aliya for your questions.



  1. You're welcome - thanks for your answers! Very interesting.

  2. I will admit that I miss the days I was researching the type of material that required that sort of historical-cultural research. I think my writing is stronger this way because I have a tendency to become overly infatuated the research. But the research itself sure was fun.