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Sunday, 17 June 2012

Writing Historical Fiction - The Power of Then and the Power of Now

All historical fiction readers understand the power of Then. The lure of an unknown time or place which is only unknown because it happened to take place before we were born. Unlike fantasy, this is an unfamiliar world which, if we took them back far enough, our own flesh and blood ancestors would be able to recognise. The small everyday details are what represent for me the power of Then. The type of flax cloth used for washing your face, the way a fire was lit with a tinder-box, the particular smell of tallow candles, the tickle of a feather in your hat. As a novelist my job is to place the reader in that time, but only recently have I come to understand that the job of doing that is really all about the power of Now.

The best plots spring straight out of Character. In other words, if my characters have strong enough motivations, particularly opposing ones, then the plot will naturally arise from their thoughts and actions. My most convincing writing arises when I inhabit the character so well that I lose track of time and am fully in the Now with that person going about their daily life. When I am trying to force the character to conform to a plot idea, historical event or action, then the writing becomes harder and less natural. Much of it is about listening to the character's voice and letting them speak.

The British Library
For a historical novelist to find that voice might mean reading diaries of the time, listening to archive material or looking up dialect dictionaries - all things I did to try to find voices for my two country girls in The Gilded Lily. I also read plays by Aphra Behn and by Dryden. My previous characters had all been well-educated, spoke proper English and had broad philosophical and worldly horizons. Not so Ella and Sadie Appleby, my two working maids from a small isolated village in The Gilded Lily. Their vocabulary was of necessity smaller, many of their thoughts were conveyed by gestures - a shrug or a raise of the eyebrows. They had naive views about finding fame and fortune and their place in the world, but more complex views about justice and fairness and honesty.

And I wondered how this would change as they went on the run in the big city, whether they would learn new ways of speaking or  new ideas, or yearn for new horizons. And of course they do - the city moulds them into someone different, but not just the city, the London characters they meet; the wigmaker, the pawnbroker, the astrologer.

Of course I live in the twenty first century so after my research the voices I heard in my head were not pure 17th century, but unique voices, a blend of 17th and 21st century expression. It is odd, but once I can hear my characters speak, then the characters become flesh and blood. Them surprising me is all part of the Power of Now. This is probably one of the reasons why I enjoy writing my books from several different contrasting viewpoints. I spend time in the company of each character, walk a few miles (or chapters) in his or her shoes.

For The Gilded Lily that meant becoming so familiar with my 17th century map of London that I could literally walk the city streets and turn left and right from Sadie and Ella's lodgings to the Pelican Coffee shop where Jay Whitgift, the handsome, but deadly, rogue did his business. As I went I practised walking as they might walk, looked up at the landmarks on the way.

For me, a narrative structure arises from the choices of my characters not from my own choices. How can that be, when I am both creator and created? This is the mystery and excitement of writing for me - the discovery of a great adventure, or that moment when I come back to myself and read it back, and see that the character is alive there on the page.The Power of Then, and the Power of Now.

A novel of beauty and greed and surprising redemption, set in a London of atmospheric coffee houses, gilded mansions, and the shady pawnshops hidden from rich men’s view,

England, 1660. Ella Appleby believes she is destined for better things than slaving as a housemaid and dodging the blows of her violent father. When her employer dies suddenly, she seizes her chance - taking his valuables and fleeing the countryside with her sister for the golden prospects of London. But London may not be the promised land she expects. Work is hard to find, until Ella takes up with a dashing and dubious gentleman with ties to the London underworld. Meanwhile, her old employer's twin brother is in hot pursuit of the sisters, and soon a game of cat and mouse begins. As the net closes on the girls, danger looms from quite another unexpected horizon...

UK version out 13 Sept
US version out 27 Nov


  1. Beautiful! I feel the same way. I have travelled to my setting to walk the streets my characters walk. I admit, I even attempt period hairstyles to better understand them.

    Looking forward to your book!

  2. Hi Heather, I'd love to see a picture of your hairstyles! You write about the American Civil war, so i'm imagining something a little like Scarlett O'Hara (completely wrong, I'm sure!).

  3. I'll need to take some pictures! I'm getting a little better at them. Interestingly, I have to wear false hair with the civil war style. But, it turns out that's actually period correct--women had to in order to crest the elaborate, Scarlett-esqe styles. They'd save hair in hair catchers and then make ratts. If someone had asked if they were wearing false hair, they technically wouldn't be lying if they said no. Ah, love history!

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  5. So glad to find this as I am inspired to return to historical fiction - I miss the excitement of discovery when the research uncovers something amazing (but I must learn to type more accurately - and will pass on the false hair thanks)

  6. Hi Tony,
    Glad you are not going for the false hair! But also glad that you've re-kindled your passion for historical fiction.Thanks for stopping by my blog, nice to meet you.

  7. Really interesting post - thank you! I so agree with you - it's the tension between past and present that brings historical fiction to life.

    I'm off to order a copy of The Gilded Lily. I don't know that period at all (I'm a 16th-century gal) but the book sounds great.

    1. Hi Pamela, thanks for commenting. I'm thrilled you are interested in The Gilded Lily and hope you enjoy it.