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Thursday, 27 June 2013

A fresh approach to writing what you know - get away!

I've just been to Florida for the Historical Novel Conference. Apart from being able to attend wonderful sessions on all aspects of writing historical fiction, it was also a chance for me to go somewhere completely different and take in another landscape from the one which I look at every day.

Florida is flat, sunny and riddled with water - lakes, rivers and creeks. The roads are wide, level and straight and everyone cruises in big cars at fast speeds. The palm trees sway in breezes or sometimes hurricane style winds. Buildings are low and spread wide apart with no fences between the gardens. Crows and squirrels are skinny; they don't need much fat to keep them warm as the air there is hot and moist.

This is totally different from my English landscape. Where I live, the sky is smaller, framed by hills. Blue skies are a rarity and the roads are narrow, winding and banked by clusters of stone cottages. Today as I look out of my window a fine mist is drifting from the sky putting a damp veil over everything. The sky is almost colourless, a uniform white/grey as if it is illuminated like paper from behind.

One of the things I enjoyed about Florida was that it gave me (even if only for a few days) the chance to look at England through a stranger's eyes. And a stranger's eyes are what a novelist needs to bring freshness to the page. It is easy to forget that I have readers in other parts of the world who will read 'in the front garden' as something quite different from my intended version.

If you can't actually get away, then anything that gives you a new perspective will work just as well to invigorate your writing. Who could fail to look at life a little differently after viewing Salvador Dali's take on life? Hard things are suddenly mutable, furniture needs to be propped up by crutches, time bends and turns back on itself.

Outide the wonderful Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg
Picture from
At the Ringling Museum the sheer scale of a 19th century circus made me gasp in astonishment. One man had dedicated himself to telling the story of 'a day in the life of the circus' through his models, painstakingly made over a lifetime. In this world in miniature I was able to see that Ringling's travelling circus typically housed 1000 people, more than 300 horses and zebras, 80 to 100 musicians, 300 circus and hippodrome performers, 100 cages, plus the dens, chariots,and so forth that would parade through the town to raise interest in the performance.
Howard's scale model

Ringling Museum - courtesy of Tripadvisor
A novel that takes advantage of this setting is 'Water for Elephants' by Sara Gruen, but even this cannot convey the enormous scale of the 19th century circus. After seeing this exhibit, train travel back to my home in England seemed easy. What, no elephants to transport? No need to keep an eye on the lions or send a crew ahead with the thirty yard tent that needs putting up before anyone can eat? More info on the circus

Ford Edison Estate courtesy of

Whilst in Florida we travelled from beaches to cities, always with a museum or two in mind. Highlights for us were the Ringling Museum and the Ford Edison Country Estate.

Whilst visiting the Titusville Museum, run by a bunch of enthusiasts for their local history, I came across this lovely little second-hand bookshop and had a conversation with the owner about Deborah Harkness's new book. If you are near Titusville, do go check out the shop, The Book Rack, it has a great selection of Historical Fiction and Historical Romance.

Before signing off this post, I must mention fellow historical fiction bloggers who were on my panel at the conference; Circus drumroll please!

Julianne Douglas
Heather Webb
Heather Rieseck
Amy Bruno

I had a fabulous time in Florida, came back refreshed and renewed and itching to get back to my writing.


  1. Perhaps I should have decided on historical fiction based in Greece. Instead I settled for Dark Ages in the Midlands, UK. Oh dear.
    Interesting blog.

  2. Great post, Deborah. I'm a big advocate of getting a change of scenery whenever possible to recharge your creativity. So happy the trip gave you a fresh perspective. Thanks for sharing the highlights.

  3. Hi AJ and Jessica, thanks for commenting. Ouch - Dark Ages in the Midlands UK sounds like you will definitely need the antidote - when your novel makes a million, then a trip to Barbados perhaps? Somewhere where they wear loud shirts and have sunshine all the time. Actually, I'm sure the Dark Ages were a lot brighter than we thought. I've got Michael Wood's In Search of the Dark Ages book and it's fascinating. Most of the time history is my holiday.

    And yes Jessica, I'd forgotten how good a new environment can be. I can recommend getting away as an essential part of every writers toolkit!