Writing Historical Fiction

Writing historical fiction is something that I’ve done ever since a teenager.  I write because I can’t stop.  Reading inspired me to start writing.  I can’t remember a time I wasn’t completely addicted to reading and when I ran out of books, I would make up stories in my head.  I wrote my first attempts in a series of exercise books while I was at secondary school and I hid them because I wasn’t convinced they were good enough for anybody to read.  But writing is an addiction and I have never been able to stop even when I thought there was no possibility of getting anything published.

I’m very lucky in being able to find the time to write and I have my husband to thank for that.  I run an Irish Dance school but that is very much part time.  I have a lot of other commitments with home and teenage children and two dogs.  I freely admit that at times, when I am very involved in a particular storyline, other things get neglected.  I’ve been working on book four of the Peninsular saga recently, and it’s been the most difficult book to write, given the events and how they affect the main characters.  I’ve got very emotionally involved with it and for whole periods of time I have been completely useless and my family has got very good at foraging for themselves.

What made me choose historical fiction?  That’s an interesting one.  Over the years I’ve tried to write all kinds of fiction.  I’ve also written a lot of other stuff, including endless reports, funding proposals, press releases and articles for work journals during my various different careers over the years and I will admit that writing comes very easily to me.

I do wonder about trying contemporary fiction one of these days, but historical fiction is what I love to read so I suppose it was the obvious choice when it came to writing.  I’m fascinated by the past, not just how people lived but how they thought, the differences and similarities to us.

I read a lot for research.  Usually I’ll start with a general history of the period I want to write about, then move on to more specific topics.  I do general research on the internet but I don’t take any one source as gospel without checking it as much as possible.  If I’m introducing actual historical characters into my story I’ll try to find a biography of them, and I also like to read accounts of them from other people who knew them personally.

I did a degree in history many years ago, so research is fun for me.  I love being able to use original sources where possible.  For example, for “A Respectable Woman” I spent some time in the local record office in East London going through the records for Raines Foundation School in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The Wentworth school in the book is based on Raines, which is the school I attended, and I was able to look at accounts books, punishment books, school rules and the minutes of the Board of Governors which was fascinating.

For the Peninsular War books, I’ve read a lot of accounts written by officers and men who fought in the wars.  Lord Wellington’s letters and despatches are an amazing source and also give a really good impression of what he was like.  I’d heard him described as sarcastic and critical towards some of his officers and having read his own words I can see why he might have upset some of the more sensitive souls although personally I think he’s hilarious.  Letters are often preserved and many of them have been published and they make a great source.

When I’m coming up with a plot, I look at when I want to set the story and then I try to work out what was going on historically and what impact it would have on my characters and their storyline.  I might make some adjustments depending on what I find out – I shifted the timeline of some of the Peninsular books because I realised that my romance wouldn’t work out if he was in the middle of a battle at that point, he’d have had other things to do.

One of the problems with research is what to include and what to leave out.  On the one hand I want the reader to get a real sense of period and what was happening.  On the other hand, I want it to be a story not a history book.  It’s a balancing act.  For every line I put in there are about three books worth that I leave out.  But the important thing is that I know it, because then I’m writing inside the period.

Perspective is different in historical novels, and I try to look at things from the point of view of a person of that era.  For example, in two of my books, “A Respectable Woman” and “The Reluctant Debutante” there is a potential issue between the hero and heroine because they are not of the same social standing which could make marriage an issue.  Personally, from a modern perspective, this is complete and utter rubbish.  But there is no point in pretending that it wasn’t a consideration for the people involved.  Such things could be – and were – overcome in nineteenth century society.  But they did matter.

One or two issues are a genuine challenge.  The position of women in society has changed out of all recognition over the past two centuries.  I tend to write about very strong and often unconventional women who aren’t afraid to step outside the restrictions imposed upon them.  But I can’t pretend that was easy or normal and sometimes bad things happened to women who dared to be different.  They still do, but back then there was not the same protection under the law.  I don’t want to glorify the prejudice and sometimes the violence that women faced when they did not conform, but I’m not going to pretend they didn’t happen.

I’ve given the books to a few people to read and proof read and I’ve had some interesting comments on my characters attitudes and behaviour.  One of them – a male reader who would not normally have read a historical novel – took a definite dislike to one character because of his casual attitude towards sexual relations with a variety of women.  I can understand his point, but at the time I’m writing about, it would have been seen as fairly normal for a young man to be ‘sowing his wild oats’ and providing he had the social standing and the money to manage his mistakes, nobody would have thought badly of him.

For a woman it was very different.  Certainly in the three books set in the nineteenth century, all three of my lead characters need to be careful of their reputations.  For Cordelia, living the conventional life of a wealthy Regency woman, all she has to do is keep within the accepted rules.  For Philippa, left alone and penniless and obliged to earn her living, it is a much more difficult balancing act to maintain her respectability while supporting herself.

For Anne, it should have been easy and clearly wasn’t.  Anne’s parents are very keen to push her into marriage with a suitable suitor at seventeen in order to ‘settle her down’.  By the end of the first book it’s really clear why they might have thought that way, she’s a respectable parents’ nightmare, and when she finds herself obliged to marry to save her reputation it probably didn’t come as that much of a surprise to Sir Matthew and Lady Howard.

From a modern point of view, Anne hasn’t done anything that bad and there’s a sense of outrage that she finds herself having to marry a man she loathes.  There’s a sense of her being punished for her independence, and we feel angry  that a girl could be treated that way.  We’re right to be angry, but girls were treated that way, and very few people thought it was wrong.  Even Anne herself at this point doesn’t attempt to refuse the inevitable although she’s desperately unhappy about it.  She knows the rules and she knows she’s broken them.  Of course she’s very young at this point, I’m not sure she’d have made the same choices a couple of years down the line with a lot more experience and confidence behind her.

Of all my female leads, Anne is the one who breaks the mould most thoroughly.  She finds herself, quite by accident, living a very different life away from the secure, wealthy home in which she grew up and there are opportunities for her to take on roles which were simply not available to women under normal circumstances.  Anne doesn’t hesitate.  She jumps in with both feet, doesn’t look back and doesn’t compromise who she is for anybody.

Not all the women in my books are like Anne and they shouldn’t be, it would be completely unrealistic given the restricted world in which most girls were obliged to live their lives.  But some were, even back then.  Women travelled the world, wrote novels, pretended to be men in order to become doctors or soldiers, fought in wars and fought and died for their rights to be considered equal to men.  Most exceptional women were not written about, some have a footnote in history, a few have become well known.  There are elements of Anne’s story which have been taken from genuine historical events.

I struggled for a while with Anne’s appearance.  For a time I wanted to play down the way she looked, make her very ordinary to look at.  In the end I changed my mind about that because I liked the contrast in the way the world sees her and the way she sees herself.  At her first meeting with Paul when she is seventeen and has barely been further than Harrogate and York, she admits that it makes her furious that people only see her beauty.

“I get complimented a lot. Girls do, you know. Growing up, George and Arthur were told how clever they were. I could run rings around them in any lesson we shared. Didn’t even have to try. But all I ever got told was that I was beautiful. As though that was something I should be proud of.” Anne gave a little laugh. “I’m sorry, you got me on my hobby horse. Harriet tells me I’m ungracious. But I’m not sure half these men would even like me if they knew me. Doesn’t matter. They take one long hard look and all they think about is…” She broke off.
Paul laughed softly. “Darling girl, I can’t condemn any man for that. I thought about making love to you thirty seconds after I saw you.”
“I know. But then you had a conversation with me and you acted as though what I said mattered. And I won’t forget that, Paul.”

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

That, in the end, is the key to Paul and Anne’s love affair, which endures through hardship, tragedy and scandal.  Right from the start, although acknowledging and being attracted to Anne’s beauty, Paul van Daan falls in love with her wildly eccentric personality which somehow seems to connect with his own.  He realises that life with a girl who accepts none of the limitations of her sex is likely to be challenging, but he doesn’t care.  She changes his perception of women forever and he gives her the opportunity to be herself in a way that nobody else ever had.

Writing historical fiction is a lot of fun but depending on how you treat it, it’s a lot of work.  It can take weeks or even months of reading and research and planning before a single word is written.  Having said that, I find it immensely satisfying, like stepping into another world where everything is different apart from the people.

An Unconventional Officer is published on Amazon kindle on 30th May.

 

 

 

 

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