When people find out that my upcoming novel, The Locket and the Flintlock is a work of historical fiction, they seem impressed and intrigued, which is lovely. It also puzzles me, since I find writing historical fiction easier than writing a contemporary story. I think it seems like a difficult feat to many people because historical fiction implies the knowledge of both how to write well and of a lot of rather dry historical detail. The historical writer’s task is apparently to breathe life and colour into what, to many people who remember studying history at school, a lot of dates and lists of events.
To be fair, I do know a lot of dry historical detail. I’m a history geek and increasingly proud of it. But that’s not my starting point for historical fiction. I don’t take a historical fact and write my story around it. I start with the people. Not all historical writers work like I do. My own personal favourite historical novel, Sharpe’s Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell, takes an hour by hour account of that famous Napoleonic battle in 1815 as its starting point and weaves the fictional characters into it.
But for me, it begins with the imagination, not the facts. A moment in time. A scene. One character.
I thought this blog would be a good place to explain how it this process works for me, since it’s one of the questions I’m most commonly asked. I felt the process at work very recently, and I’ll use my account of that to explain what I mean.
I went on a trip to the town of Newark on Trent in north Nottinghamshire. Of course, England is blessed with historic sites all over the place and this could have happened anywhere, and frequently does. But on this day it was Newark. Though only a market town it’s a special place. It was very significant during the English Civil War, and has a beautiful castle on the banks of the River Trent, now in wistful ruins.
While walking in these ruins, I happened to glance up at one of the old stone window frames, devoid of glass for a long while. And instantly I asked myself “who is standing there?” It’s a very specific question. I can conjure up, through historical knowledge, images of King John (who died there in 1216) or Cavalier soldiers in the 17th century. But that’s not what I’m asking myself. What I’m asking is “who do I see there?” And, invariably, it’s not a well-known figure from history or a generic representative of an era, but a specific person from the decades in between. The years when life went on as normal and there were not battles or visits from kings. In this case I saw a woman, in a long dress.
I have to focus at this point. Who is she? A Norman, a Tudor, or later? A Victorian visitor to what was already, by then, a ruin? I try to connect with the sense of the place I’m in and see how she fits. Then I know: she belongs to a time when the castle was complete, a home as well as a garrison. Perhaps the sixteenth century. Before the Civil War, certainly. Her dress is not fine, but she’s no servant. Perhaps the wife, sister or daughter of one of the commanding soldiers based at the castle. She is pretty, with long, light brown hair. She rests slender hands on the window ledge as she looks out at the view. She seems to be thinking about something that makes her rather pensive.
What is she thinking about? Her future? Her past? Her family? A lover?
Hmm. A lover. And who is that lover? Why does thinking of them make her look so pensive?
These thoughts continue for a while. Slowly, the lady in the window acquires a back story. Sometimes even a name. In this case, I called her Melisende. She is pensive because her father, commander of the garrison, is to be stationed elsewhere and she does not want to leave Newark, because her lover is there. She smiles and flushes when she thinks of her lover, despite her sadness. She can barely believe she is so deeply in love.
And thus the story grows and begins to take on a life of its own. The characters start to dictate their own futures. From Melisende, I move on to her lover. I think of names, back stories, descriptions. Then I work out how these people relate to each other and how their story will unfold. That gives me a plot.
Only then does the historical period become important. What period suggested itself to me right away? Is the plot suitable for this time period? Do I need to adapt it at all because of social and cultural considerations of the setting? Sometimes the historical period suggests other characters, or deviations in the plot. But I never let the history dictate the story.
I aim to always be historically authentic. I say authentic rather than accurate, because sometimes some artistic license is necessary. But my story, language, characters and scene building have to have the “feel” of the period I’m writing about.
In my historical writing, my aim is to bring the unknown people of the past to life. It’s not to deliver a history lesson, nor is it to present a different interpretation of some famous historical figure or event. Those sorts of stories can be wonderful, but they’re not what I feel passionate about writing. I want to write the stories of those the history books miss. The story of a woman who once stood in a window of Newark Castle and admired the view, sighing a little as she did so. I can’t travel in time. I can’t see through the centuries to the real people no one noticed. But I can imagine what might have been. The people who could have been in the places I visit. I’m less interested in the ones who were documented as being there. I want to fill in the gaps. Because it’s in those spaces that people like us lived their lives.
So, my historical writing nearly always begins with a place. A moment. And one character who could have been there. From there, hopefully, it expands into a short story or novel. But it remains about the characters, not the history.
The Locket and the Flintlock began in a woodland clearing. I saw a highway robber, dashing, brave, and female. I heard her whisper the words “Stand and deliver,” but she was not robbing a carriage when she said them. She wore a dark cloak and a tricorn hat, even though she lived in 1812 when tricorns were going out of fashion. And from there, I created a novel.