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Breathing Life into Historical Fiction Characters by Sheila Forsey

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Article by Sheila Forsey ©.
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It was not enough to simply research what it was like to live in the time period of my novel.  Somehow, I needed to feel the emotion of my characters to truly bring them to life.

When I decided to set my novel in the past, I knew that the authenticity of my work would rely heavily on my ability to have a knowledge of the time period that it was set in. Not only a knowledge but somehow to have a grasp of what it was like to have loved and lived in that time period.

Creating characters that were well formed and believable is challenging in any work. To create them in a time that I had never lived in would need to be truly authentic.

To create my characters, I first began to research everything I could about that time period. I researched the morals, social conditions, dress code, dialogue, diet, traditions, fashions, transport, rituals and beliefs. I explored the literature that they were exposed to, the music that they listened to, the government of the time and the effect of the rest of the world on their world.

I was intrigued by the 1950’s in Ireland. Perhaps because it is still in living memory. A time that many Irish people can still recall. I was aware how different our world is now, it’s not centuries ago yet it has changed irrevocably.

We live in a very modern world, I knew for the authenticity of my characters to ring through, I could not judge them, their thoughts and their actions, their beliefs and their morals must be of their time.

It was a time when people made do with what they had. Church and state ruled, and massive emigration took place. The trains and boats were full of Irish people who had never set foot outside of Ireland bound for a new country.

But what intrigued me was what it must have felt like to step onto that London platform or the harbour in New York. I wanted to know what was going on in the minds and the hearts of these people. Research was essential but somehow, I needed to dig into the interior world of my characters to get a true sense of what it was like.

Finding people who could remember was my first port of call. My mother has a vivid memory as had my late father and stories of the 1950’s and emigration had become my daily bread as a child, so I expect this is where my interest had begun.

I spoke to many other people who vividly painted a picture of what it was like. They opened their hearts and told me of a land so different to ours that I could barely grasp how much it had changed.

My writing room was heaving with old photographs and newspapers. I visited vintage shops, antique shops, old houses. Anything that would give me a sense of what it was like. I played their music and read biographies of that time.  I made tea with leaves and attempted to make white soda bread just to recreate a snippet of that time.

When I needed a break from reading, I found gems on the internet of archived documentaries of people living in the fifties.  I embraced everything I could about it from what they ate to what they worried about, how they prayed, what they feared and how they saw the world.

It was a country changed in so many ways from our Ireland of today except for its haunting landscape.

But what I did learn when creating characters of that time was that even though we have changed irrevocably from the people of the fifties, our interior world, how we laugh, love and cry is still the same. How our hearts can be broken, how our lives can be broken and yet how strong our desire to survive.

I discovered that creating characters for historical fiction is not delivering a history lesson. I needed to embrace the emotion of the past and try to illuminate this through the characters.

Finally, to make my characters believable, the landscape that they inhabited would have to appear like a vision within the pages.

For example, if I was to write about Grafton Street today, readers can visualise it in their minds, but Grafton Street of the 1950’s was a totally different place. This is where I began to use the senses. What did they see, what were the sounds, the aroma in the air, the tastes coming from the tea shops and the bakeries and the textures they met? Whether it was grey or full of light a sense of place must be as vivid to the reader as if they were there.

To breathe life into my characters, I knew it must be like Alice in Wonderland, the reader must disappear into another world and almost believe they are in that time period and they are meeting the characters.

(c) Sheila Forsey

Facebook: Sheila Forsey Author   Twitter: @sheilaforsey

About Kilbride House:

They still called Ireland home, although home was now only a house embedded with briars, dog roses, thistles and the ghosts of the past.

Kilbride House is set in 1954 and the present day.

In 1954 Victoria Goulding a staunch Protestant from Kilbride House on the majestic Dingle Peninsula falls in love with Tadgh Riley originally from the Blasket Islands and a Roman Catholic. They plan to elope, but religion, class, poverty and emigration must first play their cards changing their fate and the fate of those living in Kilbride House forever.

This novel was inspired by the forgotten Irish who left these shores and never returned. They did not exist centuries ago, it is still in living memory and some remain in a no man’s land.  Never feeling part of this new Ireland and never fitting into a land that is as foreign to them now as when they first stepped off that boat.  The Great Blasket Island noted for its rich heritage, wild beauty, culture and literature legacy became completely abandoned in the 1950s.

Victoria Goulding is a wild spirit born into a privileged family who for generations have lived in the majestic Kilbride House. Her life is irrevocably changed when she meets Canice Meagher and the life she is born to begins to slowly ebb away.

Canice Meagher is home from London where he has worked as a labourer. A gifted singer born to the hardship of Island life he is trying to forge a living back on the Peninsula.  But meeting Victoria Goulding in a bog field in Kilbride changes everything forever.

Order your copy online here.


Sheila Forsey is an honours graduate from Maynooth in Creative Writing. She has a deep love of drama and the theatre and has performed throughout the country. Sheila lives by the beach in Wexford and facilitates creative writing workshops. This is her debut historical fiction novel.