In 2014, the germ of my debut novel Heart of Cruelty was a radio drama of a Coroner’s inquest in Victorian Birmingham, an assignment for my Open University Creative Writing course. My submission was stuffed with references like an academic paper: books about radio drama, historical primary sources and a link to someone’s PhD. At that point I probably had most of the research I needed for my novel, but as a newbie writer found the internet abounding in wormholes connecting me to my favourite topics. I would spiral around there for hours with little progress in either word count or story. Finally, after innumerable drafts, I have a three-book contract (yay!). My sequel, set in Dublin, WILL be done in 18 months. So, how much research should I do?
In historical fiction some research is essential: accuracy matters to many readers and an unlikely plot device may alienate them. In Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad the runaway slaves, after hideous suffering, encounter improbable railways and impossible elevators. A more sophisticated reader might embrace the adventure offered by this literary novel. I didn’t. I realised that I had strayed away from my usual genre: the narrative became untrustworthy.
But I need more than facts. I need fiction. I need a story: an interconnected narrative that resonates with my own life. I want imagery, I want to feel emotion, I want to be teased, surprised and hooked. I’m currently reading Little by Edward Carey, a fictionalised biography of Madame Tussaud, beginning with her miserable childhood as Dr Curtius’s servant. There is scant historical record of her early life; clearly the author has ‘made it up.’ But it’s totally believable, illuminated by exquisite small details. Nothing jars, and when he names famous people they’re in the period where they belong. By the end of the first few chapters he has convinced me to continue the journey.
So here are a few things I’ve learned about writing a historical novel:
I used to think my synopsis was to be written after completing the book, and enclosed with the submission package. This time around, I’ve written my synopsis before starting the manuscript or doing any in-depth research. New characters and subplots will be woven in as they happen so it won’t straitjacket the story.
Non-Scrivener users, skip this paragraph. I learned to use Scrivener early on. Now, in the Binder, each event in my synopsis is the heading of a new text file. Each file has its own Synopsis pane with a start and endpoint that advance the story, and a hook. The Notes pane contains extra plot points with text and weblinks from research, aiming for no more than two references on any topic.
I’ve learned while redrafting that too much ‘stuff’ distracts. Decades ago I saw Aida at the Terme di Caracalla in Rome, an open air venue that was like an operatic sports stadium, complete with cheering crowds. Halfway through the performance a sad-looking elephant came onstage, pulling a chariot. I can’t remember the characters, the music, or a single point of the plot, but I remember the elephant.
Write to redraft
My first draft, bashed out without correction or revision as if in NanoWriMo, with occasional facts dragged up from the wormholes, loads of dialogue and no scenery, is a bit like a radio drama. The second draft will have a carefully painted backdrop, fancy costumes and too many subplots, like an elaborate traditional stage production. In the third draft I’ll slim down the ‘stuff’ to strengthen the story. I’ll tidy up the subplots and concentrate on the key details, like modern theatre, in which an item of clothing, an image, a sound effect or a single prop can set the scene.
My sources of inspiration and information
Objects: Fortunately the Victorians mass-produced many objects. I’ve collected a few coins, books and maps.
Clothing: The Batsford ‘Costume Reference’ series of books are handy for separating the spatterdashes from the redingotes. A friend gave me a couple of handstitched chemises from a flea market.
Newspapers: I subscribe to britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk to read newspapers of my period from both Britain and Ireland.
Novels: Jane Eyre is so absorbed into my psyche that I named my female protagonist Jane.
Walk the job: Searching for the original atmosphere, even if obscured by renovation and motor traffic. I used to work in west Birmingham where I often heard the regular thud of a mechanical press and my short cut through the backstreets passed the historic Soho Foundry. I walked by the canal where a character drowned, and drank beer in a public house where her inquest was held.
Libraries, galleries and museums: Artefacts and paintings are links to another age. I used the Barber Institute in Birmingham, the Wellcome Library in London and the archives in the Library of Birmingham.
Words: I use the Oxford English Dictionary at OED.com if I need to check if a word was in circulation in my period.
(c) Maybelle Wallis
About Heart of Cruelty:
A forbidden love illuminates an unbearable truth.
1840. Jane Verity’s dream of a romantic life in the theatre ends in the workhouse, where she is subjected to violent abuse.
When Coroner William Doughty rescues her on his way to an inquest on a young inmate who committed suicide, it alters the path of his life. Powerfully attracted to her, he employs her as his maidservant, to care for his ailing wife.
In his household, Jane discovers the truth about the inquest and pieces together the dark secrets of a powerful abuser. As Doughty struggles with his passion for her, she must convince him to act, even though exposing the truth will destroy his marriage and his career.
The twisting darkness of this story pervades a bittersweet romance and explores the risks of allowing desire to triumph over reason.
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