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Writing Historical Fiction by Emily Hourican

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Developing Your Craft
Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

The question of what is ‘true’ is a big one in writing. Obviously, there is the world of memoir, in which everything has to be true – meaning verifiable fact –  (something that is far more difficult than it may sound, and often contradicted, because memory is the most unreliable of narrators), but even within works of fiction, truth is something important: Emotional truth, psychological truth, truth of tone and pace.

Writing historical fiction means grappling with truth in various forms. There are the literal truths – dates that cannot be tampered with, for example, sequences of events, how many children someone had, who they married and so on. These are hard facts and can’t be altered, unless you choose to enter the interesting world of alternative history, otherwise known as ‘What if…?’ What if Hitler won the war, the premise of Robert Harris’ Fatherland, for example; or what if Hilary had never married Bill, which is the central conceit of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham?

If that’s not what you are doing, facts matter. Dates matter (some dates, not all; you can’t delay the start of World War I because it doesn’t suit your narrative, but you’d probably get away with moving the day of a party or a trip to the zoo). The fundamental sequence of who/ when/ where also matters.

Within and around the facts, is where your imagination can be let loose. And this is the joy of historical fiction: the way it creates a framework based on known events, then, within that, allows you to tell a story that uses the available certainties but dresses them up to fit your narrative. There is a wonderfully balanced freedom to this. It’s not the existential (and sometimes terrifying), freedom of ‘anything goes,’ but a curtailed kind of freedom; freedom with limits, which is, frankly, the kind most of us are comfortable with (anarchy and lawlessness are not appealing; too much freedom stinks).

This is what I did with The Glorious Guinness Girls. I took characters who are based on real people – Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh Guinness, along with their parents, Ernest and Cloe, various cousins, including Bryan – and put them into a story with real boundaries. The dates they were born, for example, the dates they got married, who they married, and so on. Within that then, I spun a story that isn’t true – this is a novel – but, crucially, could have been. I invented characters – my narrator, Fliss, the child of an impoverished Anglo-Irish family who is sent, after her father dies in the First World War, to live with the Guinnesses and who provides the vantage point from which we see them and what they do; her brother Hughie, his best friend Richard. I made them up, then let them loose among the real characters.

Of course, we can’t ever really know what Thomas Cromwell thought and felt, or Anne Boleyn, and ditto with Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh Guinness. This is where emotional truth comes in. I have given my Guinness Girls thoughts and words and desires and jealousies, and I have tried to make these consistent – emotionally truthfully – with the characters as I see them. So, not real, but ‘real’ within the imagined world.

I have stuck closely to the details of the girls’ lives, their youth at Glenmaroon, in Castleknock Dublin, from where they were able to watch the burning of the Four Courts in June 1922, then their giddy years of young adulthood in London. The Bright Young People of London in the Roaring Twenties who become their friends in this book are mostly real – Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brenda Dean Paul, Stephen Tennant, Baby and Zita Jungman. Evelyn Waugh makes an appearance, as does Nancy Mitford. Bert, the prizefighter who hangs around after Baby Jungman in this story, is made up, although he is pretty typical of the melding of social classes that took place during those years, when energy and an appetite for fun and cocktails were all you needed.

Other notable events that occur in The Glorious Guinness Girls – the sacking of the town of Tuam in July 1920 by the RIC, the destruction of the Customs House in May 1921, the Great Crash of 1929 – happened as and when I describe in the book. Very occasionally, I have taken small liberties with actual events. Often, this is where there is a lack of consensus around dates for minor incidents, I have exploited the confusion for the purpose of the plot

Obviously, all this requires research. That’s the part I expected to be difficult – even though I did a BA in history, it’s been years since I have done any historical research – but in fact, that was the surprise hit of the process. To the point where stopping researching and starting writing was the problem. Everything I found out led me to want to find out more. The events of each episode, but also the texture of the time, what people wore, ate, read and listened to. How they travelled, the kinds of light they used, inside and on the streets… There is so much I learned that was never going to make it into the book – too much information is boring, and smothers a story – but that was there in my mind as I wrote, providing the platform from which to launch my characters.

There is another way to do this, and that’s the Hollywood way. Which is where you say ‘based on a true story’, and then make most of it up, playing fast and loose with timelines, characters, events so that often all that remains of a story are a few names and the vaguest of shapes. That can work, but if you ask me it takes much of the fun out of the whole thing. What is really wonderful is taking a bunch of ‘facts’ and stringing them together with fiction in a way that makes sense. The facts act as a skeleton, the fiction as muscle, flesh, skin, blood. The result, you hope, a fully functioning body.

In any case – the three Glorious Guinness Girls had lives that were so fabulous, so lavish, rich and extravagant, that not to use those things would have been a big mistake. They were celebrities at the dawning of the age of celebrity, written about in gossip columns, imitated, admired, undoubtedly resented. Truth, in this case, was so good that all it needed was a little extra fiction.

(c) Emily Hourican

About The Glorious Guinness Girls:

The Glorious Guinness Girls are the toast of London and Dublin society. Darlings of the press, Aileen,
Maureen and Oonagh lead charmed existences that are the envy of many.

But Fliss knows better. Sent to live with them as a child, she grows up as part of the family and only she knows of the complex lives beneath the glamorous surface.

Then, at a party one summer’s evening, something happens which sends shockwaves through the entire household. In the aftermath, as the Guinness sisters move on,
Fliss is forced to examine her place in their world and decide if where she finds herself is where she truly belongs.

Set amid the turmoil of the Irish Civil War and the brittle glamour of 1920s London, The Glorious Guinness Girls is inspired by one of the most fascinating family dynasties in the world – an unforgettable novel of reckless youth, family loyalty and destiny.

If you loved Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia or Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, you will adore The Golden Guinness Girls.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Emily Hourican is a journalist and author. She has written features for the Sunday Independent for fifteen years, as well as Image magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and Woman and Home. She was also editor of The Dubliner Magazine. Emily’s first book, a memoir titled How To (Really) Be A Mother was published in 2013. She is also the author of novels The Privileged, White Villa, The Outsider and The Blamed. She lives in Dublin with her family.

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