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Writing Historical Fiction by Patricia O’Reilly

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Article by Patricia O'Reilly ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

Writing historical fiction is quite a challenge as I first discovered when I set out blithely to write about Irish designer Eileen Gray (1878-1976). She lived through the turmoil of two World Wars, took the European architectural and design world by storm; built what is regarded as one of the most iconic houses of the 20th century; delighted at being a ‘petticoat pilot’; was loved by men and women and counted among her friends Picasso and Rodin. Research. Research. And more research. But four books later written in the same genre and with equally gruelling amounts of research haven’t changed my mind. If anything I am even more hooked on the pleasures of researching, writing and reading historical fiction.

Historical fiction distils the essence of what the novel does best by allowing us to step into someone else’s shoes. But the definition of historical fiction varies.

The Historical Novel Society (HNS) admits, ‘Historical fiction is a genre of controversy and contradiction.’ On its website it explains, ‘To us, a “historical novel” is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.’

Some people consider that a novel should only be called “historical” if the plot reflects its historical period so well that the story could not have occurred at any other time in history; more dispute this. And so the discussion goes on.

Broadly speaking the writers of historical fiction use either a historical occurrence as a backdrop such as the Fire of London, the great Irish Famine or Art Deco; or they take a character and weave their story around that character.

I favour using characters such as Eileen Gray (Time and Destiny and The Interview); Kathleen Newton (1854-1882), mistress and muse of French artist Jacques Tissot (A Type of Beauty) and my latest The First Rose of Tralee, the story of Mary O’Connor (182?-1845), the servant girl who became the inspiration for the annual Rose of Tralee International Festival celebrating its 60th year.

For me one of the main delights of historical fiction is that it allows me to step imaginatively into a past era and inhabit the minds of long-dead characters.  In the process I am free to interpret situations, feel their joys and sorrows, muse on their private lives and make judgements about them.

But creating and maintaining dramatic tension if it is already known how the characters end up is a challenge. And yet when I’m chewing my nails trying to sort out characters and locations and keep the storyline running, I keep in mind that I didn’t read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies to discover the fate of Anne Boleyn.

As writers of historical fiction, we can’t know how our characters felt about the world around them, but by the time we’ve finished with their stories if we’ve done or job well they will have bought us into their world, shared with us their sorrows and joys, strengths and weaknesses.

Records can provide evidence of what was said and done, but, usually, not what was felt. One of the surest ways to capture a bygone era is through diaries, journals and letters, although they are thin on the ground, but those that have survived are a rich source of material.

The best-known diarist is seventeenth century Samuel Pepys who left an insight into turbulent events of English history including the coronation of King Charles II, the Great Plague and the Fire of `London.  A hundred years on James Boswell, writer, rake and wit kept a detailed record from 1762 to his death in 1795. This was found with other papers in Malahide Castle, Dublin in the 1920s and published in the 1950s. Lady Augusta Gregory’s writings provide an interesting prism through which to view the impact of the Irish Revolution a century ago.

My modus operandi is to immerse myself in the period – read works of fact and fiction set around the era; scan the newspapers of the time for the political, cultural and economic backgrounds – the advertisements are particularly insightful; perhaps look up old maps. I take the known facts, use them to breathe life into my characters and as a scaffold to be propped up with fiction.

I first heard of Mary O’Connor during the long school holidays that I spent in Tralee. My aunt and her relatives talked about Daniel O’Connell, the Whiteboys, the Great Famine and Mary O’Connor as though we were living in those times.  Later, much later, I learned that Mary O’Connor, the daughter of a shoemaker, worked in West Villa, staring as a kitchen skivvy and progressing to nursery maid. The young master William Pembroke Mulchinock fell in love with her and wrote The Ballad of the Rose of Tralee. Their story, set in the 1840s against the backdrop of Daniel O’Connell’s campaigning for Repeal if the 1801 Union, plays out in Tralee, Dublin and Bombay. An enchanting story crying out to be written.

(c) Patricia O’Reilly

About The First Rose of Tralee

The First Rose of Tralee.
Tralee 1840s. It’s pre-the Great Famine of Ireland.
Daniel O’Connell is holding monster rallies and pushing for Repeal of the 1801 Union.
Mary O’Connor dreams of a life beyond poverty, and being a servant.
William Mulchinock lets go his dreams of being a poet to run the family estates.
When they meet they are dazzled by love.
The young lovers are caught up in the politics of the time.
Can their love survive political turmoil and bridge the great divide between rich and poor?

Order your copy online here.


Patricia O'Reilly, a Dublin-based writer, is passionate about words. Her novel, 'The Interview' is her imagined story of what happened when Bruce Chatwin interviewed Eileen Gray in Paris in 1972. Her other novels, some translated include 'A Type of Beauty, the story of Kathleen Newton (1854-1882'; 'Time & Destiny', the story of Irish Designer Eileen Gray; 'Felicity's Wedding' and 'Once Upon a Summer'. Her non-fiction books are: 'Writing for Success'; 'Working Mothers'; 'Earning Your Living from Home'; 'Writing for the Market' and 'Dying with Love'. She is an award-winning short story writer with stories published in magazines and anthologies.