The clocks have switched to summer time here in the UK. The trees are budding and the magnolias are in spectacular blossom. While there’s a sense of the seasons moving forward, I had a moment of confusion last Monday night, wondering if it’s too soon to ditch my heavy winter jacket and scarf. So what a pleasure it was, to step out in the early evening with the sun shining. I cut through Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens to find Tea House customers once again enjoying afternoon tea outside. What difference a month makes! Maybe I imagined it, but I’m sure everyone arrived smiling for our Writing Historical Fiction salon. Then again, maybe that was all down to our guest writer, Essie Fox.
Maggie the tea house cat followed Essie, Emma and I onto the stage. Maggie, partial to a snooze on the big leather armchairs we rudely occupied, lost interest and returned to the audience in search of a warm lap. Emma began the conversation asking about the source of Essie’s ideas. With a previous career as a commercial artist, Essie finds the initial seeds of story through visual imagery. Places, paintings, poetry and photographs trigger her creative process. Think of the painting, The Somnambulist, by the Victorian artist, Millais. The painting, the inspiration for her first published novel of the same name, is steeped in atmosphere and invited questioning. Who is the sleepwalking girl by the cliff’s edge and who are the mysterious figures following her, etc? By asking, how can I take this further, Essie likened the writing process to a jigsaw puzzle, slowly putting the pieces of story together.
Essie’s organic approach to the early stages of her work means a solid period of research before the writing begins. She’ll continue to research as she goes along too. Essie begins the story, knowing the start and the finish - but it’s the research that colours the middle. Key advice included treating your research like a university course. Do it well. Don’t stint. The trick for stopping research and letting the story develop is to remember your story is about people. Don’t focus on the history - it’s fiction! Take liberties but make sure your details are right. When it comes to ‘real facts or characters’, perhaps consider viewing them through the prism of a fictional character. Establish the rules of your world. Include just enough detail to make the scene vivid and to establish time and place. A reader has to feel in safe hands or you’ll lose them.
Be brave, said Essie. Write and redraft. Don't be afraid! Nothing’s wasted. Don’t lament all that surplus research that needs to be cut in service to story. You will have learned something, even if you have to shave 50,000 words off your final draft. Subsidiary characters may need to be cut. The main thing to ask, is this driving the narrative forward?
Essie, infectiously passionate on a variety of subjects from the Victorian world of the Great Exhibition, to spiritualism and the Edwardian era of early film and photography, embodies the idea of 'write what you love'. Avoid second guessing the market. Experiment. Question your primary sources. Consider conflicting accounts, (chroniclers, folk law, letters) from contemporary times. Even the past is edited, said Essie, mentioning the diaries of Queen Victoria, edited by one of the royal daughters following the monarch’s death. Someone in the audience suggested that ‘The Unread Diary of Queen Victoria’ would make a great title and idea for a novel. You heard it here first!
It was a wonderful session. With big thanks to Essie and Emma and everybody who came along. Next month, on the 24th April at the Tea House Theatre Cafe, we’ll be talking, Writing For Children and YA, with Sara Grant. Come along and say hi.
Refs/Bibliography: Margaret Atwood - In Search of Alias Grace : On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction. An Essay in The American Historical Review. Anne de Courcy - The Fishing Fleet, Husband Hunting in the Raj. Richard Holmes - The Age of Wonder. John Mullan - How Novels Work