Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague is selling well and so between my many endeavours towards book promotion, when I’m not feeling entirely freaked out by the idea of continued my newfound writing journey, I have begun the task of researching my next novel. It will be historical fiction again, but I have been considering lately what we mean when we use that umbrella term for such a massive genre. We aren’t always necessarily talking about the same thing.
In the case of Three, I was essentially handed a historical plot and historical characters; real people who lived during a real event in a real time in history. My job as author was to put flesh on the bones that essentially already existed, be they scant in places. I have read other books that do the same. Several books I have recently read might actually be classed as non-fiction but are told in such a narrative fashion they may just as easily be considered historical fiction, as dry fact is brought into living, breathing technicolour by the skill of the writer. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore and The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold were particularly like that for me; I was caught in the narrative of real women, living real lives, during a real time in history. It was, in fact, the title of the latter book that moved me towards choosing the title for my recent novel. I felt it really brought the women to the centre stage and I wanted that to be the case for Emmott, Catherine and Elizabeth, moving the rectors and Yesinia pestis itself just slightly off stage, into the wings.
I recently read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and found it to be a similar type of historical fiction to my novel, Three. She had essentially told the story of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s tragic young son, whilst infusing it with her own creative imaginings. I rather loved it.
Some historical fiction books, such as those by Tracy Chevalier, one of my favourite authors of historical fiction, are constructed around the discovery of an intriguing person (as is the case with Remarkable Creatures, a novel about would-be palaeontologist, Mary Anning), an interesting place (such as Falling Angels, set in and around Highgate Cemetery and including the Suffrage movement) or an inspiring object (such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring, based on the famous painting).
Other historical fiction novels aim to bring a known period in time alive, through fictionalised events that are based on known and undisputed ideas about the time. I particularly like Minette Walters’ ‘The Last Hours‘ series, which brings to life those deadly days when the Black Death first entered England through the port at Melcombe in 1348. The author builds such a credible past world and you are immediately taken back hundreds of years to a time of great peril. Likewise, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is another example of imagined characters and events set within a known period of time where horrifying things were happening to women in Scandinavia, as well as other parts of Europe. Publisher, Pan Macmillan, describe the story as being ‘bookended by two pieces of horrifying fact’. If you haven’t read it, it is worthy of your time.
Some historical fiction books focus on just one place through history, such as Edward Rutherford’s Sarum, which traces the history of Salisbury over hundreds of centuries though the story of five families. it is an epic fat, requiring intimate and wide-reaching knowledge of the land and its people.
There are also novels that are set in the past and have some kind of beautifully imaginative, almost magical quality to them, such as The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. Jodi Picoult describes the novel as ‘truly stunning: part love story, part mystery, part history, and all beauty‘. I like the idea of a book set within historical time periods and embracing something that is beyond reason, beyond senses.
And so we come to my next planned book. Having recently moved to a large village near Rugby in Warwickshire, I am keen to set my next work here. Like Sarum, I plan to trace the lives and the land over several time periods. My characters are beginning to take form, a plot is emerging, a twist, an ending. This will be a different type of historical fiction to Three‘ My characters will be entirely made up, my plot will be of my own devising. But woven through the narrative will be the yield of my research; those real and intriguing things that really happened here over the centuries. I’m excited to try something new and challenged to create characters you can love as much as Emmott and Catherine and Elizabeth. If I can make you wish my new characters had really lived, that will make me happiest of all.