Tag Archives: history

The Immersion Method

Recently I was reading an interview with Hilary Mantel in BBC History Magazine. Mantel, who is currently one of the most famous and celebrated historical fiction writers, was talking about her approach to her research, and referred to the need to ‘absorb’ the period you’re writing about. I found myself nodding along with this, as it’s so true: when you want to write a story set in the past, it is important to not only understand it, but to visualize it as clearly as you see your own world around you. It’s not enough to know its facts on an academic level, although of course, these are important for accuracy. You have to be able to see it, smell it, taste it, hear it. To do that, I think that you have to breathe it in. You have to let it get right under your skin.

From pexels.com.

Depending on the specific period or context you’re writing about, this can be hard to do. When I wrote about the Pendle witches, I was always conscious that the sort of evidence which aids vivid recreations of settings and characters was scant. I had the awe-inspiring presence of Pendle Hill and Lancaster Castle to work with, but key places like Westby Hall and Malkin Tower are long gone. Furthermore, the women accused left no written record of their own – the sole primary sources available were the court records, steeped as they are in bureaucratic officialdom (and no small amount of propaganda). Interestingly, though, it was this sense of the victims’ lack of voice which made me all the more keen to re-imagine their stories, and to tell them from their point of view.

Illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘The Lancashire Witches’. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, I’m researching for my sixth novel, set in late Georgian Edinburgh. Just as I did when preparing to write about the Pendle witches, I am reading widely and exploring the period. In short, I am immersing myself in it. And wow, what a lot there is to be immersed in! Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century Edinburgh, standing at the crossroads where Enlightenment and Romanticism meet, is a richly recorded and well-preserved place. The source materials, the books to read and the places to visit, are quite simply vast.

The ongoing pandemic means that getting out and about to visit key parts of the city hasn’t been possible yet, although I’m fortunate to know Edinburgh pretty well and have visited many of its museums and historic sites in the past. Until I can refresh my memory, however, there is plenty to be looking at in terms of online resources and books. I have made some truly fabulous discoveries, from the late eighteenth century town plans available through the National Library of Scotland, to the autobiography of a lady called Elizabeth Fletcher, a writer who lived in Edinburgh’s New Town at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Edinburgh. Image from pexels.com.

And to keep my mind firmly on the period, I’m busy re-reading some of my favourite Jane Austen novels and listening to Beethoven!

Some of the information I’m gathering will come in useful directly for the novel. A lot of it, though, is important simply because it enriches my understanding of the period, its people, what their lives were like, and how they felt about the world they inhabited. If I’m going to successfully evoke the setting and create some authentic characters, then this knowledge will be really, really important.

Online Events and Writing Time

I’ve not been very good at keeping my blog updated in recent times, so apologies for that. In truth, the competing demands of work and home educating my children placed upon me by lockdown have meant that I’ve had very little time to spend on my writing. However, this week is the last week of term, and the coming holidays hold the promise of some respite and, hopefully, some writing time. So I’m starting as I mean to go on, with a blog update on what I have managed to do recently, and what’s coming next…

Noir at the Bar

Earlier in June I took part in an online author event with Noir at the Bar, Edinburgh. It was great to go along to this and to talk about The House at Kirtlebeck End, and to hear from lots of other authors about their work. If you didn’t catch it on the livestream, you can watch it on YouTube here:

The Long and the Short of it

Given my severely limited writing time, short stories have been the order of the day (or past three months, I suppose). I produced quite a few pieces of work during my Open University course which I’m editing, and along with other pieces I’ve written, I intend to submit to some competitions and anthologies over the summer. It’s been a while since I put anything out on submission, so it’s time to get back into it.

Image from Pexels.

Book Six

Those who watched me on Noir at the Bar will have heard me mention my next project, the as yet untitled book number six. It’s very early days but I have started researching for this book, a historical mystery novel set in late Georgian Edinburgh. The idea for this book was borne out of a short story I wrote for my Open University course, and I’m really excited to get started on it! I will keep you all updated…

Image from Wiki Commons.

Crazy Times and Costume Dramas

‘Mummy,’ my daughter said to me this morning, ‘can you tell me about Henry VIII’s wives?’ She was just up, and had had her nose buried in one of Lucy Worsley’s historical novels for younger readers (which are brilliant, by the way).

‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘Any wife in particular?’

She thought about it for a moment. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Really just all of them.’

Left to right: Henry’s first three wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This thirst for historical knowledge has been a lockdown development, and one which makes me so happy. I can’t describe my joy at having another history enthusiast under our roof! Before I go any further, a wee disclaimer: this blog post is a positive one, but that is not to say that this whole experience has been great for us as a family. I want to stress that it hasn’t; sure, we’ve had nice moments, but all of us in our own way are sore at the loss of many aspects of our lives. I want to say that because it’s true and I think it’s important to be truthful during this. It is too easy to gloss over our lives on the internet, to show only the shiny bits. But I know that doing so can make others feel worse about their own experiences which might not be so shiny, and I wouldn’t want to do that. So, if you’re reading this and not feeling great right now, know that you’re not on your own. I think this is a crazy, worrying, up-and-down time for many.

Hopefully today’s blog post will be a cheerful read. Over these past few weeks, since our evenings have no longer been crammed with activities, my daughter and I have been on a historical or ‘costume’ drama adventure together. Historical dramas have always been an enthusiasm of mine, and I was more than happy to revisit them with her. If you’ve never watched any, I highly recommend that you do, especially at the moment. They are wonderful pieces of escapism and there is virtually always a happy ending. In fact, the other day a friend drew my attention to an article in The Guardian which showed I wasn’t alone in rekindling my enthusiasm. Right now many of us, it seems, are seeking solace in romances set in centuries past.

Close-up photo of Jane Austen books, by Leah Kelley. Source: Pexels.com.

Together my daughter and I have worked our way through the Jane Austen catalogue: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Pride & Prejudice, and Emma, with Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion still patiently awaiting us. We’ve also ventured a little further into the nineteenth century with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Of them all, so far Pride & Prejudice has been a firm favourite – I suspect, in part, because of the minimal amounts of kissing. Ten year olds hate kissing, apparently. She also felt that Jane Eyre had the happiest ending simply because of the all the hardships she had overcome. A refreshing take on things, indeed!

These dramas have prompted some great discussions along the way. North & South, for example, led to a conversation about conditions in the mills and the tensions between the workers and their employers. After watching Jane Eyre, we talked about the bildungsroman genre and the Byronic hero. And after so much Jane Austen, my girl is becoming an expert on Regency society and behaviours!

An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It hasn’t been an easy time, but these evenings spent indulging in historical dramas have given us something to smile about. And, I think, they’ve taught my daughter a great deal. If, in years to come, she becomes either a historian or literature scholar, I think in a strange way we will have the lockdown period to thank for it. Crazy times, indeed.