I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to try writing it, GS Hist Fic will lead you through the skills of imagining, researching and writing stories set in the past; it will also help you decide what form your story should take, where it might fit on the bookshop shelves, and how to go about getting it there. To read a bit more about the book, follow links to buy it, and download the first chapter for free, click here.
What's more, Just Write, Teach Yourself's site for writers, is running a historical fiction competition: your story could win you publication on the site, and a copy of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, along with four terrific historical novels including Marina Fiorato's The Double Life of Kit Kavanagh, which I loved when I read it for Harrogate History.
And, also on Just Write, you can read my Twelve Do's and Don't's for Writing Historical Fiction.
But having a new book out is a bit like a mini-New Year's Day: after I'd done the Happy Author Dance round the kitchen (you know, the one which has a chorus of "It's a book, it's a book, it's a real, real book!") I found myself thinking back to where it came from. Did it only start existing when I said Yes to John Murray Learning when they enquired whether I'd like to join their Teach Yourself Creative Writing list?
Or did it start with my PhD? A Secret Alchemy was under contract, but the commentary could be what I wanted, within the regulations. It was my supervisor, Maura Dooley, who suggested that it shouldn't just be something that would get me through the viva, but also be actively useful to me in the future. And so I chose to explore how what I'd done with A Secret Alchemy fitted into the context of the writing and reading of historical fiction in general, and parallel narratives in particular. (And if you're wondering what on earth a PhD in Creative Writing is all about, click here. )
Did it start with the day I heard I'd got a place on the MPhil course at what was then the University at Glamorgan, and had to plan and write enough of a new novel to workshop it in October? In Stephen Fairhurst, who had been born years before in a writing-course exercise, I already had one of those characters who doesn't go away. Now he needed a novel, but because I'm always thinking about history as change and process, not just the moment we're in, it didn't seem interesting enough to confine the novel to what Stephen would write in his own story. So I dreamed up another character, quite cold-bloodedly, to be as different as possible from him, and to write her own story in a way which would mean each story played off the other, and was enriched by it. Anna Ware was born, and that novel became The Mathematics of Love.
Did it start when I failed to get into Drama School, but succeeded in getting a place to read Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, and spent three years working in ways that turned out to be the best grounding for a novelist that you could ask for?
Is it a product of my gap year reading Peter Ackroyd, Georgette Heyer, Robert Nye, A Tale of Two Cities and Angela Carter, and later Simon Schama, Hilary Mantel, John Keegan, Rose Tremain, Roszika Parker, Barry Unsworth and Allan Massie?
Did it begin when A Level History turned out to be a whole lot less fun than I'd expected? It wasn't just because acting was being so much more fun: it was also an accident of my excellent, up-to-the-minute History teachers being steeped in a discipline that happened to be in a particularly Modernist and anti-Victorian phase of dry, quasi-scientific and impersonal scholarship: a discipline that was refusing grand narratives and colourful individuals.
Or does it go all the way back to my childhood love for Rosemary Sutcliffe, Cynthia Harnett, Geoffrey Trease, Gillian Avery, Henry Treece, Barbara Willard and E M Almedingen?
Actually, it goes all the way back to this, which I rather think I asked my grandmother for, for my sixth or seventh birthday. Dipping in again (you didn't think I actually ever get rid of books, did you?) I'm rather impressed.
It's almost entirely social history: the poor and the middling much more than the rich, the clothes and food, the songs and the technology, crime and punishment, theatres and fairs. Kings and queens make only a cursory appearance, given as a handy structure for placing people and things in their time but not as the essence of the world that human beings live in: Lord Shaftesbury's campaigns get more space than Charles I, and the state of Georgian roads twice as much again. It's stuffed with photographs of real historical objects as well as line-drawings whose claim to careful research is not ridiculous.
In short, it's just about everything that a seven-year-old, who didn't yet know she wanted to write historical fiction, could need to clothe and feed and dress her imagination, and send it off into the world where the wild things are.
And did I mention that Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on Thursday, in paperback and e-book? You can buy it from your friendly local independent or other good bookseller. Ordering from Hive, incidently, directly benefits your independent bookseller, and of course the book is also available from all the other online sources. Just click on the link you prefer: