Writing Historical Fiction
St Catherine's Convent - Edinburgh, Scotland
Having recently made the jump from ChickLit to Historical Fiction, I’m quickly learning just how hard it is to write authentically about a time in which I didn’t live or have the opportunity to experience for myself. Did I mention that living in Australia while the book is set in England and Scotland is also proving quite the challenge?
I’ll tell you a little bit about the project before I explain:
My grandfather lived a long life. He was 97 when he passed away last year and in spite of his dementia, he was still sprightly and outgoing. He loved to talk about all the things he had done and the places he had been, but I struggled to imagine just how much he had seen or how far his feet had carried him in all those years, and that had always intrigued me. A few months before he passed he had to go into a nursing home and when he did, my Mum found a box of old letters. When we began to read through them, a different life, a different time and an entire family I never had the opportunity to know unfolded.
The letters, mostly from the early 1940s, were from a range of people, but mostly my Grandfather’s mother, Fanny. In them she spoke of the War and what it was like around Bournemouth in England during World War 2. Mostly she spoke of missing her son and how it was affecting all of them, including the pets.
In other letters she spoke of my Grandfather’s girlfriend at the time and in one letter in particular, about how her Father was furious with him and would be on the lookout for him when he returned. This, of course, got us wondering. Why did they break up? And why was her Father so furious that he wanted to catch up with him? As you can imagine, the story was already unfolding in my head, at least the bones of it.
Then there was my Grandmother’s story. Hers was somewhat heartbreaking. She lost her Mother when she was only 7, spent time in Foster Care and then eventually went to live in St Catherine’s convent in Edinburgh, Scotland.
When I imagined her early life, it felt torn and broken and filled with despair, but when I read some of the letters that were in this box along with my Grandfather’s things, they told a different story – one of hope and strength. The picture above is one that I have found during my research and it shows the street that the convent is on. When I look at it, I imagine her walking along there as a young woman, chatting to her friends and thinking about the future.
With all of this in hand – the unique voices, their own words and wonderful visuals in the form of photo albums my Grandfather also kept, I felt inspired to start writing their story. Heartache, adversity, great love; what more could an author ask for? But once I sat down to actually write it I soon realised that in spite of the wealth of detail that had been laid out for me, I still couldn’t capture the scenes in the beautiful way that I wanted to. I intended to use their lives as the base story, drawing on their thoughts, feelings and experiences, but weave it in a new direction, one that makes it a work of fiction rather than a telling of their real lives.
Being able to unravel a scene so well that the reader can picture it in their own mind, taste it on their own lips and get a real sense of it, is essential for an author, but trying to do this from a photograph doesn’t give you all of the other sensory components that made it exactly what it was. The reader needs to be propelled into the moment - How did the air smell? What was the ground like beneath her feet? What could she hear in that moment, from where she stood?
Although I have mapped out the story and penned the scenes that play out in the here and now, the historical scenes are still driving me crazy. I’ve spent hours researching on the internet and sending my poor Father (who was on his first holiday to the UK after coming to Australia as a child) to the Scotland Historical Society to dig up old photos of the of the convent, inside and out (none of which are available online) and also making him walk the streets around there to tell me exactly what it’s like.
After all of this, and grateful for everything I have managed to bring together so far for this story, I have come to the conclusion that it’s not enough. I need to go there. I need to walk the streets that they walked and look with my own eyes at the buildings that they looked at and lived in. I want to know how the air feels in winter in Edinburgh and what it’s like to stand at the door of the house where my Grandfather and his Mother lived, that Google Streetview tells me is still there.
I feel excited, but also daunted by the task of writing this story and doing it justice. I don’t just want it to be good. I want it to be beautiful and come with a sense of authenticity for the reader. At this point I’m not sure I can do that, but I’m hopeful and that counts for something I hope.
Wish me luck!