London has a unique atmosphere, a sense of time that I connected with at a young age. I used to imagine the people who lived in the streets and houses in the past, and what happened to them there. When the other children on the school trip coach were throwing the contents of their lunch boxes at each other, I was staring out the window imagining men in wigs and heeled shoes climbing into sedan chairs on the cobbles that once existed outside St Pauls Cathedral.
My first novel was inspired by a painting of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth I saw at the National Portrait Gallery. I was struck by the way the picture was set amongst the Stuart kings and queens, but separate. This intrigued me and after researching the rebellion that brought an end to his tragic, if self indulgent life, I created a family who lived in Exeter and were punished for their loyalty to the duke. I was living in Exeter at the time and visited the Guildhall where the rebel trials – the oldest building in the country.
My current novel was inspired by Ham House, a Jacobean mansion on the River Thames in Richmond. On the advice of my agent, I searched for a strong, 17th Century female character on which to base a story and at Ham House, I discovered Elizabeth Murray, who became Duchess of Lauderdale on her second marriage.
Walking through the same rooms she once occupied, laid out with actual furniture she bought and touched, helped me re-create the time. Elizabeth experienced every emotion in that house; an idyllic childhood, followed by an anxiety-filled adolescence during the English Civil War when her family faced the loss of their home at any moment, the arrest and execution of her father, William Murray, and where skirmishes between Cavaliers and Roundheads took place practically on their doorstep. To see the same view of the river through the window that she did, and imagine her sitting at a particular desk listening to the scratch of quill on paper and the smell of a burning wax candle, all of which helped me get inside her head.
The realities of everyday habits shapes the actions of my characters, but although restricting, these are the details I find fascinating – for instance how long it took to travel between London and Exeter in a box coach without suspension, and where accidents were frequent on ill-made up roads that in parts became knee deep in mud during winter rain. In fact I find the research is the most exciting part and less arduous than actually writing the story. If I cannot obtain a definitive answer from more than one source, I leave it out. This can sometimes constrain my plot choices, but it’s all part of the challenge of writing a credible as well as an exciting story.
Getting inside my character’s heads is also vital. In the 17th Century, attitudes were very different to today. Education was not available to everyone, and we now disapprove of prejudice, chauvinism and religious fanaticism, but in the 1640’s, views were very different. My characters have to be true to their own time, I have to allow them to hold views we would dismiss now. Maybe they are bigoted, politically backwards and administer whippings to their misbehaving children – even their wife! I cannot pass judgment on them, or apologize for their beliefs. Not everyone was a free thinker ahead of their time.
Subjects a contemporary author writes about with instinctive knowledge have to be re-thought from a different perspective. Marriage, travel, childbirth, religion, laundry - even eating, have to be written about convincingly.
The hardest part of incorporating my research into my writing is what to leave out. It’s tempting to fill the prose with detailed references and every trivial fact I have found irresistible, but if it doesn’t contribute to the story, or have a specific purpose -I have to leave it out or risk weighing the plot down with unrelated trivia.
Also, when writing about people who once existed, I have to be careful how much fiction I include. I cannot make my character into a murder if there was no evidence to say they ever were. Elizabeth Murray, for instance has living descendants, so I have to remain true to what is known of her and only allow fiction to intrude if it enhances her known character, or confirms something already known.
Writing historical fiction is complicated and challenging, but my spirit lives in the past and I cannot imagine myself writing anything else.