Fiction is often described as ‘character in action.’ And characters have to be active somewhere you can see, smell, hear and touch, unless you’re Samuel Beckett who can bury Winnie up to her waist and then neck in sand and yet create an active character. For the rest of us, a strong sense of place is essential and probably even more so in historical fiction when we have to create an alien world because, as L P Hartley famously said, ‘the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’
Not only do times change but so do our perceptions. Why does Henry VIII look so different through the years when played by Charles Laughton (1933), Keith Michel (1970) and Damien Lewis (2015)? Why do we write about particular periods in history and not others? How does one author show us a new way of understanding Henry VIII? These are questions I cannot answer but they do tell us that our perception of history is never static. In my case, I have no particular preference for writing about one particular period of history. To me, it’s place first and foremost and how it has changed through the centuries. Not only that, but I prefer my ‘place’ to be one I know because I can see the past all around me.
For example, when I was writing my Victorian novel, Hope against Hope (Myrmidon 2010), I used to drive past a house neatly placed close to a bridge over the River Wharfe. My research told me it was once a pub. Here was the perfect place for a coaching accident and then employment. After a while, I would always see my Carrie Hope, as I flashed past, hanging out sheets and towels, her red hair flying out from her mob cap, dreaming of the hotel she would eventually own.
I started playing these historical games in my head very early on. So, here’s a whistle-stop tour of my life. Although I was born in Leicester, from the age of six months to eleven years I lived in Lincoln. The city sits on the slopes of steep escarpment where the rolling Wolds plunge into fenland. The Romans built an important town here (Lindum Colonia) on the road to Eboracum (York). Later came the medieval city with its steep cobbled streets, castle and cathedral, which dominates the city and the surrounding lands for miles. Its bells punctuated my days and as I trudged its half-timbered and cobbled streets to and from my junior school and I would jump puddles and dodge the slops flung out from the windows above me. You, too, can absorb the sights and smells of medieval Lincoln by reading Karen Maitland’s The Vanishing Witch. Despite its Gothic magicke (is that the word?) it paints a vivid picture of the contrast between the city on the steep hill and marshland below.
My ‘places’ were neatly compartmentalised by my education. When I was eleven, my place was Market Harborough on the Leicestershire-Northamptonshire border. It, of course, has its own history and I would love to write a novel set in its streets; but shall I choose the Civil War when the nearby Battle of Naseby changed its allegiance from Royalist to Parliamentarian overnight, or what about the nineteenth century when it was the home of Symington’s corset factory which, incidentally, patented the famous Liberty Bodice?
However, that was the time when I fell out of love with history. This may have been because the swinging sixties turned a bespectacled bookworm into a teenaged hippy rebel. Or it might have been because my history teacher—a Miss Gradgrind if ever there was one—and I hated each other.
Armed with a quiverful of ‘A’ levels, I marched out into the world—or rather, sat on a train to St Pancras—because I fell in love with Samuel Johnson’s words: ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ So I studied for a BA in English Literature at what was then Queen Mary College, University of London where I fell in love with both ends of the social scale: Tower Hamlets and Bloomsbury whilst diving into the tube from Palmers Green and then Woodford Green.
Because there are hundreds of historical novels where London features strongly I am spoiled for choice although, having just finished Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London, it had immediately leaped to the top of my list. You know how bonfire smoke clings to your clothes and hair the day after Guy Fawkes’ Night? Now imagine the smell, taste and devastation of the City of London during and immediately after the Great Fire of 1666.
London seems like a dream now. I eventually grew tired of it (sorry, Samuel) and moved to Yorkshire and settled in Harrogate. Giving birth to two boys in quick succession had a great deal to do with it as well as its elegant serenity and the sweet, fresh air. My husband worked in the centre of Leeds as it grew into a vibrant modern city with the first Harvey Nichols outside London on Briggate. At the same time, in my usual way, I explored its past, its ginnels, yards and splendidly elaborate Victorian shopping arcades.
If you wish to read historical fiction set in Leeds, then you can do no better than read Chris Nickson’s historical crime novels. I loved all his Richard Nottingham novels (beginning with The Broken Token) and am now following Inspector Tom Harper fighting crime on the streets of 1890’s industrial Leeds. So far, we have Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies and Skin Like Silver. More please, Chris.
When eventually, my boys no longer needed me every minute of the day I immersed myself in the history of Harrogate. Why were there so many hotels? Why was the two-hundred-acre collar of grass and trees that wrapped around it so fiercely protected from development by an Act of Parliament? Where was the first railway station? Did it really have the greatest variety of mineral springs in the world—eighty-eight in total apparently—of sulphur, magnesium or chalybeate? No wonder the well-heeled flocked to taste and bathe in its waters, and chancers and tricksters soon followed.
When I decided to write a novel—as you do—what else could it be but a historical novel which concentrated on Victorian Harrogate when it grew from two sleepy villages to Victorian splendour?
I’m still in love with Harrogate even though we have now live further north and east in The North York Moors. It is a large area of moorland where buzzards and curlews fly over heather grazed by hardy moorland sheep.
The village of Rosedale Abbey is incorrectly named. There are very few roses (too cold and bleak) and there never was an abbey. Before Henry VIII ripped the lead from its roof and snatched its treasure, there stood a small Cistercian priory of nuns. Unfortunately, before the concept of heritage was invented, a new source of wealth was discovered: ironstone. The population expanded, in came miners who found handy stone walls and arches with which to build their cottages. All that’s left of the priory now is a ruined staircase turret plus bits and pieces of architecture scattered around the dale. But imagination needs no stone walls. In the same way I absorbed Harrogate, I am currently writing a series of novels based in Rosedale.
All this brings me back to the present day. Living in the middle of nowhere has major drawbacks. Firstly, the internet connection is very slow. Secondly and, probably more importantly, there is no mobile phone coverage whatsoever for miles. I can live without it. What I haven’t got are other writers for advice and support, to exchange gossip, news and tips about the writing world. Social media is excellent for this, of course but it cannot replace chatting over tea or wine with other writers, editors and agents.
Thank heavens for the HWA and the excellent History Festival in my beloved Harrogate; perfect for this lonely long-distance writer. You are my lifeline.
- Bailgate, Lincoln
- Lincoln Cathedral from the Cathedral Quarter
- Staff of Betty’s outside the famous Harrogate shop
- Church of St Mary and St Laurence, Rosedale Abbey