Because I’ve just seen Far From the Madding Crowd, I’m temporarily wandering through a pastoral, gilded version of England that probably never existed outside of fairy tales. All the same, I expect the visual experience of the film will inform my writing at some point.
There are literary types far wiser, better read, and better educated than me to inform us about the possibilities and the impossibilities of reproducing the past. I may or may not be doing it “right” but here’s what I think: Writing a novel set in the past calls for imagination, interpretation, taste, and a dash of common sense. And a lot of information — historical fact, literature and essays of the time, fiction and literature set in the time, paintings, films, music, and — if possible — site visits. This research (a word that sounds far too scholarly for what is, after all, quite a bit of fun) is a kind of immersion, I suppose. And because research is so much fun, it’s a principle reason why I am writing historical fiction.
I am an unabashed magpie. Thomas Hardy comes after the time period that currently engages me, but no matter. His novels are closer in time to the late Eighteenth Century than my experience. So was the span of my grandmother’s life (1875-1967). To employ an expression my grandmother might have used, it’s all grist to the mill.
At the moment, I’m re-reading Persuasion in an annotated version, as well as one of Anna Dean’s Austenesque historical mysteries, A Woman of Consequence. My writing-related TBR list currently includes:
- In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow
- The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History by Linda Colley
- More Austen
- More Patrick O’Brian
- Favourite Poems of England edited by Jane McMorland Hunter
At some point, I will watch again the lovely 1995 film of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds as well as Emma Thompson’s tender realization of Sense and Sensibility that same year. Scenes from these films have stayed with me for years and I have cribbed from them liberally. What I steal, however, tends to be atmospheric inspiration, so even with this confession I don’t think I’ll be caught red-handed. The films helped me understand how much in Austen translates directly to the present. In Sense and Sensibility, think of Robert Hardy’s character, Sir John Middleton, and his mother-in-law (played by the redoubtable Elizabeth Spriggs) arriving for a visit with a carriage full of yapping little dogs. I have seen these same gregarious, oblivious people drive up in a camper van with the same yappy dogs and get ready to settle in for an extended stay.
Fitting music, whether for background listening or to enhance a setting, is essential. I love the way music is immersive without distracting attention away from writing. Eighteenth Century music and earlier, especially dance music, is with me constantly. This version of English Country Dances, or this one are good examples and you can’t go wrong with Mozart or Purcell. It’s all part of the game. What would your characters have been listening to or reading? Do they go to the theatre? What would they see?
And back to Austen, who is a touchstone: More people should be writing as she did. The Internet says so: See The Jane Austen Manifesto: How we can save the world by writing like Austen by Ian Flitcroft, from The New Statesman via Poets & Writers. The article, which I intend to print out and might very well memorize, also shares a Jane Austen thesaurus (free online) and a related Twitter feed @WritelikeAusten. You can also follow the author, my new hero, @IanFlitcroft.
Back to the coalface, inspired.