Creative Inspiration: The Victorian Era

There’s a joke I’ve seen on Pinterest, a cartoon of a writer watching TV. The character says, “I’m researching!” to the cynical-looking people standing nearby. For those of us who write fiction, we know that watching TV or movies, listening to music, or going for walks really is research because all of it becomes part of the writing process. Writers, especially fiction writers, need their imagination fueled regularly, and it’s the little things we do, such as stealing an hour here or there to watch a favorite TV show or listen to our favorite music, that help to fill the creative well so that we have a brain full of ideas when we sit down to write.

When it comes time to write, especially if I’m writing an historical story, I try to immerse myself in the time period as much as possible. If I feel as if I’ve traveled back in time, then it’s easier for me to carry my readers along with me on the journey. Here are some of the places I found inspiration while writing my Victorian era story When It Rained at Hembry Castle. My hope is that by reading over my list, others will discover places to find inspiration of their own.

Books

Nonfiction:

 How to Be a VictorianUp and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool

How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman (one of my new favorite historians—she lives what she studies)

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London and Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes

To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell

The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill

Fiction:

When reading novels, I look for books written during the era I’m writing about as well as novels written about the era. Other times I’ll find inspiration in a novel that isn’t necessarily set in that time period but there’s something about the story that provides some ideas.

Bleak HouseThe Buccaneers and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Snobs by Julian Fellowes

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I read A LOT of P.G. Wodehouse (but really, can you read too much Wodehouse?)

I read A LOT of Dickens (but really, can you read too much Dickens?)

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (set in the Tudor era—I know—but she’s such a master of historical fiction I needed to read the books again)

Television and Film

For me, TV and film are the same as fiction—some of what I watch is set in the era, some is not, but all stir my imagination in one way or another.

 Downton Abbey (Surprised, right?)

Upstairs, Downstairs

The miniseries of The Buccaneers

 North and South

 Lark Rise to Candleford

 Cranford

 Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth’s version)

Miss Fisher's Murder MysteriesSense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson’s—and Alan Rickman’s—version)

I tried to watch the TV versions of Bleak House and Great Expectations, but to be honest screen adaptations of Dickens’ work rarely thrill me. They get the drama down all right, but you’d never guess Dickens was one of the funniest authors in the English language from the dreariness of the adaptations. I’m doing a little better with Dickensian, if for nothing else but Stephen Rea’s performance as Inspector Bucket.

Keeping Up Appearances—Another Bucket (It’s BooKAY).

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries—this outstanding Australian show is set in the 1920s, but I love Essie Davis’ Phryne Fisher so much I’ll use any excuse to watch it. Phryne Fisher’s clothes are even more fabulous than the costumes on Downton Abbey.

Music

Since my Victorian story is set in the 1870s, people were dancing to waltzes and polkas. Strauss and Chopin were favorite composers, which works well for me since I love to listen to classical music.

Victorian Love SongsI was also able to find a few mp3s of Victorian-era music. I wasn’t concerned with whether or not these were songs specifically from the 1870s, and the music didn’t necessarily make it into the novel, but I really enjoy listening to music from the general time period while I’m writing. It helps me get into the right frame of mind. Here are a few examples of what I found:

Victorian Dining by Peter Breiner and Don Gillis

Victorian Edwardian by Alexander Faris

Victorian Love Songs by Craig Duncan

If you’re writing historical fiction, I highly recommend listening to music from the era while you write. I find a lot of great songs on Amazon, and if you have Amazon Prime then you can listen to some of the music for free.

Pinterest

I adore Pinterest. For me, Pinterest isn’t social media as much as something I do for fun because I love it so much. When It Rained at Hembry Castle is the first novel I’ve written since I started on Pinterest, so it’s the first time I was able to use pictures from the site to inspire my writing. When I needed to describe the sitting room at Hembry Castle, for example, I simply needed to go onto my research board, find the pin for the photograph I wanted to use as inspiration, and describe what I saw. If you’re writing your novel on Scrivener, you can import those photos directly into your novel file so they’re readily available when you need them.

When I was researching the novel, I created a private board for Hembry Castle because I didn’t want to bombard my followers with my many research pins. Then, when I had everything I needed, I created a public board so people could see the inspiration behind the story. Want to check out the board? It’s here.

Travel

 I had a few things to say about traveling for research purposes in this post. Of course, it’s not always possible to travel, but if you can then do.

London, England: I’ll have more to say about my journeys to London for research purposes in a later post. For now, I’ll say that London is always a good idea.

Pittock Mansion in Portland, Oregon

Pittock Mansion in Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon: An odd place to travel when researching a novel set in Victorian England, I know. I didn’t actually travel there for that purpose, but when I arrived I found Pittock Mansion, an American, smaller-scale version of an English country house, and Pittock Mansion provided a lot of inspiration for Hembry Castle. In fact, the music room and the library in Hembry Castle were modeled after rooms in Pittock Mansion.

This is just the short list of places where I found inspiration for my Victorian historical novel. I hope you’ve discovered a few ideas for places you might seek inspiration for your own historical stories, whichever era they’re set in.

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Charles Dickens Meets Downton Abbey

Here’s the interview I did for Many Books about my experience writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Enjoy!

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Meredith Allard fell in love with Charles Dickens’ work when she was in college and after watching every Downton Abbey episode multiple times, she decided to create a work inspired by her favorite author and TV show. When it Rained at Hembry Castle is the perfect marriage between the humor and mystery of Dickens’ work and the upstairs/downstairs world of the English aristocrats. Allard tells us more about what made her want to write a book set in the Victorian era, how she makes her characters come to life and how Hembry Castle has been brewing in her mind for 20 years.

Please give us a short introduction to When it Rained at Hembry Castle

When It Rained at Hembry Castle is set in Victorian England in 1870. It’s the story of American Daphne Meriwether, the granddaughter of the Earl of Staton. When the Earl dies, Daphne and her father Frederick return to England. It’s a challenge for Daphne, learning to live in the upstairs/downstairs world of her father’s family. And she may fall in love with the aspiring writer Edward Ellis while she’s there. Of course, obstacles get in their way. Hembry Castle is a love story at heart, though it has an interesting cast of characters who make life interesting for Edward and Daphne.

Why Victorian England? What fascinates you about this time period?

I fell in love with the novels of Charles Dickens and the Victorian era when I was in college and I always wanted to write a book set during this time. The Victorian era is interesting because it’s a time that is both historical and yet in some ways it feels modern. I love learning about history, and writing historical fiction is a great way for me to do that.

Did it require a lot of research to keep your novel historically correct? Which part of the research did you find the most interesting?

This was one historical novel that I didn’t have to do a ton of research for because I already had a lot of knowledge about the Victorian period from reading Dickens and other books about the era. I did double check everything I wrote, but since I knew where to look for the information that made it a shorter process than usual for me. I was able to travel to London twice as part of my research, and I absolutely loved that. London is a great city. In fact, I’ve walked many of Edward’s walks through the city. I think being able to visit and see the places for myself make the story much more realistic.

What, would you say, makes the English aristocrats so interesting to read about?

When It Rained at Hembry Castle was partially inspired by Downton Abbey, and the popularity of Downton Abbey is largely based on the curiosity people have about the upstairs/downstairs world of English aristocrats. In America, the upstairs/downstairs world is not part of our culture the way it is in Britain, and I think that accounts for the fascination about that lifestyle. It’s an introduction to a world we knew nothing about.

Privilege and class division are recurring themes in When it Rained at Hembry Castle. Why?

Since Downton Abbey was such a big influence on Hembry Castle, it seemed appropriate that privilege and class division should play a part in the story. My love for all things Dickens also inspired the novel, and privilege and class division are often themes in his stories. While I love watching Downton Abbey and am fascinated by the lifestyle of the upper classes, I can’t imagine ever having to live according to such arbitrary rules and regulations. Daphne represents the way I would look at that lifestyle if I were thrust into that world—with a sense of detachment and maybe some humor about it all. The fact that Daphne falls in love with the butler’s grandson when her grandmother means for her to marry a duke allowed me to probe a bit deeper into class division.

How did you manage to describe England’s countryside and other locations in your book so vividly?

Partially it was through reading, partially it was through photographs on Pinterest, but mainly it was my imagination. I was able to picture the scenery in my mind’s eye and I did my best to describe what I saw. And watching every episode of Downton Abbey many times helped!

Which classic author do you admire the most?

Charles Dickens, if you haven’t already figured that out. I read Dickens for the first time in college and knew that that’s what I wanted to do—write stories that were entire worlds unto themselves. I love his sense of humor, his spot-on observations, his way of pointing out things that were wrong in his world, many of which are still wrong in our world today. He’s the smartest, funniest writer I’ve ever read. Dickens has been the biggest influence in my own writing.

When it Rained at Hembry Castle contains many hilarious scenes. Why do you find it important to use humor in your writing?

This goes back to my love for Dickens. Dickens was a hilarious writer, and from him I learned that if you’re going to write truthfully about people then you have to include the light as well as the dark. People are funny. We do and say funny things all the time (sometimes without meaning to do so—which makes it even funnier). And besides, a sense of humor goes a long way in making a story fun to read.

Your book has a very Downton Abbey feel to it. Was that intentional? Are you a Downton Abbey fan yourself?

I love Downton Abbey and it was absolutely intentional to include the upstairs/downstairs feel of the show. In fact, Downton Abbey gave me an angle from which to tell the story. I came up with the original idea for Hembry Castle about 20 years ago (no joke) when I decided I wanted to write a story set in Victorian England about a writer who would be loosely based on a young Charles Dickens. I went on to write other novels and kept the Victorian story on the back burner for years. After I fell in love with Downton Abbey I realized that I could take elements from that TV show and use it to bring my Victorian story to life.

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What are some tricks you use to create such believable characters?

Mainly, I use my imagination. It took me longer to write Hembry Castle than I thought it would because it took me some time to get to know all the characters. I can’t write about a character until I get a sense of his or her personality. Hembry Castle has a larger cast of characters than I usually write about, and it took me some time to get them all straight in my head. Really, it’s about not thinking too much during the first draft, allowing the characters to materialize in front of me, and then writing down what I see. Sometimes I’ll put a favorite actor in the “part” of that character and imagine that actor acting out the scenes. That helps me get a sense of cadence when the character speaks, the types of movements the character might do, and so on. But really, it all boils down to allowing my imagination freedom.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

Writing is my most obvious superpower, but when I’m not writing I love to read. I also love to cook, and I just started art journaling, which I really enjoy.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

The best place to find me online is my website, www.meredithallard.com. I’m also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/authormeredithallard/. My favorite social media is Pinterest, and you can find me at https://www.pinterest.com/meredithallard/. I could stay on that all day!

When It Rained at Hembry Castle:
Missing Downton Abbey? Read When It Rained at Hembry Castle. A lush historical novel set in Victorian England, When It Rained at Hembry Castle is the story of an aristocratic family, secrets that dare not be told, and the wonder of falling in love.

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Researching the Victorian Era

I have an odd habit of writing historical fiction set in eras I know little or nothing about. I came up with story ideas about the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City and Washington, D.C. during the woman’s suffrage movement, and the American Civil War, and for each of those stories I had to learn about the history to write the novel. I don’t mind when it happens that way, though. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and I enjoy learning about the past. I often get ideas for the plot from my research, so the research helps to make my novel even richer than it might have been without the historical background.

When It Rained at Hembry Castle was a different experience. Due to  my love for Dickens and my own research on the Victorian era, I was writing about a time I was familiar with. When I began writing Hembry Castle I realized that I could include aspects of my favorite TV show, Downton Abbey, to bring the story to life. The hero of Hembry Castle, the aspiring young writer Edward Ellis, became the focal point of the story, along with his love, Daphne Meriwether, but then I decided to include upstairs and downstairs elements of life during the Victorian era as well.

In order to write this novel, I started with the author I know best—Dickens. Of course, I’ve read all his novels, many more than once, some more than twice, so I started with the one I knew had the most in common with the story I had in mind for HembryOur Mutual Friend. From there, I went back to a few favorite books about the Victorian era—What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London and Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders. I had read those books previously but reread them for a refresher course. While reading about the Victorian era, I discovered a new favorite historian, Ruth Goodman, who impressed me with the fact that she doesn’t just talk about Victorian clothing, she makes it and wears it. She’s tried out many elements of living in the Victorian era, which gives her work that much more authority. Her book, How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life, is a must read for anyone interested in life during the Victorian period. I also read The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes. Edward Ellis is loosely based on a young Charles Dickens, but I didn’t need to read anything specifically for that since I’ve read pretty much every biography about Dickens. It was nice to be able to use information I had in my head for a change.

Victorian England 2

I realized that I needed to learn more about what the upstairs/downstairs world looked like in the 1870s. To my surprise, it wasn’t so different from the way it’s portrayed in Downton Abbey, which begins in 1912. While I picked up a lot about manor house living from watching Downton, as many fans of the show have, I felt I needed more specifics so I read Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson. I gleaned some great information from that book, and it provided good background for me so I could see how the country house servant evolved over the years. The upstairs/downstairs world isn’t part of our culture in America the way it is in England, and I wonder if that accounts for Americans’ fascination with Downton Abbey—it’s a glimpse into a lifestyle we weren’t familiar with.

The way I research historical fiction has changed a lot over the years. I used to do months of research before I ever started writing. Now I do a few weeks worth of preliminary research to get a feel for the era, and then I start writing. As I write, I get a sense of what information I need so I know exactly what to look for. As I was writing, I realized that if Edward was a political journalist then he would know politics. I needed to figure out the political climate of the time, but it wasn’t too hard since I knew what I was looking for—events in British politics in 1870. I remember learning about Gladstone and Disraeli in a history class about Victorian Britain, and it was nice being able to put that knowledge to use as well.

Through the writing process I realized that I needed information about Victorian etiquette. There were such specific rules for every aspect of life, and since part of Daphne’s struggle is to learn to live in this upstairs/downstairs world, she had to learn those rules. I found The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill, which was written for Americans during the Victorian era, but after a little digging I discovered that the rules were the same in Britain so I used that book as my primary reference. The etiquette seems so antiquated now. I had a lot of fun writing those scenes because Daphne is rather amused by her grandmother’s nitpicking about how her manners aren’t refined enough for English society.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit England twice for research as I was writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Most of the London locations in the story were chosen because they were places I’ve visited myself so I had seen what I was describing. I stood on the Victoria Embankment near the Houses of Parliament watching the Thames roll as Edward is wont to do. I’ve taken some of Edward’s walks through the city. Many of the buildings are different (I’m pretty sure the The Gherkin wasn’t around in 1870), yet some of the buildings are the same, which is amazing to me. Here in Las Vegas buildings are imploded if they’re more than 20 years old.

In many ways, researching When It Rained at Hembry Castle was the easiest work I’ve done so far as an historical novelist because it was set in a time I was already familiar with. It’s always magical to me when I start to see how I can take this knowledge of history and weave it into the story I have in mind. What is even more amazing is when the history leads the story in directions I had never considered before. That, for me, is the joy of writing historical fiction.

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