Creative Inspiration For Writing Historical Fiction

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 When It Rained at Hembry Castle. My hope is that by reading over my list, writers of historical fiction 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. If you have Netflix, give it a try.

 

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 marketing 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.

Nothing is Set in Stone: Allowing Room For Freedom When Writing Fiction

First of all, I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season. I took a couple of weeks off for the holidays, and then a bout of the flu kept me down for a bit. I ended up spending most of my Christmas break revising When It Rained at Hembry Castle. The novel is in its final edits phase, and I’ll have galley copies in print and ebook in a week or two in case any of you would like a free review copy. I’ll send out word when they’re available. If you’re interested, just contact me at my email address: meredithallard(at)aol(dot)com. In fact, I just started a new Pinterest board for the novel with photographs I used for inspiration for clothing, settings, and characters. If you’re interested in the Victorian era, or in the novel, by all means check out the board. I’ll be adding more pins every day.

Scotney Castle--one of the influences for Hembry Castle and the castle used on the book cover.

Scotney Castle–one of the influences for Hembry Castle and the castle used on the book cover.

This is always the point of writing a new novel where I’m reminded of Dorothy Parker’s great saying: I hate writing but love having written. I admit that Hembry was difficult for me to grasp ahold of. I hadn’t struggled like that with a novel since I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband from 2009-2011. Her Dear & Loving Husband was the most complicated plot I had written up to that point, and I had a lot of trouble understanding how to make the past and present storylines work. It wasn’t until I had the novel professionally critiqued that I understood the flow of the story, and then once I figured it out writing the next two books in the series, Her Loving Husband’s Curse and Her Loving Husband’s Return, came easily because they followed the same plot structure. My next novel, That You Are Here, was such a dream to write. For whatever reason, there were no struggles with that book. I understood who the characters were immediately, and I saw the story play out like a movie, which meant all I had to do was take dictation. The book took me four months to write—a crazy-quick time, at least for me.

Again, with When It Rained at Hembry Castle there were struggles. In a sense I was back to where I was when I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband—I had this whole new world I had to figure out. The plot for When It Rained at Hembry Castle became the most difficult plot I had yet undertaken, even more so than the plots in the Loving Husband Trilogy. In the Loving Husband Trilogy there are two points of view, from the two romantic leads, James and Sarah, and two time periods, the present and whichever historical period that novel is set. In When It Rained at Hembry Castle, I initially thought I would use the same two person point of view as I had in the Loving Husband Trilogy, but after beating myself about the head for a few months trying to make it work, I realized that two points of view were not enough for this novel. In keeping with its Downton Abbey inspiration, there are upstairs stories and downstairs stories in Hembry, and I finally realized that I needed more points of view in order to make this work. I haven’t yet tried the head-hopping omniscient third person point of view (one of these days I’ll write a novel where I try that one), but for Hembry I opened the field so that we get the point of view of more than just the two romantic leads (in this case, Edward and Daphne). I limited the scope of POV to one character for each chapter–this way it isn’t difficult for the reader to follow.

Hembry CastleFor me, that’s the frustration (and the fun) of writing fiction. Anything goes, which means sometimes it takes a while to figure out exactly what you need to do to bring each new story to life. The two person point of view worked well for the Loving Husband Trilogy, so I assumed it would work for Hembry. It didn’t. There are too many characters in Hembry, and there’s too much going on for my two romantic leads to be everywhere. I needed to let some of the other characters have their moments in the sun. Once I allowed the characters the freedom to speak for themselves, the headaches started to go away and the novel started to resemble the story I wanted to write in the first place.

Once I understand the plot structure and the way the pieces fit together, that’s when I’m in the flow of writing and there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. The first part of writing a novel has always been difficult for me. That’s when I flap about like a fish out of water (or an asthmatic without an inhaler—speaking from experience), spending hours writing scenes that don’t make sense and have nothing to do with the story I want to tell. Every time I’m about to give up, though, I force myself to keep going because I’ve been at this long enough to know that the “shitty first draft” phase will pass and the story will reveal itself in the end. How much hair I have in the end always remains to be seen, but bald or not bald, I know that I’ll figure out whatever it is that’s not working. This is something I need to relearn every time I write a new novel, but most especially whenever I start a novel set in a new world. I also need to remind myself that nothing is set in stone, and I can experiment, play, and try things until I find the winning combination. I could have imposed the two person point of view on Hembry because I know that works and I’ve had success with it before. But it didn’t work in this story, in this world, and I needed to allow myself the freedom to play around until I discovered what did work. Of course, now that all the heavy lifting is done, I can say that I love having written.

Down Salem WayFor you Loving Husband Trilogy fans, God bless your patience. Even when you email me to say “You said the new story was coming out last spring…?” you’re so kind and encouraging. You guys are great! I had to get When It Rained at Hembry Castle out of my system, and it took me longer to write than I expected. Now that it’s done, I promise (cross my heart) that Down Salem Way is coming out this July. Yes, as a fan stated, but that’s still seven months away. I hear you. I’m going to try to get it out sooner if at all possible, but the same holds true with the new James and Sarah story as with anything I write—I won’t publish something if I’m not happy with it. I’m not going to do a slap-dash job with Down Salem Way just to get it out there. I’d rather take my time to make sure it’s the very best it can be. After all, you guys have waited long enough for a new James and Sarah story—it better be a good one, right?

Happy 2016!

Are You Making Changes? Are You Pursuing Your Passion?

Gilcrease Orchard

Gilcrease Orchard Autumn 2015

Earlier this year I wrote about making changes. First, I wrote a post called Wherever You Go, Go With All Your Heart about how I had decided to become a PhD student after dreaming about it for many years. Then I wrote Hello, Goodbye: Changes Are Good for the Soul. And I still wasn’t finished making changes.

I was fortunate enough to receive a Graduate Assistant position at my university, and while the pay is below poverty wages (no joke), I wanted the experience of teaching and researching at the university level, so that was another change I made—leaving behind my full time teaching job for a G.A. position. One thing I gained from leaving behind my full time job was the gift of time. Certainly, I’m busy with university obligations, but otherwise time has opened up for me in a way it never had before. For years I wanted to put together an anthology of historical short fiction by contributors from The Copperfield Review. With my new-found time, I was able to put the anthology together, and History Will Be Kind is finally out in the world. My current writing project, the historical novel that drove me batty over the summer, is now full speed ahead and looking good for its February release. For my studies I was fortunate enough to have stumbled onto a research subject that fascinates me, and I’m finding this time at UNLV invigorating in a way I hadn’t expected.

I mention this because I’ve recently become aware of Steven Pressfield’s concept of the shadow career. In his book Turning Pro, one of the examples Pressfield uses is “Are you getting your PhD in Elizabethan Studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you?” First of all, I’m getting my PhD in Teacher Education, not Elizabethan Studies, thank you very much, and second of all, no, I’m not afraid to write the tragedies and comedies I have inside me. Then I realized Pressfield isn’t speaking to people who have a go at realizing their dreams—he’s referring to people who don’t pursue their passions. He points out the dichotomy between artists and addicts, an addict in this case meaning a self-sabotaging amateur who distracts herself away from her true passion with distractions, displacement activities, and meaningless jobs. Instead of pursuing our true callings, Pressfield says, we hide behind shadow careers.

Pumpkins 2015I’ve spoken to many people over the years who have a burning desire to be a writer yet they don’t write. I have a friend, a fellow teacher, who has been wanting to write a mystery novel for as long as I’ve known her (nearly 10 years now). She reads mystery novels, reads about how to write mystery novels, and she even travels across the U.S. to attend the Sisters in Crime conventions. I’ve often wondered what’s really holding her back. Whenever I think of people like my friend, I remember that quote from Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I wish I could help my friend realize it’s okay, you can do it, you don’t need permission from anyone, do what you can do right now. I think sometimes people are so afraid of making any kind of change they make excuses and talk themselves out of doing something that’s calling to them from deep in their hearts.

The funny thing is, I don’t think being a teacher is a shadow career for my friend. I think she genuinely enjoys teaching. The problem isn’t that my friend isn’t making a living as a mystery novelist. The problem is that she isn’t pursuing her passion. Yes, it’s hard to find time to write when you’re a teacher (there’s always so much lesson planning and grading to do), but I believe that if you want to do something badly enough you’ll find a way to make it happen. I wrote seven novels and edited The Copperfield Review while working as a full time teacher. Why? Because I had to. I had untold stories burning holes in my innards and I couldn’t live with the agony of not sharing them. Pursuing my PhD isn’t my way of turning from those untold stories. I’m still writing novels—yes, it takes me longer these days to finish one, but I’m still writing them, and I’m still running The Copperfield Review. And since I love writing so much, when I’m teaching writing I feel like I’ve come home. As a result, I’m researching what can be done to train future writing teachers, and it’s fascinating stuff, let me tell you. You might have several passions as I do, and yes, it’s a challenge to juggle them, but it’s worth it. If you’re pursuing your passion and have a day job, I refer to my post about day jobs. I will insist, always, that you are not less of an artist if you have a day job. As long as you make time for your art, you are an artist. Even if my friend writes 500 words a day, 250 words a day, 100 words a day, whatever it is, it’s allowing her to pursue her passion at a pace that’s right for her. Don’t listen to the people who want to tell you how to be a writer (or a painter, or a dancer, or a photographer, or an underwater basket weaver). Don’t listen to the people who want to tell you that you’re not a writer unless you write a certain number of words every day (that is, unless it’s November and you’re participating in NaNoWriMo. Then 1667 words a day is about right). You get to decide how to be an artist for yourself. Really.

Not everyone’s journey is the same, but we’re all going to need to make changes at one point or another. Yes, changes are scary, but if you need to make a change, make it. If you have a passion, pursue it, in whatever form you can right now. Life is too short not to listen to whatever it is that makes your heart sing.