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!

Writing Tools: Scrivener, I Love You

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I had been struggling as I was writing my new historical novel. Nothing in the story seemed to be working, and for whatever reason I was at a loss as to how to fix it. In this post I talked about how I decided to give myself some time off from writing. It was the best decision I could have made since it allowed me to take the brain break I desperately needed. I’ve been writing long enough to know that the ideas would show up when they were ready, and I was right. Only this time I had some help from an unexpected source.

About two years ago I bought Scrivener as a screenwriting tool. I used it to write a couple of screenplays, and that was that. I saw that it could be used to write novels, but when I looked at the directions they didn’t make sense and at that time I didn’t have the patience to fiddle with it. For whatever reason I found the directions confusing and the buttons and other tchotchkes didn’t make sense. I ended up leaving the program to languish unused and hidden in my Applications folder. While I was taking a break from writing my novel, I kept reading these posts about Scrivener and how all these writers said the program changed their writing for the better. Kristen @ She’s Novel pins these Scrivener Tutorial Posts on Pinterest, and Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn offers a course about how to use Scrivener. As I read these articles, I remembered that I had Scrivener on my computer. I wasn’t sure if the program could help me through the fog that was my novel, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Before I go on, I should point out that I’m not getting any compensation from the nice Scrivener folks at Literature and Latte for this. I’m simply sharing why I’ve come to love the program and how it helped me write my novel after I had been stuck in the mud for some months.

When I decided to try Scrivener for novel writing, I looked at the directions again, and again they didn’t make sense. This time, though, I was motivated to keep trying, and I watched some of the Scrivener tutorials on YouTube. The tutorials were integral in helping me understand what the buttons and tchotchkes were for and how they were used. My suggestion is to not try Scrivener without first watching a few of the videos or taking an online class. Where most computer programs can be figured out by twiddling with them, I find Scrivener needs further explanation. It seems confusing at first, but after I watched a few videos and played around with it I found it rather easy to use.

Scrivener Manuscript with Synop and Notes

I’m not going into step-by-step details about how to use Scrivener since there are so many tutorials that do that far better than I can. I’d just like to point out some of the features that helped me get my thoughts straight. First of all, I like that you don’t have to write your novel in one long file. You can write your story in separate chapters or you can write your story in scenes if that’s the way you think. You’ll notice on the left-hand side of the screen the different folders for each section I have so far. On the same screen you can also see your synopsis of the section you’re writing, and you’ll notice I added my research notes in the bottom right hand corner. This way I don’t have to go back and forth between my research notes and the section I’m writing—the notes are right there on the screen. If you find those doo-dads on the screen too distracting, you can use the full screen mode so all you see is the text you’re writing.

Scrivener Split Screen

Now here’s something I really love about Scrivener—the fact that you can import photos. The novel I’m writing is historical fiction, set in England in 1870, and so of course I need references about clothing, buildings, gardens, furniture, etc. If I want to see a particular photo, all I need to do is scroll down to the folder where I store my photos, click on the one I want, and there it is. If I split the Scrivener screen (another handy-dandy function) I can have the photo right in front of me as I describe it. In the example you can see the photo of the church in the beautiful English countryside, which is the photo I used as inspiration for the funeral scene that happens at the beginning of the story. With the split screen I can look right at the photo while I’m writing. Since I tend to use photos to inspire my writing, this feature alone makes Scrivener a winner for me.

Scrivener Corkboard

Another thing I love is the corkboard. I know a lot of writers who have real corkboards on their walls in their writing space. They write scenes, ideas, notes, etc., on index cards and pin the cards onto the corkboards. I’ve always loved that idea, but I don’t have enough room on my walls for a corkboard so I was never able to try it out. With Scrivener’s virtual corkboard I don’t need room on my walls. I can create virtual index cards with all of the same details—characters, plot, research, ideas, notes—and I can rearrange the cards however I like. This feature actually helped me figure out the plot because I could see at a glance that the order of some of the scenes didn’t quite fly and I kept rearranging the cards until I liked the way the scenes flowed. I was also able to spot that there was some missing information—missing scenes, if you will—and I was able to add new cards with information about what will happen in that scene.

Research Split Screen

I also like the fact that I can add my research notes. Since my novel is historical fiction, I have pages and pages of research notes that I need access to while I’m writing. Instead of keeping a messy pile of notebooks around, which is the way I used to do it, I typed my notes into the Research section of Scrivener. From now on, instead of handwriting my notes I’ll type them into Scrivener. If you’ve typed your notes on another program like Word, Scrivener allows you to import them so you don’t have to retype them. And just like with the photographs, you can split the screen and look at your notes while you’re writing. As I said earlier, I like to add my research notes to the bottom right hand corner of the page, but if I have a lot of research notes for a particular section, I’ll probably split the screen so I have easy access to all the information.

Through the process of adding my novel to Scrivener, deciding on the folders I needed, using the corkboard, and importing the photographs and research notes, I was able to sort through the story. As a result, a lot of the problems I had are gone. I understand the characters better, I have a plot I’m happy with, and I can see where the story is going and what the underlying themes are. What Scrivener did for me was allow me to think through the story in a step-by-step way that helped me see what was missing and what needed to be reorganized and revised. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but at least now I have a direction, which I didn’t have before.

I’m definitely on the Scrivener bandwagon. It isn’t crazy expensive ($44 when I bought it), and to me it’s worth the price for the way it allows me to organize my work. They even offer a free 30 day trial so you can try it out to see if you like it.

Have you used Scrivener? If so, what has been your experience? If not, are you going to try it?