Presenting the past: the craft of historical fiction
Novelist Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s debut Blood and Sugar was an award-winning bestseller set against the evils of the transatlantic slave trade. Her latest — Daughters of Night — is out this week, set amidst the Georgian sex trade. PAUL RICHARDS caught up with her to explore the craft of writing a successful novel, including plots, characters, editing, agents, and when to use the f-word.
What is Daughters of Night all about?
‘It is set in London in 1782, as a loose sequel to Blood and Sugar. It inhabits the same world, but with a different protagonist, Caroline Corsham, and a wholly independent story. The plot starts with the discovery of a well-dressed woman dying in the notorious ‘Dark Walk’ within Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a place of illicit affairs, scandals and secrets. It turns out she is a high-priced prostitute, and the Bow Street Constables are not inclined to investigate the murder — so Caro does it herself.’
They say you should ‘write what you know’ so why did Laura choose the genre of historical fiction?
‘History has always been a love of mine. I would counsel anyone being told to ‘write what they know’ to interpret it loosely. If people only wrote about what they know there would be a lot of very boring books out there. You bring people you’ve met, things you’ve felt, things you’ve seen, as Chekov said ‘don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass’.
Laura studied an MA in creative writing at City University. Was it helpful?
‘I don’t think doing an MA is necessary if you want to be published, but because I am a relentless polisher and perfectionist, it forced me to finish a first draft. I then spent another year rewriting it. It also gave me a network of writer friends and teachers. It’s a lonely profession, so getting a network is important.’
They say to write, you have to read. Which writers does Laura admire?
‘John le Carre is a wonderful writer, I love the way he writes novels with wonderful plots, but which are also character-driven. I love a strong guiding plot that keeps you guessing and moving and tells you something about the world that you’re in. I like human emotion, drama, books that make me cry. The other author I’d mention is Hilary Mantel who writes such sublime historical fiction. I wouldn’t, in a million years, compare myself to either of them, but I learnt a lot from them. The worst thing you can do as a writer is to copy the style of another writer, but what you can do it study the methods they use, and use them in your own voice.’
I asked about Laura’s own method for writing:
‘I plan quite a lot, although the plan changes as I go along. I start with the germ of an idea — a character and the central goal of the plot. I have an early idea of how the book opens — and how it ends, of the emotional power of the book, what the main character’s journey will be. I then read two or three books about the topic — I try to keep it to two or three. Sub-plots and characters can come out of the research.’
Does she use post-its on a wall, or a flipchart?
‘No. I use Word documents and mad stream of consciousness documents with questions to myself like ‘yes but how?’ I don’t like first drafts, and I suspect I never will. I love the planning of a book, and the editing of a book. It’s like being able to take an exam over and over again and get better marks each time. I write quite fast when I’m getting a first draft down. A lot of writers will say a thousand words a day is a good benchmark but if it’s a first draft I would usually write about three thousand. I have writer friends who write five or ten thousand words a day!’
What is Laura’s advice on structuring a plot?
‘I am a firm believer in the rule of eight, so you divide your novel into eight sections, and at the end of each one something really interesting has to happen. If you hold to that, you have to get there, and you have to react to it — so you’re filling in the rest of the plot. That’s the shape of a book. Then I do a detailed chapter plan, probably a waste of time because it changes. But the control freak in my means I have to know where I am and hold that complete book in my head.’
But not all writers are so well-organised. Ray Bradbury said the novelist should first find out what their character wants, then follow them.
‘I think it helps to land the ending. I’ve read too many books where the journey is wonderful but the ending doesn’t live up to it. The writer writes themselves into a hole and doesn’t know how to get out of it.’
There are plenty of guides to good writing but the most brilliant writers seem to invent their own rules. Are there rules a writer should follow?
‘It’s important to understand the rules before you break them. Those writers’ rules exist for a good reason. The confidence to break them comes with time. Whenever I see a list of rules, I immediately think of all the ways they’re wrong. Like any profession, writing has its share of scolders, but if breaking the rules works, it can be wonderful. Although I’m struggling to think of a rule I consciously break.’
Her first book starts with a wonderful evocation of the fog rolling off the Thames and into the streets and alleys of Deptford. How important is this kind of evocation of place?
‘I’ve thought of a rule I break: never start a book with the weather or a dream. But that story of Deptford and the slave trade was so much the story of the river, and the weather and the fog and ships was essential. I set two rules for descriptions: one is to use all the senses. Talk about what it sounds like, what it smells like. The second is that any description of character or place should tell you as much about the person doing the describing as it does about the person or place’.
That leads neatly to the question about use of character:
‘Some writing advice tells you to fill in a massive questionnaire about your character and their backstory, but I think that’s a massive waste of time. A character exists within the story, but they are allowed to have secrets outside your story. It’s more important to describe their character than their appearance. That can lead to predictable places, so my next question is what’s surprising about them? What do they wear or say or do that is surprising and jolts you out of the stereotype?’
Laura uses a lot of characters in her novels.
‘That’s something a lot of people would counsel against. I’m not sure I’d get away with it in a contemporary book. You are allowed to write longer in historical fiction, but it’s about everyone earning their place in the book, making those roles as distinct and as necessary as possible. No-one should take up space for their own sake — the story must be king.’
I asked Laura about how to write dialogue, which many writers find hard.
‘I can hear their voices in my head. I try to give people mannerisms; the rhythms are really important. People have habits. I have a character who appears in both books who likes quoting bad Latin, for example. The little details in appearance, in speech, can make them come to life and stop them just fulfilling a role in your plot.
Blood and Sugar has some salty language. What is Laura’s approach to eighteenth century swearing?
‘People often think that swearing is more modern than it is. Most of our swearwords and the way we use them are really old. For example ‘I don’t give a flying fuck’ is an incredibly old expression — sixteenth century, but it sounds really modern. I spend loads of time researching swearing — it’s one of my favourite activities.’
I was keen to explore the process of editing a book, both the writer’s own editing, and being edited by other people. Some new writers find this a painful experience. Oscar Wilde said he spent the morning removing a comma from a piece of writing, and the afternoon putting it back in. What is Laura’s advice?
‘I really love the polishing part of writing. I rewrite every word and every sentence at least once, sometimes two or three times. I edit constantly as I go along too — which is the way everyone tells you not to do it. Every writer has their own process. If you’re a writer who writes a fast first draft, software like Scrivener can help — but I find Word works fine for me.’
And what about when the draft comes back with other people’s comments? How does that make you feel?
‘Fine, really. You have to be very careful who you choose to critique your work, because if you’re unpublished, you’ll have a whole raft of people whose motives for telling you things might be off. You should get professional advice. That’s why you should get good enough to get an agent — they won’t let you submit it to a publisher until its good enough. I got an agent off the back of my rubbish first draft. It was flawed, but it showed I could write characters, dialogue and descriptions. Agents say the most importance thing is the voice — because voice can’t be taught. They say ‘plot and structure, we can fix that in a heartbeat.’
It sounds like Laura is non-precious about her writing:
‘Anything that makes the story better, I am willing to put in that work. I don’t resent throwing words away.’
And after Blood and Sugar and Daughters of Night is there a third novel on the way?
‘Yes, I can’t say too much, but it’s set in 1740s London and its more of a mystery than a crime novel. There’s a family who made a fortune from the South Sea Bubble because they got out early on the advice of a fortune teller. What is real and what is superstition is a theme of the book.
Finally, George Orwell said writing a book is a horrible, long struggle, like a protracted illness. Is that writing for you?
‘No, I love it. I really love it. I’ve finally, in my early 40s, discovered what it was I was meant to be doing for the rest of my life.’
Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson is out now, published by Mantle.