1. I’ve just finished reading, The Silver Locket and enjoyed it very much (I can heartily recommend it too). Could you tell us where you begin when writing a new historical novel? Do you start with the characters, or the period the story is set in, or something else entirely?
I start with the characters, always with the characters. I don’t quite know how it happens, but I suppose it’s a bit like having someone coming up to you in the street (or wandering into your mind) and saying: hey, write about me!
So then I want to know a bit more about my characters, and I start asking them a few questions. Rose Courtenay turned out to be a nicely-brought-up young lady living in Dorset in the early years of the 20th century. What was I going to do with Rose, I wondered. The obvious answer was to send her off to have adventures, and with a world war looming it seemed likely she would want to take part in some way.
Once I’ve got my main characters sorted out, I start planning. I’m a great planner, and I like to have an outline to follow, even if I don’t follow it to the letter. I couldn’t write a novel without planning it first.
2. I’ve spent the last eighteen months researching and writing the first draft for an historical novel, which is set, coincidentally, during WW1, and although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the research, I’m finding it a little difficult to ensure that I keep the story fluid whilst including the important historical facts. In your novel The Silver Locket you interweave the information so well that it’s absorbed without the reader somehow realizing it. I was wondering if you have any advice as to how you go about this?
I did some research into the sequence of events on the Western Front, which is where a lot of my story is set. I made a time line so that I knew when the key campaigns and battles took place. I read memoirs and biographies, Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry, and Robert Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye To All That. I chanced on a fascinating book by Paul Fussell called The Great War and Modern Memory, which really helped me to understand the mindset of people at the time.
Since this is a novel, not a history book, I didn’t tie myself too closely to historical facts, especially if they didn’t fit my story. My hero Alex Denham is in an imaginary regiment, some of the place names in France are invented, and I moved Alex and Rose around to suit my story line.
3. People of Rose Courtenay and Alex Denham’s class and era had upbringings and speak/act differently to how people of this present time conduct themselves. Was it difficult to write their stories so that the reader is inadvertently held in that period at all times?
I don’t think people in 1914 spoke very differently, although of course their slang was not the same. I didn’t make my characters sound old-fashioned, because I wanted them to be accessible to people today. Social etiquette was different, of course – I can’t imagine a young man of today addressing a woman of the same age as Miss Whatever until she told him he could use her first name!
4. Rose joins the VADs and Alex is in the infantry. How difficult was it to ensure all the details of, for example, where they could be stationed, how their uniforms looked, or how the hospital wards/trenches were run?
It wasn’t difficult at all, because there is plenty of documentary evidence available, and of course you can check almost anything on Wikipedia. I recommend a wonderful book called The Roses of No Man’s Land, a compilation of nurses’ and doctors’ memoirs made by the journalist Lyn MacDonald. I also read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which is full of information about how the medical care of troops was organised, and how the medical staff themselves managed to work effectively under such difficult circumstances.
I read some military manuals on the mechanics of warfare at the time, and now I feel I could probably conduct a trench raid myself! There are millions of photographs of nurses and soldiers which show us exactly how they looked. I spent lots of time in the Imperial War Museum just looking, and consciously (and subconsciously, I’m sure) absorbing masses of information.
5. How long do you research before starting to write the story and how do you carry out that research?
Once I’ve decided on a period, and I know roughly what happened and when, I tend to start writing the story. I check my facts later. I do my research as I go along, probably because I know that if I decided to get all my facts right before I started writing, I probably wouldn’t start writing at all! I never deliberately distort the truth, or lie – I wouldn’t, for example, suggest nice girls in 1916 wore lipstick, because they didn’t. But I do guess, and check later, and quite often I find I’ve guessed right.
6. Could you tell us a little about your route to publication?
I started writing fiction when my children were very small. They’re now in their thirties. I began with short stories for women’s magazines (I wrote them, I sent them off, some got accepted and some got rejected, so until I realised I had to study the magazines and think about what the readers wanted, it was all a bit hit and miss), and I gradually inched my way towards novel-length projects, many of which didn’t work out because I didn’t have the skill to write a novel.
I didn’t know anything about the publishing process. But the turning point came when I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association, met some published writers, and began to learn what I needed to do if I hoped to get published. The RNA runs a brilliant New Writers’ Scheme for yet-to-be-published writers of women’s interest fiction.
I eventually made it into print with a family saga set in Herefordshire, where I was born and brought up. This novel was called A Touch Of Earth, was published in 1988, and is still lurking in a few public libraries!
7. What would you consider the best piece of advice you could give to a writer wishing to write an historical novel?
I think that it’s important to remember that although customs and culture change, basic human nature stays the same. So, when I write a historical novel, I’m writing a story set in the past about characters with whom we in the 21st century will still have a lot in common. These characters fall in love, get married, have children, hope to succeed, and are unhappy if they fail. I’m sure that the teenagers and twenty-somethings of today would be capable of rising to the challenges which faced their ancestors in 1914.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions.
It’s been a great pleasure – thank you for asking me!
The Silver Locket is published by Choc Lit Publishers and a copy can be bought at Play.com, Amazon, The Book Depository as well as other good bookshops.
Margaret's second book to be published by Choc Lit, The Golden Chain, is out on 1st May 2011 and I'll be reviewing this next week.
To celebrate this being my first Women's Fiction Thursday and to be in with a chance of winning a copy of both books, please leave a comment below. (I'm afraid you have to live in the UK and you have until next Thursday).
Margaret’s Website: http://www.margaretjames.com/