Welcome to Confessions of a Writeaholic, my dear readers!
This month’s guest post is by Clyve Rose – a Historical Fiction author. She recently published her debut novel Always A Princess based on the regency era.
Along with writing this guest post for Confessions of a Writeaholic, Clyve has kindly offered to do a giveaway of a paperback copy of her book along with the gorgeous handmade bookmark that you see in the image below.
To enter the giveaway, read the post and leave a comment below. We will select one lucky winner and contact them via social media (be sure to leave your Instagram/Twitter handles in the comments).
One of the most challenging parts of writing historical fiction is that much of it is ‘re-creating’, rather than ‘creating’. I do not world-build from scratch, and I can not invent my own societal codes or my own world events. I’ve worked in Ancient Greece, 1400-1500s Europe and the Americas, and my regular gig in the Regency era. No matter the time period, this simple truth applies: history has happened, and cannot be changed. This affects the choices I make as a writer.
What do I mean by this?
Certain references are anachronistic to the world I depict on your page. I can describe a sky as ultramarine blue, but I cannot call it ’turquoise’ before the thirteenth century – because that word itself did not yet exist. If my hero offers a ‘steely glare’, he has to do if after 1200AD. A character cannot think in terms of Christianity, before Christ himself did live, and his teachings are known in these terms. This is the kind of research I must deliver for my story to feel true.
Are the readers of historical fiction so demanding?
I do not see readers as demanding. A reader’s commitment to excellence in storytelling inspires my gratitude. Readers like this make for better writers. Certainly, they make me a better writer. I recently followed a Twitter thread where
Enola Holmes was critiqued for its poor handling of the progression of titles and inheritances in the on-screen adaptation. The source material for the film is the novel, and the novel is inaccurate on this point. Readers do notice you see.
As an author, it’s my goal to create a place and world in which my readers can lose themselves, but I am ever-conscious that this world did actually exist. I cannot expect the reader to trust me as a storyteller, if I do not deliver a credible sense of time, place, and history. I can only do this via intensive research.
Researching takes at least as long as composition. It’s frustrating of course, because I never know precisely what I will need. I once spent four weeks plotting a route by horse and carriage through the Alps in wartime, where the borders of various territories were changing almost daily – only to cut that entire chunk in redraft. I didn’t even need the horses in the end. Nothing is wasted however; I know that alpine trip fits in somewhere.
How does this research affect my writing?
While I am not wrestling with mental terraforming like fantasy authors do (much respect to these folks; I find this kind of work hugely challenging), I cannot write the world my characters inhabit while ignoring the etymological limitations of the era in which I choose to write.
For instance, in my recent novel Always a Princess, I detail a scene where a little girl’s ‘gaze flicked between brothers as though she umpired a game of lawn tennis’ (page 237). Wait a moment – did tennis exist, and was it called that? Turns out, it did and it was, but I must pause during edits to check.
This became particularly interesting for me when I wrote Always a Princess, because Syeira (the heroine) is Romany, (more commonly known as ‘Gypsy’). In Regency England, the heroine and her family would certainly have been referred to as ‘gypsies’. The term was intended as a pejorative by the English, both then and now. I am writing in 2020, and I know this term to be harmful. Not always you understand (indeed, some Romany readers have reached out to indicate they are proud to be known as Gypsies), but it has been used to harm others, and I am aware of this context. So, I had to make a choice: My novel is set in 1814. How do my characters refer to each other, in a time when ‘gypsy’ would be correct, and correctly harmful?
I made several decisions regarding this. The first one was not to avoid the word ‘gypsy’. To do so ignores the historical context my characters face in the story and by extension, the lived experience of the Romany people of Lancashire. As a descendant of marginalised people, I know how this kind of omission stings. Besides, as a writer I must stay true to my story – and part of that story is the pervasive prejudice during the Regency era. So ‘Gypsy’ remains part of this story.
I also allow the heroine to define how she prefers to be addressed, and I choose to highlight this early. Syeira refers to herself and her family as ‘Romany’. The hero (who is English), allows her to lead this. Is this true to the Regency era? Not likely, but it is true to my characters, and my story – and if I get the balance right, it ought to satisfy my readers as well.
This is the challenge all writers face, isn’t it? It’s a bit like making a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box lid. It’s a re-creation, with a kaleidoscope of pieces that might fit together in dozens of different ways. Which one is right? Which one is best? These are the agonising choices we call ‘the writing process’.
I write in 2020, for modern day readers seeking an experience of a past that was once very real. The Regency era existed, and it is not honest to ignore the painful parts of this history. When we re-create the past, we offer ourselves another way to tell stories from that period. Another way to get the words right. When so much of history has been about specifically erasing or curtailing other voices, an opportunity to adjust who is in focus is golden. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with Austen-style Regency novels; with keeping the lens where it has been for over two centuries now – but it’s not enough for me.
I know there is more to tell. There is more I can tell, and so I make the choices I make: To create a different kind of metal from my alchemical wordsmithing. It may not be gold to some people. It may not even be precious, but it matters. This is why the words I choose matter. The context in which I choose to place them before the reader, matters. These stories are not just mine, though I am their author.
I write fiction, but all fiction is based on truth – whether it be temporal, psychological, geographical, or physical. When we re-create, we have a chance to re-orient ourselves in place and time – and in history. I am not interested in erasing Austen or anything like. I am interested in widening the view.
Clyve Rose is an award-winning author of historical fiction both in Australia and the US. She has been writing historical romance fiction for the best part of two decades. She works in the historical romance and paranormal genres. Clyve Rose believes that love is the highest and strongest force in the world and that it manifests when we are our best and truest selves. Anything less, and we diminish our divinity. She will continue writing about love in all its various, glorious forms. One day, her epitaph will read ‘just one more read-through’.