What I’ve learned from writing historical novels
Author Gill Paul’s extraordinary facts, writing rules and tips for getting published. Her latest novel, No Place for a Lady, is based during the Crimean War.
You’ve written a number of historical novels — what are the top facts you have uncovered?
- We think of Florence Nightingale as a great heroine who saved those poor lads injured in the Crimean War, but in fact the death rate at her Constantinople hospital was far higher than at any other. In February 1855, 52% of her patients died, while at other hospitals the rate was only around a third. It turned out that the barracks in which her hospital was located sat on an old cesspit full of decomposing animals, which were infecting the water system.
- A much more successful Crimean War hospital was run by one Dr James Barry, who had studied medicine at Edinburgh University and risen to become Inspector General of Military Hospitals. It was only after his death that it was discovered he was a woman.
- While researching my novel The Affair, set in Rome in 1962 during the making of Cleopatra, I learned that the vast expense of the movie nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Reading about the extravagances on set, in diaries kept by the producer Walter Wanger, was a master class in how not to make a film. As just one example, he kept referring to his difficulties with the elephants and their temperamental trainer and it was only while watching the film for the tenth time that it suddenly occurred to me they don’t even appear in the final cut. They kept these creatures on the lot for almost a year and never actually used them.
- I wrote a novel called Women and Children First about the sinking of the Titanic and while looking at the statistics of those who died, I realised the highest death rate was not in third class, as is commonly believed, but among the men in second class. These men were predominantly British and it seems that when they reached the lifeboat deck they let everyone else board the boats in front of them with classic British chivalry. Of the men in first class 32.6% survived, in third class 16.2% survived, but in second class only 8% lived.
- I was also saddened to read about the high suicide rate among the 711 Titanic survivors: at least seven men and one woman later took their own lives. In the aftermath of the tragedy, marriages broke down (in an era when divorce was considered scandalous), businesses went bust, and it seems obvious that many suffered from what we would nowadays call post-traumatic stress disorder. The horror of sitting in a lifeboat listening to the cries of 1,500 people dying in the water around you was something no-one could get over in a hurry.
How did you start writing?
When I was seven I used to write a magazine which I delivered to all our neighbours, with stories, jokes, puzzles and hand-drawn pictures. Sadly, no-one appears to have kept a copy, not even my own mother! At that age I would tell anyone who asked that I wanted to read books for a living but in my late teens I was sidelined into medicine, partly because my dad was a leading bioengineer. I hated it, escaped, did an arts degree, then worked as an editor in publishing for many years before writing my first novel, which was published in 2000.
What’s your process for researching and writing historic novels?
Research for me involves at least six months of reading. I start with my favourite historians — Robert K Massie, Helen Rappaport, Orlando Figes — then follow any other lines of enquiry that interest me along the way. Gradually the story will emerge from the research as I come across bits I know I want to include. Once I feel confident I have a grasp of the period, I’ll write a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, which is usually around 30–35,000 words long, then I’ll show it to my agent and editor and get their comments. This way the story and characters are in place before I start writing and I just have to flesh them out, although I might divert from the plan a little if it feels right.
What are the rules historical writers have to bear in mind?
There’s only one rule: “Write an entertaining book that people will want to read.” All the rest is up to individual preference. I remember hearing an interview with Andrew Miller after the publication of his brilliant novel Pure, set in 18th-century France, in which he said that he just picked a historical period and setting then pretty much did as he liked with them. And when you can write magical prose like his, why not? For myself, I prefer to stick to the chronology of historical events and avoid anachronisms. When I include real-life characters, I adhere to the broad biographical facts but have them interact with my fictional characters. And I avoid mannered dialogue with prithee and methinks, which would sound too pretentious for modern readers and could easily end up sounding comic.
How does this differ from the other writing you do?
When I write non-fiction history books, like my Love Stories series, I try to keep up the pace and follow a story-line as I would do with fiction, just to hold the reader’s attention. I also write books on nutrition and Pilates, and in them I have to be factual. If I can think of a surprising or unusual way of getting a point across I’ll do so, just to make sure no-one has fallen asleep.
Have you got advice for other writers trying to get published?
Examine the market thoroughly. Look at books that have made it into the bestseller lists in bookshops and online and consider why they have succeeded. If you already have an idea for a novel, think about how you would market it. Can you pitch it in 20 words or less and make it sound so compelling that a reader would be driven to spend money on it? Where would you publicise it and how? You can’t rely on publishers to do much for you; it’s really down to your own efforts these days. Crime is currently the most popular genre in fiction, so if you can write that I would advise you try it. Find a friendly detective or forensic scientist and make sure you get the police procedures right because crime readers are experts in such things.
What are the best resources or organisations for writers?
To be honest, I’m a member of very few organisations. Writing is a solitary occupation. I’ve heard the Society of Authors is useful for contract advice but I never joined them because my agent deals with my contracts. A good creative writing group can be invaluable for constructive feedback on your drafts but choose carefully because a very critical group could cause writers’ block.
Who are the writers inspiring you?
I love Barbara Kingsolver for her masterful creation of characters. In just a few deft sentences you feel you know each one inside out. Same is true of Maggie O’Farrell. Rose Tremain and Sarah Waters are brilliant at creating a sense of period with just a few well-chosen details. And Hilary Mantel has single-handedly inspired a renaissance in intelligent historical fiction, so a huge bow of respect to her.
What‘s a typical day?
I work office hours, 9 until 6, and often do overtime at weekends. Every day, year round, I swim in an outdoor pond; in winter I go at lunchtime because it closes early, while in summer I go at the end of the day when the light is especially pretty. While swimming, I’ll often be mulling over a plot point or character trait. It’s a great time for thinking.
Lastly, tell us about your current book.
No Place for a Lady concerns two sisters who are caught up in the Crimean War for different reasons. Lucy travels out there with her officer husband, after falling out with Dorothea over her hasty and impetuous marriage. Dorothea endeavours to get accepted into Florence Nightingale’s team of nurses and ends up working in a battlefield hospital near the front line, while desperately trying to locate Lucy.
It was a brutal little war, rightly known as a byword in military blundering, but I was keen to tell the women’s side of the story because they have a place in the history of feminism. It would be the last time the British army took women along to battle until they were trained and part of the team; and the work of Florence Nightingale et al made it acceptable for the first time for middle-class women to seek careers outside the home.