Novel Conversations ­ Articles ­ ISAA

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Novel Conversations

An exchange of emails took place between ISAA member Susan Steggall and award-winning author of fiction for young adults, Felicity Pulman,* in December 2013 on the highs and lows of writing historical fiction.

FP: Diane Armstrong once commented that in her experience, if you commit to writing a novel, the universe conspires to help you so that the reference you need is at hand in the library or in the secondhand bookshop or you come across the experts you need to ask for information. The trick is to be vigilant, and to seize the opportunities. Another thing I’ve discovered is that it pays to be bold when approaching people – as I have, from university professors and people at the top of the pile and across to a wonderful farmer who uses a traditional waterwheel to mill grain as people would have done in medieval times, and was very happy to let me take photos and ask questions. As soon as you say you’re writing a book, people always seem to be very willing to share their knowledge and expertise.

One thing I have learned along my writing journey is that there’s no ‘correct’ way to write a novel; everyone approaches it differently, and it’s important to find out what works for you. Having been caught out once (not knowing the ending of the Shalott Trilogy and therefore not the true purpose of the characters’ journey), I then started my medieval crime series, the Janna Mysteries, working on the premise that I knew how they would start, what Janna’s quest was, and how the series would finish. But I had no clue as to how I was going to get there. I let the landscape inform me to a certain extent while wandering around the UK countryside and also the ‘voices and visions’ that I sometimes have; I trusted my subconscious and I just let it flow. Which is why I now want to rewrite the Shalott Trilogy but am happy to republish the ‘Jannas’ as they are.

SMS: I went to a talk by David Malouf last year, on the occasion of the re-issue of his novel Harland's Half-Acre. Given the opportunity of reworking the manuscript, he said that although he did tighten up endings to some paragraphs (to get rid of too-tidy rounding up and so leave work for the reader) and modernised the text a little, he did not want to do away with the ideas and expressions of the youthful writer he was when he wrote the book thirty years ago.

I'm wondering if this would apply to you and your writing. The Shalott books were 'you' at the time you wrote them. Perhaps with all the experience of hindsight – and if you now know the true purpose of the characters' journey – you have a new project.

I couldn't agree more with Diane Armstrong's observations. Serendipity is a marvellous writer's tool. And yes, ideas often just seem to turn up when you want them, in non-fiction writing too.

FP: The Shalotts will still be 'me', but the books will be more focused - that's my main aim for rewriting them.  Regarding new projects: when writing historical fiction I start a story with an interesting character or situation, and take it from there. If it's set back in time then obviously the next thing is to place the character/situation in context, which is where the research comes in; and of course the ‘history’ of the period also gives you the framework for your story.  But at the end of the day it's the characters and their situation that keep the reader hooked, and reading. I don’t know about popular versus literary; what I'm looking to do is craft an interesting story. But there are pitfalls to writing historical fiction. You need to know the facts and get them right to retain credibility, but it can also be a temptation for writers to include all their research material in their books. The risk is that readers will get bogged down in the dry, boring bits that really add nothing to illuminate either the characters or the development of their situation, and will stop reading. Wolf Hall, at the literary end of the spectrum, was a riveting read. For popular fiction, and a really good 'historical romance', I'd go for Isolde Martyn's Mistress to the Crown any day of the week.

SMS: It is an art (or perhaps craft in the case of writing) to transform the facts of history into story, to paraphrase, Virginia Woolf: to reconcile the imaginative (rainbow) powers of recreation against the granite-like body of discoverable fact.


*Felicity Pulman is the author of Ghost Boy and several other books for young readers, the Shalott Trilogy, the six-book Janna Mysteries and most recently, The Little Penguins of Manly.

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