Jean Fullerton has kindly agreed to answer questions about historical fiction – the writing and research and other critical ingredients. I’ve been Facebook friends with Jean for a while and was delighted to meet her in person last September at the Historical Novel Society conference. You can find out more about her books, including her series on Nurse Millie, at Jean’s website.
MKT: The tagline on your website is ‘Fall in Love with the Past’. What is it about historical fiction that compels you to write?
JF: I just love the idea of going back in time and I’ve done this as long as I can remember by reading historical fiction, so when I started writing 13 years ago it seemed natural to write historical fiction.
From your perspective, what attributes set historical fiction apart from contemporary fiction?
The research and detail needed to be included in historical fiction is what sets it apart from contemporary stories. Not that present day novels don’t require research because they do. However, historical novels not only have to be factually accurate to breathe life into a previous time-period. It should also be educational, not in an in-your-face-bald-facts way but by exploring the attitudes and events through the characters eyes and with their sensibilities.
You’ve written novels set in various times. How difficult is it to change historical periods?
I didn’t find it difficult at all, in fact I found it refreshing to shift forward a hundred years. It forced me to go back to basics as I delved in the post-war period details such as rationing, politics, cinema and radio.
When I signed the contract for Call Nurse Millie it was as the first book of a series, so I was able to lay the seeds of the next book as I went along. The benefit of writing a series is once you’ve built you world it’s there, so to write the second book you just step back into that world. The challenge is making every book fresh and new and not go over old ground. And this really is a challenge when you have the same streets and to be honest there are only really two ways babies are born so I had to change the stories surrounding the births. It’s for this reason I moved Connie Byrne, the heroine of book 3 in the series from the Stepney to Spitalfields. It’s still East London but different streets, industry and indigenous population.
I read the primary source documents of the period such as diaries or newspapers and in the case of the Victorian Novels this meant many of Dicken’s articles about the East End of London and Henry’s Mayhew’s investigation into London Labouring Poor and the like. In the case of the post-war nurses series I have a collection of 1940/50s nursing and midwifery text books and nursing journals. These, along with contemporary record such as the Mass Observation Diaries oral histories and biographies of ordinary people who lived through the period covered in the books helps me immerse myself in the period. I’m also able to access the Royal College of Nursing and The Queen’s Institute for Nursing archives as well as interviewing nurses who worked in the East End in the 1940/50s. As a writer and qualified district nurse I’m able to interpret and fictionalise the research into, hopefully, a pacey, action-packed novel.
What advice do you have for writers on how to develop plot, character and setting in the context of a historical subject?
The setting is as I’ve previously said, but developing the plot in a historical novel, is another matter. As all novels, the success or otherwise of the story hinges on what is feasible and could it happen. A horse can only travel so far in a day so you can’t have someone dashing from London to York in a day. Before the development of a national postal service letters sometimes took weeks to arrive, so if you plot requires someone to have a particular bit of information then see if there is some other way they can receive it. And my rule there is only one coincidence is allowed because readers won’t believe any more. However, the biggest problem encountered in historical novels is characterisation.
There is a tension with developing a main character so they inhabit their world, understanding, attitudes etc but for a modern readership. The story has to grip the reader from the start and to do this the reader has to identify and sympathise with the main character. It would be almost impossible to do this if the main character was anti-sematic or racist and espousing those sentiments using 21st century offensive words. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t show the awful abuse racial minorities have suffered down the centuries. I’ve done this myself in all my books, but use secondary characters to typify the attitudes of the age not your main characters. This is the same way you can’t have a respectably bought up young woman in the Regency period acting like a character out of Sex in the City.
What critical ingredients distinguish successful historical fiction?
The critical ingredient for any novel, historical or otherwise, is a page-turning story but over and above that an historical novel must be accurate in regard to the settings, attitude and world view of the period. In addition if the story features actual happenings or characters the story should stay within the true timeline and not move factual events to fit the plot.
At the 2014 Historical Novel Society conference, you spoke about the ‘Perils and Pitfalls of Writing 20th Century Historical Fiction’. Can you share some of your thoughts on this topic with us?
If you don’t get your research as spot on as you can make it you’re in PERIL of someone standing up in a talk or meeting and telling you exactly what you got wrong. The PITFALL is you don’t know what you don’t know and it’s very easy to miss something completely. My mantra is: don’t assume anything and even if it’s something you think you remember – check and check again.
Can you tell us about your latest novel and the project you are working on now?
Well, I’m just finishing off my Easter novella, Easter Time with Nurse Millie, to send off to my editor and then I’ll be proof reading my next book, Fetch Nurse Connie, which is due for release on the 4th June. Once that completes at the printer’s I’ll be resuming writing on Connie’s second book, untitled as yet, which will be released in June 2016.
Thank you for asking me to be a guest on your blog, Mary, it’s been great.
Connie Byrne, a nurse in London’s East End working alongside Millie Sullivan from Call Nurse Millie, is planning her wedding to Charlie Ross, set to take place as soon as he returns from the war. But when she meets him off the train at London Bridge, she finds that his homecoming isn’t going to go according to plan. Connie’s busy professional life, and the larger-than-life patients in the district, offer a welcome distraction, but for how long?
Many thanks for your advice and insights, Jean. I wish you continued success with your writing.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (US, Canada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and on iTunes.