On Writing Fiction with Carolyn Kirby – author of The Conviction of Cora Burns

Carolyn Kirby‘s debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns, a Victorian crime thriller, was begun in 2013 on a writing course at Faber Academy in London. Welcome to the blog, Carolyn.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? And how you chose writing as a careerI worked as a manager in public housing and taught English as a foreign language whilst raising my daughters. Although I always imagined that I would one day write a novel, I wrote no fiction at all from the age of 14 to 44! By then however, I felt that if I was ever going to do it, the time had come to give writing a try.

Why did you choose to write historical fiction? Imagining the past is for me, the main reason to write at all. My childhood love of history came largely from fictional sources and although I went on to enjoy academic study (for my history degree at Oxford University), historical fiction is my first love.  The great early 20thcentury historian GM Trevelyan summed up the root of my fascination when he said; “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone.” This quote sums up my thoughts about how imaginative historical writing can provide not only a window into vanished lives but also a deeper understanding of our own human condition.

Researching the world of asylums must have been challenging. Can you tell us how you did your research and any surprises you discovered along the wayThere is fierce debate amongst historians about the reasons behind the rapid growth of asylums in Britain and North America in the late 19thcentury. The ‘multiplying of the mad’ may be to do with an industrialised society having less tolerance for deviant behaviours, or being less able to care for the mentally ill in a domestic setting. The explosion in the numbers of ‘pauper lunatics’ in asylums at this period is, however, not in doubt.

As part of my research, I looked at 1880s casebooks from a local asylum. These handwritten logs provide a detailed record of the condition and treatment of each patient. I was struck by the doctors’ earnestness and thoughtful concern for their patients. Many of the treatments that were recommended such as bed-rest, quinine or even ‘additional custard,’ seem harmless and possibly therapeutic.

It was also clear from the records that whilst some patients remained in the asylum for very long periods (sometimes until they died), the majority were there for stays of months rather than years. It seemed to me that the lives of the 19thcentury poor were so deeply stressful that perhaps a few months of rest and nourishment in an asylum might have proved genuinely beneficial for many people suffering mental distress.

Clearly, harsh ‘treatments’ (such as cold baths and isolation) could also be used in asylums at this time but doctors’ options were limited. The most barbaric surgical and chemical interventions for mental illness came later during the 20thcentury. This research certainly revised my view away from the brutal stereotype of the Victorian asylum.

Which authors have inspired your writing? Can you tell us why? This could be a really long list! But the authors I admire and try to emulate are those who write with authority about the past without alienating contemporary readers. They also produce beautiful prose to tell stories with a beginning, middle and satisfying end. My top few include; William Boyd, Sarah Waters, Philipp Meyer, Helen Dunmore, Margaret Atwood and Michel Faber.

What is your writing process? I plan. You can just write, but it will take much longer. Believe me on this, I have tried both methods! As my plan grows, I turn it into a chapter by chapter synopsis which allows me to keep a clear overview of the whole story as I write. As the writing process goes along, I am constantly revising this long synopsis with new ideas.

At the end of a full draft that I am reasonably happy with, I get a paperback copy printed (eg from lulu.com). This allows me to edit the draft with a blue pencil on the page. I find this process much more effective than editing on screen. Keeping the different drafts of the same novel in paperback form is also a great record of how each story has evolved. And sometimes it is useful to go back to early drafts and resurrect elements that had been discarded. Finding ‘lost’ passages is much easier in a real book than a digital version.

What is the subject of your next novel? I am just finishing book 2, an adventure and love story set between England and Poland during the second world war. This novel will be published in the UK next year by No Exit Press and I am hopeful that it will find a North American publisher soon.

If any of your readers are interested in finding out more about the historical background to my novel The Conviction of Cora Burns, there is a lot more information on my website carolynkirby.com.

Many thanks for offering your perspective on writing and the research that went into your debut novel, Carolyn. By the way, I share your thoughts about writing with an outline!

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby ~~ Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside of her. Does this temperament come from the mother she never knew, a convict who gave birth to her in jail? Or is Cora a product of her harsh upbringing in the workhouse, where her only light was a girl named Alice Salt, so like Cora that they were almost sisters.

Just released from Birmingham Gaol, Cora sets out to find Alice. But her memories of Alice are hazy, entangled with the memories of a terrible crime: the murder of a little boy in the workhouse. Her sole clue is a bronze medal cut in half, engraved with the word SALT.

Cora finds work as a servant in the home of Thomas Jerwood, a gentleman-scientist obsessed with the study of hereditary criminality. Here Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment into upbringing and character. But are there two identical girls called Violet? And is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora? As the secrets of her past unravel, Cora must decide if her own scarred nature is an unalterable product of biology or if she has the strength to change.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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