When I saw Susie Murphy’s cover for her novel A Class Apart, I had to invite her to talk about my favourite topic – transporting readers in time and place. She graciously agreed. Over to you, Susie.
My intention with A Class Apart is to transport readers back to the 19thcentury, to the year 1828, and the location of Ireland, specifically a grand manor estate in Co Carlow. I want them to become immersed in an era when the divide between the upper and lower classes was insurmountable, when the minority Protestant Ascendancy ruled the majority Roman Catholic population, and when the spark of uprising could be so easily lit.
Before I talk about my efforts to accomplish that, I should first confess to the gigantic error I made in the very beginning: I initially wrote the novel without any historical research at all…! *winces at the memory* I was only sixteen years old when I started writing it (in 2002, exactly half my life ago), and at that stage I was very much a pantser – caught up in the raw magic of writing, I simply made everything up as I went along. It didn’t even occur to me to check the details. At the time, I was writing for me and no one else.
Many years passed as real life got in the way, but by the end of 2010 I knew I wanted to do my level best to become a published author. So I revisited my book, made plans for a whole series, developed my writing across several drafts, and – in 2016 and thus very belatedly – got stuck into the research. The value of doing proper research before writing the story was very much a lesson I learned the hard way. I ended up changing huge parts of my book because there were so many incorrect things in it. I had to fix wrong usage of noble titles (just because a man is rich does not mean he’s a lord), clear up complex points about inheritance (tricky to navigate – certain parts of the law could have ruined the premise of my book entirely), create new characters because I was missing essential people (such as the butler, a rather crucial individual in a 19thcentury manor house), and remove anachronistic terminology (I couldn’t use the phrase ‘her voice cut like barbed wire’, given that barbed wire wasn’t invented until the 1860s). The surgery I performed on my book during this time was well overdue and comprehensive.
What emerged from my research was a great deal of clarification. While I had always known the book was set in Ireland, in my early drafts I had been very vague about when the story took place. No need to be too specific, silly teenaged me had thought. Of course, with constantly changing fashions, modes of transportation, politics, and so much more, this wasn’t feasible without making the book completely bare of any defining details – and hence losing the tools to transport readers in the first place.
I knew it was around the 1800s. Recalling my study of history at school and exploring the political background of that century, I settled on the year 1828. The longstanding conflict in Ireland that stemmed from English rule on Irish soil would be the backdrop for the story, and 1828 was just thirty years after the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798, so the memory of that uprising would still be strong in the people’s minds. (It also served to align the timeline with important political and social events occurring later in the century that would affect the following five books in my A Matter of Class series, whose plots I continued to develop while refining the first book.)
In addition, the vast social divide which existed at the time was well suited to act as an impediment to the budding romantic attachment between my two main characters, Bridget Muldowney and Cormac McGovern. Bridget is an heiress and upper class; Cormac is a stable hand and lower class. She is Anglo-Irish and of the Church of Ireland religion; he is Irish and Roman Catholic. While they grew up as childhood friends, everything about their situation as adults is designed to keep them apart. The growing unrest in the Irish countryside could only add to the complicated nature of their relationship.
As for location, almost the entire novel takes place in the environs of Oakleigh Manor, Bridget’s ancestral home. Oakleigh is a fictional place so, to know how it truly feels to walk around such a house, I visited Palmerstown House in Co Kildare. While it is from a slightly later time period, the majesty of the place is the same. It was a pleasure and a privilege to wander its halls and rooms, get a sense of how both the family and servants lived in it, and convey a similar impression in my depiction of Oakleigh.
Lower class dwellings also feature in my book, in particular Cormac’s family cottage. Visiting Bunratty Castle & Folk Park in Co Clare gave me a wonderful insight into the various aspects of an Irish village and its humble buildings. However, the best connection I could make to that – and I would not have called it research at the time – was staying at my grandparents’ old Irish cottage when I was a child. Everything about it, from the whitewashed walls to the smell of the turf fire, gave me all the details I needed to recreate it in my book.
Though I came at my research the long way round, I’m glad to say I finally got there in the end! In writing A Class Apart, I have endeavoured to transport readers to a time and place of significant upheaval in Ireland’s history and to show it from the perspectives of both sides of the class divide.
Thanks, Susie. Anyone familiar with Downton Abbey will recognize those servant bells!
A Class Apart by Susie Murphy
It’s 1828, and Ireland is in turmoil as Irish tenants protest against their upper-class English landlords.
Nineteen-year-old Bridget Muldowney is thrilled to return to the estate in Carlow she’ll inherit when she comes of age. But since she left for Dublin seven years earlier, the tomboy has become a refined young lady, engaged to be married to a dashing English gentleman.
Cormac McGovern, now a stable hand on the estate, has missed his childhood friend. He and Bridget had once been thick as thieves, running wild around the countryside together.
When Bridget and Cormac meet again their friendship begins to rekindle, but it’s different now that they are adults. Bridget’s overbearing mother, determined to enforce the employer-servant boundaries, conspires with Bridget’s fiancé to keep the pair apart.
With the odds stacked against them, can Bridget and Cormac’s childhood attachment blossom into something more?
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)
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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.