I didn't make a conscious decision to begin writing Historical Fiction, but once I'd written Witch Child and its sequel, Sorceress, then other ideas popped up for further books set in the past. Like all writers, I found my own way of working, ways of researching, my own answers to the problems with voice and language that writing in this particular genre throws up. I also made some rules for myself.
1. Not to write about real people (to easily held to account).
2. To avoid the 16th Century (too well trammelled).
Then I saw a production of Twelfth Night. The viewing was accidental. The kind of serendipity that often accompanies the best ideas. A group of students were handing out fliers in Stratford for an outdoor performance down by the river. It was a lovely summer's day, so we stopped to watch. All through the play, I couldn't stop thinking, one idea sparking another: What if Illyria was a real place? What could happen there? And what happened after the end of the play? It never struck me that they were all going to live happily ever after. Three of the main characters leave, not happy at all, and the couples seem at best uneasy with each other. How did Shakespeare come across the story in the first place? The received wisdom is that he got it from an Italian source Gl' Ingannati, The Deceived One, but what if it didn't happen like that. What if someone told him the story some time after the main events? By the end of the performance, I could see Feste, the Fool, and a girl. Not Viola, but it could be her daughter. Let's call her Violetta. They are in London performing in the street, when Shakespeare stops to watch...
It was such a strong idea, I could see it so vividly, I had to do it even though I would be writing about a) the 16th Century and b) William Shakespeare, one of the most famous people ever. My rules had to go, but it was still a daunting prospect. How would I dare to do it? I had to get past my fear and find a way into him. First of all, I had to re-cast him in my head. I discarded all the portraits (disputed anyway) and decided that he would look like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love (see above) a little older, maybe thinning a bit on top.
I had to be able to approach him as a person, so I decided to make him plain Will from Warwickshire trying to establish himself in the cut-throat world of the Elizabethan Theatre as part-time playhouse manager, writer and sometime actor, before he was that famous. Once I got started, I found the research rather re-assuring. There are whole libraries full of opinion and speculation but there are very few verifiable, known facts about his life because he wasn't important enough to leave much of an impression on the historical record - apart from his plays, of course, and there are plenty who would deny that he even wrote those. I was free to make him into my Shakespeare.
I followed the line of recent biographers, like James Shapiro in 1599; Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare the Biography; Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age; Germaine Greer, Shakespeare's Wife, and set him into his time, his context. Above all, I saw him as a writer. There might be a quantum difference in talent, but he was a writer just like me. The Elizabethan theatre was hungry for plays. He must always have been on the look out for a likely tale to turn into drama, so when he sees a Fool and his girl performing in the street, he thinks: Where are they from? What are they doing here? He knows there is a story there. He stops to watch, his curiosity aroused, but there is a trade off. They will tell him their story, part of which will become the play, Twelfth Night, but it is not a free exchange. They will want something in return...