Thursday 3 January 2019

Creating Historical Worlds: how does a historical fiction writer create a believable setting? By Anna Mazzola

Historical fiction is in some ways like fantasy fiction: the author has to create a world in which readers can believe. That generally means the author has to believe it themselves. Even if we don’t describe it all to the reader, we have to be able to picture what the historical world of our novels look like, smells like and feel like in order for our characters to inhabit the space with confidence.

My second novel, The Story Keeper, is about a folklorist’s assistant on the Isle of Skye in 1857. This was an isolated and impoverished island dealing with the aftermath of the Highland Clearances - a very different world to that of late Regency and early Victorian London I had written about in my first novel, The Unseeing. How would I ever understand it?

Reading primary and secondary resources 

Like most historical writers, I start with broad research. I began with the history of Skye and of the Clearances, seeking out books at the British Library and buying key texts. It’s often like following a treasure trail: the bibliography of one book will give you several clues on which to follow up.

I also found many 19th century resources online, for example newspaper articles at Am Baile and travellers' accounts on Gutenburg, Internet Archive and Google Books. When reading contemporary accounts I make notes of particular vocabulary and phrases so that I can create a voice for my own characters which gestures to how people would have spoken at the time.

I also read much about the Gaelic language and about Hebridean folklore – the fireside stories that Audrey, the protagonist, is tasked with collecting. I even located a mansion elsewhere in Scotland (Newhailes) that I could use as a template for my fictional mansion, Lanerly.

But I still had no real idea of what life of the island would have been like.

Archivists to the rescue 

Thankfully help was at hand from the generous staff at the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre who located census records so that I could see the names and professions of real people living in the locations I was writing about, and read accounts given by ministers of their parishes.

I also found several 19th century maps, and looked at photographs and portraits of stern-faced police officers and black-robed clergymen. I find that pictures and maps are key to my writing. I prop pictures on my desk and save them to my computer desktop so I can look at them as I’m writing. I know other writers, such as Jane Harris, also do this, and others create Pinterest boards.

Bill Brandt, The Isle of Skye, 1947

Marginalised voices

However, the written records and the photographs only tell so much. They tend not to provide intimate details of how people would have lived and you rarely glimpse details of those whose lives weren’t generally recorded – women, servants, minorities, the poor. In this case, there was very little to show how the islanders would have spoken, or what their daily lives entailed. Most of the accounts were written by rich Englishmen on a jolly jaunt to the Hebrides, who were appalled at the squalor in which the crofting people lived. Not much remains of the crofters’ own experience of island life.

Dig deep enough, however, and you will find nuggets. In the Skye Archives I found letters sent home by those who had been cleared: stories of children taken with fever on the boats; of sea burials and sea weddings; of hopes for a better future. It is here that you find the people’s real speech and their real concerns.

I also read the reports of the Napier Commission, the inquiry into the conditions of crofters and cottars. Here you get a glimpse of the expressions islanders used  - ‘I am a Skyeman to my backbone’; ‘a little pimple of a woman’ - and learn of the effects of the Clearances. Witnesses used the word ‘scattered’ again and again:

‘How many brothers had you?’
‘We were six altogether.’
‘What became of the other five?’
‘They have scattered. Some of them are hereabouts, and as for the rest I cannot tell where they are.’

I tried to build the speech pattern into the dialogue of the characters in The Story Keeper, to give a hint at how people would have spoken.

Walking the land  

Perhaps most important of all was staying on and walking across the island. It’s only really when you feel the wind stinging your face and the salt in your hair, only when you smell the sour peat-reek of an old crofter house (as I did at Skye Museum of Island Life) that you can conjure those things up for your reader.

I couldn't spend a long time on the island (I have small children and, at that time, a job), but I had several weekends on Skye, mostly on my own. I stayed in a little cabin just by Broadford bay, the key location in the novel, writing and researching and watching for otters and seals. I went out walking, and running, to the places where the key scenes in the novel are set: to Skulamus, Breakish and Suisnish – stunning landscapes where crofting communities once lived. I took many photographs, which I could look at when writing the scenes set in those places. I also took videos and audio recordings to capture the sounds of the place – the whistle of the wind, the calling of birds, the bleating of the sheep, the murmur of the sea.


Lastly, I used that key item in the toolkit of every novelist: imagination. Building on the resources I'd collated, I imagined what Skye would have looked like and sounded like. Adapting a floor plan from Newhailes, I conjured up the mansion of Lanerly, looking down onto Broadford Bay. I tried to imagine what it would have felt like for Audrey to arrive on this island as a stranger. What did the ground feel like beneath her feet after the rains? How did the air smell after the dirt and dust of London?

The full picture only emerged gradually over the couse of writing and rewriting the novel, but by the end I could see it pretty clearly. I hope my readers can too.


Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime and Gothic fiction. The Story Keeper will be published in paperback on 10 January 2019. 


Unknown said...

Hi Anna
I met you at the launch of Retreat West's The Word for Freedom... Your novel sounds fascinating - definitely going to buy it - the research must be hard work but exciting too! All the best, Ali

Karen Maitland said...

I love your photos. Beautiful and so atmospheric.

Katherine Langrish said...

As I'm a folklore enthusiast, I look forward to reading your book!

Penny Dolan said...

Your research work and all your visits to those places sounds like wonderfully rich experience. Good wishes to your book.

Sue Purkiss said...

Also looking forward to your book!