Historical Fiction Five: Starting a New Project


Burns's walk at Ellisland
For the last of these posts on historical fiction, I want to say a bit about staring a new project. In the last few months I've been starting work on a new historical novel. Until a little while ago, I was in researching, (with some welcome assistance from Creative Scotland) but also very much in thinking and daydreaming mode. Gearing up to write but not quite there yet. Thinking, too, about the voice in which this story will be told. How to get into it. How to get inside the mind of the main character who is a real, historical person: Jean Armour, wife of the poet Robert Burns. 

And how to tell her story.

Once again, it’s about immersion. So it might be useful to some writers – and interesting to some readers – to hear about the kind of things I do when I’m getting started on a new project in parallel, of course, with all the necessary research. First I daydream, but then, I clear the decks, mentally and physically. In this case, it meant sorting out the study, the place where I work, which earlier this year was much too cluttered for comfort. I don’t mind clutter, but it has to be reasonably tidy clutter, so that I know where everything is, otherwise my brain can’t cope. I spent a couple of energetic weeks hauling down folders and files, sorting out drawers, disposing of some of my vast hoard of books and generally relieving some of the congestion. There is something very therapeutic in all kinds of ways, about this kind of process and I also find it very therapeutic where writing is concerned. I think we’re clearing mental (and perhaps even spiritual, if you’re that way inclined) spaces, making room for something new. Every time I take a bag or box of unwanted items to the charity shop or the saleroom, every time I make another trip to the recycling centre or list another few items on eBay, I wonder why I kept them for so long. What on earth were we keeping those very old, but not old enough to be interesting, computers and other pieces of electronic kit for? Why was I hanging onto so much out of date paperwork? Why was I keeping not very good paperbacks that I know for a fact I will never want to read again because I didn’t even finish them the first time round? I’m by no means minimalist by inclination, but sometimes you just have to let things go, and I generally find that when I do, I can breathe more easily, and the ideas just come flooding in.

But once I’ve done this, cleared the decks and the desk to make a new start, I surround myself with more stuff. Except that it has to be the right stuff. I’m looking for all kinds of things to help the process of immersion in a time and place. I find this works for all my fiction and even for plays, whether historical or contemporary. I go hunting for all kinds of things – images, artworks, photographs, some inspirational objects, and as much appropriate music as I can find. The music is important. Roz Morris hosts an excellent series of blog posts on the ‘soundtrack’ of various pieces of fiction and I always find that my fiction has a soundtrack. I may not listen to it when I’m writing. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I just want silence. Or as much silence as the jackdaws on the roof will allow me. But sometimes I need a soundtrack of appropriate music. With The Amber Heart it involved Polish folk music, Chopin, other composers. The Curiosity Cabinet and another novel, more contemporary, were both written to Scottish and Irish traditional music. Ice Dancing involved a steady beat of love songs interspersed with hockey songs: Queen, the Sugababes, Cher. The Physic Garden needed more traditional music and so will this new project, which is set in eighteenth century lowland Scotland.

Apart from the music, I’ve put up old pictures and postcards, surrounding my desk with them. And on this occasion, rather a lot of very old books which I seem to have managed to acquire over the past year, mainly on eBay. They aren’t in the greatest condition, which explains why I managed to buy them for a song. But a two hundred year old book – even when it’s a bit ragged around the edges – is a treasure when it comes to trying to immerse yourself in the past. You can imagine it new, pristine, beautiful. You can imagine the people who handled it, what they felt like, what their thoughts might have been. You can above all imagine their words. When I was writing the Physic Garden I had other things to look at, including a Georgian embroidered christening cape like the one in the book.

Ellisland Farm
I also try to spend time in the places where each novel is set, allowing myself plenty of time for daydreaming, plenty of time for impressions and ideas to come wandering in. Sometimes I take notes, but they’re very short, very cryptic. Sometimes I don’t even do that. As long as I’ve allowed myself the time, I know I can remember whenever I need to. In this instance, it meant spending time not just in Alloway, but - for example - at Ellisland where Jean and the poet lived for a while,  a magical place, as yet unspoiled by over-interpretation. Long may it continue.

The other thing I’ve been doing obsessively is setting up a ‘secret’ Pinterest board to which I’ve pinned all sorts of images that are connected with the topic of my book. I use Pinterest quite a lot, although it can form wonderful displacement activity, so you have to use it with care. It’s all too easy to find an appropriate image and then find yourself tracking back through all kinds of beautiful boards and their associated websites, intrigued and moved by the variety of images on display. Topic boards on Pinterest can also be useful for helping cover artists and even your publisher, if you have one, to understand your thoughts about the book, your sources of inspiration, how you ‘see’ it and consequently how it might be marketed and to whom. 

Jean in old age with her much loved grand-daughter.
If all of this sounds a bit like uber displacement activity, it’s probably because it is. My husband calls it ‘pencil sharpening.’ Starting a new project is scary. It’s a bit like standing on the edge of a swimming pool daring yourself to dive in. You distract yourself with all these ‘necessary’ preparations. But I’ve come to see, over the years, that there is a sense in which they are necessary. And a necessary parallel to the meatiness of the research that you also have to do. They get you in the right frame of mind. And with historical fiction in particular, they arm you to some extent against the curse of presentism I wrote about in an earlier post. They remind you of when and where you are meant to be when you’re writing. They are a little like the Wardrobe – the route to Narnia. 

When they work well, they’re a doorway to the past. 

Mossgiel near Mauchline as it was in the poet's time.










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