Huge thanks to the lovely Emma Carroll, author of the forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), for providing the first entry in the collection of writing and teaching resources I’ll be creating here.
Remember, if you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of the blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post.
If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.
Readers: do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.
And now, over to Emma…
Write like a Victorian
Right from the start, I swore I’d write what I knew. I’d been a secondary school teacher for fifteen years, so I’d be writing for teens, about teens, doing teenage things. End of.
My debut novel, Frost Hollow Hall, which will be published by Faber in October, is in fact a middle grade historical novel. Contrary to what my students think, I wasn’t alive in the C19th. This wasn’t ‘writing what I knew’ at all. And yet my teaching job did play a huge part in it.
In AS English Literature coursework, students can opt to write creatively in the style of a Victorian novel. In order to deliver the unit, I had to know how to write this way myself. Gulp.
Suffice to say, in teaching my students, I taught myself, which for me is part of the magic of being in the classroom
How did we do it? Here are a few of my own tried and tested considerations when writing historical fiction. I’m sure there are better/ different ways to do it; these worked for me.
- Pictures: Photos or painting from the relevant era often tell a thousand stories. Very helpful for visualising characters, settings and dress.
- Literature: My students worked closely with a set text, which they had to know inside out. For my own purposes, I read widely: any adult or childrens’ literature from or about the era, news reports, websites, journals, biographies, I could go on!
- Historical practicalities: Be mindful of what can and can’t be done. Characters can’t text each other or turn on a light. Information will often be conveyed through letters or diaries, night scenes taking place in candlelight or under a moon. Also travel: how long would it take to get from A to B? Would your character have the means to embark on long journeys? Consider too how much things cost, what was available and how people might purchase them. This list is not exhaustive.
- Class and Gender: In historical fiction these tend to be foregrounded concepts. A character’s class will impact on their work, their dreams, where they live, what they do, how they look, and, all importantly, their ‘voice’. Before 1870, there was no formal education system. If your character can’t read or write, it may impact on how they receive plot information. Likewise gender: this is particularly significant for female characters. Consider the norms and values of the era, and how these fit with your character’s motivations. In her YA historical novels, Marie Louise Jensen overcomes this ‘constraint’ wonderfully.
- Language: A very obvious way to tell a book is old is through its use of language. Jane Austen writes in very long, grammatically-complex sentences: the Brontes use domestic and natural symbolism. Brilliant contemporary ‘Victorian pastiche’ writers such as Sarah Waters and Essie Fox use words no longer in common usage such as ‘casement’, ‘visage’, or ‘gaze’. I create my own glossary of era-appropriate words. A good copy editor will pick up on anything you’ve used that isn’t quite right.
- And The Rest: Plotting, character tropes, style, focus on intense personal experience, gothic, I could go on…
The end result? My students got great grades: I got a two book deal. The rest is history. (Fingers crossed!)
Emma Carroll is a secondary school English teacher. She has also worked as a news reporter, an avocado picker and the person who punches holes into filofax paper. She recently graduated with distinction from Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing For Young People.
Frost Hollow Hall is Emma’s debut novel. Told in the distinctive voice of Tilly Higgins, it was inspired by a winter’s day from Emma’s childhood. Currently, Emma is working on her second novel, set in a Victorian circus. Emma lives in the Somerset hills with her husband and two terriers.