The Arrival of Missives is a genre-defying story of fate, free-will and the choices we make in life. In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as predictable as the changing of the seasons.
The scarred veteran Mr. Tiller, left disfigured by an impossible accident on the battlefields of France, brings with him a message: part prophecy, part warning. Will it prevent her mastering her own destiny?
As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future will be reborn again, Shirley must choose: change or renewal?
How to Enjoy Writing Historical Fiction
By Aliya Whiteley
I always start writing in the same way. I take up a pen and a sheet of paper, and write until a voice emerges. Then I place that voice in a setting, and start finding out what that new character cares about.
When I found out that the main voice in my novella The Arrival of Missives belonged to a teenage girl who wanted to change the world for the better I liked her straight away, but I was also terrified of the challenge she represented. I usually write contemporary fiction, and she definitely came from a different time. She belonged to a small village in the UK countryside in 1920. It was a time I knew very little about.
Historical fiction can be scary to write. There’s the need to represent the past accurately, in a way that feels truthful and also reflective upon the way we live now. That need to be accurate began to affect my enjoyment in writing the story, until I worked out a few techniques to help me concentrate on the voice and not the setting:
- Use research to work out what your character knows
There’s no way of getting around research; it has to be done to bring the period you’re writing about to life. But find your character first (this applies particularly to writing in the first person) and then concentrate on how they’ll view the time they live in rather than in trying to formulate every aspect of life back then. People often live in small bubbles of experience; trying to place you reader within that bubble is more rewarding.
- Don’t stop every time you come across something you don’t know
At first I’d put down the pen and turn to the laptop to search for answers every time I came across a detail that I didn’t know. I’d look for how long sheep slept for, or what version of the Bible would be in the village church. Then I realised that I really didn’t have to know straight away. I started to put a row of crosses whenever I came across a small issue, and that meant the flow of words was no longer broken. At the end of writing my first draft, the crosses were easy to pick out, and it was fun to go back through finding my answers without feeling pulled out of the story.
- Don’t feel constrained by what others have done
When I decided to write about life in a rural setting in 1920s Britain, I wanted to see how other modern authors had tackled the period. The more I read, the more disheartened I became. How could I ever hope to capture the time in the same way? Then I realised my task wasn’t to capture it in the same way. I needed to portray it in my own way, using my own skills as a writer. Remember your own strengths, and create the setting using those rather than attempting to follow somebody else’s strategy.
There is never only one way to write about the past. It’s filled with so many different voices. I only had to remember what I love about writing to drown out the fears I felt. When I’m caught up in the moment, writing fast to get all my thoughts down, swept up in my character’s voice, I really enjoy my job as a novelist, and through this experience I discovered that there’s no reason why historical fiction can’t be just as exhilarating to write as those stories set in the here and now.
What can I tell you?
I write about all sorts of things but it would be fair to say I’m drawn to the darker side of life.
My favourite writers are a diverse bunch. Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch and George Eliot. Rupert Thomson and Christopher Priest. Octavia Butler, John Wyndham, Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot. My favourite Shakespeare play is King Lear. No, Much Ado About Nothing. It depends if it’s a tragic or a comic day.
I like those moments in stories where you have no idea what’s going to happen next. The moments when genre can’t save you.
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