Rebecca Mascull Talks To Bookbag About Writing Historical Fiction

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Rebecca Mascull Talks To Bookbag About Writing Historical Fiction

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Summary: Ani thought that The Visitors by Rebecca Mascull was a beautifully crafted mesh of conquering adversity/hist-fict/ghost story with a murder investigation slipped in for good measure and a satisfying novel that's worth every penny and, indeed, every moment spent in its company.
Date: 17 July 2014

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External links: Author's website



I didn't start out writing historical fiction. Or did I? When I look back at my early novel attempts - long before 'The Visitors' was published by Hodder & Stoughton as my debut – I see that perhaps I was always leaning towards it, or at least to an escape from my own setting of late twentieth-century Britain. I wrote one set in the 1980s; another ostensibly set in the present day and yet most of it ended up in a fairy-tale fantasy world of a child's sleeping mind; whilst the third was most definitely my first proper foray into the historical fiction genre, set during the Second World War, in both London and Poland. And the next novel was 'The Visitors' set across the last twenty years or so of the nineteenth century. I'd had a bit of time and space to practise the craft before I tried to convey the late Victorian, early Edwardian world of my heroine, Adeliza Golding.

So, what did I learn along the way? Mostly, how to research and how to apply what I'd found out to support the telling of the story. And the latter is definitely the crucial part: the story is the thing, and the rest is just window dressing, really. I have read novels in the past (naming no names, but by some very big names) that were impeccably researched – I learnt a shed-load about their subjects – yet the plot became a minor irritation and the characters seemed hopelessly lost. I certainly didn't give a stuff about any of them by halfway through, let alone the end. What I felt was needed was a brave editor to come along and wield the scalpel – or rather the hatchet – and cut these monsters down to size i.e. to make a story out of all that history.

Thus, it was always important to me to find a story worth telling first, and worry about the setting and the historical detail later. In 'The Visitors', I wanted to tell the story of a deaf-blind girl, how she learns to communicate, make friends and fall in love. She was the centre of the story and the point of it all. I could have written about a modern deaf-blind child – in fact, my research with the wonderful people who work for the charity Sense could have filled a dozen contemporary novels. Perhaps it was reading about Helen Keller – or her lesser known forbear Laura Bridgman – that made me want to place my heroine at a time when she had the most difficult strictures to battle against, indeed, at a time when she would have been thought of as an idiot.

Yet it was also in this period that the first successful experiments in educating the deaf-blind were beginning to emerge, and it is these points in history I find most exciting: on the cusp of something, the edge of a new way of thinking. Thus Adeliza has very real conflicts to overcome in her setting, and yet it also provides her with the tools to escape them e.g. through the development of a formal system of finger-spelling, also known as the manual alphabet. Some events and character responses are shaped very much by the time in which they take place, yet much of what we respond to in a great novel are universal themes, feelings and thoughts that could have happened in any time, place or mind. But don't get me wrong – to follow that argument to its logical conclusion might suggest that there's no point in writing in any other time but your own – I do love reading fiction set in other times and places because I love learning about such things, particularly in a fictional context, where they come along for the ride, rather than being the final destination.

Something curious I did learn by writing historical fiction was that the research itself often dictated elements of the story. This seems to go against what I argued above, yet what I mean is that the facts I discovered about the setting sometimes took me down unexpected paths. I might have decided that my character was going to do this or that, but a random find in a second-hand bookshop about an obscure facet of the period ends up becoming absolutely crucial to the protagonist, and thus, to the entire plot. For example, whilst researching 'The Visitors', in a lovely old book about Edwardian society I stumbled across a chapter on hop farming. It caught my eye and my imagination, as well as reminding me that I'd visited a hop farm on a school trip as a child and had never forgotten the alluring stink of drying hops. So hops took over the whole story, becoming not only the Goldings' profession, yet lead me ultimately to research my own family history, since it turns out some of my ancestors may have farmed on hop land. In fact, Golding is a name you find in hop history – the famous Golding hop – and in my own family; my great grandmother was a Golding. There may not be a firm historical connection between my Goldings and the Golding hop, but the imaginative link was forged for me and that made all the difference. Even my heroine found her name in those dusty old family trees: Adeliza Golding, my great-great-aunt, who died young and yet whose lovely name lives on in 'The Visitors'.

Will I continue to write historical fiction? Well, my next novel 'Song of the Sea Maid', due out next year, is set in the eighteenth century, whilst my present project will probably revolve around the first couple of decades of the twentieth century (though this may all change, as novelists can be rather flighty, you know). And I'd quite like to have a go at that WWII novel again and improve it, and there might even be a sequel to 'The Visitors' one day. So, for the time being, I will carry on out of my own time and buried in the past. I love the quaint language of the past and feel its loss when I hear modern-day slang that makes me cringe, yet whilst I love the idea of big frocks, I wouldn't like to wear the blasted things day in, day out. And I'm also extremely glad we have such diverse modern inventions as Twitter and caramel lattés. But, and this is my own very particular preference, I certainly don't want to write about them. Give me instead flat irons and cartwheels and scuppets and cooling lofts any day of the week…