Guy Fawkes Night is the English Fourth of July – a night of explosions, picnics and lighting up the sky with huge public fireworks displays and bonfires. Last year, London ‘set the Thames on fire’ while thousands of people crowded the riverbanks. There’s an irony in the parallel, however. The America holiday celebrates the declaration of freedom from the England. The English, on the other hand, have a good time partying at a festival that was originally ordered by the king of England, James I – to give thanks for the preservation of the English monarchy.
One reviewer said about THE FIREMASTER’S MISTRESS that you sometimes couldn’t tell whether you were reading about the 17th century or today. And that’s exactly what drew me – a sense of our own modern experience seen through the filter of the past. First, there’s the culturally diverse society trying to define itself and work as a unified whole. Extremist dissidents. (I won’t spoil any big plot twists if I say that I believe Guy Fawkes was the first modern suicide bomber.) There were dirty politics and political spin doctoring. And the struggles of ordinary people to keep their balance, and, in this case, to love and trust each other across a religious divide.
I‘ve already started to answer this one – the sense of our modern experience filtered through the past. For me, history isn’t a place we visit like tourists, peering through glass museum cases. Right this minute, we are all turning into the history of the future. The fun and challenge of setting books in the past is to make the life of my characters feel just as real and vivid as ours is to us right now. Many things don’t change, like emotions and politics. The challenge is to show how people differed from us. The fun lies in the nosiness of finding out the details of these differences. My ‘work’ includes visiting old houses, trying on the clothes, cooking from old recipes, sitting on side saddles, wandering London streets with old maps, and talking endlessly to generous, helpful people who know more about things than I do and are often splendidly obsessed. And reading, reading, reading! (On my website, I’ve put a brief article on favorite books called ‘The Ones That Got Me Started’ and plan to add a list of particularly useful reference books in the New Year, after I deliver my next novel.)
There are two clear ones.
My father’s brilliant bedtime stories that hooked me on story telling by the age of five. And made me take it seriously as the beating heart of what I do, however much I may dress it up with other complexities. Although he was a scholarly professor of English literature, his respect for the power of the Story helped me fight free of the potentially paralysing weight of literary criticism and expectation.
Fourteen years as a theatre director and choreographer taught me how to build tension, shape a story line, and understand how to make your audience want to come back for the second act. Working with actors taught me the need for the concrete details of behaviour and place that add up to a sense of truth and life. For me, research isn’t a dry pursuit of fact, it’s avoiding the wrong hat that will confuse the character and make an audience stop trusting you. My choice of the 17th century was probably inevitable after I spent four years working with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon and in London. I’m often asked if I find it difficult to deal with ‘period English’. The answer is ‘no’ – not after being surrounded by Shakespeare’s world and language all day, every day. We sometimes even ended up ordering beer in blank verse at the pub. The trick is to avoid pastiche…but this leads us off into another huge discussion about how to write. My rule of thumb is to remember that they sounded as normal to each other as we do to ourselves. It’s all in the balance.