Writing About the Past
by Nicola Slade
I 've always loved historical novels and it was inevitable that I 'd write one myself eventually. In fact my first ever attempts at writing a full-length novel were a Regency romance and a period piece, set in the First World War.
My mother and grandmother had introduced me to their own favourite Victorian writers; Jane Austen, of course but also, notably, Charlotte M. Yonge and Mrs. Henry Wood, both best-sellers in their day. Two very different novelists but with one over-riding attribute in common: they were both master story-tellers and their characters were real people, evoking an emotional response from today's reader. Mrs. Henry Wood started her career in the late 1850s, a little after Charlotte Yonge's first books came out and both provided me with elements of the story I wanted to write.
Although my favourite Charlotte Yonge books are The Pillars of the House and The Young Stepmother, I was intrigued to come across a book called The Three Brides in which the young women are introduced to their new home, and more importantly, to their mother-in-law, on the same day. Charlotte Yonge was very strong on filial piety and it seems to pose no problems to her that the eldest son marries a very young girl, a cousin, solely to provide his mother with a companion, his own heart having been broken years earlier. To my jaundiced modern eye, the sainted mother of the novel is a monster, a mother-in-law from hell.
I began to play with the idea of writing something like an updated version of the story and initially looked at setting it at the end of the Second World War, but I just couldn't get it to work. I turned to the nineteenth century. I can't remember why I fixed on the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny but once I had, everything began to fall into place. I had plenty of source material to hand, in the shape of my collection of Victorian novels, particularly those of CMY and the murder mysteries of Mrs. Henry Wood.
I realised I was going to write a mystery except that it's a genre I've always loved, particularly the work of the Golden Age novelists Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, Dorothy Sayers et al. It fitted in with my vague fancy for a Georgette Heyer-type mystery and solved the problem of trying to get into the overcrowded Regency market.
I did know that my protagonist was going to be called Charlotte in a slightly shame-faced homage to Miss Yonge, as well as in memory of our legendary family dog, Lottie. What I didn't realise was that the book would be comic until the first couple of paragraphs were written. I didn't set out to write a comic murder, which is, after all, pretty much an oxymoron; it just happened. Charlotte sprang, fully-formed onto the page where she took over the story, surprising me with her wry comments. I planned that she should be trying to escape a shady past and that she would be English. It came as a surprise to find she was an Australian, though once I got over the shock of another nationality I discovered it opened up all kinds of possibilities.
I tried particularly hard to make sure the detail that went into Murder Most Welcome was as historically accurate as possible. I did take liberties with mid-Victorian rules about mourning and allowed my heroine to be addressed incorrectly now and then, though I made it clear that this wasn't proper. My interest in social history developed and I enjoyed reading Charlotte Yonge's family novels, along with Mrs. Henry Wood's exciting murder mysteries, picking up little snippets of behaviour and manners to drop into my story.
I’ve always liked books that provide a family tree or list of the principal characters at the beginning and I decided to adopt this convention, giving the reader a quick hint about each character. The Jane Austen hero tag arose because I was having a blissful time rereading the Austen novels, reflecting on how much I particularly liked Emma’s Mr. Knightley. I did toy with the idea of making my character, Kit, the son of George and Emma Knightley but decided that was a step too far, and contented myself with having an Austen reference. Instead, a famous fictional character is scheduled to make an appearance in the book I’m currently writing, about Charlotte’s latest investigation.
I’m very comfortable in the 1850s and looking forward to writing more adventures for Charlotte. Besides, it’s so much easier not to have to worry about forensics — no finger prints, no DNA, and not a great deal in the way of local policemen.
MURDER MOST WELCOME
Charlotte Richmond: A Colonial with light fingers and a dark secret, who is only too happy to be the widow of:
Major Frampton Richmond: A surprisingly lively corpse
Fanny Richmond: A dear, sweet, little mother with a well-oiled wheelchair
Rev Henry Heavitree: Half-brother to Fanny. A vicar with a sideline in wholesale slaughter
Barnard Richmond: A side of beef on two legs who thinks he is the heir
Lily Richmond: His wife, a girl with gums, who is determined he will be the heir
Lady Frampton: A titled grandmother whose h'aspirants are 'ard to 'ear
Agnes Richmond: A spinster
Rev Percy Benson: A curate
Kit Knightley: A Jane Austen hero, married to:
Elaine Knightley: An interesting invalid
Lancelot Dawkins: A young man who is too friendly by far with a corpse
Lady Walbury: A mother with a mission
Colonel Fitzgibbon: A man who has something nasty to tell
A Mysterious Indian Gentleman: An Indian gentleman who is mysterious
Dr. Perry: A man who knows many secrets and confides only some of them to his wife
Job Hoxton: Did the butler do it?
Old Nurse: A prophet of doom
Prince Albert: No, not that one; a fat spaniel
Assorted neighbours, villagers, animals, servants and dead people
Nicola Slade was brought up in Poole, Dorset, England. She wrote children’s stories when her three children were growing up, moving onto short stories for several national magazines. Winning a story competition in Family Circle galvanised her into writing seriously and since then her stories and articles have been commissioned regularly. Scuba Dancing was her first novel now followed by Murder Most Welcome. She lives with her husband near Winchester in Hampshire. For more information about Nicky and her work visit www.nicolaslade.com
©2008 Nicola Slade for SeniorWomen.com