Settings in Historical Novels by Elizabeth Hurst
I am delighted to have my friend and fellow Swanwicker, Elizabeth Hurst, visit the blog today to discuss her research for and use of setting in historical novels. Thank you for your time today. I have no doubt your expertise will be of great interest to my readers.
As a writer of historical fiction, choosing the setting of my novels takes up the vast majority of my research time. It’s essential that I can place the reader in the world I have created, and have them experience all its sights, sounds and smells just as my characters do.
My Lost Souls novellas take place in a variety of settings. First, there is the contemporary world inhabited by Emma and her friends. I modelled the fictional village of Fossbury on the place where I used to live in the UK – Ettington, outside Stratford-upon-Avon. The parts of each story that take place in this world are all about the lives of the girls, their trials and tribulations and how they deal with them, one way or another.
The historical parts of each story are all different. Ettington boasts a beautiful Quaker house, built in 1684 and still in use today. This was my inspiration for the second Lost Souls book, A Friend In Need. Creating a setting for the historical world was a challenge I relished. I have a tendency to be somewhat perfectionist, so it was critical to get it just right, for readers to empathise with little Martha and her family.
My research led me to Friends’ House in London to study the lives of the early Quakers and their struggle for religious freedom amidst a backdrop of persecution and torture. I learned of cases where people were arrested and tried unfairly, stripped of their livelihoods and worldly possessions, merely for attending a Meeting, something we might deem outrageous today, and rightly so, but something that was perfectly normal back in the seventeenth century.
I also took a trip to the Archives Office in Oxford, where I could view documents relating to the people I was actually writing about. They even had a register of Meeting attendees from those very early days, including one Samuel Lucas, the gentleman who bequeathed the land on which the present day Meeting House stands. He features in the story as Martha’s beloved grandfather.
Writing about real people presents its own challenges. I wanted to be respectful to the memory of these people, to capture their bravery and conviction, and I hope I did so. However, I chose to make the villain, Nathaniel Dunne, entirely fictional, partly because records from around that time are few and far between, but also because I knew I would be making him party to a fictional crime, and to sully a real person’s name seemed unjust. Never speak ill of the dead, they say!
When I edit novels for others, I occasionally come across errors with the setting. Consider the following scenario, which came up in a client’s novel recently. It’s the early nineteenth century, around the time of Jane Austen, if you will. During the time of a romance, a man and woman are living together, unmarried, and they share household chores. I was immediately pulled out of the story.
Now, there are a couple of things here that gave me cause for concern. First, a cohabiting couple was a shocking thing in society around that time. It would be assumed that the woman in question was a prostitute, being paid. Secondly, sharing household chores was unheard of. Even a single man living alone would have employed a housekeeper, at the very least! If he had more means, a full household of servants would be required. So, I flagged all of this up to the author, who has since amended his manuscript.
It can be all too easy, especially in historical fiction, to create situations which just wouldn’t apply today. Accuracy matters. Do your research.
Lost Souls 1: Siren Spirit https://geni.us/AFSki
Lost Souls 2: A Friend In Need https://geni.us/lFMTHh8
Elizabeth has always been a voracious reader since her preschool years, so perhaps it's not surprising that when she hit middle age, the urge for a career change brought her into the world of writing. The Lost Souls series brings together her love of the supernatural together with romance and historical settings to create provocative stories around her central female characters.
After a career in automotive engineering, she started to concentrate full-time on writing and her freelance fiction editing business, and has now moved to the south of France, fulfilling a lifelong dream. She is hoping that her two cats will forgive her at some point in the future.