How to Write a Novel, Or, Why I Haven’t Been Blogging February 17, 2015
I’m deep into writing a new novel, and the hardest thing about working on a novel is not working on the novel.
Of course, the work includes things like staring at the floor for hours, and occasional frenzies of cleaning, laundry and cooking, since you might as well do something other than staring at the floor for hours while you’re thinking things through. Eating happens, although your husband is known to wave his hand in front of your face at dinner saying, “Hello?”
One big exception: Research reading.
Queen Victoria’s governess, the Baroness Lehzen, had a fondness for caraway seeds that amounted to an addiction. She kept a supply in her pocket, and was considered vulgar by the English court for her habit of constantly chewing them.
My novel is set in England during the middle of the 19th century, its main character based on an ancestral cousin of my husband’s who committed a sensational murder. After he was found insane, he was locked up in the criminal ward at the Royal Bethlem Hospital, the real-world Bedlam. I’ve been able to draw on years of research done by my mother-in-law, the family historian, and took several trips over to England to research the story. There, I indulged a serious addiction to archives, spending long days recording words from pages my characters once touched, and pausing sometimes to marvel.
I did a couple of years research before starting to write, not just visiting archives and museums, but reading my way through a sagging shelf of great official histories. It was also fun to search the obscure digitized memoirs and local histories that are rapidly appearing online. Now that I’m writing, I keep reading biographies at night for period details, even though the subjects of the biographies often play no direct role in my story.
At Queen Victoria’s coronation, the young Arthur Stanley, who later became Dean of Westminster, was sitting in one of the galleries when the young queen entered Westminster Abbey with her eight train-bearers. Stanley recorded the fact that when she did, “He felt the rails in front of him quiver with the sudden grip of a hundred hands.”
These details are from Queen Victoria: Born to Succeed, by Elizabeth Longford, published in 1964. The late Elizabeth Longford—Elizabeth Pakenham, the Countess of Longford—died at 96 in 2002. She must have been a great conversationalist and a very good gossip. She was a certainly a wonderful biographer, and especially valuable to a novelist because of her eye for tiny, delicious details that (successfully stolen) can make fiction breathe.
“Lord John Russell… was so diminutive that when he married the widow of Lord Ribblesdale he was called ‘the widow’s mite.’”
My main character was socially far removed from these grandees, as were all but a few of the people I’m writing about. But obviously the real-life inspirations for my characters all lived within the reality of their day. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners filled the parks at the time of Victoria’s coronation, and at least some of the real people in my story were probably among them. As I create their fictional counterparts, it’s useful to ask who might have embraced the show and who might have fled it, the way some of my Brazilian friends flee Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. Why does one person join a public celebration and another avoid it? Thinking through a character’s decisions helps a writer give him or her a personality. At least, it helps me.
There’s also the fact that there were nine assassination attempts on Queen Victoria during her reign, and most of the perpetrators were recognized as insane and incarcerated in the criminal lunatics’ ward at Bedlam, where my main character would have known them.
Which makes one think.
I seldom look back on history with nostalgia. My character’s mother and stepmother both died not long after giving birth. Women’s tombstones in old graveyards so often show abbreviated lives. But given the hysteria these days about terrorism, it’s hard not to appreciate the Victorian attitude toward the queen’s would-be assassins. They were recognized as mentally ill, weren’t exploited for political purposes, and weren’t used to set up a new secret police force to spy on her citizens.
I wish we could say the same today.