Sue Barnard is not only a friend and fellow Crooked Cat author, but she’s also my editor! Today, she’s here with her author hat on, though, to tell us about her approach to the history she includes in her own books. Take it away, Sue.
Hello, Vanessa. Thank you for inviting me to your blog today.
Random & Retrospective
Some years ago, I heard history defined (unfortunately I forget by whom) as “a series of random events, retrospectively ordered into chapters”.
To say I’ve always been interested in history wouldn’t be strictly true. There were long periods during history lessons at school where, despite my teacher’s best efforts, I found myself wondering: What on earth is all this about – and why do we really need to know any of it?
These sentiments have now found their way into the mouth of Ray, the hero of my latest novel Never on Saturday:
“We had all sorts of stuff rammed down our throats at school,” [Ray said] “but I’m afraid I only remember the bits I found interesting.”
“Which bits were those?” Mel asked.
“The Tudors and Stuarts, mainly. Good Queen Bess, Sir Francis Drake, William Shakespeare and all that … It was a very colourful period of history, with lots of fascinating characters … But after that, we got all sorts of boring stuff. Such as the Corn Laws, for instance. And then the repeal of the Corn Laws. I think my brain shut down when we did those!” Ray chuckled.
Mel joined in the laughter. “I know what you mean. And I think that’s probably true of most people. You remember the things that you find interesting, but forget the tedious stuff.”
“True,” Ray agreed. “And it’s not just with history either. As soon as I was old enough to make up my own mind, I stuck with what I was really interested in.”
Like Ray, I now regard it as a great privilege to be able to pick and choose which aspects of history I can concentrate on, and stick to the ones which I find interesting whilst quietly ignoring the boring bits. History is a rich source of inspiration for authors, and has provided the settings for three of my four novels.
The Ghostly Father (2014) is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and hence is set mostly in fifteenth-century Italy. Never on Saturday (2017) is a time-slip novella set partly in present-day North Wales and partly in medieval France, and is inspired by an old French legend.
In both cases, I had to do quite a lot of research into the setting and the period. I also had to do some very detailed study of the stories themselves, although I took one or two liberties with the endings. The results could, I supposed, be described as “Alternative History”: what might have happened if the events of the original stories had taken a different turn.
History is not confined just to the dim and distant past – and consequently, neither is historical fiction. My second novel, Nice Girls Don’t, was published in 2014, but is set in 1982 and includes links back to both World Wars. In this case, some of my source material came from my own experience. Like the heroine of the story, I was brought up by parents who had lived through World War 2 and who had never fully shaken off the memories, legacies and attitudes of those dark days. By setting the story in the 1980s, I wanted to show today’s younger people how much things have changed, hopefully for the better, over the course of a single generation.
Even stories which are set at the time they were written will, in the fullness of time, go on to become historical documents. My third novel, The Unkindest Cut of All, was first published in 2015 and has a contemporary setting, featuring computers, the internet, mobile phones and social media. But already the story is nearly two years old. Who knows how antiquated it might appear to someone reading it ten, twenty or fifty years from now?
History is going on all the time. And however random or retrospective it might seem, we – and our stories – are part of it.
Never on Saturday: Amazon
Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet whose family background is far stranger than any work of fiction. She would write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her.
Sue was born in North Wales but has spent most of her life in and around Manchester. She speaks French like a Belgian, German like a schoolgirl, and Italian and Portuguese like an Englishwoman abroad.
Her mind is so warped that she has appeared on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show, and she has also compiled questions for BBC Radio 4’s fiendishly difficult Round Britain Quiz. This once caused one of her sons to describe her as “professionally weird.” The label has stuck.
Sue joined the editorial team of Crooked Cat Publishing in 2013. Her first novel, The Ghostly Father (a new take on the traditional story of Romeo & Juliet) was officially released on St Valentine’s Day 2014. Since then she has produced three more novels: Nice Girls Don’t (2014), The Unkindest Cut of All (2015) and Never on Saturday (2017).
Sue now lives in Cheshire with her extremely patient husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.
Connect with Sue
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Copyright © Sue Barnard, Vanessa Couchman 2017, all rights reserved.