I’d forgotten how much work is involved in writing a historical novel. It’s not just the research, but the need to immerse yourself in the minds and hearts of people living in very different times, with quite different hopes and expectations from those with which we’re obsessed. It’s often said that men and women in past ages were much like ourselves, but that’s only true up to a point. A historical novelist has to strive to recreate the past in a way that shows not only the things that resemble our world, the essential, intrinsic likeness of all human behaviour, but also the strangeness of those times, in ways that make the reader understand them while caring about the people living through them. Otherwise, what point is there in writing (or reading) a historical novel?
In the days when I had fewer intrusions on my writing time, it would take me at least two years to finish a historical novel. The one I’m currently working on seems to be taking very much longer. But earlier this year I was lucky enough to enjoy a writing retreat, a whole blissful solitary week when I did nothing but write and think about the novel—no interruptions, no intrusions, nothing but writing and more writing, interspersed with muddy walks to think about the next twist of the plot. By the end of the week I was well into the second draft, which at long last I’ve completed.
That doesn’t mean the novel’s complete. The shape of the book is there, the characters with their intertwined lives, against the historical events that will cause them such devastation and confront them with the most difficult dilemmas.
But it’s very far from perfect. It still needs a lot of work before I can even think of launching it on the world. If I had a publisher’s deadline, as so often in the past, I would just have to keep going, do the best I can and send it off, in the hope that my editor would suggest any improvements the book might need. In fact, I rarely had to change very much, but I think, looking back, that the ‘final’ versions of some of my submitted manuscripts could have done with a little more work. The trouble is, it’s very hard to know what work is needed when you’re too immersed in the writing to see it clearly.
Which is the big plus-point of not having to work to a deadline. It gives you the luxury of doing what every novel really needs—putting it on one side for a few weeks or months. When eventually I come back to this book, I should be able to look at it more objectively and see what needs working on, what to cut, what to rewrite, so I can come up with a final version that I’m happy to pass on to my agent, for her verdict.
Meanwhile, I shall write something completely different. But before I do, there’s one piece of unfinished business. My first self-published novel, ‘A Scent of Roses’, loosely linked with the novel I’ve been writing, has been marginally affected by the work I’ve done. So, I’m going to launch a new ebook edition of it, with a new cover, and bring it out in paperback for the first time.
Then, on to the next project…