“This is the best kind of historical fiction — oozing period detail, set in a milieu populated by famous figures and events about which much is known but seen through the eyes of a central character who, due to her illiteracy, left no ready access to her experience in the form of letters or diary entries: a rich and accomplished first novel.”
Lucy Scholes, The Independent, commenting on Mrs. Engels
Sometimes a tiny spark can turn into an amazing story: Four words in a newspaper review of a 400-page biography launched Gavin McCrea on a literary and historical journey resulting in Mrs. Engels, an exciting debut novel that’s creating lots of buzz.
In a nutshell, the novel tells the story of Lizzie Burns, an illiterate Irishwoman who lived for many years with Frederick Engels, the wealthy businessman who bankrolled Karl Marx. How did Gavin conjure Lizzie up and make her seem believable when there is virtually no historical information on her?
His answer is fascinating: “I put myself on a strict diet of 19th century literature: Hardy, all the classics. I made it a source for myself, I made a vocabulary and then I created a very artificial language. Historically, Lizzie would not have spoken like this. But I wanted to create a very powerful voice.”
Gavin is using the same strategy for his new book: “Since my second novel will be set in the mid-20th century, I’ve put myself on a strict diet of literature from the 1930s to the 1960s. The current pile on my nightstand includes the following, stacked in chronological order: Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941), Lynne Reid Bank’s The L-Shaped Room (1960), Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) and Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963). I see now that a decade is missing. I won’t sleep tonight.”
What a simple but powerful technique: systematically immersing yourself in the literature of a historical period you’re writing about in order to absorb its language and cultural customs. Of course, the real trick — no easy feat! — is to use what you’ve learned to imbue your story with historical details and a sense of everyday life in a way that’s natural and enriching to your readers — and makes your story come alive.
I love the whole approach of using literary immersion as a way of creating a vocabulary for a story so that it feels both natural and historically authentic. For those of us who are writing historical fiction in one form or another, this may be a fruitful technique — one that’s definitely worth exploring. Write on!