Writing

Meet My Main Character

I’m a little bit slow to join this Blog Hop, which has been going round for a few weeks now. The lovely Margaret Evans Porter has kindly tagged me to talk about my main character.

1. What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person? The heroine of my novel is Queen Charlotte of England, originally Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She is a historic person that I admire.

Charlotte with George and Frederick2. When and where is the story set? The story covers a period of twenty-seven years between 1783 and 1810. Then there is an epilogue, set in 1818. Most of the action takes place in palaces in and around London: Buckingham Palace (then called Queen’s House), Kew Palace and Windsor Castle.

Kew 3. What should we know about him/her?  Charlotte has risen from an obscure upbringing to take one of the greatest thrones in Europe. She accepts her exalted role with humility and determination, but she still experiences self-doubt, especially over her plain looks. She is devoted to her husband George – a fact their fifteen children bear testimony to!

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?  The death of Charlotte’s two youngest sons around the time of the American Revolution starts a downward spiral in her happy marriage. Her husband shows alarming symptoms of mental instability, which progress into violence and indecency. Her family is split into factions over the King’s treatment and she is left holding the reins of an unstable country. When revolutionary fever spreads to France, things only get worse . . .

5. What is the personal goal of the character? Charlotte desperately wants to do her duty. She wants to be a good queen, wife and mother, but her task proves impossible. Deep down she is just a woman who yearns for her beloved husband to recover, and feels she can do nothing until he is well again.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it? Queen of Bedlam will be published by Myrmidon on 10 June 2014. It can be purchased at:

Amazon

Foyles

Waterstones

Barnes & Noble

WH Smith

BedlamI’ve tagged the talented Jen Black to continue the blog hop. She will post on 14 May 2014.

Posted in Writing | Comments Off on Meet My Main Character

Welcome to Bedlam

BedlamObservant readers of my blog will have noticed something missing over the last few months. Why is there no longer a page dedicated to God Save the King? Where have all the buy links gone?

Well I’m finally able to tell you the best news EVER. My novel about Queen Charlotte has been picked up by a publisher!

I’ve been lucky enough to sign a contract with the fabulous Myrmidon Books who have published such titles as Mrs Lincoln and The Garden of Evening Mists. Renamed as Queen of Bedlam, my book will be out on 10 June 2014.

Read more from the official press release:

Myrmidon has acquired the rights to Queen of Bedlam, the debut novel from Laura Purcell, based on the tragic life of Queen Charlotte, wife of “mad” King George III of England which will be the first in a series of novels based on the lives of royal women from the Georgian period.

“Queen of Bedlam is a heartbreaking story of lost love and a life dominated by duty,” said Ed Handyside, publisher. “Laura Purcell vividly brings to life the contrast of a private and loving marriage to the royal court acting like a prison to a woman terrified of her husband and his episodes of madness.”

Previously self-published, the novel has already acquired interest from film makers, and British author Laura Purcell, an expert on the Georgian royal family, has appeared on PBS. Myrmidon has commissioned leading artist Larry Rostant for the cover artwork and will be supporting the launch with a national PR campaign by FMCM. Myrmidon acquired world rights to Queen of Bedlam directly from the author and will publish in original paperback and ebook in June 2014.

Suffice to say, I’m blown away. It all feels strangely surreal and, whilst wonderful, also very nerve-wracking. I began research for this book in December 2009! After all this time, my dream has come true – and now more hard work begins!

I’ll try not to go all fan-girl on you, but this really is an amazing achievement for me. Every time I see a Myrmidon book in Waterstone’s at the moment, I squeal. I’ve seem preliminary work for the cover and I can tell you it’s GORGEOUS.

I hope you’ll forgive me if the blog sees a bit of neglect over the coming months. As well as working on my new book, I will have edits and promotion to occupy me – as well as that pesky desk job that keeps interfering with my writing life! However, I will be writing some articles for my Historical Fiction Virtual Blogtour between 9 and 28 of June, which I’ll be sure to share with you.

Here’s to George III and an exciting future.

madking

Legacy – Augusta of Saxe Gotha

To mark the passing of Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, at this time in 1772, I’ve written a little piece of historical fiction. It’s entirely true that she insisted on getting up and dressed and having tea with her son and daughter-in-law mere hours before her death. This is how I imagine she felt. (Again, please do remember this piece of fiction, however small, is my copyright)

Augusta in 1754

The room swirled. Augusta fluttered her eyelashes and batted away the encroaching shadows. After years of fighting against hostile in-laws, ignorant rabbles and protesters who decapitated her effigy in the streets, she’d be damned if she’d give in now.

She groped across the table and wound her trembling finger through the delicate, porcelain handle of the tea-cup. It clattered against the saucer in protest.

‘Mama, I think you need to rest.’ George creased his eyebrows together in an expression that made him look heart-rendingly like his father. ‘Charlotte and I can come back tomorrow.’

Ah, my dear boy, but there won’t be a tomorrow. She had to play her part one last time. She would do it well.

‘Nonsense,’ she growled. It didn’t sound like her voice at all; guttural, beastly. She grimaced against the harsh rasp which tore at her throat.

Sitting opposite her, anxiously perched on their chairs, were her son and her daughter-in-law – the King and Queen of England. But they were awestruck, mere limp puppets in her presence. She had ruled them for so long, the thought of her passing was incomprehensible.

Or perhaps not. In the shrewd, sharp eyes of Charlotte, Augusta saw the germs of an emotion she had never expected from her: deep, heartfelt compassion. After all their rows, all their struggles to possess George’s heart, perhaps they were coming to an understanding at last. There was power, indomitable strength in the face of that Queen. Augusta prided herself on the fact she had forged it there. It had been a tough school, but Charlotte had reaped the benefits. Here was a woman who understood all, yet gave away nothing. One who knew her place. Knew, more pertinently, that Augusta was lolling against death’s door. Something in the set of her thin lips told Augusta she was already planning the months ahead: the burial, how to allay George’s grief.

With supreme effort, Augusta hauled the cup to her lips. A dark, Bohea tea hit her with its fragrance, while a slice of lemon floating on top added a citrus note. She couldn’t drink it. She couldn’t even swallow. It was like asking her to down a goblet of nails. She touched her lips to the porcelain and lapped gently, hoping it would suffice. A few drops of the liquid tumbled down onto her embroidered stomacher, where they spread like the cancer that was creeping through her, staining her insides.

‘Perhaps I will lay on the chaise longue. But do stay.’

Her wobbling legs held out just in time for her to collapse against the striped silk. A great, hacking cough erupted from her chest – a tunnel of scratchy fire that pushed the air from her lungs. She had the presence of mind to put a lace handkerchief to her lips and catch the spurt of blood, dark as garnets.

Poor George hovered over her, clutching at her numb hand. ‘What can I do? What can I fetch for you?’

Love swelled in her heart until it pushed away the pain of her disease. Dear George. Her slow, puny, mewling heir, not expected to live a week. Look at him now! Anointed and just the man his father wanted him to be. He would retrieve the glory of the crown, she had no doubt. True, her other sons had more wit, and Edward had been their darling, but George had the heart of gold. He would give of himself before others, adhere to duty like a shadow, sacrifice his heart and soul for what he thought was right. What she and Bute had taught him was right.

With Charlotte’s fingers dabbing lavender water on her temples and George grasping her hand, she allowed her eyes to close and lay, listening to the wheeze of her breath. Not long until she saw Frederick now. She gave a faint smile. Would he still be bickering with his parents in Heaven? She hoped he would be proud of her – his frail little child-bride who had worked to preserve his memory with heart and soul, fought to protect their children from the evils of this world, though with little success. Her daughter, her fallen girl, Caroline Matilda flashed into her mind. She tossed uneasily, her cough turning into a phlegmy gargle. And Bute! What about Bute? The agony of leaving him grappled with the shame of knowing she would have to stand before her husband, in Heaven, and explain why she had loved, just for a second, another man. Suddenly her bodice was punishingly tight; she could feel her breasts swell and press against the material and knew, without looking, they were strawberry red. Nothing improper had happened, but she blamed herself. She despised herself to think that even a chink of her heart could have been disloyal to Frederick.

Someone passed her a bowl and she threw up a noxious mixture of blood and gunge. God, it hurt. It felt like one of the lions in the Tower Menagerie had her by the jugular and was worrying her flesh with its teeth. Stay strong for George. Show him dignity. Teach him to despise fear. His face swam above her, wide-eyed and blotchy as he struggled to dam the tears. ‘It doesn’t give me pain,’ she tried to tell him, but the words came out in a slur of nonsense. Just as well. She shouldn’t be lying within minutes of meeting her Maker.

Charlotte was concocting more liquids and ointments to bring her relief, tinkling bottles together until they sounded like the flutter of angel wings. The heady, floral scent swept Augusta away, back to the botanic gardens that had been her life’s work. Bright yellow played against her closed eyelids and she could almost feel the heat of the sun.

“Dolly,” she murmured. There was a general flutter of consternation. Bells rang, servants were consulted. They could tell, by her grasping hands and her flapping, fish-like mouth, that she needed something. Mustering every ounce of strength, she fought against the spiky lump in her throat and tried to enunciate. “Dolly.”

It was George who understood. With a flash of his velvet coat-tails he was out of the door and dashing upstairs. Pray God he returned in time.  He was the kind of boy who would never forgive himself for being absent when she expired.

Charlotte tightened her grip on Augusta’s hand. ‘Be a good Queen,’ Augusta urged her. Then, with a sudden rush of charity, she added, ‘I know you can.’ The girl’s eyes filled with tears.

Augusta had never had her chance and it still stung like the thorn of rose. Princess of Wales was all she could grasp at. Charlotte would play her part well, but – oh! – how much better August would have done it! The demure Queen draped in ermine, a virtuous example for the nation, an eye to politics with no ostensible influence. How could it be she was denied that role? How could she want something so desperately yet never, ever get it?

But there was George again – her hope, her legacy. Her heir of the blood would sit on the throne and act as she had bidden him. Gently, he laid a child’s toy into the crook of her arm. Poor Dolly. She was as travel-worn and beaten as her mistress. The porcelain features were pale now, faded beneath the light of a thousand summers. Her upswept hair had tangles and little tattered ribbons clung stubbornly to the roots. Threadbare patches on her dress, dirt on the hem, stains on her sleeves. She, too, was ready to go.

It seemed a lifetime ago that a gawky, child-like teenager called Augusta had turned out her trunks and boxes, her wardrobe and portmanteau, deciding which objects would comfort her in her new life and which she would have to resign herself never to see again. Yes, she had been an ingénue, she had been naive. It had seemed imperative, even sensible, that her favourite doll should accompany her across the channel and face the world with her. A friendly face to confide in, an unjudging, tiny shoulder to cry on. Time had only proved her decision right. God, how she needed that doll in her first years in England.

Across the sea, across the land, through years of heart-ache and joy. Always side by side. They had made that first journey together. So would they make their last.

Telling others you write

I tend to forget that disappearing home every night and scrambling about on a keyboard isn’t normal. What with Twitter, Authonomy and all the author blogs I read, it feels like every man and his mother is writing a novel. I spend days psyching myself up to “Eye of the Tiger” and telling myself how fierce the query competition is. But then I go out and meet the general public…

People as a whole seem to realise how hard it is to get into the music industry. They also understand how actors struggle to get agents and auditions. But they seem to think being an author is simple. I’d like to share with you some comments that came up when I attended a friend’s wedding.

Now weddings are tricky, because you meet a lot of new people and they all ask you what you do for a living.  I answer “Oh. I’m an administrator.”
I have no interest in it, they have no interest in it (how could they) and it cuts the conversation dead. So then out comes the little gem.
“But what I really want to do is be an author. I write around work, it’s like a second job. One I don’t get paid for.”

The invariable response is “What, you’ve written a book? A whole book?” The fact that it’s a whole book always seems to impress them. I nod in confusion – I’ve been writing whole books since I was fifteen and it doesn’t seem that incredible to me. But at least it’s got the conversation going again.

Depending on the person you’re talking to, they’ll either ask this other question or jump straight into the next paragraph. The question is “What kind of books do you write?” I like this question – it’s always lovely to have people show interest in my work and I like to talk about it. The only problem is, when I reply “historical fiction”, very few of them know what I mean. I get a blank stare.
I try to expand.
“I take a historical figure and research about their life and their character. Then I turn it into a narrative, I mean a story. I try to bring them to life.”
More blank.
“Erm… have you ever read Philippa Gregory? Kinda like that I suppose…”
Only one of the people I spoke to had heard of Philippa Gregory. One. I wanted to kiss her.
The others tended to respond with “Oh, I don’t read many books” which rather left me wondering why they asked in the first place…

People may not know Philippa Gregory, but they do know one author: J K Rowling. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had to say something about her. Now I think J K’s alright, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and stuff. I don’t understand the full amount of hype around her, because I don’t think she did much that was new – in fact, Ursula le Guin had already written some rather fabulous books about a boy who became a wizard before she even put pen to paper. But I detract from the point. The one sentence that everyone says when you tell them you write is this: “So you could be the next J K Rowling!”
Vain, hopelessly vain, to point out that she doesn’t write historical fiction. Even more useless to suggest you don’t aspire to be her.  Best to smile, nod and say “I don’t know about that.”

It’s around here I try to point out just how hard it is to even get a book published, let alone succeed. When I tell people my book is finished, they say “Are you going to send it off to publishers then?”
I have to explain about agents, the query process, partial submissions, full submissions, editorial suggestions from the agent before trying publishers, the rarity of getting a book deal, then working with the publisher’s editor…
Their eyes start to glaze over. I begin to think I’ve finally got through to them – this is a tough and gruelling business.  They open their gaping mouths and say “Well, I’m sure J K Rowling got rejected lots of times before she made it.”
Seriously, again with Rowling? Do they know any other authors?

I think people mention J K Rowling so much because she’s clearly made a lot of money from her writing. And sad as it is to admit it, people seem to see writing as that: a get rich quick scheme. Of course all us authors out there, starving in garrets, laugh in their faces, but they do really believe it. On the way back from said wedding, I popped into the W H Smith at the services. There was a guide on publishing your ebook which I decided to flick through. The contents made me recoil in horror.

It had, as I expected, many pages on formatting, the differences between Smashwords, Kindle etc etc. But it also had a chapter on writing your ebook. Choosing a subject. As if you’d decide you were going to do a book just for the hell of it without even knowing what it was going to be about. Nothing on editing, nothing on proofreading. It was coming up with a money spinning idea.

Now let’s do a reality check here. If  I was going to publish my own work in an ebook I would do these things: hire a professional editor, hire a professional copy editor, hire a professional cover designer and hire a professional type setter.  I would consider this the bare minimum. All these extra people working on making my  project perfect would cost me upwards of £1,000. Let’s say £2,000. And, being an unknown author, the most I could sell the ebook for and get sales would probably be around £2.50.  My goal would be to break even. And since this would mean selling 800 copies without any kind of professional marketing, I would consider this a rather unrealistic goal. At what point is this going to make me a millionaire?

It may be hard to make people understand, but my writing goals are these:

  • Write the best story I can
  • Give someone a book to read that they can’t put down and feel glad to have read
  • Do justice to my characters
  • In some small way spread awareness of Georgian history and its forgotten women

It would be wonderful if could make enough money from this to mean I could write full-time and give up the day job. But that’s not my writing goal; that’s my writing dream.

So perhaps for the moment I shouldn’t tell people that I write. I should just give them the link to this blog post.

Have you had any funny or frustrating conversations with others about writing? I’d love to hear them!

Type-casting the Regency

Officially, the Regency period extends from 1811, the year George III was finally deemed unfit to rule, to the date of his death in 1820. In common practice, the term is used to refer to the era between the first Regency crisis of 1788 and Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837. Poor William IV, alas, is quite forgotten – but more of this in a future post.

When we imagine the Regency we often paint a glittering, exhilarating picture – a breathless whirl of duels and dandies, balls and fast carriage rides. If you look for a work of fiction set in the period, you are more than likely to find a light, skippy, Heyer-esque romance. What has given us this misconception of a turbulent, difficult period in history? These were years of war and political upheaval with the monarchy and country in a state of dangerous flux. Yes, there may have been young women who based their worlds around sprigged muslin and ices from Gunter’s, but there are as many heedless teenagers today. Does that make our time one of peace and never-ending fun? Hardly.

Historical fiction seems to have carved out a particular “mood” for each era. The Tudor novels I have read are full of threat and illicit sex – dark, brooding pieces. Victorian works focus on the poor or the seedy underside of London; those that deal with the higher classes tend to focus on women’s oppression. If we can see the threats and struggles of these other periods, why do we waltz through the Regency as if such things never existed?

True, you were less likely to get beheaded by a capricious monarch in Regency England. But the death sentence still stood and the jails were still filthy pits of hell. The last burning at the stake took place as late as 1789, while quartering and disembowelment were only removed from the punishment for High Treason in 1814. Soldiers came back from the Peninsular war poor and limbless to beg on the streets of London. The Industrial Revolution was putting many out of work. As for women, although they were not yet expected to be “the angel at home” of Victorian times, they were still very much the property of men. They could be legally kidnapped by their husbands and beaten, so long as the stick was no thicker than a man’s thumb.

Perhaps we base the “spirit of the age” on the literature of the times. There is no doubt that the Regency was the golden age of satire. If we only read the comic novels of Fielding and look at the caricatures of the day, it is easy to imagine a period of romping joy. Many people, I know, blame Jane Austen for carving out a tidy little world inside her novels, but this is unjust. Although Austen was a gifted wit, her books are about impoverished women in the power of snobs and men. Moreover, if you look at Austen’s life, you will see more of the “real” Regency: two spinster sisters making shift with their elderly mother, reliant on the protection of their brothers. It is the same with the Romantic poets – Byron and Keats hardly made it to happily ever afters. It is worth noting that popular books of the period were not all careless, happy pieces: we have Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic horror novels, Richardson’s women under constant threat of rape and Sir Walter Scott’s historical yarns, looking back on other times as better days.

The more I consider, I begin to believe we base our view of an era on the reigning monarch. Henry VIII was both powerful and turbulent, an unpredictable force – hence the constant state of uncertainty and danger lurking in Tudor novels. Most people remember Victoria as the unsmiling widow, never amused (a great tragedy, in my opinion) –  so most Victorian pieces are equally sombre. For the Regency we have the overly-emotional, extravagant, often ludicrous George IV. His parties, no doubt, were carousels of absurd games and indifferent morals – which is why we suffer from the illusion that one could get away with pretty much anything. But we have to remember dear old “Prinny” was widely condemned in the press for his actions. Only aristocrats with the influence of money and a title managed to polish over their misdemeanours and keep appearing in society, although many of them were still ruined.

So who has written a Regency novel that is not a romance? Worryingly few people. I have highly enjoyed Gregory’s A Respectable Trade (I am yet to read the Wildacre trilogy), Miller’s Pure, Griffin’s The House of Sight and Shadow and Banbridge’s According to Queeny, but most of the action takes place in the earlier Georgian period.  Morgan’s Passion is worth a read – although, as you can see from the title, it is a love story, it is based on fact and not whimsical jaunts. The only book that really and truly, for me, manages to combine the tragedy and frivolity of the era in one full swoop is Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Even this starts and ends a little early – 1775 to around 1794 (?) – but it has the right feel to it. Both sides of the Janus-face time come to the fore: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The Bodice Ripper

Princess Sophia

Back in November, I attended the IHR Winter Conference about the relationship between academic history and historical fiction. One historian gave a wonderful talk about how novels had given birth to her passion for studying the real life subjects.  She ended her speech with the succinct summary: “Besides, the sex is better.”
Later, Stella Tillyard thanked this lady for reminding us all why we really read historical fiction. Of course, every candidate laughed.

But was it really a joke? The more I research into my chosen genre, I start to wonder if there’s an element of truth in this. Let me tell you about my experiences as a reader. In my teens, when my obsession with the Georgians began, I was more interested in books from the actual era than historical fiction. I went on to expand my period all the way up to the Victorian age, but still refused to read any fiction penned after 1900. I felt reading books really written at the time gave me a much better understanding of the people and the society. As you can image, the raciest thing I’d read was Thomas Hardy, and that’s about as subtly sensual as you can get.

I finally broke my chains to read Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”. Now, while my friends may tell you I’m a bit of a prude, I had no problems with this story. The Tudor court and its politics revolved around sex, and after all, the book is about Henry VIII’s mistress. My second historical read, Tracey Chevalier’s “The Lady and the Unicorn” was even saucier. But again, I understood the symbolism of the unicorn’s horn and was quite content that the “bodice ripping” was necessary to the story.

I can’t say this of every historical novel. It seems to me that all books and movies now have the obligatory sex scene, whether it’s appropriate or not. At the moment I’m reading Gillian Bagwell’s “The Darling Strumpet” which, admittedly, is about Nell Gwynn, who worked as a prostitute and went on to be mistress to Charles II. Very rightly, it shows the seedy underside of Stuart England but – dare I say it – I think it shows a bit too much! It’s a well written book, even the sex scenes are well written, but there are so MANY of them. I’m getting to the point where I turn the page and think “Oh, goodness, here we go again.” I’m getting a bit bored with them. I don’t think there’s any way Nell hasn’t had it. Twice.

So is this an expectation of the genre? There’s an excerpt at the back of “The Darling Strumpet” from Bagwell’s next one – again, lovely writing – but they’ve decided to feature the bit with a gypsy boy pleasuring himself underneath a tree. This must be what sells about her books – but is it what sells historical fiction in general?

I’ve tried to think why I like certain sex scenes in the genre. I guess there’s always a curiosity about the different types of under clothing they wore and what they did for contraception back then. Yet when you think about it, the act wouldn’t really be as romantic as it’s portrayed, would it? The bed could be ridden with lice, the beautiful clothes that drop off our heroines stiff with weeks of sweat. Afterwards, the hero would probably wee in the chamber pot and go to sleep, leaving his lady with the stench of his urine. Nice.

Perhaps it’s all about the element of danger. In a modern novel, an assignation with a lover doesn’t carry the same risks of disgrace and social banishment. I have to admit, this makes historical sex scenes more exciting for me, but again I wonder, how realistic is it? The threat of an illegitimate child or being cast off from one’s family would prevent most (sensible) heroines from taking part in these escapades.  I’m convinced there are many more girls who throw caution to the wind in historical romance than there were in real life.

So where should we use the good old-fashioned bodice ripping? Obviously, if you’re writing about a real person and they really had an affair, go ahead.  With made up characters, sex scenes can be wonderful, but I would suggest you use them sparingly. I can tell, and so can a million other readers, when you’ve tacked one in there for sake of it. When I look back over the books I’ve read, some of the erotic passages that stand out in my memory didn’t feature the act itself. You can use your skill as a writer to draw out the sensuality of the scene – and often, subtext is so much more thrilling.

In God save the King, I currently have one full-blown bodice ripping chapter. I felt this was necessary to show how sheltered the Princess Royal had been up until her marriage. The scene is revelatory for her and sadly, not very pleasant. But with Princess Sophia, I’ve been less explicit. It is clear from what I’ve written that she sleeps with her lover, but I didn’t feel the need to describe their love-making. I talk about their love and their feelings for each other, including their desire, and the methods of contraception they relied on.  As far as I’m concerned, no more is required.

But am I wrong and hopelessly innocent? Do you now consider my book with disgust and run off in search of fresh, heaving bosoms? Let me know your thoughts.

Can we do the past justice?

Queen Charlotte

Despite writing short stories and novellas set in the Regency period for about the last ten years, I’ve always shied away from “real” people. In fact, I haven’t even resorted to the little stratagem many authors employ of having their characters bump into people such as the Prince Regent and Beau Brummel. Why? Because I just didn’t feel entitled to put words in the mouth of someone who truly existed. I could literally see their Georgian skeletons rotating in their graves at my presumption.

Two years ago, I found a reason to overcome my scruples. I picked up a book that had been long languishing on my shelf: Flora Fraser’s Princesses. If you haven’t read it (and you should read it!), this wonderful book gives a biography of the six daughters of George III. Ever heard of them? It occurred to me that so many people would love this story but would never know of it, because they simply aren’t the types to wander down the history section of the bookshop.  Fired up with enthusiasm for my new best friends, the Georgian Princesses, I decided I was going to tell the tale to those who wouldn’t read it otherwise.

Of course this was massively ambitious and naive. I may set out to write their story, but I will only ever tell my own.

Historical fiction is, I believe, wholly subjective. Yes, you could weigh the subject matter evenly and show every side of your protagonist from birth to death, but you would end up with an academic essay, not a novel. Although all my characterisation is based on research, I am bound to bend it to my own means. Essentially, I am writing about freedom and I will naturally select source material that helps me to express this. I’m not the only one: I was amused this week to see Charles Fox appear on Garrow’s Law as a slim, well-dressed man with small eyebrows – the polar opposite to most of the accounts we have of him. But as Garrow’s Law is aimed at showing a man before his time – liberal, reforming and a beacon of justice – his “radical” associates have to appear attractive to us. Old food stains and a monobrow like a caterpillar just wouldn’t do that. I can fully understand the casting decision.

I have had endless trouble moulding my three heroines Queen Charlotte, Princess Royal and Princess Sophia into “characters”. My problem is that they are people and, however much art seeks to imitate life, will never fit easily into the pages of a book. For example, contemporary sources tell us Charlotte started life in England as a “gay young Queen” but as we follow the course of history we see her beaten down into a selfish, morose woman. She was the type of person who would get herself into debt by giving too generously to charity but in later life acted with almost inhuman coldness to her own family. I have tried my best, and am still working on blending these two aspects of her psyche – but so far the response from test readers has been, understandably: “Why is she so nice in her narratives but so harsh in her daughters’ ones?” Some of this, no doubt, stems from a weakness in my writing and a need to further develop the psychological insight I offer. But I have found what the reader expects from “book characters” is consistency – and unfortunately, their real life counterparts don’t play ball!

Aside from this, there is the yawning gulf between your subject and your reader to consider. However well spoken Princess Royal was, I am compelled to use contractions such as can’t and won’t to make her dialogue flow. I have tried, where possible, to use my subject’s own words, directly from their correspondence. Amusingly, it is these lines that my test readers underlined with “This doesn’t make sense”. Quite rightly, the test readers also highlighted the young Princess Sophia’s narratives that jarred against their expectations: “She is seven! Were you this eloquent at seven?” Sadly, no, but Sophia was. In French, too. But when it comes to writing a good novel, it simply doesn’t matter. My test readers are right: to the modern eye, it looks stupid.

What do you think? Can we ever tell the true story of our subjects, or even present our own interpretations without bowing to the restrictions of the art form? Should we even want to? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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