writing

Prologues

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I’ve been thinking about prologues recently – a topic that often arises in discussions about historical fiction. Are they useful? Do they just get in the way?

Personally, I never start out writing a prologue. I often add them further down the line when I start to worry my starting chapter does not have enough punch. With Queen of Bedlam, I jumped in time to show Charlotte and George toward the end of their lives in the prologue, before hopping back to the beginning of their marriage and finally to the ‘present.’ While I enjoyed writing the prologue for that book, I’ve come to think that it was probably a mistake. The jerk through time proved confusing and the prologue didn’t really add to the story. What I should have done was just focused on rewriting the opening chapter to make it more exciting. Oh well, we live and learn!

However, prologues can be useful, especially when they are in the voice of someone we will not hear from for the rest of the narrative. I have two examples of good prologues I can call to mind. Firstly, Karen Maitland’s The Gallow’s Curse. Not only is it shocking, pacey and well-written, it explains how the curse of the title comes about. The curse will later impact upon the main characters, but not in a way that they can investigate and ‘reveal’ to the reader. Therefore the prologue is essential for our information, even though the main characters may never find out about the events it shows.

My second example is from a wonderful book called The Ballroom by Anna Hope. I have to admit, when I first read it, I thought it was a bit redundant. Why is this prologue there? I thought. Surely it’s given away the ending? But no – what it had actually done was set me up to believe the book was going to end one way, when in fact something quite different was going on. It was a clever device and I was completely fooled.

In my latest book, The Silent Companions, I added a prologue in the third or fourth draft. My reasoning was that horror stories often start with a shocking death, to compensate for a slow build up of creeping dread in the opening chapters before the true action starts. As I had a character that was dead when the book began, I thought a prologue was a perfect opportunity to ‘kill’ him on the page. But actually, I didn’t need it. I started to doubt its purpose and my agent allayed my fears by telling me the opening was strong enough without it. So off the prologue went into the deleted scenes folder… And I think the book is better without it.

However, just for fun, I’d like to share the deleted prologue with you. It is not a spoiler in any way. This character is dead when the book begins – although he now dies in a very different way to the one shown below. The companions have also changed – they no longer have the plant-like creepers that chase poor Rupert. Although the story is now different, I hope this little snippet will whet your appetite for the book when it comes out :)

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Prologue

The Bridge

He thought he would have more time.

His pocket watch showed a minute to midnight. Already they stirred above him; creaking, whining, hissing. Rupert rubbed his eyes with his good hand, chasing the sleep away. Time enough for sleep soon.

A dying fire touched his surroundings with orange streaks. He must have dozed in the chair, for they had been there: the marks of them were all over the room. A pile of dead leaves and thistles rose to his ankles. His hand stung like the devil and yes – the wound was open, oozing, threaded with fresh splinters. He shuddered, imagining them peering over him while he slept. They could have taken him, easily. But that was not their method. They wanted him awake.

Rising to his feet, he waded through the leaves toward the bureau. The equipment was all there: the two bottles and his last cigar. Glass clanked as he put the bottles in his pockets. They felt like leaden weights. He closed his eyes, trying to steady his breath. The moment had come. He had to do this right – for Elsie’s sake.

He took the cigar and the stub of his candle and lit them in the embers of the fire. Tears filled his eyes, making an orange, smoky blur. Only a couple of flames remained; the light was fading fast.

Creeping to the door, he pushed it open a fraction. Listened. The relentless hiss that haunted his dreams floated down the corridor, raising gooseflesh on his arms. They were above him, without a doubt. Rupert placed one eye to the gap between the door and the jamb. The corridor lay in darkness. He had to go now.

His slippers moved across the sawdust on the landing. He had taken the room next to the nursery on purpose – it was the closest to the servants’ stairs. Jamming the cigar in his mouth, he held up his candle and opened the baize door with his bad hand. It was excruciating. A thousand needles burnt up his wrist. His fingers were heavy, stiff, creaking at the joints. If this was what one touch did, he did not want to know the agony of their embrace.

As Rupert spiralled down shallow, winding steps his candle sent shadows capering up the walls. The stairwell amplified the hiss; it was all around him, vibrating in the very air he breathed. How did the servants sleep?

He stumbled into the kitchen, exhaling a cloud of smoke. For a moment, his courage failed. The housekeeper had heard it, hadn’t she? Perhaps it was not as he feared, perhaps it was not the tricks of his own mind. But then he looked at the mangled mess of his hand and remembered.

He pushed on into the larder, trying not to think of his parents, but their images rose out of the darkness. Poor Mama, raving on the bed, her ankle splintered and torn just like his hand. Then the bandage on Father’s arm, days before he fell so tragically from the second floor. Fell. His heart reached out, down the years, finally understanding: it was no accident. Father did what needed to be done. He saw the madness coming and saved the family’s reputation.

Setting the candle down, he rattled the bottles out of his pockets. They glimmered weirdly in the low light. He’d taken all the precautions he could: complaining of stomach aches, ordering laudanum for his wound. They could trace poison now – he had to throw the coroner off the scent. If they didn’t rule his death as accidental, Elsie would lose everything.

He opened the bottle of laudanum awkwardly with one hand. Its vapid, bitter scent mingled with the cigar smoke. Then he uncorked the second bottle containing tiny arsenic grains and tipped them into the laudanum. He expected something – a fizz, a reaction. The liquid just stared back at him, dull and reddish brown.

Hiss.

His shoulders trembled. How had it come to this? All those years he had lived, never suspecting that a curse lurked deep down inside of him. It must be hereditary – a fever of the brain, passed on through blood. It had demented his mother, consumed his father; he never stood a chance.

Hiss, hiss.

He removed the cigar from his mouth and laid it on the table. This was the time to prove himself. Could he do it? As he picked up the bottle, his nostrils filled with its sharp, deadly aroma. Everything in him recoiled. He wanted life, he wanted to be with Elsie.

The glass rim touched his lip. He could taste the vapours, their dizzying pull. Still he hesitated. Her beautiful face swam before his eyes. He did not know how he would disgrace her less: as a suicide, or as a mad man.

Hiss. Creak.

He could get better. There were medicines, these days. Better treatment than his mother ever –

‘Christ!’

A bolt of pain shot up his leg, jolting him forward. His fingers slipped and nearly dropped the bottle. Hot blood oozed between his toes. He looked down.

A thick creeper wound through the open door and around his ankle, bristling with thorns. Its pointed end pierced right through his slipper, through his foot, pinning it to the ground. He went giddy. Shadows concealed the worst of the gore but he could hear his flesh, squelching and sucking as the creeper moved.

The pain. The pain. There was no time for second thoughts. In one desperate slug he forced his toxic drink down.

He grabbed the empty bottles and his cigar. It was too late to follow his plan and fill the laudanum bottle with black tea – he would have to take his chances. Gritting his teeth, he yanked his foot from the floor. The sound was worse than the agony – a sickly rip as he forced himself out of the larder and into the passage that led to the kitchen.

Barely conscious, he pulled up the loose stone in the floor and hid his empty bottles under it. That would have to do. It was bad enough there would be blood in the larder – he couldn’t risk the bottles being found.

The creeper slithered after him.

Hell and damnation. It was all going wrong. He couldn’t leave a trail of blood, he would have to clean his foot up. Limping into the kitchen, he found a muslin for boiling puddings and wrapped it around his blood-caked slipper, adding a sack on top for good measure. As he tied it he heard them creaking, creaking ever closer. Time had nearly run out.

He stubbed out his cigar. The candle was still in the larder – he would have to go back up in the dark. The idea should terrify him but he was warm, lightheaded. It would not be long before the drugs pulled him under.

He climbed the servant’s stairs as if he were treading water. His feet were heavy, too slow. Now and then he felt the creeper teasing at his heels. It could go faster if it wanted, but it liked the chase.

Just as he reached the top of the staircase, a white hot fist squeezed his gut. He gasped. That would be the arsenic. Only a little farther . . .

Hobbling across the landing, he saw their silhouettes waiting in the shadows. He swallowed the vomit that rose in his throat. They wanted him to look into their dead eyes and feel fear, but he would not do it. Soon he would never have to see them again.

He crashed into the bedroom. The spluttering fire showed a hoard of them gathered by the window. Despite their vile faces, he laughed.

‘Better . . . luck . . . next . . . time.’

Somehow he hauled himself into bed. A low whine signalled their approach. Come on, come on. He was too tired for fear, too tired for anything, but he willed the poison on with the last ounce of his strength.

Elsie . . . He wished he had written to her properly. If he’d known it would be tonight, he could have prepared. But perhaps it was best this way. She’d never know of the brain fever that took his mother, that forced his father to . . . He only prayed she’d stay away from this cursed house.

Creeak.

God, how it burned. But he would brave it out. The muscle spasms, the sweat pouring from his skin – they were his victory over them.

Through fading eyes he looked up and saw it blurred beside his bed: the figure of the little girl. Close, very close. But the warmth was flowing in now, a tide of comfort and sleep. He tried to smile – his lips would not move.

Too late. He wanted to crow, but he could only think the words as the wooden face loomed up before him. Too late.

He had won.

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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