Setting Stories In The Past

In WWFS now!

In WWFS now!

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there…’*

I have a story called ‘Blood Sisters’ in this month’s Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special.

It’s significant (for me, at least!) because, at 4,000 words it’s the longest story I’ve ever had published and also because it’s set in wartime Britain and I hardly ever write historical stories.

It took a long time to write as I had to do a lot of research (much of which, I didn’t use in the end). ‘Blood Sisters’ is about the ‘Lumberjills’, the women who worked in the forests during and after the Second World War, providing much-needed timber at a time when most of the men were serving their country in other ways.

I remember seeing an interview with one of my favourite authors, Sarah Waters, in which she explained that she gets most of her plot ideas from research. She decides on the period of history in which she wants to set her novel and then researches that time for about 6 months (ooh, what luxury!) and from the research, she gets ideas for characters and story lines. She talks about research giving rise to plot ideas on her website here.

And in a much more modest way, that worked for me too with ‘Blood Sisters’. Researching the lives of the Lumberjills threw up lots of interesting facts. For instance, that many of the women who volunteered were from the cities and had never worked on the land before; that the work was hard and dangerous, involving horses, pullies, trucks and, obviously, falling timber and many Lumberjills were injured or even killed and then, there were the prisoners-of-war, who often worked alongside them…

Obviously I can’t give too much of the story away, but I’m sure you’re already beginning to see the ideas and themes that I might have weaved into the story, thanks to the research.

Of course, getting your facts right is important for other reasons too. Put an anachronism into your writing and you can be sure that an eagle-eyed reader will spot it and the story will be spoiled for them. (Which reminds me, did anyone see the burglar alarm on the house in the publicity shot for BBC’s ‘Poldark’ series? It’s set in eighteenth century Cornwall, when, let’s face it, the only burglar alarm was likely to have been a barking dog!).

Of course, that’s TV and we’re talking fiction but it’s similar – even if you have your characters using words that wouldn’t have been around at that time, it can grate!

But although it can be hard work, there is a definite benefit of setting a story in the past: it immediately gives your writing a spark of originality. I bet most competition entries are set in the present day, so if your story is set in Roman Britain or the Swinging Sixties (or even the 1990s!), the judge may well remember it because it’s different.

Do you write or read ‘historical stuff’? Or are you like my mum who claims not to like historical fiction because ‘it’s already happened’. (That’s what she said about Wolf Hall. #MumLogic).

* is of course, the first line of The Go-Between by L P Hartley (One of my favourite books).

This entry was posted in Competitions, Research, Short Stories, Successes, Woman's Weekly and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Setting Stories In The Past

  1. Catherine Robinson says:

    ooh many congratulations Helen – will try and buy it! 🙂

  2. Julia Anderson says:

    Congrats, Helen, on even writing a 4,000 word story let alone getting it published! I look forward to reading it. Julia

  3. juliathorley says:

    Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to justify such a long time on research? That’s what the safety net of success brings. I have to keep earning while I’m working on speculative stuff. You make a good point about competition entries being written in the here and now. I shall try to be more adventurous – if I have time!

  4. Lauren says:

    Bought the magazine this morning and thoroughly enjoyed the story! It’s good the accompanying picture is on the contents page as well! Well done!

  5. Linda says:

    Hi Helen, looking forward to reading this. I love historical books and I’m sure you enjoyed the research. What you didn’t use this time around can always be put to good use in another story.

  6. philippabowe says:

    Excellent news Helen – another feather in your writing cap! I’ve asked someone who’s about to travel here to pick me up a copy in the UK, so hopefully I’ll get to read it. I love the sound of it – what an irresistible theme, I can see how it inspired you. Writing in the past is a whole challenge – you have to be so careful to get all the details right, especially the dialogue. My novel is mainly set in the 1920s and 30s, a period I’ve always loved, and I’ve still got a ton of research to do – I would dearly love to have Sarah Waters’ six months … and Hilary Mantel’s genius! She brings such incredible magic to historical fiction.

  7. Congrats on your story, I’ll look out for it. My mum was in the land army during the war and told me lots of stories about it. Hard work, but she enjoyed it.
    I only became interested in history (and probably learnt more about it) through reading historical fiction – ‘real’ history lessons at school were so-oo boring!
    I have set some of my stories in the past, but I’m deliberately vague about the exact dates so I don’t have to get every little detail correct. Doing the research is too addictive. When would I find time to write?!

  8. charliebritten says:

    Congratulations on your success. I too have a (shorter) WW2 ‘out there’ with Women’s Weekly at the moment, so fingers crossed. I do write historical fiction and I really like the idea of the research providing the ideas.

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