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Friday, 14 May 2010

Writing What You Know

Being a history student with finals to tackle in coming weeks, I've been devoting the scanty hours of the past month in which I have not been trying to remember when such-and-such happened and why to writing some 'proper' historical fiction (and to watching the first three seasons of Desperate Housewives, but that's beside the point).

It is perhaps surprising that I have never attempted to do so before, but my two major efforts of fiction have leaned heavily on a fantastical element to sustain dribs and drabs of 'real' history, primarily devised to create a certain olde-worlde atmosphere. Why? Partly laziness, partly the daunting prospect of almost as much research as I was required to put into my undergraduate thesis. It occurred to me recently that I have been doing things the wrong way round.

I know next to nothing of the Norse-saga/ Arthurian mythology required for my Rings & Roses enterprise, and the steampunk nineteenth-century world of Victoria Sponge is too late to be something I am comfortable writing about with historical confidence. I should have been thinking about what I do know, and writing about that. This is exactly what I have started to do in The Emerald Tablet (working title). It is still a later period than I am accustomed to (very late eighteenth century) but concerns a number of themes which are some of my specialist topics: Renaissance science, alchemy and magic. 'The Emerald Tablet' is the name of a text by the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, purporting to reveal the secret of alchemical transmutations.

The story revolves around two fictional characters in a true historical context. The first, Lucentio de Ghast, lives in a Bronte-esque wind-battered castle in the far north of England, attempting to discover the long-discredited secrets of alchemy. The second, my narrator, is Agnes Forrester, a servant in the castle. Her father was the publisher of an Enlightenment newspaper. I am not sure yet where the emphasis of the story will be placed; romance, tragedy or the questioning of beliefs. But I know, for once, just what I am writing about - and this helps no end.

If you'd like to have a look at my prologue and first chapter, you can find them here. Tell me what you think!

Alexandra Riley

P.S. For any historically-minded writers, I have a history blog here. If you want something in particular researched, do ask me; I may as well make use of these Oxford libraries while I can!


  1. Argh, the excerpts are brilliant!
    *gives up writing in despair* :D

  2. Thank you, except about the giving up writing bit. I would not thank you for that!