How not to write a historical novel

I attended a writing day last month and one of the speakers said that anything Edwardian or Victorian is hot news since the success of Downton Abbey.

I was thrilled by this information as a while back, I had an idea to write a ‘rags to riches’ historical novel set in The Potteries. It came to me so clearly and fully formed that I wondered if it was maybe a novel by Barbara Taylor Bradford that I’d read and subconsciously pinched.

This brilliant novel would be set in the Victorian times, when the Industrial Revolution was under way and small boys were still being stuffed up chimneys…But hang on a minute, when was the Industrial Revolution again? Oh, who cares, I’ll just leave a few gaps if I get stuck.

Just need to get started:

Megan stumbles on the cobblestones… oh wait, would it be cobblestones, or just cinders strewn across the dirt? Never mind, I’ll leave a gap.

She lit the gas lamp… Hmm, gas or candle?

She dressed in the dim light of dawn, pulling on her worn leather shoes… or would they be wooden clogs?

And all of these gaps were on the first page! You getting the feeling that my optimism was slightly misplaced? This novel was shaping up nicely- if I wanted to use it as a string vest.

Some research was clearly needed, so I decided to visit my parents who live in a lovely town called Stone, near to the Potteries to tackle some research. I visited the Gladstone Pottery Museum to see the real deal, took loads of photo’s which I’d love to put on this blog, but I left my camera somewhere in the building, never to be seen again. (I also dropped my iPad on to the brick floor where it clattered and rattled and I held my breath in dread, but it didn’t break- hurrah!)

So, pretty much back to the start of the Historical Novel of the Century. Luckily NaNoWriMo was looming  ( and I took the opportunity to write my story with as many gaps as I cared, because that kind of slack work is positively encouraged with NaNoWriMo, it’s all about quantity not quality. And you don’t even have to fess up that you didn’t finish the whole novel at the end of it –you just keep very quiet.  

So, although I was rather proud that I managed 42 thousand words in a month, my novel, cocooned in a halo of brilliance, was now a bit tarnished- and still full of holes.

Sad to say that I won’t be able to jump on the Downton Abbey band-waggon after all, as I have barely looked at the novel (optimistically called, Set In Stone) since, and I still don’t know if you could dunk a rich tea biscuit in your cuppa back then or if you would tell the time by a wristwatch or a sundial!

However if anyone hears a whisper that the next “Big Thing” is about Permafrost in the Arctic Tundra, I’m there- I got a ‘B’ in Geography for that, so I know all about it- or if I get stuck, I can always leave a few gaps.





8 thoughts on “How not to write a historical novel

  1. Hi Jackie,
    Your post really did make me smile! I’ve always had this vague idea that writing a historical novel would be good but I have to say you’ve just made me realise exactly how complicated it is. I do like the title though. If you really think your historical epic will never see the light of day then maybe use it for something else?

  2. Great post Jackie, although you must have felt terrible when you lost your camera. Perhaps you should give The Pottery Museum another visit – or two, so that you can fill in those gaps. Well done on all those words during the NaNoWriMo!

  3. You made me chuckle as always, Jackie, and you struck a bit of a cord. I am at 54,000 words in 44 days with the WIP, although I suspect that it may be more of a thong than a string vest! I keep just writing and thinking, no problem, I can sort out that bit in the edits… I have a feeling I might be editing until I am dead! 😉 I agree with Alex about the title though. Perhaps a contemporary novel “Set in Stone” might be easier or a fantasy where you can make up whatever details you like!

    Jo x

  4. Thank you for your kind comments. I thought ‘Set in Stone’ was a brilliant title too, until I went ‘home’ to Stone and spotted a hairdressers with the same name. thought that was brillianterer!

  5. Well done, Jackie. At least you have all those words that you can use as a basis of a novel. The trouble with me is that I adore research and I waver over whether should be cobbles or clogs as well. I was right there with you. The thing is that when I do the research, I often find facts that really help my story along, so to me it’s worth it:) Good luck with ‘Set in Stone’!

  6. Hi Jackie,

    Lol – very entertaining. Love the title too; see what you did there! Then read your comment about the hairdresser – now that is absolute genius!!! I’ve actually had a bit of a story in mind myself based in WWII but your post has given me a reality check that I know absolutely nothing about this era and am way, way, way too lazy to do all the research. I have a new-found respect for those who do write historical (accurate) novels, though. I think the most research I have had to do on my contemporary novel is around how far ahead or behind us are New York and Dubai, how high does a hot air balloon fly and what time would the sunrise in October. Not exactly taxing stuff!

    BTW – I shall aim to get the word “brillianterer” in at work tomorrow. Love it.


    • I love it! Yes, I can definitely relate to the gaps. I did try to write historical once, but it just didn’t happen. Love to read it though. Enjoyed the how to blog.
      Lorraine x

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