The other world of history: Writers’ Night with Bridget Collins, Stacey Halls, and Sonia Velton

Historical fiction is a genre that will never not fascinate me. It’s partly due to the idea that good fiction will live on in the minds of readers long after they’ve finished reading, and with historical fiction that is even more true, because should we choose to, we can learn more about the real events, places, or circumstances that influenced a book. Often, that’s exactly what I’ll do. So the whole experience becomes extended. I also love seeing how that boundary between reality and fiction is toyed with and probed.

That’s why this event at Foyles stood out to me: an entire discussion on a favourite bookish topic. Another big draw was that the author of one of my most anticipated reads would be attending: Bridget Collins, author of The Binding.

Joining her was Stacey Halls, whose book The Familiars was inspired by the Pendle witch trials of 1612, and Sonia Velton, author of Black Berry and Wild Rose, which tells the story of a silk-weaver. The evening was chaired by Natasha Pulley (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks).

Beginning with the original ideas for writing their books, Bridget’s explained her fascination with the fact that binding hadn’t really changed in centuries, as well as her work with Samaritans, where volunteers are almost guardians of people’s stories. When Natasha followed up with a question about research, Bridget joked that any she had done was focussed more on farming processes that anything.

Stacey and Sonia were both inspired by real figures, both of whom are women that are scarcely known about in spite of being influential in their own ways. Whereas Stacey kept real names, such as those of her protaonists, Fleetwood Shuttleworth and Alice Gray, and used the extensive historical records to inform writing, Sonia’s protagonist is only loosely based on a real person. Because so little is known about this woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite, she crafted her own story around her.

All seemed fascinated by the idea of exploring hidden facets of history in different ways, especially relationships. There was a great comment that so much of history is focussed on the big events, and therefore concerns men’s decisions, whereas historical fiction, especially for Stacey and Sonia, provided opportunity to look at domestic spheres and female relationships, with the history as the background.

There was talk of literary as well as historical influences and these ranged from Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel to Daphne du Maurier (Yes Bridget!) and Michel Faber.

Pulley noted another theme found within each of these books: that of magic and forbidden knowledge. Though explored in different ways and to different extents, in Stacey and Sonia’s books, magic is shown as a means of controlling women by categorising them as ‘deviant’ in some form. In Bridget’s book, magic is much more vivid, an active metaphor she uses to explore other themes.

One of the best questions from an audience member was about any difficulties faced in avoiding modern ideas in their work, especially as each of these writers set their books during times when the situations of women were more submissive. All three acknowledged the difficulty, but Sonia in particular argued that the key was to keep in mind the authenticity, while also allowing for small rebellions.

The final discussion point was on the drafting process which provided much hilarity as each writer had had an entirely different journey. Stacey had written 3 chapters, found it hard to progress further, so took a sabbatical from work and finished the first draft in 7 weeks (everyone was stunned). Sonia had first had the idea 15 years ago, and simply kept finishing and redrafting until she submitted a version to the Lucy Cavendish Prize, and then did more rewrites. Bridget’s was somewhere between those extremes: 9 months writing, submitting to agent with 9 months reworking, then submitting to publishers.

I had such a fantastic evening. I learned so much about these authors, their books, and their approach to writing about historical people or moments. Not only am I keen to read these books, but also to discover more about their settings.

Thanks for reading today’s post! Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts on historical fiction?

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