A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
What’s more important about historical fiction – the history, or the story? It’s a question so big that I’m sure every author who writes it will have a different answer, and each one will be perfectly true.
For me, setting is very important. My Wells & Wong Mysteries are set in the 1930s, and that’s something that deeply affects the stories I can tell. Daisy and Hazel exist in a time without forensics and mobile phones, one where racism is naked and socially acceptable, a world rushing towards war and full of hidden fears and insecurities about the future. I think it’s important to get both large concepts and small details right – what people wore, what they ate and how they thought about the world – and I do research to make sure I’m drawing 1934 and 1935 as correctly as I can. I have a lovely big book of 1930s fashions, another compendium of 1930s advertisements, and an incredible social history book called The Long Weekend that was first published in the 1940s and so can give a brilliant first-hand account of all of the crazes and fads and concerns that occupied the posh characters I’m writing about (the Loch Ness Monster was big, as were vitamins and rambling).
But the Wells & Wong Mysteries aren’t just histories. They’re nostalgia fiction, and in them I’m very deliberately trying to recreate the cosily anachronistic ‘historical’ feeling that you get when you read a Poirot or a Miss Marple. The books themselves were written over more than 50 years – Christie’s first book came out in 1920, and she wrote her last in 1973 – but although she does vaguely nod to changing fashions and fads, essentially everything is static. People keep on wearing nice hats and murdering each other on chintz couches with diamond-encrusted daggers in just the same way, and I think that’s the key to the books’ continuing success – that they never were about a real place, or an actual time. They were nostalgic from the very moment they were published, and because they were already dated, they could never age. So although I do try very hard to make the history in my books believable and right, I don’t lose (very much) sleep over the inevitable incorrect detail. The important thing is the effect.
I’m also someone who believes very strongly that although ideas and surroundings and fashions change, people themselves do not, and I think it’s people who must be the focus of any detective story. I want the reader to believe that they are in Hazel and Daisy’s lives with them, as simply as that, and I want them to believe in all of the characters that my heroines meet.
As a writer of historical fiction, I feel very free to write about diverse characters because those people existed as surely as the white, straight, posh ones that you see in most TV period dramas. There have been significant settlements of Chinese people in Britain from the early 19th century. The first non-white boarder came to my secondary school, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, from Cairo in 1901. (I’m not saying that this was the first non-white child there at all – just the first girl to travel in from another country.) There are plenty of letters and novels and autobiographies (fictionalised or otherwise) that show girls falling in love with other girls at boarding schools in the Victorian era and beyond.
But although LGBT people can now marry, and racist acts are a crime in the UK, we have painful and repeated evidence to show that in 2015 people’s lives are still made hell for the sin of not being born white or heterosexual. We’ve taken some steps forward, and some steps back – everything my characters struggle with in the 1930s are things that people are still struggling with today.
People have always and will always fall in love with the wrong person, and hide it; or be desperate for money and do anything to get it; or be jealous of the success of another and not be able to forget it. They might have done away with each other using different methods in the 1930s, but their motives for their crimes are essentially the same. I think that this essential stasis is key to detective fiction’s perennial success, and that’s what I’m trying to pick up on in the Wells & Wong Mysteries: I want the past of my books to be a different country, but one that can be instantly recognised. The details are different, and the details are fascinating, but at the end of the day it’s the people who matter, and it’s the people I care about when I write.