One of ten books chosen for the Arts Council backed Exclusively Independent Initiative (an Arts Council-backed scheme bringing together indie publishers with independent bookshops) Kill-Grief is described by publishers Picnic Publishing as full of “the clap, alcohol and amputations”.
Here, Caroline talks to RosyB about unusual heroines, writing about addiction and the smell of mud in 18th century Chester.
Q: How do you set about imagining the sights and sounds and smells of a time you have never experienced? How do you get the sense of place and atmosphere right for all your settings?
A: Well, I’m not sure if I have got them right, but I hope so! At the beginning of Kill-Grief, Mary arrives in Chester having lived all her life in a tiny coastal village, so she is overwhelmed by the noise, the atmosphere and the sheer number of people. This gave me more scope to describe the city in detail than I would have had if she’d been blasé about it all.
I try to consider what details I notice in modern life, then think about 18th-century equivalents. Some things really aren’t all that different. I spend a lot of time with horses, so things like the condition of the ground, the smells of straw, mud and manure and how the weather affects everything are pretty normal to me. Those are the kind of things that haven’t changed much over the centuries.
I don’t go in for the notion that people in history didn’t notice anything because they were used to it. Obviously if historical characters go to the extreme of saying “We went in a horse-drawn carriage because we didn’t have cars in them days,” then yes, that’s silly, but everyone has some sense of what’s around them - even the everyday things - so I like to acknowledge that by describing small details.
Q: Mary is an unconventional heroine in many ways (something I like, I must admit). Did you set out to write an unusual heroine?
A: I pictured Mary as a loner with a fiery streak, but that was about it to begin with. As I went through the countless re-writes and edits of the book, her character developed in some directions I didn’t expect. She became increasingly complex as I added more layers to the book, and I found that her self-reliance was rooted in vulnerability. She has never been able to count on anyone, so she isolates herself as a way to survive.
Independence is nothing unusual in a fictional heroine - in fact, it’s expected - but one thing that makes Mary unconventional is that she is independent from other women. She is wary of forming true friendships, initially gravitating towards intense but disastrous relationships with men. At the beginning of the book she has never really been able to love anyone, and is quite detached from other people. This doesn’t stand her in good stead as a nurse, but then she discovers an interest in surgery - an occupation that needed that kind of detachment, but which, of course, was not officially open to women at that time.
Q: Mary is a nurse at Chester Infirmary. How did you set about recreating that world - not just the look and feel of it, but the politics between the staff and the community that worked there?
A: The building where the hospital started out is still standing, although it has been adapted over the centuries. Years ago I managed to get in and have a look at what used to be the ward. I was surprised at how small it was. I imagined it crowded with patients, but I had a sense of coldness and claustrophobia that inspired me to give the fictional version a fairly bleak atmosphere. Though I think it would actually have been way, way grimmer than I’ve portrayed it!
As for the staff politics, the very first incarnation of Kill-Grief (this was about 10 years ago, and it wasn’t called Kill-Grief then) focused on precisely this subject. I got the idea by reading between the lines in the Infirmary’s minutes book. The hospital was run by local philanthropists, and as with any voluntary committee, there were problems getting some people to pull their weight! Even the keen ones didn’t seem to have much idea what they were doing, and the paid staff were a motley collection who all had their own reasons for being there. This set-up seemed ripe for plenty of conflict, so I thought carefully about each character’s background and motivations - what they wanted, why they wanted it, and how the other characters were impeding them.
I’ve been involved with a few voluntary organisations in my time and have also dealt with the public quite a bit - in fact, part of my keenness to have writing career results from the desire not to work with the public ever again - so it wasn’t too difficult to imagine these situations transposed to an 18th century setting!
The fact that I also used to work in the NHS doesn’t have anything to do with it. Nothing whatsoever.
Q: Gin plays a major role in the story. Again, this struck me as an unusual theme - although very pertinent to the time the novel is set. Can you talk a bit about this? Can you think of other novels where the theme of addiction is central?
A: When I started writing the book, gin wasn’t part of the plan - it was going to be more about the tensions between the hospital staff - but while I was looking at the real-life 18th-century records of Chester Infirmary, I found a sentence saying that the porter had been warned to stop getting drunk. Then a month or so later, he was still drinking heavily so he got chucked out. From these two mentions, I started to wonder about his story - here was someone whose life had been characterised by addiction and rejection, and yet all that’s left of him now are a couple of sentences in sepia ink in one musty document.
Around the same time, I was doing a lot of reading about early hospitals, and I found that modern historians tended to dismiss the nurses as slatternly old drunks. And yet every single one of them must have been an individual with a childhood, an existence, with hopes and terrors, with relationships. I decided to approach the theme of alcohol abuse from a female perspective, and look into the reasons behind the stereotype.
Kill-Grief is set in 1756, because that’s when Chester Infirmary opened, but the Gin Craze had pretty much settled down by then. The laws changed frequently so I had to be aware of what was possible and what wasn’t, and work round it if necessary. For example, the sale of spirits was prohibited in prisons by then, but I wanted Mary to be able to buy gin from the Northgate Gaol, so I have a dodgy turnkey selling it illegally. Distilling was banned altogether in 1757, so it was just pure luck that the dates for the book fitted in. If prohibition had been a year earlier, I would have had to rethink!
Addiction in writing is nothing new, although I suppose it’s often quite a masculine theme. I found John Barleycorn by Jack London intriguing in that it balances the grim physical and emotional effects of alcohol with the undeniable pleasures of drinking. Drinking must have a pay-off, otherwise it would never be a problem, so I wanted to reflect both sides in Kill-Grief.
I was interested, however, in concentrating on the female perspective, and I was influenced by Dorothy Parker’s short stories about alcohol - particularly Big Blonde and Just a Little One - which are extremely moving in their sense of understated pain. Less well known is a memoir called Turnabout by Dr Jean Kirkpatrick, who set up the American organisation Women for Sobriety. Her own experiences led her to believe that Alcoholics Anonymous was very male-centric, so she created her own recovery programme for female problem drinkers. Her autobiography leaves nothing to the imagination and is very honest and shocking - but ultimately positive.
Q: A question I always wonder about with all historical novels - the most difficult thing, I imagine, must be the dialogue. How do you hear that in your head and how do you balance a feeling “not of our time” with a sense of naturalness?
A: I think reading as much literature as possible from the period in question means you absorb the common sentence structures and idioms without really noticing - but obviously this is easier if you’re writing about, say, Victorian times than the Dark Ages.
With Kill-Grief, there was the added issue that 18th-century Cheshire had its own dialect that would have been incomprehensible to people from other parts of the country at that time, let alone today. And to complicate that, the heroine is from Wirral, where there was a Norse influence to the language that wouldn’t have been there even in other parts of Cheshire …
Alan Garner has fascinatingly explored the dialect of 1750s Cheshire in Thursbitch, but… er… I’m not Alan Garner, so there’s no chance I could have got away with that! In the early drafts of Kill-Grief I had fun with archaic/regional words and slang - then I toned it down to remove the phonetic stuff but keep the speech rhythms.
In the end, I’m not writing for 18th-century readers but for modern ones, so I think the most important thing is to keep the dialogue inconspicuous. It needs to do its job quietly, without hitting the reader on the head with forsooths and do-not-yous, or have 18thC people suddenly saying “okay.” I aim for believability rather than accuracy.
Q: Research: Do you have a “research stage” and a “writing stage” or does it tend to meld into one?
A: For Kill-Grief I’d built up a reasonable body of research beforehand because I was doing a non-fiction paper about 18th-century hospitals, but the vast majority of research happened as I went along. I was still frantically checking facts a few minutes before I sent the final proofs back! With my new book, which is set in the 1850s, I wrote a first draft just based on background knowledge, i.e having read loads of Victorian literature and non-fiction about the themes I was interested in. I love researching, but it’s too easy to go off on tangents, and I want to keep focused. I’d rather get the bare bones of the story down first so that I know what I need to find out, rather than do lots of research in advance then discover that I don’t need most of it.
People often say that historical fiction must be difficult because of all the research, but I don’t see why it would be any harder than contemporary fiction. All books need research, whether that’s into the emotions of a character, the modern-day town they live in, the tube line they have to go on to get to work … it’s really not that much scarier to find out about the past. Actually, if I had to write a contemporary novel, I’d have no idea where to start. I wouldn’t feel as confident about dealing with subjects beyond my own experience - I’d be scared of getting it wrong, because I feel that other people’s view of the modern world is probably more accurate and valid than mine. I don’t know what’s going on most of the time. If I weren’t writing historical fiction, I’d write about futuristic dystopias - anything slightly removed from the here and now.
Q: You are both a writer and a prolific blogger, with several blogs including one that amusingly shows old remedies for ailments, many of which would poison us today! What is it that you enjoy about blogging and do you find it adds or subtracts from your writing brain (as it were).
A: I started my Writing and All That blog purely because it seemed like a good idea at the time. With hindsight, I should just have had the Quack Doctor one and contributed to Strictly Writing, because I do struggle to find things to blog about. I think my blogging results from neediness - I just keep wanting to chuck more and more words out there in the hope that someone, somewhere will respond.
I love researching the old advertisements that I put on my quacks blog, because there are some quite odd and entertaining stories behind them. I’m planning a non-fiction book about patent remedies, so the research will be useful beyond the blog. Overall, though, blogging does use up a bit too much writing energy and time. I only have about an hour to do stuff during the daytime - the rest of the day involves trying to stop my 2-year-old eating the dog food or climbing the bookshelves, so when he has his nap I really ought to be writing rather than blogging.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: My new novel is in the genre described by a friend as “Victorian claptrap.” Its working title is For the Love of Freaks, and it is about a young woman from Liverpool who exhibits a desiccated sea monster on street corners in the 1850s. She rises to unexpected fame and fortune, and befriends a famous “freak” of the age. On the surface, the book is much more light-hearted than Kill-Grief, with a sweet, bubbly heroine and plenty of jokes, but there’s quite a lot of underlying tragedy. Although it’s very different from Kill-Grief, I’m revisiting a few themes - determination and survival, and fertility (or lack of). No gin though!
Q: Five Favourite Books…?
A: Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock - I find this really hilarious, and I identify with Scythrop when he only sells 7 copies of his book.
The Unburied by Charles Palliser - set in the 1880s, this has superb writing, wonderful gaslight-and-fog atmosphere and an exquisitely intricate whodunnit plot.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson - I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this, but I go back to it whenever I’m at a low point, and it always makes me laugh.
The Greatest Benefit to Mankind by Roy Porter - a monumental work about the history of medicine - simultaneously in-depth and accessible to the general reader.
The Miseries of Human Life by James Beresford - very funny, and a lot of the minor annoyances of life prove to have been the same 200 years ago as they are today.
Kill-Grief is published by Picnic Publishing and is part of the Exclusively Independent Initiative for April.
You can find out more about Caroline by visiting her website here, or else taking a nosey at her blogs: Writing and All That and The Quack Doctor. She is also a member of Strictly Writing.