I can’t write historical fiction, I thought.
Mainly because, unlike a lot of this blog’s readers, I’m no historian.
But I do love history. I find it fascinating how we used to live, interact, react, make sense of the world. I love to read it, too – those books that take you into a different world, rich with detail, evocative, stirring the senses. The Jacobites, Mary Queen of Scots, the Picts, Saint Columba, the Dark Ages – I have visited them all in fiction.
But in all the manuscripts I had written before my Highland Clearances children’s novel Fir for Luck, I had not ventured into historical territory at all. History? No, that was too hard. It would require more than imagination. It would require accuracy, attention to detail, self-discipline. RESEARCH. As a person not hardwired to care about detail, I let other people write the books that require actual effort to research, I thought. I wouldn’t seek them out.
The thing is; the story of Fir for Luck found me – and wouldn’t let me go.
I visited the book’s real-life setting, the clearance village of Ceannabeinne outside Durness on holiday and read the information signs with interest: Riots? Right here? Riots significant enough for The Times newspaper in London to cover, and for the Duke of Sutherland to intervene in person? Looking at the empty, barren beauty of the landscape around me it seemed unthinkable.
Completely hooked, I let the crumbling ruins scattered around the township trail work their magic on me. I was utterly baffled by the snippets the signs offered. What do you mean, the women of the village overwhelmed the sheriff officer who tried to serve the writ and forced him to burn it? How? My imagination cooked up the story, and now I had to figure out what the scaffolding was on which I could pin my tale. The shape of the story wasn’t mine to decide. It was already out there – I just had to find it.
I took photos of every display and sign on the Ceannabeinne Trail as I visited it. That meant I had a record of the basics. Tracking down the original piece of local historical research really helped, and I was incredibly lucky that its author was generous enough to read my first draft and give me feedback on it. I revisited the place as often as I could – one luxurious sunny day, my husband actually looked after the children and gave me the car so I could explore. I ran down the hill like Janet, navigated the cliffs above Rispond where Janet catches up with the Superintendent’s horse, peered up and down the road from the schoolhouse to decide what could and couldn’t be seen from here. I stepped across the burn like Isabella and stood where the cottages lay ruined, imagining the village elder’s house and the Seamstress’s beside.
One particularly happy day, I spent visiting the Strathnaver Museum, touching the tools, feeling the fabrics that would have formed everyday life for people like Janet. Whatever did we do before phones had cameras? I clicked this way and that, just to make sure that I couldn’t forget a thing.
Back at home I printed the best of the pictures and hung them on the wall above my desk, making the transition from my every-day to my characters’ every-day as quick and smooth as possible, whenever I found snatched moments in which I could write.
In the end, I stuck to a fairly simple timeline of non-negotiable events and characters, to which I added my own imaginative twist. I didn’t feel compelled to mention every single thing we know about the village at the time: pace was essential if I was to hold children’s attention.
The best research treasure I came across was a census list of the actual tenants of Ceannabeinne, the year before eviction. Even when I think about it, a small shiver runs down my spine: real names and ages and occupations. Real families who lived through the actual evictions I describe. I didn’t use their original names (pretty much everyone was called Mackay anyway), but swapped first names and second names around where possible. The occupations listed are now the jobs my characters do. I loved that nod to authenticity.
It wasn’t all reading and ancient documents either. There were many phone calls, watching of a village re-enactment video, countless first-hand accounts of the Strathnaver Clearances, re-reading and watching of John McGrath’s first-class The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil. A YouTube clip of Gaelic psalm-singing came incredibly handy.
Not too bad, this research lark, I thought. Maybe I can do detail after all.
The style which characterised my contemporary writing: pace and first person present tense narration felt natural for me to write. I think it may be the secret why the book has done much better than expected – it brings history to life in a very immediate way and makes it accessible to a modern young audience. The fact that Janet, my point-of-view character is a feisty girl adds to the contemporary feel – modern girls may well be alienated by too meek a heroine, and the fact that the women really did start the rebellion which led to the Durness riots served this purpose perfectly. Even the cover bridges the gap between then and now, the people of 1840s Sutherland and us. ‘The closer you go to the face,’ the designer argued, ‘the more it could be you or me. Put a girl in period clothing on the front, and modern readers will assume it is irrelevant to them.’
She was right of course.
Since publication in September, Fir for Luck has done better than I could have ever imagined. It hovered in the No 1 spot in its Amazon category for the first two weeks. It has over twenty reader reviews. Every single one of them is five stars (so far, at least). Primary schools are using it for project work, and my schedule is getting busy with school and museum visits and book festivals. Secondary schools have begun to order it, too – it sits in the happy no-man’s-land where young, older and adult readers all find someone to connect with.
Meanwhile, I have just finished a children’s novel set in Victorian Scotland. Maybe, just maybe, I am a historical novelist after all.
Barbara Henderson has lived in Scotland since 1991, somehow acquiring an MA in English Language and Literature, a husband, three children and a shaggy dog along the way. Having tried her hand at working as a puppeteer, relief librarian and receptionist, she now teaches Drama at secondary school and writes. Her historical children’s novel Fir for Luck was published by Cranachan in 2016.
Writing predominantly for children, Barbara has won the Nairn Festival Short Story Competition, the Creative Scotland Easter Monologue Competition, Pockets Magazine Fiction Contest and the Ballantrae Smuggler’s Story Competition. She was one of three writers shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize 2013. Barbara has a website and also blogs regularly at write4bairns.wordpress.com