My work in progress is a complete divergence from Stonewylde, which was set in a contemporary, alternative society. My new work is historical fiction, set during the English Civil War on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. I just can’t seem to get away from the Dorset influence. I suspect this will always be the case as my imagination is teeming with countless ideas for other books set in different parts of the county. Dorset is ingrained in my psyche, I think!
The idea for my current work was born many years ago when I used to work as a teacher in Weymouth. Teaching local history to my classes, I was always fascinated by two events that happened in Dorset during the Civil War. One was the seige of Corfe Castle, where Lady Mary Bankes and her children held out against the Roundheads whilst her husband was away with King Charles in Oxford. The other was a daring attempt by the Royalists in Portland, to infiltrate and then storm the twin towns of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis during a dark, cold February night, and oust the Parliamentarians. I dreamed of one day writing a book about these two incredible events.
So my book is to be set on Portland, and it’ll be based on the theme of The Tempest. This is one of my favourite plays by Shakespeare, and I’ve always imagined it taking place on Portland. I’ve seen several productions of the play, and last year was lucky enough to see it at the Globe Theatre on Southbank, on Shakespeare’s actual birthday! (and deathday). It was very good, but not as good as the production I once saw by the RSC on tour, at Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester. I took my three sons, who were quite young, and we were all totally mesmerised by the superb acting. I love the premise of the plot, and shall be using this for my theme. I’m not so sure about the happy-ever-after ending though, and will doubtless deviate from that.
I’ve always loved historical fiction and have read a lot of it over the years, starting aged 12 or so with The Legend of the Seventh Virgin by Victoria Holt (my mother’s book) and now enjoying work by Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain and Alison Weir, amongst others. There are so many excellent historical writers, and I must be just a little mad trying to add my bit to the huge catalogue of work in existence. But there aren’t that many novels set during the Civil War (not compared to the Tudor or Victorian periods, for instance) and anyway, as anyone who writes will understand, once the idea bites it’s impossible to rationalise it out of existence.
For the past year or so I’ve been engaged in research. Oh my goodness! I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. There are many strands to this – first, the Civil War in general. Then how it affected Dorset, and finally, what actually happened in Portland, Weymouth, Melcombe Regis and Wyke Regis. My head is boggling with battles, seiges, marches and surrenders – and I’m not even particularly interested in the military side of things!
One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is a novel by Lindsey Davis called Rebels and Traitors – I found this extremely helpful for the Civil War in general, because although there are some great non-fiction books around, I found her novel really brought the subject alive. Two non-fiction books which have been excellent for the local history side of my research are Treasure of the Golden Grape by Selwyn Williams, and The Crabchurch Conspiracy by Mark Vine.
Then there’s the Portland research. The island (technically a peninsular because of Chesil Beach, but an island to all intents and purposes) is unique. It’s beautiful, magical, mysterious – a writer’s dream. It’s also had its guts ripped out by quarrying, which has been and still is vital to the economy, keeping food on the table for countless generations. The problem for me is that at the time my novel is set, the 1640s, the quarrying industry on Portland was still fairly minor and the landscape therefore was totally different from today’s. It’s not just a matter, as with other landscapes, of villages and towns being built, roads cutting through etc – on Portland the very land itself has gone, and around the craters and down the cliff-sides are artificial piles of spoil.There have also been extensive landslips around the coast, so the actual shape of the island itself is different.
I’ve been very lucky to have met Susann Palmer, who’s conducted archaeological digs and research on the island for many years, and also the wonderful Stuart Morris, local authority on all things pertaining to Portland, and author of many books on his beloved island. He kindly walked around the area of Church Ope Cove, the ruins of St Andrew’s Church and the even older Rufus Castle with me and Drax, and was happy to share his knowledge. Shirley from the Portland Heritage Study Centre is a constant help with my enquiries about baptisms and burials, incumbents, tithe maps and tenancies.
I’ve spent countless days in the reference library at Weymouth, at Portland Museum, and the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester. The more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know, and as a newbie to historical and local history research, this is a daunting lesson. I’m writing a novel, not an information book, but although I’m happy to use my imagination, I also want to be as accurate as possible where information does exist. One of the problems is that the Roundheads burned down the largest house on the island – the Old Parsonage – where all the records were probably kept.
I’ve also been researching the other aspects of historical fiction – the social side of things. Some writers don’t mention the nitty-gritty stuff such as what people ate, how they washed, what was on the walls – but even if I don’t use all this information, I need to know it for my own benefit, to make the story come alive for me.
But I think the hardest thing for me is trying to resurrect the ruins and the devastated landscape, and people the island with my characters. Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ariel are all floating in the sweet air, ready to face their brave new world. And the real-life characters such as Fabian Hodder, Colonel William Sydenham, Sir Lewis Dyve – they are slowly unfolding themselves from their present thin, grey selves and fleshing out, breathing deeply of the bracing Dorset sea air that’s just starting to bring colour to their ashen cheeks.
The working title for this book is Of his Bones.