Guest Blog- Heather Richardson, historical novelist and creative writing tutor
I’m looking forward hugely to reading Heather’s second novel Doubting Thomas which is appearing at the end of this month. Here is her very interesting account of the ‘experimental’ method that helped her decide how to treat the material and how best to tell the story.
Taking your story by surprise
When I decided to write an historical novel about the last man to be hanged for blasphemy in Britain, I faced a conundrum. How should I approach this real-life story? I had certain facts that were part of the historical record: Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead was arrested in 1696; his former friend Mungo Craig published a pamphlet condemning him; Thomas was tried, found guilty and hanged, but not before writing a speech accusing Mungo of being a blasphemer too; Mungo published another pamphlet, denying Thomas’s accusations. There was plenty to build into a story of betrayal and friendship gone sour. But how to go about that building? No matter how much material I had to work with there were lots of decisions to make. First person or third person? Or even – perish the thought! – second person? Who should the viewpoint character be? Thomas, Mungo or someone else? Or should I go for multiple viewpoints? How much of the text of Mungo’s pamphlets or Thomas’s speech should I include?
Thinking about these options is all very well, but, as the Irish proverb has it, no one ever ploughed a field by turning it over in their mind. At some stage I had to start writing. My approach with Thomas Aikenhead was to experiment with almost every element of his story, and to play around with writing styles. I wrote letters from dead Thomas to Mungo. I wrote deranged stream-of-consciousness extracts from Mungo’s diary. I wrote a flamboyantly wordy introduction to Edinburgh from an insouciant, irreverent omniscient narrator. In the course of my research I’d come across an incident involving Aikenhead’s apothecary father and some dodgy aphrodisiacs. That interested me – how could it not? - so I decided to write a short story from the point of view of a doctor involved in the case. This short story, as it turned out, was my way into the novel. The doctor and his wife became the most important characters in the novel. In many ways it is now their story rather than Thomas’s.
The approach I’m describing here is certainly not a quick way to write a novel, but it’s an incredibly interesting process. I think it’s also good for me as a writer. Hazel Smith, in her book The Writing Experiment, warns ‘it is easy to write only in the way that seems to come most easily, and which does not require any extension of skills or outlook’. She goes on to say that the writer who does not experiment with new approaches ‘will soon reach a limit in their work, a point beyond which it is difficult to develop’. Doing the kind of writing-for-discovery I’ve described here stretched me as a writer, and allowed me to interrogate the ideas and themes of the Thomas Aikenhead story. As writers we can become overly protective of our own work, but it’s important to remember that fiction is not chiseled from a block of marble. It can be pulled apart, twisted and reshaped without being destroyed.
I’m still very fond of my flamboyant omniscient introduction to Edinburgh. Sadly, that was one darling that had to be murdered – it just didn’t fit with the overall feel of the novel. But maybe one day I’ll get to recycling it. Do you think there’s an audience for a world-weary, Oscar Wilde-meets-Flann O’Brien account of Early Modern Edinburgh?
Doubting Thomas is published by Vagabond Voices https://www.vagabondvoices.co.uk/shop-vagabonds/doubting-thomas