Today I'm delighted to welcome Jean Fullerton to my blog. Her new book, 'Call Nurse Millie' is out on 23rd May. I was fortunate to be given a copy by Jean for my birthday and I read it in a day and a half. This book about the life and loves of a post-war nurse is her best book so far - and all her Victorian books were very good. Over to you, Jean:
As historical authors one of the things my good friend Fenella and I are constantly struggling with is how much historical detail to put in and how much to leave out of a story. It’s a conundrum and no mistake. After all, isn’t it the history that the reader is after? Well up to a point yes, but if they wanted just pure history then surely they would be better off with an history text book of a non-fiction account of a particular period of event?
Although, readers of historical fiction quite rightly demand that historical fiction be accurate to the time, place events and social attitudes of the period the story is set. And the operative word there is ‘story’. Even if based around actual people and events historical fiction is still fiction and it’s over all purpose is to entertain.
Now of course, the best historical fiction also educates and challenges you along the way but if it has failed to do what it says on the tin and you’re bored ridged by chapter three then…well, there’s probably too much history.
As I can get historically interested in a 1960s London Underground ticket for me there can never be too much history but when I’m reading I want the protagonists’ story to predominate.
I can understand why historical authors fall into the trap of squeezing in history and squeezing out the story because you do find out some brilliantly interesting period details.
The research I undertook for Call Nurse Millie had two strands one was the period the story is set in, from VE day 1945 through to December 1947, but also my own profession, district nursing. After gathering together and reading dozens of 1940/50s nursing and medical text book and nurse biographies I understood the various techniques and procedures used by the profession in the 1940s.
For example: I knew the way district nurses set out their equipment on a table before dressing a wound and the method for boiling syringes to give insulin to a diabetic patient but how to include this in the story without holding up the narrative with big blocks of description by telling the readers all the minutiae of the procedure. That’s the trick.
Well, the answer is that as a fiction author you have to build the historical world enough to ensure the reader stays in the period as the story twists and turns but not so much as they feel they’re in a history lecture. The secret is to slip in the details so the reader doesn’t’ even notice. Talk about the wireless not the radio. Your heroine picks up her meat daily from the butcher, vegetables that are in season – something we never think about today.
For the nursing detail I have Millie putting old newspaper under the bed sheet to absorb moisture, soaking her glass thermometer in Dettol, re-corking the bottle of iodine and rubbing surgical spirit on a patient’s sacral area to toughen the skin. I also have her standing up when the matron walks in to the room and worrying if Alex Nolan, who she’s terribly keen on, will think she fast if she lets him kiss her on their third date.
Weaving in period details is very difficult and can tie you in knots. I wanted to show how important radio was in everyday life during the late 40s and spent hours searching for the correct timing for programmes like Workers’ Playtime and ITMA. There is always the temptation that instead of showing through dialogue how pregnant and nursing women had green ration cards, is to just explain the way the war-time rationing worked. If you want your reader to lose themselves in your story you have to wrap it around them like a warm blanket so they never what to leave.
Thank you, Jean, for your fascinating insight into writing a historical novel.