Sunday, September 23, 2012

The next big thing?

English Historical Fiction Authors on Facebook have been writing blog posts based on ten interview questions about their latest Works in Progress. I thought I'd join in.

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing:

1.) What is the title of your book?

2.) Where did the idea come from for the book?
A neighbour of ours mentioned that her family’s fortunes had been made by her great-grandfather who had been a coach proprietor in London. He was William James Chaplin (no relation to Charlie). In 1994 she asked me to transcribe a letter written by Chaplin, which a bookseller had bought at auction and brought to show her. Neither of them could read his writing, but I could… I wrote an article for “Carriage Driving” magazine about his career, but I wanted to do more with it. And it simply had to be a novel – the themes were too big for anything else.

Some of the phrases Chaplin used in that letter appear in his conversations in Coachman. Our neighbour also gave me a copy of the family tree, and permission to write the novel.

3.) Under what genre does your book fall?
Historical fiction. It isn’t really a romance in the usual sense.

4.) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

George – Tom Ellis. Chaplin – I’d love to see him played by Kenneth Branagh. For Lucy and Sarah – I’m not au fait with the names of young actresses, can’t think why. The main thing would be to portray their character, though.

5.) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Ambitious coachman George Davenport travels to London with his bride to take up a new job, but he discovers that his boss's daughter has designs on him that have nothing to do with his driving.

6.) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’ve self published the last 3 of my books. As it happens, I’ve designed the covers for all my books, including those produced by mainstream publishers. So it has been quite good fun to go it alone. It would be nice if an agent picked it up but for now I’ll slog on with selling myself.

7.) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The idea has been there for 18 years! It took all that time for the internet resources to appear, like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, where I could read the full text of coaching books that were long out of print and hideously expensive to buy secondhand. The MS took about five months, but I kept going back and rewriting, developing the storylines, then putting it away and coming back and rewriting yet again. It’s been the messiest thing I’ve ever written, because I had to do a lot of U turns – into the history, then back to the characters. Lots of “killing my darlings” as the story itself straightened out in my head and much of my research became unnecessary. I probably have half a novel in the “spike” folder on my computer; journeys George made, and people he met, both before and after this story is told.

8.) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Malcolm MacDonald’s “World From Rough Stones” sequence. I don’t know yet whether I will follow George and Lucy any further, but I certainly like them enough to consider it.

9.) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My own great-grandfather was a coachman. I’ve been involved in carriage driving since 1985, and when I’m interested in a subject I read widely round it so I have shelves full of books about the coaching age, plus lots of stuff in PDF format.

There are many historical novels set during the age when the horse was the fastest thing on the road, and a few written about the dawn of the railway age, but there’s nothing – so far as I know, anyway – about what happened to the men who had been the Knights of the Road and whose work suddenly vanished. So I thought it was time to redress the balance. Of course, that one thread as the main theme of the book wasn’t enough; I had to make up characters and relationships that would be interesting, too. I knew I had to invent people whose lives would touch Chaplin’s, so I could show what might have happened to the drivers, stablemen and horses when railways took the heart out of coaching.

My great-grandfather was in domestic service, not on a commercial route, and he lived 50 years after Chaplin’s time, but his existence in my family tree gave me a name to hang my story on: George Davenport. And my great-grandmother really was called Lucy Hennessy, though she didn’t live in Carlisle and my relatives will no doubt be relieved to hear that I have completely invented her unpleasant mother and their unsavoury history. The religious belief that sustains Lucy in the novel is a known factor in the emotional survival of modern victims of child abuse.

Chaplin had a patriarchal number of children, including twin girls, Marianne and Sarah. Sarah was the only one of his children who died unmarried (not counting Rosa who died aged 8 and Horace who died in infancy). Nothing is known of Sarah Chaplin, so I could safely invent whatever reasons I liked to account for her spinster status. I’ve suppressed any mention of her twin sister for the sake of simplicity. My decision to make her obsessed with power sprang from her father’s dedication and the observation of a former coachman, who remarked that Chaplin’s business was founded on “systematic application ... in which the female members of the family were called to assist.”

Many of the drivers mentioned in Coachman were real people in the Golden Age of Coaching: the Ward brothers, for instance, and deaf George Eade. I’ve invented the less attractive ones like Anderson. Some of the real coachmen, such as Cross, wrote autobiographies during their twilight years for the benefit of Coaching Revivalists in later Victorian times. Their works were rich sources for this novel.

10.) What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s a love story about a marriage that survives – not perhaps a popular theme today, but probably true of its time. We think now of 1837/8 as the year of Victoria's Accession and Coronation and the opening of the Victorian age, but it was pivotal in England's history because huge changes began in industry due to the opening of the railways. It’s that change which is the catalyst for many of my book’s central events.

There are threads about abusive family relationships, and about same-sex relationships which were still punishable by hanging at that time; so it’s by no means a fluffy fantasy set in a past era as an excuse for heaving bosoms, tight breeches and randy behaviour. Books like that really annoy me as they are so often inaccurate on the history, habits and behaviour of the time in which they pretend to be set.

Victoria’s Coronation year had lots of celebrations, rather like 2012's Olympics and Diamond Jubilee, so it was fun to set my characters against those colourful backdrops.


For links to other author's blogs please see my Next Big Thing post for November 2012.


Pauline Conolly said...

Oh, I love the sound of this multi- layered story Sue. Although it's very different, there are echoes of my own Water Daughter Daughter's story, specially with the complex Victorian era themes and family relationships. Hope it will appear soon!

Francine Howarth said...


Great answers, and must say I am thoroughly looking forward to reading this one. ;)


Anonymous said...

Sounds terrific, Sue. I wish you every success.