This week, my brain has been buzzing trying to settle on a time period for my historical fiction project. It has to be something I love, but I was torn between choosing something completely new and going over something I already studied at BA level. Diving into a new historical era would be exciting, but re-visiting an era I’ve already studied would make the weight of research easier. Here is my shortlist so far:
1) 1930s Moscow during the Great Purge
One thing I am certain about is that I want to write from the point of view of a woman. I have studied the USSR briefly during first year, and I have a personal interest in the topic, so I think I could have a good stab at making a believable setting. My extremely basic knowledge of Russian and the Russian psyche does put me off though.
I would be writing from the point of view of a party functionary’s wife during the terror that was Stalin’s Great Purge. She suspects that she and her husband are being closely watched by the KPD, but her husband is trying to keep her in the dark about it. I could cover their arrest, questioning and harrowing journey to the Gulags in Siberia. I am wondering whether it would just be far too depressing to capture the reader’s attention.
2) Kent, 1381: The Peasant’s Revolt
I studied the Peasant’s Revolt in second year, so my background knowledge is still solid. I think the it’s a fascinating historical period because, for a brief few weeks, the whole social hierarchy threatened to turn itself on its head. I would write from the point of view of a woman caught up in the revolt. Maybe she owes money to the local Abbey and Bishop, as many did. Maybe she is an indentured labourer (villein) tenant, an unfree resident who owes labour every year as a form of tax and who cannot move or marry without the landowner’s permission. She travels with the mob to London where they successfully storm the Tower for the first and last time. I am sure women were involved in the uprising, and have subsequently been skimmed over. It would make for a fascinating area of research, but I’m sure the documentation will be both scant and highly biased towards the ruling classes.
Maybe her husband could be captured and hanged for taking part in the revolt, and she lies to save herself. I think women are still far too often either presented as long-suffering, self-sacrificing, virtuous beings or shameless whores, with no grey area in the middle. It’s the classic ‘two Marys’ approach: the pit or the pedestal. I want to write an ambitious and morally ambiguous character, just like so many male historical figures.
3) Badley, Suffolk 1348: The Black Death
I also studied a module on the Black Death in final year. The next village to my hometown in Suffolk was completely wiped out during this pandemic, and it never recovered. There are barely a couple of houses left there to this day. It would be interesting to see if there are any records of the Black Death at this time. Sometimes you get lucky and some rolls remain with names and dates, and sometimes they are lost to history. Again, the documentation here is likely to be scant and I would have to think hard about how I would be writing the dialogue. Middle English is almost unintelligible to the modern ear (think struggling through Chaucer). On the other hand, it would certainly be a challenge to try to get under the skin of an ordinary female villager at that time. Maybe she survives as her whole family perishes. Again, it’s likely to make an extremely depressing episode, but happiness is rarely a source of inspiration for writers.
4) Wittenberg, during the German Reformation, 1517
I think it would be far too challenging to try to write from the perspective of Luther himself, but it may be possible to write as if you were someone close to him. However, I haven’t studied the Reformation in Germany in any depth, apart from the first translation of the Bible into German, which wouldn’t be very useful here. The weight of research here would be quite daunting, and I would have to grapple with the nitty gritty of Reformation thinking, and there was often only a wafer of difference between the new Protestant way and Papist orthodoxy (if you’ll pardon the pun). Another complicating factor is that there was no one stream of Reformation thinking: Tyndale’s assertions differed from Luther’s, which differed from Calvin’s which differed from Zwingli’s. It would be extremely difficult not to confuse any of this, and I’m not interested enough in theology to pull it off. So I’ve abandoned this idea before it really had a chance to germinate.
5) Edwardian Britain: The Suffragettes
I’m almost certain I’m going down this alley of research. I’ve never actually studied the Suffragettes (gulp), but I have more than a passing interest. I’ve read Caitlin Davies’ Bad Girls, a history of Holloway Prison, and I’ve recently listened to a couple of podcasts by Fern Riddel on Kitty Marion, the most badass Sufragette you’ve never heard of.
I think we far too often see the Suffragettes as a peaceful, middle-class movement, when a good proportion of the activists were militant and working-class. We often conveniently forget about their targeted bombing campaign. Many of their contemporaries saw them as terrorists.
Luckily for me, Kitty Marion left us extensive autobiographical papers which have only recently received the attention they deserve, having been published in their own right and having been the focus of Fern Riddel’s book, Death in Ten Minutes. I think it would be great fun to re-write some of these episodes as historical fiction, either from the perspective of Kitty Marion or by inventing a Suffragette closely based on her biography. I think the latter would give me more creative freedom. I would have to do some extensive research into the Suffragette movement and Edwardian London, but I feel like it would be greatly rewarding. I set out to write from a woman’s perspective, so what could be more appropriate a subject than the Suffragettes?