My debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, is about two teens who star in a television drama. It’s pretty much as pop culture as you get in young adult lit. So it may come as a surprise to those who don’t know me well that my favorite genre to both read and write is actually historical.
If I were given the opportunity to time travel, I would choose the 1800’s in less than a heartbeat.
Something about this time period draws me in like no other, and I get positively giddy whenever I read a Jane Austen novel. So here’s another thing that most people don’t know: I started writing a novel set in the Regency era a full decade ago. I’ve worked on many other projects during those ten years, including my novel that’s being published this October, but I keep going back to my Regency novel and rewriting it. Not just revising it, but literally starting with a blank page and rewriting it from the beginning. The characters stay the same, but get stronger. And the plot (in my opinion) has much improved with each new draft. But ten years later, I’ve probably written a million new words for that one story.
And I still don’t think it’s ready to submit. Not yet. But it’s getting closer!
One of the reasons I feel that my historical storytelling isn’t quite good enough yet is because I’m comparing it to Jane Austen’s! But realistically, I know I will never reach her skill level. I will never write a single “classic,” let alone several of them. But I had an epiphany a few years ago that led me to look at that shortcoming in a different way: Jane was a contemporary author in her time. She wrote about her own world, about the technology of her day, about her everyday surroundings and social norms, just as I did when I wrote NOT IN THE SCRIPT. It wasn’t a stretch for her to tell readers about strolling down the streets of Bath, or attending the Assembly Hall; these scenes came naturally to her because she had done these things herself.
So I decided one day that if I wanted to write historical fiction more convincingly, I would need to see and experience the world that Jane lived in—or at least get as close as I could to it. And of course, I started in England.
My first two trips to the UK were spectacular! I gobbled up every historical site in my path, and inhaled my surroundings in deep breaths.
But it wasn’t enough.
So on my third trip, I went all out: Cosplay, Regency Style, at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England.
I could’ve only done this with a friend who loves Austen as much as I do—thank you, Sara—and oh my gosh (I mean heavens), it was fun!
We were invited to tea . . .
We hung out with Jane . . .
We strolled along the Royal Crescent . . .
We visited the Roman Baths . . .
And the infamous Assembly Halls . . .
Then we even walked down the streets of Bath with hundreds of other Austen lovers who weren’t satisfied living her stories through books alone.
Immersing myself in Jane’s world was a priceless experience, and I want nothing more than to do it all over again. When I write now, I can feel myself in those uncomfortable shoes, trying to hold up my skirt high enough to avoid the dirt on the streets, but not so high that it is indecent. I can easily picture myself among others dressed in Regency attire, peeking into glass window fronts, and gazing with wonder at the splendor of a grand ballroom.
My friend and I planned our eleven days carefully and visited many other sites that would help me better envision what the home of a duke would be like, or how royalty truly lives. (The following photos are all of Chatsworth House, still home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Bonus points if you can say which movies it’s been featured in).
History isn’t something that only piques my heart now, it actually stirs my memory. I can draw on it when I’m writing, and the world feels much more tangible—within my grasp. Yes, my experience of dressing up like a Jane Austen character was indeed artificial, but it honestly felt real. And the grand homes and castles are only staged for visitors, but if you add imagination, a writer can dream up any number of interesting things that could and have taken place in those rooms.
I did the same type of in-depth and on-location research for NOT IN THE SCRIPT (which I’ll soon be talking about on my new author blog, AmyFinnegan.com), and it had the same powerful effect on me. Whatever I write, I always try to put myself into the shoes of my characters to feel what they feel, see what they see, and then transfer those thoughts and emotions onto the page.
The world is becoming much smaller, and technology is astounding. So even if you can’t physically travel to where and when your story takes place, seek out online and film experiences that will place you inside that world. (Google Earth alone is an amazing help!)
When it comes to writing about different times, places, or lifestyles, find a way to live it and breath it, and then you can write about it with a more genuine sense of familiarity.
Amy Finnegan writes her own stories because she enjoys falling in love over and over again, and thinks everyone deserves a happy ending. She likes to travel the world—usually to locations where her favorite books take place—and owes her unquenchable thirst for reading to Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling. Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, came about after hearing several years of behind-the-scenes stories from her industry veteran brother. She’s also been lucky enough to visit dozens of film sets and sit in on major productions such as Parks and Recreation and Parenthood. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, or Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author).