Historical fiction author Clare Harvey guests on my blog today. She discusses how she incorporated both reality and her imagination when creating a ‘real-life’ character in her latest book, The Night Raid (renowned artist Dame Laura Knight). Let’s hope Ms Harvey doesn’t hear from any disgruntled readers this time!
It was a slap in the face. After dozens of four and five star Amazon reviews for my second novel, The English Agent (Simon & Schuster, 2016), I got my first ever one-star review: “I feel this is a very poor book and the Vera Atkins portrayed in it is nothing like the real Vera Atkins. It does an immense disservice to a great lady. In my opinion it was bordering on libellous, although I realise that you cannot libel the dead,” said the reader.
Oh dear. It had never been my intention to cause upset with my fictional take on the Secret Operations Executive (SOE) agent handler Vera Atkins, one of the main characters in The English Agent. However, the one-star review set me thinking about the borders between truth and imagination when using real-life figures as a stepping off point for historical fiction.
In the course of my research for The English Agent I’d read Sara Helm’s comprehensive biography: A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE (Abacus, 2006), watched old TV interviews with the SOE officer, visited her wartime London home, and listened to audio archive of her held by the Imperial War Museum. I knew I had taken care to ensure my made-up version of her was authentic. But, as a result of that one-star Amazon review, I felt that I should re-double my efforts in future work, and try to create characters that contain as much ‘truth’ within them as possible.
In my new book, The Night Raid (Simon & Schuster, 2017), one of the central characters is Dame Laura Knight, a renowned painter who worked as a war artist in both First and Second World Wars. I made sure I discovered as much as possible about Dame Laura before beginning. I’d already seen many of her paintings in a 2013 exhibition of her work in her hometown of Nottingham, and I then read everything I could lay my hands on, scouting round for her rare, out-of-print autobiographies: Oil Paint & Grease Paint (Penguin, 1941*), and The Magic of a Line (Kimber, 1965), which were wonderful reading, because her voice comes through so clearly in the narrative. There were also two biographies of the artist: Janet Dunbar’s Laura Knight (Harper Collins, 1975) – now also out of print – and Laura Knight: A life by Barbara C Morden (McNidder & Grace, 2013). As well as reading about her, I visited Laura’s childhood home in Nottingham, her wartime home in the Malvern Hills and watched old Pathe newsreels documenting the unveiling of her most famous piece of war art, a portrait of a girl in an ordnance factory: Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring.
Having discovered a wealth of information about the world-famous artist, I then created a slice of her life that never actually happened. In The Night Raid Laura returns to her home town of Nottingham to paint the girls at the gun factory, and in the process discovers secrets about her own past and the lives of the young women whose portraits she’s working on. It was a joy to write, and I think my genuine passion – bordering on obsession – for my subject comes through in the narrative.
As Hilary Mantel says: “I am not a historian. I don’t see what I do as being rival to biography.” I agree with her, but I like to think of writing historical fiction as a bit like building a wall. The historical and biographical facts are the bricks and your imagination is the mortar – the wall is a fiction entirely of the author’s creation, but it contains truths that are an integral part of the structure, and without which it would come crumbling down. I hope I’m right – and that there are no one-star reviews this time!
You can catch up with Clare Harvey on her author Facebook page (ClareHarvey13), Twitter (@ClareHarveyauth), website: http://clareharvey.net, or via her publisher’s author page: http://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/authors/Clare-Harvey/576635850
* ‘Oil Paint & Grease paint’ is due to be re-released in hardback by Unicorn books in 2018
The Night Raid (Simon & Schuster) is out now in hardback and e-book, and the paperback is published on 14th December 2017.
Acclaimed author Clare Harvey spent a childhood in Mauritius, Surrey and Devon. She studied Law at the University of Leicester, and has had an itinerant adulthood, travelling throughout sub-saharan Africa and working as a freelance journalist and English tutor in Nepal, Germany and Northern Ireland, as well as various parts of England. She has three children and has now settled with her family in Nottingham.