Over the past week, I’ve been reminiscing about how and why I first started writing historical fiction. What prompted this walk down memory lane is that A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald has just been published in the UK. I call this my ‘A-ha’ book because it was born from a place of failure and despair, but actually proved to be the most joyous experience, one that set me on the path of writing about fabulous women of the past.
What some readers might not know is that my first two published novels were actually works of contemporary fiction. What is Left Over, After (2010) and If I Should Lose You (2012) were the kinds of books I thought I should be writing – serious, literary works about motherhood and loss. My third book was going to be along the same lines but when I sat down to write it, I found it to be incredibly hard work.
I don’t like giving up on things. So I made myself finish the damn book. Then I sat down to read it and thought, there is something wrong with this book but I don’t know what it is. To take my career to the next level, I knew I needed to go out with a strong book, a book I loved. And the book I’d written just wasn’t it.
So what did I do? I threw my manuscript away. 80,000 wasted words. Except that they weren’t wasted. Because I learned so much in the writing of them. That I was trying too hard to be more entertaining, but also that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I was writing on ground that was too safe, too much the same, and I was being too serious.
What I wanted was to write something fun. Something that would make people smile. Something that would also make them think and feel and cry perhaps too, but that would ultimately bring them joy.
I thought about all of my favourite books. That one of the things I loved about those books was their love stories. And I thought, why don’t I write the book I would love to read? The book that would sweep me away in the pleasure of it all.
Another thing that many of my favourite books had in common was that they were historical novels. And so the germ of an idea began to grow. Wandering around the Perth Writers Festival in 2012, I’d happened upon a session where biographer Lyndall Gordon was speaking about her biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns.
One of the things touched on in the biography was the fact that women at that time (late nineteenth century) had just begun to go to university, but this was still very much frowned upon by all but the most liberal members of society. For a woman to go to university these days is nothing remarkable, but I was fascinated by the idea that it used to be scandalous.
So I did a little research. I wanted to know what would be THE MOST scandalous thing a woman could dream of studying at university. I quickly found out that it was medicine; I also discovered that there were certain medical specialties that were deemed particularly unwomanly, and that obstetrics was one of those specialties.
I knew, then, that I would write about the first female obstetrician. The story would be fictional as there’s no actual record of who the first one was (and isn’t that telling!) and I also knew that this woman would be a member of the Ziegfeld Follies, the notorious Broadway revue which ran during the early part of the twentieth century.
With these two ideas, I knew I was onto something. I could write a beautiful love story. I could set it in one of my favourite cities, New York. I could set it in one of my favourite eras, the 1920s. I could see where this crazy idea took me.
Sitting down to write A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald was a daily joy. I loved it. I looked forward to it. I wanted to do it more than anything else. The first draft poured out of me in about four months. I felt like it was good. I felt like I might be onto something.
So I redrafted. I re-wrote. I did massive amounts of research. But the whole time there was a little voice inside my head saying, what if this book never gets published? What if you never publish another book again for the rest of your life? What will you do then? What will you be if you can’t be a writer?
I hated that voice. Some days it got to me but most days I just ignored it. I was lucky to be so swept away by the writing that I was able to forget almost anything. I had to believe in myself and my book more than I believed in that negative inner voice. And I’m so glad I did. This was the book that landed me a publishing deal with a top five publisher and was the springboard for taking my career to where it is today, with books published all over the world. It’s hard to imagine, now, that A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is the book I nearly didn’t write.