A L Lester and the lure of historical romance

Let’s welcome AL Lester to the blog, whose latest novel, Taking Stock, is released today!

Thank you so much Catherine and Eleanor, for having me here today to talk a bit about my latest novel, Taking Stock!

It’s 1972 and Laurie is a farmer with a problem. He’s had a stroke and he can’t work his farm alone any more. Phil is running away from London and the professional suspicion that surrounds him at his City job. They’re both alone and unsure what the future holds. Can they forge a new life together with their makeshift found family in Laurie’s little village?

Eleanor has given me a topic, to my absolutely relief! So I’m here to talk about why I enjoy writing historicals, and what was different between writing my earlier historicals and setting my new novel in the 1970s.

Firstly, the main different between this and my backlist is that there’s no paranormal shenanigans going on. Up til now I’ve written in the 1920s and the 1780s, with a twist of magic. My magical world lies underneath the real one and I try to be as accurate as possible with that. But by education I’m a mediaevalist focusing on Britain, so the historical details was all new to me when I began.

For the 1920s books, I took inspiration from family stories about living in the East End of London in the first part of the twentieth century and there was a lot of documentary stuff to read. I’m a Dorothy L. Sayers fan, too, so it was quite easy to get a 1920s murder investigation vibe going.

Initially The Flowers of Time was supposed to be in the 1920s, too—it would have worked much better with plucky lady plant collectors toddling off around the world on behalf of Kew Gardens at that point in time and I already had a universe they could have slotted in to. However as I began writing, the characters got really bolshy and insisted they were from an earlier time period. This is one of the disadvantages of discovery writing. Things can take a corkscrew turn quite quickly.

It left me with a lot of reading, as not only was the geographical area very new to me, but the history was as well. I started off reading about the East India Company from resources that were easily available to me—British historians—and then I moved on to contemporary accounts of people’s travels and finally felt I knew enough to read from Indian historians and get a proper understanding. (Shashi Tharoor was particularly good). The contemporary accounts for women travellers in the eighteenth century are very patchy and a lot of the story was based around Isabella Bird’s account of her journey in the late nineteenth century. I did things like exploring different light sources – candle and butter lamps – and it was all very research oriented.

Then, for some ill-thought-out reason, I decided to set Taking Stock in 1972. Firstly, this made me feel old, because I was born in 1970. Secondly, it appalled my mother, who is still cross that the second world war is being taught as history. Thirdly, it’s almost impossible to find cover art for people that gives a 1970s feel without also feeling that one is advertising a Sirdar knitting pattern.

Apart from that though, it’s fine.

A lot of the farming references in Taking Stock are from my own childhood memories—the sheep dipping scenes for example—and from talking to older friends and family. I pigeon-holed a friend who worked in the City of London in the mid-1980s and extracted stock-exchange information from him, and I found a fascinating contemporary documentary on YouTube about stockbroking in the early 1960s. It was much easier to find that sense of place that I think is needed in historical fiction, because the references were all to hand. I can happily google ‘what happened in 1972’ and have a whole list of things come up that my characters would have been aware of. And the same for the 1920s really – there are millions of words written about the years immediately after the Great War and the social changes that were happening.

Despite having a paranormal twist in most of my books, I really think of myself as writing historical romance and I take pride in getting the history right. It’s a balance though, it has to give colour and a setting without throwing the reader out of the story either with factual errors—someone one-starred my first book because I shifted the publication date of The Beautiful and the Damned back a year to fit my time-line and it clearly spoiled the whole thing for them—or with making them feel they’re reading a text-book.

If you pick up any of my books, I do hope this is the case! You can read a bit more about all my books and the world they’re set in on my website.

Thank you so much to Catherine and Eleanor for having me!

You can buy Taking Stock now from Amazon.

Find out more at A L Lester’s website.

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