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Author blog post by Heather Marshall


Heather Marshall, author of Looking for Jane, talks of her experience of writing historical fiction.



  1. Historical Fiction: Entertainment as Education  

    “I had no idea about this piece of history!” It’s a sentence I hear regularly from readers, and see in countless reviews of my debut novel Looking for Jane. The massive surge in popularity over the past decade of historical fiction novels that explore and celebrate the contributions of women is serving to fill a gap in the general public’s education about women’s history in an accessible and entertaining way. Writers of historical fiction are typically drawn to the genre because they enjoy the process of learning about the past, and I believe the same holds true for consumers of the genre. While being entertained, they also wish to be educated.


    As such, writers of this type of fiction are often faced with the question of how close to stick to the historical record when crafting stories from the past. It can be a difficult one to answer, and both writers and readers alike harbour differing opinions on whether an author has an ethical responsibility to depict history accurately, or whether historical fact merely serves as a vague inspiration for the whimsy of the creative process.


    The clandestine and secretive nature of illegal underground abortion networks like the one featured in Looking for Jane meant that there wasn’t much in the way of an historical record to work from; most of the historical fact I used for the story came from the ‘unofficial’, oral histories of the women who took part in these initiatives, and from some of the women who utilized them. The fact that I was writing about an era as recent as the 1980s meant that nearly all of the subjects of this history are alive and well. Because of this, I felt a particularly keen sense of obligation to ensure I depicted this history as accurately as I could as a mark of respect for those who experienced it. If I was going to tell this story, I wanted to make sure that I got it right, and so I did follow closely in the wake of the historical record wherever possible.


    But when it comes to women’s history, we are faced with an additional complicating factor: that most of the historical record was written by men. It at best contains obvious omissions and biases, and at worst eliminates women’s contributions entirely. So, in such cases, is the question of adhering to the historical record still relevant?


    From a creative perspective, the gaps in the historical record are where a lot of the fun happens for me: where I get to take all that I’ve learned from what is available and extrapolate that information into plausible, compelling fiction. Generally, when it comes to character creation, I like to pull my characters from the background of major events, basing them off the individuals who weren’t necessarily the stars of the show, the ones making headlines, but rather the folks quietly going about their business behind the scenes of history. Often these people are women, because the achievements and contributions of women are so chronically undervalued, ignored, or overshadowed by men. So when I craft these characters, I wonder what they would be doing in relation to the historical context, how they would feel about it, how the socio-political culture of their era would impact them in all sorts of ways, and then pull the threads of known historical fact through the fiction of their lives. But in doing so, I also try to create characters that are still highly relatable to modern readers, teasing out universal themes and lessons that have transcended time and place throughout history to the present day. For me, history is a living, breathing thing, and in making it come alive through characters whose arcs weave in and out of the historical record, it provides both education and entertainment in tandem.


    I hope you enjoy Looking for Jane and the remarkable (and alarmingly timely) piece of history it celebrates.



Looking for Jane is out now in eBook and out in paperback on 1st September.






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