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Writing ‘A Secret Alchemy’: Between And Beyond Historical Facts, by Emma Darwin

I love historical fiction: from childhood, all the novels that have changed and challenged my reading and writing life have been full of the lives and voices of the past. And I dislike historical fiction too: I dislike the kind which uses togas or carriages as so much set-dressing for modern emotions, beliefs and politics, and I dislike the shopworn storytelling of the C S Forester imitators, and the ‘Regency’ drivel of would-be Heyers. Above all, I dislike the docu-drama novel which does nothing but add wooden dialogue to the text-book story.

So when I fell in love with Elysabeth Wydvil, the mother of the Princes in the Tower, and her brother Antony, I also fell into a whole lot of trouble. How could I write what I wanted to, without writing one or other of the kinds of book I dislike?

I got a lot further once I’d decided to write in their own voices. Elysabeth is practical: a realist in an age when realism meant you might stay alive, a mother when children were political capital. Antony is a contemplative soldier: a visionary, a pilgrim when pilgrimage meant killing Moors in Portugal, a surrogate father who failed to save his surrogate son.

But still I couldn’t see how to free myself from the historical record. For Shakespeare, the War of the Cousins was a not-so-distant past that he was refashioning; old men could tell the tales, as your grandfather might tell you of his father’s Somme… But how could I make Elysabeth and Antony breathe for a reader, five hundred years later? Did the stubble scratch her ankles after the Grafton harvest? How did he live through the months as a prisoner-of-war in Calais? How – and who – did they love, and hate?

One way of dealing with a problem in your writing which refuses to be beaten is to join it in. How could I join my own excitement into this story, and my own qualms about writing the emotional truth between and beyond the historical facts? In the era of personal monarchy ruling the country was a family business; what if someone in the present, who understands all too well how secret love and rivalry can wreck a family, began to explore the story of Elysabeth and Antony? I’m fascinated by storytelling and the way the great stories – King Arthur, Jason and the Argonauts  – still underpin our habits of thought. Since Antony almost certainly knew Malory and was definitely Caxton’s first patron, what if the family business in the present were fine printing?

Una Pryor is a historian studying the Woodville’s books as the key to their lives, but she comes to feel that’s not enough. Slowly, by finally bringing her own past to light, Una realises how she can bring the Woodvilles to life. How I brought them all alive is how I wrote the novel. And if some readers are outraged by the ‘beyond’ that A Secret Alchemy reaches, then I take that as a compliment, because it means that in reading they couldn’t help but follow me. It means that my storytelling convinces: that my fiction, my ‘beyond’, feels like a real place. I hope it does, anyway.


Emma Darwin’s author website:

Emma Darwin’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     QuarterdeckShadow of the PastAuslanderMotor City ShakedownWeighed in the Balance

Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Impressed by this piece – heard echoes of how I approach my own historical novels! Liked the extract on Emma Darwin’s website – will now buy the book..

    February 4, 2013

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  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (February 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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