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My Influences As A Historical Novelist, by Emma Darwin

I’m often asked “What writers have influenced you?”, and I’m never sure how to answer. As a child I devoured authors such as Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliffe, and as a writer I’m bowled over by the likes of Hilary Mantel, Barry Unsworth and Rose Tremain, but I can’t quite point to any aspect of their work, and any particular thing in my work, and say “There: I got that from him/her”.

But if what you read as a child forms your sense of storytelling, then what you first read with an adult mind connects your novel-writing circuits. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when that question came yet again, and I found myself admitting that my fiction is – if anything – the love-child of Peter Ackroyd and Georgette Heyer.

It’s a very unlikely pairing, I do agree. If The Corinthian introduced me to stylish, fine-grained romantic comedy, in Hawksmoor I found insanity, filth, death and a truly adult and modern relationship of history to fiction. Yes, both root their fiction in impeccable research and relish the details, but never let the narrative ship lose way or founder. Both are (or were, in Heyer’s case) long-established, highly professional and consistent writers who have a devoted readership.

But some of what I learnt from them is, you could say, mutually contradictory. Ackroyd is by far the more Romantic, juggling sex, death, obsession, madness and black comedy. Heyer is the Rationalist: clear-eyed and intelligent, situating real love in high comedy, midway between sense and sensibility. Ackroyd slips to and fro in time, using parallel narrative and ghost stories to make holes in the veil that separates different times and different people. Heyer’s stories live, impeccably, inside her period: never do they betray a consciousness of any world beyond the moment of the story and the lives in it.

Both are satirical about the human comedy, but Heyer uses satire to sharpen and complicate her perfectly-built stories of how the marriage of minds matters as much as that of hearts or bodies. Ackroyd, by contrast, is usually satirising us and our world just as much as those of past worlds:  our assumptions, our mores, our nasty little habits and our spectacular failures.

And what about voice? Heyer trained my ear for a good and seemly sentence: articulate and perfectly articulated, evocative but not (after her early days)  pastiche, always a pleasure. Hers is a perfect example of an absolutely sure authorial voice that carries her readers with her through forty-one historical novels. Ackroyd, who is also a poet, taught me about voice as play but also  player, the product of character but going beyond it: riddling, rhyming, juggling with received language and messing with grammar and syntax.

And the result in me? A very well-read friend of mine describes Heyer as ‘brain chocolate’, which is exactly right, and on the same principle, I’d describe Ackroyd as ‘gut thinking’. Well, who wouldn’t try for a love-child from the marriage of brains, guts, minds and chocolate?


Emma Darwin’s author website:

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The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     ChattertonFalse ColoursThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Night of Flames: A Novel of World War IISektion 20

Writing Historical Novels

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