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Using A Drama Degree As Preparation To Write Historical Novels, by Emma Darwin

So many of my fellow historical fiction writers spent their student years reading Defoe, Joyce and Greene. Some of them read Clarendon, Elton and Schama, at least when the pubs were closed. I’ve dipped into both myself, but I got my degree by pretending to be a tree.

The theatre, like any performing art, is devoted to tradition in a way that written arts don’t have to be, so in the Department of Drama at the University of Birmingham our trees were rooted in the soil of this classic Stanislavskian exercise. The more I write, teach and blog about fiction, the more I realise just what a good grounding a Drama degree is for a historical novelist.

I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that just because we set our novels in the past, they’re all about heaving bosoms. When you’ve had to wear full, period costume for anything from Hamlet to Strindberg’s Easter, you discover that the only way to breathe is indeed for your bosom to heave. Corsets work better than a Wonderbra for showing off your assets, but at the cost of 90% of your lung capacity. Running into the arms of your stage lover shows you exactly why all those heroines keep fainting: sheer lack of oxygen. Except when it was because they trod on their hem. Directors need to know this stuff, but so do novelists.

Then there was Wardrobe. I not only know how to wear a corset, I’ve made one – and a straitjacket (Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty). I’ve realised how much sewing and how much cloth it takes to make a skirt and the petticoats beneath, and just how much mending that trodden-on hem takes (A Doll’s House). Even a twentieth century show should have not just clothes but underwear actually from the period, for both genders: fabrics have changed and so have tastes in breasts, bottoms, waists, shoulders and makeup. Have you tried getting out of a too-low sofa wearing high heels, a 1950s roll-on, and not much else? I have, because in Albee’s The American Dream they switched sofas between the last dress rehearsal and the first night. Now, which of my characters shall I do that to?

Stage Management? I know how to research period weapons (Peer Gynt) and nurses’ uniforms (Testament of Youth). I know that hiring real scaffolding for a Constructivist set (Meyerhold) brings in more dust than you’d have thought existed in the whole of the West Midlands. I also learnt that if you fling a bloody heart to the ground it bounces, and reduces the entire cast of The Duchess of Malfi to giggles.

I haven’t yet used that heart in a story – do help yourself if you’d like to. My drama degree wasn’t just a source of good material. It put me right at the heart of what we’re trying to do in writing historical fiction: take an empty space in the present and within it evoke past worlds and the people who lived in them – and the trees, of course.


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Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. What desire I have had for writing anything historical stems from reading a couple of dozen mid seventeenth-century wills … this post is fascinating, even though it underlines my ignorance!

    November 19, 2013

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