Ah, Saturday mornings. Quiet, peaceful, reflective Saturday mornings ….. yes, I’m kidding. My Saturday mornings usually consist of a stressful hour of trying to find football boots and unwashed rugby kit and cursing at our rubbish toaster before standing reluctantly on the side of a field (aka pitch), wishing that I’d worn my ‘big coat’. No surprise then, that as soon as I saw Katharine McMahon was to run an Historical Fiction writing workshop in Dublin last Saturday morning, I jumped at the chance!
I’ll be honest, I’m never too sure about writing workshops. I’m never sure whether I should just spend the three hours actually writing, or whether it is beneficial to spend three hours ‘talking’ about writing? The answer, in this case, was categorically ‘yes’ to the latter.
Katharine was focused, pragmatic, honest and extremely inspiring. She encouraged us all to think about our ‘historical spark’ – what, precisely, is it that has drawn us to write about a particular period, event or person in history. What prompted that moment of ‘oooooo’ and ‘aahhhhhh’ which led us to write thousands of words and develop a stooped back and a fondness for jaffa cakes in the process?
I found Katharine’s question really interesting. I’d never really thought, in any great detail, about my ‘historical spark’. I presumed I was drawn to certain historical periods, people or events simply because they interested me. Those haunting, sepia tinted images; pretty dresses; the drama and tragedy of great historic events … that sort of thing. But that wasn’t enough for Katharine. She wanted us to go further, dig deeper.
From spending the morning with Katharine, who provided some excellent writing advice and tips, as well as some fascinating source materials to consider, I began to figure out that my historical spark is women, or more specifically, the many amazing women who have featured in my life.
My spark comes from simple childhood days spent in my great-aunt’s kitchen watching, in wonder, as her frail hands turned the cup around so she could read my tea leaves and predict the future. My spark comes from my amazing mum and my three formidable aunts – if ever there was a rich seam of source material about the relationship between sisters, they are it. My spark comes from vague memories of a Queen Victoria-style great grandma who I see now only in faded photos and who I wish I could talk to about her life. My spark comes from my ninety-three year old grandma’s revelations of the hardships she experienced through the war years.
When set against the fact that I grew up in a village which was originally a Viking settlement, that I lived close to the incredibly historic city of York, that Emily Bronte’s dramatic moors were just a drive away and that I used to play in a remarkably antiquated sewing room on the top floor of my Dad’s clothing shop, it is quite clear that history has always surrounded me. And from the environment I grew up in, to the incredible women in my life, it has become the women from history who fascinate me. It is their stories – the social history of women’s roles, the intriguing relationships between women, the remarkable women who have overcome their social status or gone against societies expectations – that I now feel compelled to write about.
So, now I know two things. I know the source of my historical spark and I know that writing workshops are ALWAYS a good idea (especially on a frantic Saturday morning).
Katharine McMahon is the bestselling author of nine novels, including Season of Lightand The Rose of Sebastopol, which was a Richard and Judy Bookclub choice. Katharine was in Dublin as part of the inaugural Dublin Festival of History.