Liz Shakespeare is the author of The Turning of the Tide. A novel set in Devon as industrialisation changed society. Her novel draws on a great deal of local knowledge and research. A true story, it is an extraordinary tale of life at the time. Liz’s other works also draw on her love of Devon and Social History.
Your novels are set in Victorian Devon. Why did you choose this period?
The nineteenth century is familiar to most of us through films and novels, but also sufficiently dissimilar from the present day that the differences make us sit up and pay attention. There is also a wealth of original sources to draw on, and as I base my novels on true stories, this is very important to me. I aim to depict life as it really was for our ancestors – my books are not historical romances.
Coming from the home of the Dark Satanic Mills of the Industrial Revolution I often forget to look into other parts of the country. What makes it an important area to study?
Devon was – and still is – an agricultural area. It is often forgotten that life was as hard for agricultural labourers as it was for factory workers and I think it is important to show the reality of life for our forbears, and provide a counterpoint to the rural idyll.
Having a long Devon ancestry and living in Devon for most of my life, I know the area extremely well and I feel this brings an authenticity to my work which would perhaps not be apparent if I chose to write about another part of the world, and I hope leads to a deeper understanding for readers.
How did you go about researching the different aspects of Victorian Society that you have touched upon in your novels? Were areas such as the Workhouse easy to delve into?
I mainly use primary sources; the census returns, parish records, contemporary newspapers, letters and diaries. But I also read nineteenth century fiction and a lot of social history – Pamela Horn is a favourite author. There are not many first-hand accounts of Workhouse life, because of course most of those who spent time in a Workhouse would have been unable or unwilling to tell their stories. Few Devon Workhouse records survive, but I was able to draw on the census returns and records of births and deaths. There are also many well-researched books about workhouse life in other parts of England, so it was not hard for me to imagine what life was like for Selina, the young Clovelly mother who was in Bideford Workhouse, when I wrote The Turning of the Tide.
One area that lots of my readers are interested in is the history of health. You have a G.P. Who is committed to social change. Where did you get the inspiration to write about Dr. Ackland?
I first found out about him when I used the census returns to research nineteenth century Bideford doctors, and was interested to find from newspaper reports that he was a friend of author Charles Kingsley. I then discovered that Dr Ackland’s papers were kept in the Wellcome Library in London – the library of medical history. I spent several days with the archive and it was a real treasure trove – letters, diaries, photographs, and his huge leather-bound account book which covered the forty years of his practice, naming all his patients and the dates on which he visited them. Between the pages were scribbled notes from his patients, memorandums, receipts from local businesses – a researcher’s dream!
It was apparent from this archive that he was somewhat of a Robin Hood figure, charging his wealthy patients extraordinary high fees and treating poor patients for little or nothing. He also engaged in bartering, for example providing treatment for a saddler’s children in exchange for a new bridle for his horse!
Staying with Dr. Ackland, what did you find most interesting about medicine in the Victorian age?
It was fascinating to discover how few remedies a doctor had at his disposal, even when treating a wealthy patient. I read nineteenth century medical textbooks and discovered that when faced with a virulent infection, there was little a doctor could do. Let us hope that we have recourse to the National Health Service and antibiotics for the foreseeable future!
How did you get into writing?
As a child I was always reading so it was a natural progression to study English Literature at university. I never set out to be an author, but my first book, The Memory Be Green: An Oral History of a Devon Village, emerged simply from my interest in the subject, and by then I was hooked. I have since written four more books set in Devon, combining social history and fact-based novels.
How do you go about planning your novels?
The research always comes first. I find stories in old newspapers, on gravestones or in parish records and find out more before I decide whether the material is suitable for a novel. Once I decide whether I can go ahead, I usually spend a year on research before I start writing. I decide what the key points of the story are and which aspects of social history I need to focus on, so that the individual story is set in a wider social context. I always draw up a timeline of events, and use this to help me plot the story. As my novels are based on actual events I always know how the novel will end, but I have to decide when it will end, for instance I may know all about a character’s life but choose to write only about five or ten years of that life.
How do you balance the fact and fiction when writing this type of novel?
I like to keep to the facts as much as possible; I consider that my role is to bring the facts to life. However, there are usually parts of the story for which documentary evidence simply does not exist. I then use my knowledge of social history to fill the gaps with an event which could well have happened. For instance, I discovered that Dr Ackland had donated his fossil collection to Bristol Museum. I did not know how he came to have such a collection but, as fossil-collecting was a popular pastime for a Victorian gentleman with scientific interests, I felt I was justified in writing a chapter in which he takes his family to Lyme Regis for a holiday, enabling him to search for fossils on the cliffs.
One of the areas that my website is looking at currently is the way that history is interpreted and presented to the general public. How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved in?
I try to bring the facts to life by portraying events as my characters would see them. That leap of the imagination has to be rooted in a deep awareness of the social history of the time if we are not to attribute anachronistic thoughts and emotions to our characters. My most recent novel The Postman Poet, which tells the true life story of Edward Capern, was particularly rewarding to write because I had access to his thoughts and feelings through the 600 poems that he wrote.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?
Where do I start?! I have a degree in English Literature so have read widely amongst the classic English authors. George Eliot and Thomas Hardy are favourites and have probably influenced my subject matter and portrayal of characters. Influential modern authors include Helen Dunmore and William Trevor.
Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?
Yes, I am half way through my sixth book. This one is set in Devon in the 1840s and concerns two children who were sent to work on a farm as parish apprentices. I am deep in research into nineteenth century agricultural practices!
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Firstly to read as much and as widely as you can and, as you read, to think about how the author achieves what he/she does. Secondly, you must write! So many people think they would like to write but don’t get down to it. And thirdly, don’t despair. It doesn’t matter if you are not pleased with what you have written because you can work on it and improve it.
Liz Shakespeare draws her inspiration from the landscapes, people and history of Devon. The family stories she has grown up with and the sense of being deeply rooted in the area have been a powerful influence on her writing.
Her first book was The Memory Be Green: An Oral History of a Devon Village. She then started work on Fever: A Story from a Devon Churchyard , a social history interwoven with a narrative which took seven years to research and write. Next came The Turning of The Tide, a novel based on a true story set in nineteenth century North Devon, then All Around The Year which contains twelve short stories.
Her most recent book, The Postman Poet, is a novel telling the extraordinary true story of Devon’s nineteenth century poet, Edward Capern. She has collaborated with two Devon musicians to produce a CD of Capern’s songs and the three have given sell-out performances of readings and songs at literature and folk festivals.
Liz has successfully self-published all her books and enjoys the process, from the design right through to distribution. She has a large and loyal following throughout the south-west and beyond.