Today we welcome Vicky Adin to the site as part of the Blog Tour for her book, The Costumiers Gift. Vicky Adin is the author of six historical novels inspired by the ordinary men, women and children who emigrated to New Zealand in the late 19th Century. As a genealogist in love with history, these immigrants and their descendants drive Vicky’s stories. Her characters are set amidst the everyday happenings of that time, often rubbing shoulders with well-known names and involved in actual events. Vicky lives on the North Shore of Auckland, and holds a Master’s degree with First Class Honours in English and Education.
The inspiration for your stories is genealogy. Could you tell us a little more about how this led to your first novel?
New Zealand is such a young country in terms of settlement that it is a nation of immigrants. It felt natural to look at where people had come from, what they brought to a country still learning to be a nation in its own right, and how they helped shape the future.
I’m a first-generation immigrant, having been born in Wales and only arriving in New Zealand at the age of twelve. I am also an only child who married a fourth-generation New Zealander from a large family. It took me many years to untangle the relationships, the names and nicknames, and become familiar with the way they told stories of times past, as if the people who had gone were still a vibrant part of the family.
As my children grew up, I wanted to share those stories with them and for them to understand how the generations worked. After a research trip to the UK in 1995, I began to put together a family tree long before the internet made life quicker and easier. I got hooked on genealogy research and became fascinated with the stories I uncovered and decided some stories were meant to be told.
Using stories from your own families past as the basis for historical fiction must be very rewarding. What were the challenges that this approach presented and how did you overcome those?
The Disenchanted Soldier was the most difficult to write as there were people still living who remembered Daniel, the main character. I was very much aware that the story I was telling came mostly from one branch of a large family, and I was telling it from the viewpoint of newcomer – an in-law – who did not understand the history and nuances. I soon discovered that ‘Grandfather’ had several different names and other branches had slightly different versions of the same stories. To overcome any misrepresentations, I wrote The Disenchanted Soldier – from soldier to pacifist – as a dual-timeline story from a researcher’s point of view. It is mostly biographical and only some of the characters are fictitious. The story covers his life from 1863 when he arrived in New Zealand to fight against the Maori, through WW1 when his sons were conscientious objectors, to his death in 1926– a period of time when society changed enormously. I used historical and army records and newspaper reports, and attached family likenesses, characteristics and mannerisms to the book characters. I wrote what I saw, using the homestead, the furniture and the photos as background and dispelled some myths, corrected misconceptions and learnt new things along the way.
In later stories, especially Brigid, The Girl from County Clare and Gwenna the Welsh Confectioner, although both inspired by two great-great-grandmothers, their lives and their journeys, all the characters are fictitious. In Brigid’s case, the ship’s journey was a detailed representation of the actual journey as reported in the newspapers, and Gwenna’s tale was as true to the original story as possible but set in a different location.
Migration is a theme within the stories, how did you go about researching the real-life events that took place?
A university degree and twenty years of genealogy research has taught me how to go digging for detail. It is easier now, with the availability of online digital newspapers and historical records. Many aspects of my stories come from newspaper reports. In New Zealand, we have PapersPast from the National Library and Australia has Trove. We also have our Archives office with many historical records and papers easily accessible (such as bankruptcies, divorces, fines, and court proceedings, all lovely juicy gossip to a novelist).
The newspapers of the time often gave detailed descriptions of a ship’s journey from the Captain’s log, including weather conditions, deaths, births, marriages, storms and sightings of other ships as well as ports of call. Much can be gleamed from letters to and from those in New Zealand and those ‘at home’. Many of the conditions and situations written about can be transferred to others living in the country at the same time. Major world events were headline news and anything that England celebrated so did New Zealand.
I always include some historical ‘real-life’ figures and events to wrap around the lives of my fictitious characters.
Do you find yourself more attracted to one of your characters more than the others? If so, which one and why?
I soon discovered I liked the stories about the women. The men fought hard against the indigenous Maori to gain land – today, some would say steal land. They worked hard to break in that land, building roads and houses to provide a new way of living. Life was tough, with steep hills and often wet conditions (it rains a lot here) but there were rewards. A man was his own master.
But I feel the women suffered enormous hardships to first survive the journey, and then creating a new life in conditions that were so unlike anything they knew, isolated from friends and family and trying to raise children, or coping after the death of the menfolk without traditional support behind them. But here, there were opportunities for women previously unavailable to them ‘in the home country’. Women’s suffrage came in in 1893, they could go to university, train as lawyers and doctors, and become businesswomen. Women had more freedom. Those are the stories that appeal to me.
How did you get into writing?
I entered university as a mature student to fill a gap in my life and fell in love with the research and writing. After being told by several tutors I had a way with words and should publish my work, I decided to tackle Daniel’s story. Every time I publish a novel, I decide it’s my last one as I dislike the marketing process, and within a few weeks another idea pops into my head that demands I write another story.
How do you go about planning your novels?
I don’t. I have a few ideas, a few ‘if this happens, then that must happen’ moments and I start writing and let the characters tell me where they want to go. Sometimes, this method results in long periods of ‘I don’t know what happens next – yet’ but that’s when I do more research into the period, see what else was happening at the time, slot a character into the ‘action’ and suddenly the story takes on a life of its own again.
How do you balance the fact and the fiction when writing this type of novel?
I look at it as day-to-day life. The average person does not go out with plans of creating history but history is created around us every day. Wind back to the late 1800s when New Zealand was still a new and raw country. Every day, ordinary people made history without knowing it. Felling the forests then allowed settlers to clear land for farming, build houses, and make a living. They shaped the land we see today, even if we are regretting the loss of so much native forest and are working to replace as much as possible.
The change from horse and cart to cars and electric trams changed peoples’ lives. The advent of electricity changed how people lit their homes, the streets, the shops, how they cooked and made their clothes. Everyday tasks like that can be included in every story. New Zealanders developed a ‘Number 8 wire mentality’ which meant, if you didn’t have the right tools or the right products you used something else to create a similar outcome for the task at hand. New Zealand became a nation of equals working to better their conditions. Unfortunately, that egalitarian society did not last.
The larger world events affected us differently here. Men going off to war was as distressing and comparable to every nation, but those left behind did not live under the threat of attack and bombings to the same degree – they worried about it, but it never happened. Life was different and while there was rationing, the farmers kept the country going.
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 read a lot in my genre and about historical events in the newspapers of the time. I try to understand how different life was; how attitudes have changed, and what beliefs and expectations people had then as to now. Authors need to be aware of the risks of transferring today’s behaviour and standards and putting them on yesterday’s facts. You can’t change the past. You can’t change what happened or why. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen. But you do need to read widely and do a lot of research and not take the first interpretation of historical fact as the only version. There are many.
Events that affected the world, such as the death of Queen Victoria, are a great tool to get the characters involved in history. So are inventions and technology. There were accidents with much of the early technology which would have an effect on a family. Medicine was not as advanced but society had moved on from many of the herbal remedies of much earlier centuries. All of these topics are grist to the story line. It’s a matter of making sure whatever you are writing about actually happened at the time and ensuring your character responds in keeping with the era.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?
I read a lot of Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy and Phillipa Carr as a teenager and into my 20s, long before I knew Eleanor Hibbert was the author behind all the pen names. I was hooked on historical fiction then and still love it now. Having grown up in Cornwall, I also love the Winston Graham series of Poldark. I read the whole series when the second set of books came out in the 1970s.
My writing has been compared to that of Catherine Cookson and after re-reading some of her stories I can understand how that comparison came about. She wrote about the ordinary people just as I do. The settings are different and the class systems are different, but people are inherently the same.
Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?
I have just released Book 6 – The Costumier’s Gift – which is a dual timeline story continuing the family sagas of Brigid The Girl from County Clare and Gwenna the Welsh Confectioner, through the eyes of the younger generations in both earlier novels.
“In 1903 Jane is the talented principal costumier at Auckland’s Opera House in its Edwardian heyday. She thrives in this place where she can hide from her pain and keep her skeletons to herself – until the past comes back to haunt her. Brigid, her beloved foster mother, and her best friend Gwenna are anchors in her solitary yet rewarding life. As the decades go by, the burden of carrying secrets becomes too great, and Jane must pass on the hidden truths.
Today Katie seeks refuge from her crumbling personal life with her grandmother, who lives in the past with the people in her cherished photographs. All too soon, Katie learns she must identify the people behind the gentle smiles – including the Edwardian woman to whom she bears a remarkable resemblance – and reveal generations of secrets before she can claim her inheritance. She meets the intriguing Jared, who stirs her interest, but she’s not ready for any sort of romance, so is shocked when she learns that he holds the key to discovering the truth.”
Book 7 is in the early stages of thought but will be an off-shoot of my contemporary novel, The Cornish Knot. Whilst my characters come from somewhere in ‘the Mother Country’ as the UK was referred to in the early days, such as Cornwall, Ireland, Wales, and England, my settings are always New Zealand.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Start now and just write. You won’t become a writer if you don’t start. Writing takes time and practice – lots of it. Don’t doubt yourself into not writing. Join a critique group and listen to advise. You will find your voice.
A short excerpt from ‘The Costumier’s Gift’
Jane loved the early mornings, when she could move around her top-floor workshop at the Opera House before anyone else arrived. She would compare progress against the numerous sketches pinned to the walls and inspect the elaborate costumes draping the mannequins. She could touch the rich fabrics laid out on the table ready for cutting and check the accessory trays holding the beads, threads and feathers used to adorn the finished outfits.
But the nights, when she let down her silky dark hair and dressed in her richly coloured and beaded silk wrap – making her feel like one of her exotic characters – was when she did her best work. With pencil in hand she would sketch gown after gown, suit after suit: sometimes total fantasy, sometimes glamorous, sometimes whimsical.
Where the ideas came from even Jane couldn’t explain, and she often had no idea which design would work best for which show, but her pile of drawings had not let her down so far. Somewhere deep inside, she held the dream that one day she might become a famous designer for someone like the House of Worth, but meanwhile Jane couldn’t be happier. On occasions, she even had the temerity to sell a few of the more fashionable designs under the name of Bernadette, and particularly during ball season. A secret she kept to herself.
Vicky Adin is the author of six historical novels inspired by the ordinary men, women and children who emigrated to New Zealand in the late 19th Century. As a genealogist in love with history, these immigrants and their descendants drive Vicky’s stories. Her characters are set amidst the everyday happenings of that time, often rubbing shoulders with well-known names and involved in actual events. Vicky lives on the North Shore of Auckland, and holds a Master’s degree with First Class Honours in English and Education.
KM Pohlkamp – discusses her research into several periods and her novel set in Tudor England.
Lindsay Littleson – wonderfully constructed novels aimed at Primary School pupils, accompanied by teaching resources
Chris Turnbull – a range of books largely set in the Victorian era, plus a World War Two novel and one set in late 19th century Paris
David Pilling – the Longsword Series, set in the reign of Edward I
Alex Marchant – stories suitable for Primary school children and KS3, set against the backdrop of Richard III’s life
Zenta Brice – a story based in Latvia as the Soviet Regimes grip on the Baltic loosened
Jeri Westerson – an author in 3 genres, most relevant here are the Crispin Guest novels, described by Jeri as Medieval Noir
Simon Schama – an excerpt of a conversation about the way in which Historical Documentaries are produced