Rebecca S Buck at the Bold Strokes Books launch
To celebrate Pride we spoke to Rebecca S. Buck, a local author who grew up in Arnold, and has lived in parts of Nottingham for most of her life. Educated at the University of Nottingham, she’s quick to talk of her love for her home city, which is also the setting for her first published work Truths, published by Bold Strokes Books in 2010. It is set at the Shire Hall and County Gaol (now the Galleries of Justice), interweaving tales from 1808 and 2008 into one novel.
Her latest release, Ghosts of Winter, is set in Co. Durham and follows the renovation of Winter Manor, an old country house, with glimpses into the Manor’s colourful history, as the lead character also works on “renovating” her own life, romantically and otherwise.
Your historical period of preference seems to be early 19th century England. Do you think you will stay there for a while, and is that the fertile soil for your fantasies?
I adore the early nineteenth century. I was first drawn into history by a fascination with the Napoleonic Wars, the Romantic poets and Jane Austen. From my school days I researched the period and this carried on while I was at university. I have a lot of that history “stored” in my head, so in many ways setting my first novel Truths—and forthcoming third novel The Locket and the Flintlock— in that era was all about writing what I know. I’ve always been able to envisage the lives of real people in those times, and those are the stories I wanted to tell. However, I love many periods of history as I hope the historical interludes in Ghosts of Winter demonstrate. I have quite a hankering to write something set in the late Victorian fin-de-siècle, something Gothic, dark and extravagant…
Nineteenth century prisons are pretty grim places. What made you decide to set a novel there, and thus condemn yourself to ‘living’ at least mentally in that prison for all the months you were writing?
They are grimmer than grim. But it was a setting I was already immersed in. I worked at the museum in Nottingham’s old Shire Hall and County Gaol—The Galleries of Justice—just after I left school, and the place has always fired my imagination. I always wanted to set a story there, and capture some of what I felt in words. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I did find it to be haunted by stories, echoes of the past. There’s graffiti scratched into the walls of the exercise yard, by the real prisoners who were kept there. I wanted a setting with atmosphere, somewhere where the past really does seem to still be with us. Also, in a metaphorical sense, Truths was about imprisonment and freedom and how those themes manifest themselves even in a modern, unfettered life.
Was the theme of renovating Winter Manor inspired by your own house renovations?
Ghosts of Winter wouldn’t have been written if I’d not spent some time in Slovenia—in the former Yugoslavia—trying to renovate an old property. That gave me an insight into the practical processes involved and what an emotional journey it can be. But I suppose I’ve always been interested in the idea of restoration, of a part of the past being brought “back to life”. I’ve visited so many old buildings, from ruins to pristine stately homes, and I’m always moved by reflections on their stories.
Why the historical genre?
I’ve always been fascinated by history in all its forms, and for me literature is another way of recording history. If the setting is accurate, a good historical novel can convey a sense of a period, even if the characters and plot are works of fiction. I’m not tempted by the great events of history. I want to know about the spirit of an age, the lives of the ordinary people in a particular time, the little details of their day to day existence. I tend to take a time period, research it until I “feel” it, then work out who might have lived then and what they might have experienced.
There is little first-hand source material for lesbians in history. If we have to create our own history, how much license should we take with actual societal norms?
I try not to take any license. LGBT people have always existed, but in private and undocumented. However, they were there, and I don’t believe it’s at all far-fetched to try to tell their stories. It’s sad that queer people used to have to be so discreet, but it’s also a fact. So I accept that my gay historical characters can’t be open about their sexuality in public, and that there’s a fair amount of angst involved. I don’t want to rewrite history at all, I want to work within it to fill the gaps with colourful stories that suggest what could have happened.
How does the historical setting affect the drama that unfolds—as opposed to the same drama occurring in contemporary time?
The historical setting makes a difference to the drama because life was generally more brutal in the past, and the consequences of character actions and plot twists are often more drastic. I think the past allows for more colour and also more darkness. Also, I feel like I’m telling untold stories, shining a light through the murk of the centuries. The present is very well documented, and I don’t feel as inspired by that.
Of course, neither of my first two novels is purely historical. I like to combine historical and contemporary to give a sense of continuity with the past. Our history makes us what we are, and human stories have always been similar, in many ways.
What have you learned in the course of writing your first two novels? Do you feel your writing process developing?
I’ve learned a lot. One of the things is to have confidence in myself as a writer. When you believe in your own power to choose the right words, to give your characters a backstory, to write a love scene that will affect your readers, your writing is better. Of course, this has to be combined with good writing practices. I’ve learned a lot from my amazing editor, Ruth Sternglantz, about allowing my words to breathe, and trusting my readers to see the picture I’m trying to paint. I hope to never stop developing and learning.
Do your characters stay with you after the novel is finished? Do you model them after real people?
They do stay with me. When I create them, I feel like they exist, almost as if they’re in a parallel universe. If I don’t finish a story I feel guilty for leaving my characters waiting to know what’s going to happen to them next.
I don’t model them after real people, I suspect that would be dangerous! However, they do undoubtedly have odd character traits and physical characteristics of real people—both people I know and celebrities.
You’ve said a ‘sense of place’ is important to you. Do you mean geographically, or the specific space in which your characters are standing? How do you convey this to the reader?
Places inspire me before anything else. I can stand in a street and know I want to set a story that has a scene in that street. Then I think about who might be walking along that street, what they’re wearing, who they’re with, what they’re thinking and where they’re going. That gives me the beginning s of plot and character. I think the “place” in which my novels are becomes a secondary character in my stories. Good description and creating the right atmosphere are key to that.
What is the new work all about?
It’s called The Locket and the Flintlock and is set in 1812 in north Nottinghamshire. There’s highway robbery, a Regency gentlewoman, a dashing female thief and some authentic popular protest in the form of Luddite frame-breaking. I love the traditional romantic idea of the highwayman, and wanted to work this into a historical novel which is very much inspired by Nottinghamshire’s history. Oh and turn it on its head just a little and add what I think it a plausible lesbian romance!
Do you write to please the reader, or to let your creative juices flow where they may?
The creative juices flow whether I want them to or not. The skill is working out how to channel that flow into a book people will want to read. And it’s not about selling the book—that’s the concern of the publisher, but not my first thought. I don’t want to disappoint anyone who buys my book and does me the honour of reading my words. I’d never be arrogant enough to write without thinking about my readers. They’re the reason my books exist.
What would you say to aspiring writers?
Write as much as you can. If your circumstances make it hard to write, take note of the world through your writer’s eyes. Imagine the stories of the people around you, the room you’re in, the worn steps in the town centre…Your source material is all around you. At some point, something will inspire you. When it does, don’t be afraid of it. Write. Enjoy the power of manipulating words to create a world, to evoke emotions. Don’t be arrogant and think you’ll write a bestseller straight away. But have faith and keep trying. There’s no right way to be a writer.