Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

Write what you know, or know what you write?

mud When I was 14, my English teacher asked everyone in the class to write a novel.

A novel of about 3000 words, that is. This instruction was followed by the perennial advice ‘write what you know.’ I took this literally, picked up my pen, and got completely stuck.

I had always liked writing imaginative stories – such as the tiny goldfish determined to rule the fish tank, and the unicorn warning the world to put an end to war -  but suddenly I felt that I’d been doing it wrong, and that all I was allowed to write about was my own bog-standard life.

If I invented a fantastical plot for this ‘novel,’ surely the teacher would say I was lying. If I gave my heroine a dismal home life, would social workers turn up to arrest my parents? If a character fell in love, would everyone laugh and try to work out which boy I was writing about? So, to complete the assignment, I just wrote an account of my life to date – and got an extremely high mark. It was clear that imagination wasn’t the done thing, and for a while I became self-conscious about attempting fiction at all.

Realising the true meaning of ‘write what you know’ was never a lightbulb moment – it just became obvious as I got older that authors couldn’t really have visited other planets, committed murders or found a caveman living at the tip. They hadn’t made carbon copies of their own experiences, but had extrapolated those experiences to give authenticity to fictional events. If your character gets chased by a tiger, it doesn’t mean you broke into the safari park and held up a sign saying ‘Eat me’  – you just knew what it felt like to be terrified, and could build on that feeling to imagine the rest.

So when I finally got on with a proper novel, rather than write what I knew, I decided what I wanted to write and then make sure I knew about it.

A lot of this was from formal research, but there were also seemingly unrelated experiences that proved useful… and that’s where mud and gruesomeness come in!

Recently I mentioned on a writers’ forum that there always seems to be lots of mud in my writing – this is because I have three horses and so spend much of my life up to my knees in the kind of stuff that coated the 18th-century roads.

I know exactly what the ground will look like in any given weather conditions at any time of year, I notice tiny differences in the smell of the earth, I know what it’s like to fall over and go squelch, and how difficult it is to keep mud out of the house. Having mud as a part of everyday life makes it easy to appreciate the normality – and problems – of the 18th-century level of dirt.

I said there was a connection between mud and gruesomeness – the connection is equine. Horses get things wrong with them. They get skin conditions, hoof infections, wounds, colic – people think owning a horse is posh, but it’s not for the squeamish.

During my final edit of Kill-Grief, I was looking after a horse with an abscess in her jaw. Three times a day for six months, I had to flush the pus out – at a field where there was no electricity or hot water, and nowhere to place anything down without it getting filthy. As it wouldn’t respond to antibiotics, I had first-hand experience of just how interminably long something can take to heal, and how difficult a wound is to manage in a dirty environment – no wonder so many 18th-century patients had to stay in hospital for months. An ongoing wound plays an important part in the book, and as revolting as it may sound, it was handy to have some real-life pus to look at! (The horse is fine now, if you were wondering.)

So to conclude this rather long post, I’m glad I realised that writing ‘what you know’ doesn’t mean sticking to the reality of an average life. There are any number of ways in which experiences and knowledge can transform into fiction – I just wish that teacher had told me.

It’s now the end of my blogging week, and I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m even tempted to set up a permanent blog of my own. I wonder how long it would take before I ran of things to say and resorted to linking to funny YouTube videos? I’ll try to convince myself out of it, but for now it’s time to hand over to Andrew Sharp. Andrew’s modern history novel, ‘The Ghosts of Eden,’ continues the medical theme – I’m looking forward to hearing about it, and even more to reading it when it comes out next year.

Thanks for reading and commenting! Until next time…        




Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

Research, real life, and remembering the forgotten

Medical Tools

I’m thrilled that people have been reading this blog and asking questions (even some people I’ve never even met), so this post will focus on the subject that has turned up most often in the comments – research.

Sometimes when I tell people that I write historical fiction, they say it must be difficult because of ‘all that research.’ But no, that’s not the difficult part at all.

I write historical fiction because I love doing research,  rather than feeling that research is a necessary evil towards writing historical fiction. I love the wild goose chases and the tenuous links that just might bring everything together. I love unearthing an engraving of a building; a map or a portrait; a letter in the copperplate of a real-life character whose fictional counterpart has, in my imagination, just flung his pen across the table.

Kill-Grief arose from research I wanted to do anyway. This was in 1998 for an undergraduate dissertation, and I’m aware how incredibly unimpressive that sounds. Going to university is nothing unusual these days and there’s  a popular image of students blindly churning out whatever the lecturers tell them, wanting a degree for no other reason than to get the high-flying job that graduates (other than me) can supposedly walk into. I don’t buy that Daily Mail version of students. It might be considered a disgrace that final-year undergraduates only get four hours a week of formal tuition, but for saddos like me, it’s great – it frees us up to do 60 hours a week of research!

In the comments the other day, Rachel asked how I got interested in Chester Infirmary. I decided on 18th-century hospital care as a subject for my dissertation after my first idea – the medical dangers of the pursuit of beauty – met with a lack of enthusiasm from the tutor. As the essay was never going to be an opus to rival the works of Roy Porter, I thought it best to concentrate on one hospital. I chose Chester mainly because I already knew the city,  and because I could call in to Wirral to see my Grandma and get free food.

The idea for Kill-Grief took a long time to develop. I liked the idea of writing something based on what I’d studied, but my first attempt was very different and, although the setting and character names were similar, the plot (such as it was) was nothing like the book that’s going to be published. So although I sometimes think I’ve been writing Kill-Grief for 10 years, I haven’t really – the first go wasn’t the same book and it thankfully fizzled out unfinished. I started on other stories, but they were all too rubbish even to qualify as the requisite manuscripts under the bed, so I see Kill-Grief as my first-written novel as well as my first-published.

Rosy commented on the gruesomeness of the research – and the mud! Those two things, would you believe, are linked, and this has given me an idea for something to write about next time.

Michael asked whether any of the characters or plot threads were based on real-life people or events. Not really, is the answer. A lot of historical fiction does centre on real-life characters, usually those well known to posterity – the name ‘Boleyn’ is pretty much a free ticket to a starring role in a novel (and perhaps to being on the front cover, according to Sarah’s theory!) I love to read fiction about these fascinating people, but when writing I am more interested in the obscure and voiceless – those who have slipped through history’s net without ever recording their thoughts.

Many of the characters in Kill-Grief are based on staff who worked at Chester Infirmary in the 1750s, but the link is usually no more than a name. Nearly everything about their personalities and what happens to them is completely made up.

The only thing in Chester Infirmary’s records that relates directly to the plot is a sentence from a Board meeting in April 1756, when the Governors noted that the porter had been dismissed for frequent drunkenness. They sent him on his way with the wages he was owed plus an extra ten shillings, and then that’s it – he fades from history forever. This tiny snapshot from the life of an unknown person inspired the alcohol theme in Kill-Grief, and made me consider how many people have existed without leaving behind even so much as that sentence. Kill-Grief is not their real story, but I hope it acknowledges that they did have a story, however much it’s been forgotten.

Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

Caroline Rance - Authof of KILL-GRIEFBored with bodices?

It’s only my second blog post and already I’m fed up of seeing a picture of myself, so maybe later in the week I’ll ask Picnic to put up a photo of my dog or something (though there are certain people who will claim not to be able to tell the difference).

The reason why the picture of me is there in the first place is that, unlike the previous bloggers, I haven’t got a cover design for my book yet.

Cover design was something I didn’t really think about when writing Kill-Grief – finishing the book was enough of a challenge. Isolated in my obsession with my 18th-century world, I had no way of knowing whether publishers would adore my efforts or whether my manuscript would be the most pathetic dead creature that the slush-pile cat had ever left on the doorstep. It felt presumptuous to imagine the cover.  

Now, though, the reality looms. A little while ago I had to fill in a marketing questionnaire, which asked whether I had any suggestions about the jacket. I didn’t really know, so I wrote down some vague idea about a gin bottle. More recently I’ve been dreaming of a moody, monochrome seascape with a silver foil title. Next week it’ll be something else.

I therefore await Kill-Grief’s cover design with both excitement and trepidation. Will it be a detail from Hogarth? Will it be abstract and almost contemporary? Will it be a portrait of some random 18th-century lady? Or one of the recyclable images shown on  ?

As the book is quite dark in atmosphere, I should be safe from the hearts, flowers and swirly writing that some publishers assign to anything that happens to have a woman’s name on it. There’s also little likelihood of a child’s shoes and poignantly saggy ankle socks against a soft-focus grassy background.

Of more danger, however, is the ubiquitous headless woman. She is so much of a hist-fic cliché that it’s even a cliché to blog about her, but she nevertheless sells bucketloads of the novels she adorns.

This poor beheaded woman has, uncomplainingly, worked hard to make historical novels look sumptuous and irresistable. She has sent Elizabeth Chadwick’s sales through the roof. She doesn’t appear on Richard and Judy* because their selector Amanda Ross apparently hates her, but she has been known to grace prize shortlists. I like to think of her as a single careworn individual, struggling into an 1860s day-dress and posing her hands elegantly in her lap, then nipping off for a fag and a poke of chips before resignedly putting on a farthingale for the next photo.

Lots of historical fiction fans are bored of this anonymous woman. The rest see her as a friend – a trustworthy marker of a story they’re likely to enjoy. I waver between these two groups, groaning at the apparent cynicism of the design and yet being compelled to pick up the book and read the blurb; sometimes I even fork out some cash. And that’s the point – headless bodices (or, if I’m going to be nerdy about it, bodies) are still money-spinners. A cover designer’s job isn’t to manifest the whims of an author but to create something that the publisher thinks will sell, and if that means decolleté frocks, well – why not? I therefore suspect I won’t be disappointed if Kill-Grief’s cover features that long-suffering woman, sporting 18th-century clothes – although I must apologise to her that they’ll have to be fairly scruffy ones.


(* I have, though. When R&J used to broadcast from the Albert Dock in Liverpool, I walked past the window behind them and waved.)


Caroline Rance, Author of KILL-GRIEFAs I step in to take the controls of this blog from Mike,  I am not too hopeful about my chances of maintaining the standard of genius set by his pie anecdote. It remains to be seen whether this week will bring me any food mishaps and their ensuing hilarity, but for now I’m going to turn the blog into a time machine and spin it all the way back from 2050s comedy to 1750s grit and grime. I can’t promise jokes and I’ve just realised that my book doesn’t have a single pie in it, but what our blogs do have in common is the fact that we’ve both begun them without many ideas of what to write. I’m therefore hoping you’ll make a comment or ask a question and give me some inspiration for the rest of my sojourn in the limelight.

Before this time machine that I’ve just invented arrives in 1750s Chester, where Kill-Grief is set, we need to make a brief stop in February 2008. That was when Tory peer Lord Mancroft gave a speech that made me lament “why couldn’t you have waited another year until my book comes out?” Lord Mancroft caused a brief outcry when he condemned the nurses at Bath’s Royal United Hospital as “grubby, drunken and promiscuous” – and also applied this verdict to the rest of young British women for good measure. Nurses were understandably not amused, but Lord Mancroft certainly wasn’t the first to have considered them a rather unsavoury group.

Kill-Grief begins Picnic’s historical fiction list in early 2009 and focuses on an 18th-century nurse, Mary Helsall, who is desperate to escape.  She wants to be free from the drudgery of hospital life, from the stench of disease, from the lecherous surgeon and spiteful Matron – but most of all to be free from her own past. Mary finds something in common with the hospital porter, Anthony – they both dream of an independent future without anxiety and resentment. In their world, however, the only freedom is temporary – it is provided by gin.

When I was researching 18th-century hospitals (initially for a non-fiction paper, and later for Kill-Grief), one aspect of the literature stood out – or rather, didn’t. Among pages of detailed and impeccably researched information about medicine, surgery and the relationship between the Enlightenment and the growth of voluntary hospitals, there would often be no more than a sentence or two about nurses. Not very complimentary sentences either. Time and again I read that nurses were all drunk, neglectful slatterns – until, that is, Florence Nightingale came along and turned them into angels overnight.

From looking at original hospital records, however, I could see there was more to early nursing than that. The records hint at a complex group of people with their own fears, abilities, conflicts and foibles. Like today’s nurses, they were individuals doing what they could to cope with the pressures of exhausting work, inadequate resources and sometimes violent patients. Even those who conformed to the stereotype must have had reasons for their behaviour.  The more I learnt about life on the 1750s wards, the less surprised I was that the staff turned to the only anaesthetic available – drink.

 Kill-Grief, however, is not really about hospitals. Like the nurses who attended Lord Mancroft at Bath, its characters have lives and problems beyond their daily work, and this is where the real story lies. The young hospital staff in Kill-Grief – Mary, Anthony and their colleague Agnes – also have to contend with people’s contempt for them, because they share with Lord Mancroft’s carers a flaw that society still deems unforgiveable in the young. They aren’t perfect.

The characters each have their individual past and their individual present. In Mary’s case, this involves an entanglement with a smuggling gang and a damaging infatuation with a handsome thief-taker. She is first and foremost a woman, who also happens to be a nurse. In male-dominated mid-18th-century society, there is no outlet for her growing interest in surgery – or is there? Her ambitions find a parallel in Anthony’s determination to become a watchmaker, even though he has previously abandoned an apprenticeship and descended into the grip of gin. Together or apart, they must choose between sober uncertainty and drunken oblivion.

I’m told that when blogging it’s best not to go on too long – I probably have already, so I’ll finish for now by  summing up Kill-Grief as a love story with drink, disease, surgery, prison dungeons and lots of mud. Plus a bit of smuggling, wrecking, and murder. As for Lord Mancroft’s comments about modern-day nurses, well – he would certainly find plenty to complain about in an 18th-century hospital, if he lived to tell the tale.