Miranda Malins, what led you to the 17th century and the English Civil Wars that you wrote your first book in?
A school debate about the execution of Charles I and a trip to Cromwell’s House in Ely first sparked my passion for this brilliant period. It is the most radical, revolutionary time in British history when people challenged previously accepted truths, fighting not for who should rule, but how they should rule; the consequences of which continue to shape our lives today. It is the gap in our neat story of kings and queens and so often unfairly overlooked.
English Civil Wars or Wars of the Three Kingdoms?
Great question: labels tell us so much. There were certainly at least three separate wars and these stretched beyond England to Ireland and Scotland, even spilling onto continental Europe, the high seas and the New World (see my recent feature for Aspects of History). I myself usually refer to the conflicts of the 1640s and 50s as the British Civil Wars but will engage with anyone else’s terminology as long as it means we are discussing the period. We have the same problem with labelling the 1650s the ‘Interregnum’: the people living through that dynamic decade did not think they were killing time between two Stuart reigns.
What is your approach to researching your novels, and has the process changed between your first two?
I come at my novels as a historian and so start with my academic research. Then I need to add to this the details of everyday life and specific points about the lives and movements of the Cromwell family members – things that aren’t always in the history books. With a layered chronological framework in place, I then tease out a dramatic plot and set about writing, using the many family letters we have to capture a sense of the characters’ voices and relationships.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
Absolutely: this period has a wonderfully rich historiography which has been thriving since the mid-nineteenth century. There are so many great debates, assumptions to challenge and new areas to research. Check out the websites of the Cromwell Association and Cromwell Museum, the journal Cromwelliana and the work of John Morrill, Blair Worden, Antonia Fraser, Peter Gaunt and Patrick Little to name a few. Paul Lay’s recent Providence Lost and Anna Keay’s The Restless Republic are fantastic ways into the period.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
Don’t be scared by the research. Many people avoid writing historical fiction because they think they’ll need to describe every detail of each outfit and meal. But good fiction doesn’t do that – it just says someone had lunch, not the flavour of crisps and sandwich filling every time. You do not need to know (and say) everything: focus on the one intriguing detail that brings the character or scene to life. 2. Work on balancing the history and the plot: try and get the first right but prioritise the second. Your readers enjoy learning something but they turn the pages for the story. 3. Read lots of other historical novelists and go to writers’ events to pick up tips and network.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
Well I have to be predictable and say Oliver Cromwell. He is perhaps the most complex and arguably the most divisive figure in British history and an absolute giant of his age. What kind of man rises from the lowly position of a tenant farmer to become Head of State all after the age of 40? What kind of man inspires love and loathing on all sides of the political spectrum and still to this day? Also he would be fantastic company: famously charismatic and charming, Cromwell loved strong debate among friends over a bottle of wine. Perfect.
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?
Cromwell’s second investiture as Lord Protector in Westminster Hall in June 1657. This was a splendid, regal occasion: a coronation in all but name with all the trappings of monarchy bar the crown. It would have been amazing to sit among the leading officials of England, fashionable courtiers and foreign ambassadors in that glorious building, where King Charles I had been tried less than a decade before, and watch a fenland farmer given his throne. And there was a huge party afterwards!
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
So many: CJ Sansom, Philippa Gregory, Madeleine Miller, Rose Tremaine, Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwell and Robert Harris to name a few. I love Andrew Taylor’s Restoration series and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was a key inspiration for my writing about one side in another civil war and no-one can touch Hilary Mantel whose breath-taking books about Thomas Cromwell have changed the entire landscape for us all. We are living now in a golden age of historical fiction.
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
For me, the history. It will be different for every writer, but I think of myself as a historian before anything else. Once I have the history I want to focus on, I look for the characters who will bring it to life best – it is people who have always attracted me to the past. Weaving the two together is a wonderful creative challenge with moments of pure magic.
Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?
I wish! It really is a question of snatching the time when my paid work and small children allow me! I began writing novels on my commute and lunch hours and finished my first one on maternity leave. It is a real challenge to create the time to write but I am very lucky to have huge support and encouragement from my husband, family and employer. And yes having other writer friends too is very important for reminding you that you can do it and that you are not alone.
How do you manage to juggle writing, a career and your family?
With difficulty! There’s a lot of multi-tasking and cutting corners! Although I would say that the challenge of this forces good discipline on me. When I have time in my day to write, I cannot waste it waiting for inspiration. I have to be practical and just plough on, keeping my end goal in sight – hopefully that makes my writing more direct and commercial. And for all that life is hectic, I am so grateful to have a wonderful family and part-time job to support my passion for writing about the seventeenth century.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
I am working on a new book about the Cromwell family – popular non-fiction this time – delving into the extraordinary dynasty that gave us both Thomas and Oliver Cromwell and which, for a few years, looked set to be the new ruling house to follow the Tudors and Stuarts into the history books. I am also busy promoting The Rebel Daughter, co-hosting a new podcast about seventeenth century ‘1666 And All That’, and writing the chapter on Oliver Cromwell for Iain Dale’s forthcoming book Kings & Queens. It’s an exciting time!
Miranda Malins is the author of The Rebel Daughter which is out now.