By Rosie Angel ClarkThe Croft Co-Editor 2021/22
Calling all budding writers! Rachel Brimble, bestselling author of 30 books, recently published A very modern wedding, and is there to give us a privileged knowledge of the world of writing. Set on Bath Road (perfect for that grand Victorian romance), the novel tells the story of Octavia Marshall, a prostitute determined to make her way into the business world. Epigram chatted with Rachel about the novel, the joys and challenges of researching, writing, and publishing, and gathered her top tips for budding student writers.
Bath is a constant physical and emotional presence, but you’re from Bristol. Why does Bath capture your imagination so much?
I started out writing contemporary romance and set a lot of scenes in Bristol, but as I got into historical fiction and romance I thought Bath was the canvas for perfect background. We have some brilliant historic buildings in Bristol, but Bath really appeals to me when I write historical fiction in particular.
What draws you most to the Victorian and Edwardian periods?
Women’s empowerment runs through most of my work, I enjoy writing about strong women. During these times there have been huge changes for women, which gives me a great base to create heroines with something to strive for – hopefully they will always come out on top. And fall in love, of course! Sometimes I struggle to find the right hero. I use period TV shows to get my head around, which isn’t really cheating… if I think of Tom Hardy in Taboo which soon starts my imagination!
It’s understandable! How do you reconcile modernity and historical accuracy?
Sometimes I feel, Oh, the heroines take over!. I want my heroes to be open-minded but not emasculated, because I want my readers to fall in love with them too. Readers have said that my heroines wouldn’t have done certain things. But I’m researching meticulously – we wouldn’t have advanced, men or women, if someone wasn’t pushing on both sides. It scared some men, but of course there were good eggs too.
Your feminist message highlights the different sides of what being a successful woman can mean – you have Octavia striving to succeed in business, Nancy, who is recently married and pregnant, and Louisa, who owns the brothel and takes care of the workers. I loved how you raised them all.
These three women came to me when I read The five by Hallie Rubenhold, who talks about the victims of Jack the Ripper. They were all called prostitutes, which was not true: they were not all. But they all ended up in the worst part of Whitechapel. This immediately caught my imagination: I wanted to bring together three very different women, who end up prostituting themselves for very different reasons, with forever different happiness. You don’t know what could lead any of us to take a similar path. In Victorian times, women didn’t have much of a choice – some of my research was overwhelming. There were also people from rich families: if they were rejected by their family, they were alone, they had nothing.
What does the rest of your research process look like? In your acknowledgments, you thanked your local librarians for unearthing obscure documents for you. How did they help you?
I would be lost without the library and the archives. There is nothing better than a librarian who is enthusiastic about what you do. They take care of finding letters and things that I wouldn’t have thought existed. I like to hear the voice of a real person: it makes characterization much easier. But I have to remember that this is not a history lesson, because I would research all the time if I could! I just started a history degree at the Open University and I’m moving into writing non-fiction one day because I really like that aspect too.
It’s fantastic. When I started reading this novel, I immediately thought of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Was that in your mind when you were writing?
Definitely – once I planned the novel, I looked North and South. I read a lot of original sources, obviously, but I wanted to see the story on film, and how cotton mills were portrayed. Someone at the library found me the story of someone whose father worked in cotton mills and who wrote his stories, and that was one of my sources on looms and loss of members. It was heartbreaking to hear the stories and realize how young the working children were.
Now that you’ve ventured north, are you tempted to stick around for your next novel, or do you think you’ll always be drawn back to Bath and the south?
I must admit that I liked to write elsewhere because I wrote Bath for my last eight novels. But it becomes my brand image so I don’t want to lose it! Going forward, there’s a good chance my characters will travel more, perhaps starting in Bath or returning to Bath.
I completely understand this setback. When I finished reading, I thought it would be really interesting to hear the story of one of the factory workers.
An author always wants to hear you could imagine more! Unfortunately, my editor said three is good. It’s nice to hear that this could continue. Once the secondary characters enter, someone comes to the top and I leave, ok, that’s the next book, that’s their story. Readers love when the same characters make appearances. My shop girl the series had 41 characters – I like to write a big cast!
You’ve written about 30 books, haven’t you?
It’s incredible. I was going to ask you if the process has gotten any easier, but I’ve read that you’ve been asked a bit too often!
It never gets easier. I run a first chapter review service for new writers, and they ask, “Is it getting any easier”? But I have to tell them no. I plan everything, but sometimes the characters decide they’re doing something completely different. The trick is to follow them – they are always right. It doesn’t get any easier, but I will never stop writing. I just love him too much.
Has anything changed in your process? What have you learned about your way of working?
The most important thing I learned was at a retreat, where a writer said, “give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft.” I write two and a half books a year now because this process has changed everything. I used to agonize over having a perfect chapter – I didn’t trust myself at all. My biggest advice to any aspiring writer is to write that first draft and worry about the cleanup afterwards.
This is very good advice. I think a lot of us students put too much pressure on getting perfect homework right from the start, when it’s not realistic.
This prevents people from finishing their writing: they give up. But if you have the first draft, you know you’re capable, so you can play as much as you want until you’re ready for submission. And also be prepared for rejection!
As this will be published in our student newspaper, what advice would you give to budding student authors?
My next best tip is to find trusted review partners who also write. It can be very motivating, and it’s nice to help someone else and learn from them. In addition, there are well-recognized online courses on topics such as characterization, point of view, and showing versus telling, either free or at minimal cost. Once you submit to agents or editors, they may not give you any feedback, which doesn’t help. But if you have these technical elements in place, they will probably give you some pointers. And if they respond — even with a rejection — don’t be discouraged, because they don’t have to. I didn’t realize when I started that even a few words meant you got closer. I’m established and even now I can send an idea and receive a “no thanks”. It’s part of the process, no matter how successful you are. It’s brutal. But it’s the same in all the arts, whether you’re into music, dance, anything else, unfortunately.
I assume your working days are quite structured. I think a lot of students struggle with organizing their time. Do you have any ideas for managing workloads?
I am very, very disciplined. It also helps that I absolutely love what I do. I’d rather work than anything else, which is kind of sad, but I’m lucky enough to write full time. So I make sure to treat it like work, which can be tricky around the house. There is always laundry to fold or something! But I’m usually at my desk by 8:30 a.m. and up by 5 p.m., with a few dog walks in between. When I started I obviously wasn’t writing full time, I was just doing 300 words a day. All of a sudden you can handle 3000 in a week and the novel is over before you know it. It’s a luxury before being published to take your time and polish and polish. But when you have a contract for a series, they set delivery dates. So I had to deliver three books, seven months apart. It keeps me very busy!
What’s next for you?
I have already started another series, the first of which comes out in the fall, hopefully in September. It begins at the court of Queen Victoria, and each subsequent book centers on the next heir to the throne. Then it’s Edward VII, and then I’ll come to George V. I’ve always wanted to write real characters, real events, so that was very ambitious for me.
How did you find writing about real historical characters where you’re more used to fictional characters?
It was a real, real challenge. But it was something I really wanted to do. This one circulated quite a bit in the publishing houses because the marketing teams couldn’t decide whether it was a historical fiction or a historical romance. Even things like that have a bearing on whether or not you get a contract. Can they see where it will be placed in a bookstore? But I’m crazy about history – especially royal history. I’m going to talk to Edward and Wallis Simpson about it, because it’s a good dive into five generations. I’m really looking forward to it.
A very modern wedding is published by Head of Zeus. You can find Rachel’s other books here.