… from Sarah Waters
1. Structure can serve the story. The dual perspectives on the same events in Fingersmith, the reversed chronology in The Night Watch, and the present past perspectives of Affinity make each of these books a masterclass in storytelling.
2. Historical fiction can be exciting, accentuated by its setting. As in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, life in the past seems so much more precarious. Especially if your character refuses to conform. Waters writes pacey narrative with hooks, cliffhangers and moments of drama.
3. Period detail is a joy. The Night Watch, set in the 1940s, adds little details of wartime expressions and verbal characteristics that place you absolutely there and nowhere else. The backdrop of Victorian London for her first three books is broadly painted and bursting with life.
4. Subtext and imagery in skilful hands is poetic. The small boy stealing a carved acorn from The Hundreds in The Little Stranger, the young lass with dextrous hands sewing fake pelts onto dogs in Fingersmith. The curtains and layers of disguise in Tipping the Velvet.
5. Ambiguity is OK. You don’t need to spell it out. The exact power relationship at the end of Affinity is not definite. Ruth: “Remember whose girl you are.” The end of The Little Stranger has caused more online debate than who killed JR Ewing.
6. Expectations of a narrative can be upset to great effect. Fingersmith’s switching of classic roles such as villain and victim, the difficulty of identifying the threat in The Little Stranger.
7. Characters develop in various ways. The views of Kay in The Night Watch, opinions on Selina in Affinity and the myriad images of Maud in Fingersmith force the reader constantly to reformulate opinion, as we often do when meeting someone unusual.
8. Using a marginalised kind of character to observe a well-documented period of history offers unusual perspectives and thus greater insights. The hopes of the ambulance drivers in The Night Watch, for lighter injuries and therefore less heavy lifting, bring the practical horrors of the Blitz into sharp focus.
9. By making her characters imperfect and allowing them to make questionable decisions, she sidesteps polemic. From their viewpoints, she shows the limitation of choices and the extent to which people will stretch. In Tipping the Velvet, quite literally.
10. While the amount of research Waters undertakes is unarguably impressive, her books don’t creak under its weight. The slang, the brands, the sense of being immersed in the world of the book are woven deftly into the story, never intrusive but often instructive.