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Head of Zeus
Rachel Burton writes on her new novel The Last Party at Silverton Hall and her writing techniques
The Last Party at Silverton Hall

When writers get together, they talk a lot about writing techniques. We all have them, some more organised than others, and we are all completely different. Since moving from writing romantic comedies to dual narrative historical novels in 2020 (lockdown did strange things to us all!), I’ve found that the way I write books has changed.

When I first found myself writing what turned out to be a dual timeline novel set in two different decades, I phoned two writer friends who wrote in a similar style and said “Help! I don’t think I know how to do this. How do you get these two stories to flow together?”. One told me she wrote the two stories separately and then pieced them together; the other said that she wrote from beginning to end. It was lovely to talk to them in the middle of lockdown but not very helpful. I was hoping for an idiot’s guide to writing timeslip, but of course there is no such thing!

I’ve just finished writing my third historical dual timeline novel, which will be out in the spring/summer of 2024, and I’ve found that I prefer to write the story from beginning to end. Ultimately this isn’t that different to the way I wrote romcoms, except that with the dual timeline I have to be a lot more meticulous about planning. If I’m not, I soon find I lose my way completely.

The other big difference between these two genres of writing is research. Of course, when I was writing The Tearoom on the Bay, I spent a lot of time researching cafes and how they are run (and a lot of time drinking different types of tea), and I got lost in the research around the making of mandolins when I was writing The Summer Island Festival, but the research for a historical novel is a little different.

As someone who stayed in academia for rather a long time, it is no surprise to learn that the research is my favourite part. I spend far too long immersed in the past and my first drafts contain all sorts of historical detail that is totally irrelevant to the plot (and probably quite boring to anyone but me), details which get edited out later on. I research as many aspects of the period I’m writing in as possible – especially ordinary everyday things – and I often have to leave notes in my first drafts of tiny details I have to look up later, such as what coin a payphone would take in 1952 and what buildings in Cambridge had air conditioning in 1976 (thanks to my dad for answering that one). As well as reading around the period as much as I can, I do try to talk to an expert or, even better, someone who was there at the time. When I was writing The Last Party at Silverton Hall and researching the Great Smog of 1952, I wrote a little about it on my Instagram account. One of my followers told me her mother had lived in London during the smog and would I like to ask her any questions. I am so grateful for the voice notes that she sent through from her mum. I feel as though they really made the story come to life.

The further into the past we delve, the harder it is to talk to somebody who lived during that time. But there are always first-person accounts and your local library is a great place to start. Librarians are wonderful people who will go above and beyond to help with all kinds of strange research and send you on your way to find out more. This is one of a million reasons local libraries are so important and why I dedicated The Secrets of Summer House to librarians across the country.

But I digress. Why did I decide to switch from romcoms to historical fiction? Well, a big part of that was because it’s the genre of my heart and I’d always wanted to write about the past. But the thing that gave me the kick in pants to actually do it was the pandemic. I wanted to escape from the present, to research difficult periods in the past to understand how people had triumphed over them and it was from this that both The Secrets of Summer House and The Last Party at Silverton Hall were born.

The Last Party at Silverton Hall is out on 2nd March, and I can’t wait for it to get into the hands of readers. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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