No More Mr Darcy? Jean Burnett and the fascination of historical fiction

Jean Burnett
Jean Burnett

Following her success with the Jane Austen spin-off Who Needs Mr Darcy? Jean Burnett is now working on ‘serious’ historical fiction.



 1. What am I working on now?

I have been putting finishing touches to two completed manuscripts (must stop tinkering) while reading up for the next book. I write historical fiction and the researching part of the book takes several months. I won’t be putting anything much on paper or computer for a while – just filling notebooks with details. This is my second ‘serious’ novel and it’s set at the court of Charles 1 in the run up to the Civil War. There is still an Italian connection through the heroine who is a famous artist. I won’ t say any more because it’s bad luck and I am superstitious about my writing. At this stage I have no idea about a title!

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

It is difficult to assess this. All writers have a different take on history and we all hope that we have a recognisable ‘voice’ that makes us different. I look for quirky historical details or places, perhaps an electrifying incident that makes me think “that would make a good story.”
Most often my imagination is caught by a personality who is either so fascinating, so wicked (as in the case of Gesualdo), or is trapped in an impossible situation. I like what Paul Doherty calls the wrinkles in history; the facts or myths between the lines, the what ifs of history – was Elizabeth 1 really the daughter of Henry V111? Doherty was fascinated by this but I think the Tudors have been done to death.

3.Why do I write what I do?

I suppose I find the past more interesting than the present – that is the quick answer, although if I find a fascinating subject in the present I will certainly write about it. I have written a book set in the 1980s which seems modern to me, although it’s technically historical, which I find absurd.

4. What is my writing process?

It could be summed up as haphazard, but there is method in my madness. I don’t plan things out in detail but a lot of the book is in my head before I start. I always know the beginning and the end but the middle will often take me by surprise. The characters take on a life of their own which is worrying if they are real historical people. I am constantly checking on whether they would really have said or done a certain thing.
The fact is that we can never put ourselves in the mind of someone from centuries ago. We perceive them through a 21st century prism. All I can do is try to make them come alive – resurrect them. This is the fascination of the genre.


Thank you, Jean.

I know you’ve also been working on the further adventures of Lydia Bennet – I hope we get to see them too one day. 

Nathan Filer and The Shock of the Fall

This week Ali Bacon reflects on what she heard (or hopes she heard) at an evening with Nathan Filer

Nathan Filer There’s nothing like a local hero to inspire us all to greater things, and since winning the Costa Prize with The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer is the man whose hand we have all wanted to shake, and so I did just that (pushy or what!) on Monday at an event in Yate Library where Nathan was talking about his book. In fact I discovered his roots are as much in South Glos as Bristol/Bath and there was a great turn-out.

I should say that up to then I knew only the outline of Nathan’s story and had belatedly dashed to only page 21 *blush* of Shock but by the end of Nathan’s talk about the writing of the book I knew a lot more about the book and the man. But then that’s what you might expect since the author and his hero Matthew  had been close companions for a very long time. It was such a lively and inspiring evening I’ve decided to pass on the bits of Nathan’s writing story that stuck in my mind, but I didn’t take notes so I’m just hoping I haven’t imagined too much of it. They do say you hear what you want to hear!

 First novels are rarely first novels.

Nathan has been writing for a long time and has a career as a stand-up poet. No, this is not his first novel, just the first to be published.  Writers know that first novels rarely are just that, but sometimes it’s good to know that the truly great novel – and great writer – have started in the not so great place, and still achieved greatness after all.

 Novels take a long time to write and change along the way

 I think Nathan estimated Shock had 6 or 7 drafts. During that time it changed from a more sensational account – almost a thriller – to what it is now. In fact very many things changed – except the main character. He was the driving force and the insistent voice that wouldn’t go away. Getting Matthew’s story right was what mattered. And Matthew’s character changed only to the degree that the author may have changed along the way. An interesting admission, which brings us to

 Fiction and autobiography, i.e.  my book and my life

nathan filer eventNathan was entirely candid about how much of the novel springs from his own experience and how many of the characters were originally modeled on members of his own family. I thought this was refreshing. How often do writers insist their work is not autobiographical when actually our writing is bound to be shaped by our lives. But, as Nathan pointed out, we put these characters into new situations and suddenly they are new people, they are fictional characters. I’m hoping this will be read by all those people who say ‘Am I in your book?’ because the answer is probably ‘yes of course you are’ and at the same time ‘don’t be ridiculous!’ 

 Do creative writing courses work?

Ah, the chestnut question! But asked by a young writer in the audience who had no academic axe to grind and really did want to know.  Nathan was quick to say that the Bath Spa MA worked for him, but that he knew people who had failed to benefit or even been set back by it. I think his advice was to embark on this style of course only if you are sure of the story you want to tell.

 Road to publication

Shock of the Fall(Well I wanted to know!) After many ups and downs, Nathan finished his first draft on the MA at Bath Spa and submitted it to the Tibor Jones novel competition. Nathan has a healthy cynicism for writing competitions which I am beginning to share, but in this case although the book didn’t win, it was spotted by an agent.  There was another year of work before the final submission, but within a week it was out to publishers and they were all bidding for it. So the long gestation was over very quickly and The Shock of the Fall was soon out in the world. No lessons here except that hard work does pay off, and real quality will get attention even in this mad new world of what often feels like publishing mayhem.

These reflections are hardly news, but sometimes hearing them from someone who has been through the mil and come out the other end reminds us of why things are as they are and what we have to do to overcome the odds.

Finally, with many of the audience asking about the setting and the mental health issues,  I learned a disturbing fact, namely that NHS cuts have been 20% greater in the mental health sector than the service over all. In a world that threatens our mental stability in so many ways, I find that shocking.

So to respond to the South Glos feedback form, yes, I met someone new, learned something new, and in my own little way yes,  I was inspired by the evening. I was certainly moved to buy the very pleasing paperback even though I have the Kindle edition! And if  Nathan should pass this way, he’ll be pleased to know I’m now zipping along on page 90 – and counting.

Ali’s novel A Kettle of Fish is available in Kindle and paperback editions.
Meet her at

A big welcome to Bristol Poet Sarer Scotthorne

Sarer is one of several writers who have contacted us since the publication of Unchained and is now a regular member of our group. Here she gives a revealing account of her work to date. 

Sarer Scotthorne
Sarer Scotthorne

1)    What am I working on?

The biggest project I am working on is editing a sequence of forty poems called “The Blood House” to send to publishers. It was the last piece of writing I did for my MA in Creative Writing. Being part of Bristol Women Writers has been invaluable. Their support and feedback is exceptionally useful in developing my editing and writing process. I have also started writing a new collection of poems about women in martial arts. I’m also doing some smaller projects called  “Obeni”, where I write a poem and a photo/collage is created as a response by photographer Vernon White. Poet Paul Hawkins then writes a poem as a response to the image. Another project is a performance piece involving film, poetry and martial arts. Last but not least I run a beginners writing workshop for women in Bristol.

 2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know of any other female poets writing about their experiences as a martial artist. I expect there are in China and I do intend to research this area.

I think my poems are the product of my experiences in life, they have a certain visual quality, (I have a BA Contemporary Arts) and could also be described as psychosexual. I often delve into the darkest recesses of the mind and write about the unwritable. I have just had one of my poems, Sunday Morning Words published in poetry journal The Interpreters House. I have been surprised at how troubling readers find the subject matter of this poem.

My poems cover many subject areas, including topics such as politics, war, sexual politics, martial arts, nature and family dynamics. I enjoy the way the quality of language shifts as I change the subject of area of my poetry.

 3)    Why do I write what I do?

I feel compelled to write. I wrote on my own for years and was never taught. I wanted to take my secret passion for writing further and see what I could get away with. I like writing about topics that people deny, such as sexuality, abuse and power structures. I like pushing boundaries, both in subject matter and in form. I try to challenge prejudice through my writing.

 4)    How does my writing process work?

I always carry a notebook around with me, and I scribble notes and drawings onto every inch of paper. I read poetry all the time, and I am very active in the contemporary poetry community of the South West and I like to get to London, Oxford, and Brighton to either read my own poetry, listen, write and participate in book fairs. I find it all very exciting and this stimulates and feeds my creativity. The next step is harder work; the editing. This can involve a lot of research, and I sometimes feel as though I have a compulsion to endlessly play with a set of words, which can go on for a year or more. It can seem like a puzzle that I need to be patient with and work out. As I get towards the end of the process I start to feel an immense sense of relief and satisfaction. This is where feedback is invaluable. I get feedback from some very accomplished poets, also Bristol Women Writers who are outstanding and have helped me with the final edits of some of my favourite poems. It is the greatest feeling to finish poems to a high standard and see them being published.

thunderbolt mapDon’t forget you can catch up with Bristol Women Writers and some of our closest writing friends  at the fabulous Thunderbolt Bristol for the monthly Word of Mouth slot on Wednesday May 7th. We’re looking forward to performing our work and meeting up with old and new friends. If you haven’t had the Thunderbolt experience, this could be the time to try it out.