Recently, Caroline Beecham released her stunning second novel Eleanor’s Secret. I had the opportunity to ask her about the novel, the lessons she learned from writing her first book and advice she has for budding writers.
Congratulations on the release of your second novel Eleanor’s Secret! How does it feel to have it out in the wild?
It’s been great so far with good feedback from men as well as women. I think the dual timelines and the mystery element appeal to a broader readership so it’s nice to hear men enjoying it too.
Are there any lessons you learnt from writing and releasing Maggie's Kitchen that you took into consideration when working on Eleanor’s Secret?
Just to be a bit braver and put more emotion and action on the page, to create some more searing moments. With more and more great drama on TV I think it’s changed what some readers expect from a novel. Of course there are different genres but overall I think that I can up the ante in my writing. I’ve always been quite organised with research and sources but I’m even more so after my first novel as editors like to check dates and other information, even though its fiction, so you need to be able to access it all quickly too!
How much research did you do when writing Eleanor’s Secret? Did it involve sifting through any archives or conducting interviews?
I did lots of archival research and background reading and visited the locations in the novel but the interviews were key. These included David Rowlands, a British military artist, who has worked in battle zones all over the world. He was able to describe the emotions of being at the frontline, at the atmosphere of battle and the attitude of other soldiers to him as a war artist, which was very revealing and helped to shape the character of Jack Valante as well as write his war diary. I also interviewed award-winning artist, Joshua Yeldham, who had a brief spell as a war artist and was very vivid in his descriptions. Australian artist Wendy Sharpe was very helpful with research as she was official artist in East Timor, the first female war artist since the WWII. She was able to give a female perspective on working in difficult conditions and helped speculate on what life might have been like for Eleanor.
Personally, I found some of the scenes in the book quite picturesque. Did you have to do any travel to help with writing about some of the places in the book?
Although I lived in London and knew some of the areas in the novel it was really important to visit them all again, including the British Library, the National Gallery and the Imperial War Museum, because while they are locations in the book, they also form part of the story as Kathryn uses them to track down clues to solve the wartime mystery. Online research and photographs are great but they don’t give you are the sensory detail you need; the smells, light, sounds and sights of a place that are really important in building a picture.
Art plays a major role in the book which is wonderful. Is art a field you’re interested in?
It’s not a major interest at this point in my life although I do appreciate art and love the work of Belinda Fox, but I found the idea of artists at war quite intriguing and the role of the War Artists Advisory Committee in particular. They were set up to produce an artistic and documentary history of Britain during wartime, but unofficially it was also to protect a generation of artists. There were 6,000 artworks produced by the end of the war and although I’ve only seen a handful, many of them are extraordinary and deeply moving. The work of Second World War women artists Evelyn Dunbar, Mary Kessell, Laura Knight, Doris Zinkeisen and Stella Schmolle were a big influence on my research and on the character of Eleanor.
What advice do you have for emerging writers who want to begin writing historical fiction?
Firstly to write about an area you know about or are really interested in as you will be spending a long time working on it so you had better love it! Also, because your knowledge will show through as it might give you a new insight into an era or an interesting take on an event that is not well-known. Then to keep organised with your research and a record so that when it comes to fact checking later down the track you know where to find it; editors will want to know! But most of all, immerse yourself in your research so that your knowledge of the period or event becomes second nature to you; Jennifer Egan best described it at the recent Sydney Writers Festival when she talked about gaining a second memory bank and that’s exactly what it’s like, so that you are writing naturally and it’s not forced. Good luck!