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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

In The Shadow Of The Lamp by Susanne Dunlap

I’ve always preferred my heroines to be ordinary people in their historic times, interacting with extreme circumstances, famous historical events, or finding themselves involved in some way with famous people. To me, that’s one of the remarkable qualities of historical fiction: an opportunity to imagine life on a real, down-to-earth level in a different time period. So far I’ve written a young singer, daughter of a luthier; a pianist (well, she was noble, but down on her luck) in the romantic world of Liszt; the daughter of a violinist in Haydn’s orchestra. My one exception was the grand duchess Anastasia. But with my recent novel, IN THE SHADOW OF THE LAMP, I’ve actually created one of my lowliest heroines yet.

Nothing could be more ordinary than a parlormaid in Victorian London. Except that Molly becomes extraordinary through a combination of circumstances and her own gritty, honest personality.

I have to say, the kernel of the idea for this novel that follows Florence Nightingale to the Crimea came from my editor at Bloomsbury, Melanie Cecka. She was fascinated by Florence, and casually suggested over lunch that I write something about her. The problem was that the famous “lady with the lamp” was 35 years old at the time of her biggest adventure. Not exactly appropriate for a young-adult heroine!

As I started thinking about who would be the heroine, I kept hearing a London East End accent, and the image of someone desperate to escape her lot and make something of herself began to form. Soon, spunky Molly emerged, an honest, hard-working young girl wrongly accused of theft by a jealous kitchen maid. She hears about the nurses going to the war in Russia, and decides to take a leap of faith.

It was a challenge to get Molly’s voice right. I am fortunate because although I am American, I lived in London for ten years, and had many friends of all different social backgrounds. My friend Dolly’s accent was my pattern for Molly. Molly and her fictional friend, Emma, speak in their East-End voices for dialogue, but Molly’s narration is neutral, relying on her mode of expression rather than tricky spellings to convey her character and status.

In the end, I became so fond of Molly that I can honestly say she’s become a favorite among the heroines I’ve written. Funny how that can happen. We live with our characters for months or years, so that we know them better than we know ourselves, and yet still they can surprise us. For me, that’s most possible when dealing with the little people, the ones fallen through the cracks of history, or types that have no voice of their own until an author decides to give them one.

That’s the real magic of making stories.


Anne Whitfield - author said...

This book looks so good. Can't wait to read it.

Deborah Swift said...

I think it is always brave to attempt a voice from a place where you are not living, so extra points for that - also Molly sounds like a really engaging heroine.I know what you mean about the little people falling through the cracks in history. It sounds great and I'll be recommending it.

Alis said...

Oh my goodness, yes, the way characters become as real to us as our friends and the people around us. How does that happen? I'm hoping I never know as the magic might disappear. Molly sounds like a wonderful person, congratulations!

Ellie said...

Molly sounds wonderful!

Ellie said...

Ellie, is me, Eliza. Sometimes my daughter has been on blogger before me and I don't notice!