Rachel Hore is an author who is impossible to put down. Her unforgettable characters are her distinctive trademark. In this extensive interview, we asked her to reveal her writing process and historical researching method, with an eye to her most recent novel and future projects.
How do you develop your characters and your plots? Could you tell us more about your writing process?
The inspiration for my fiction often comes through something very small – an oil painting in a museum, reading about an unusual Norfolk folly, suddenly dreaming about an abiding memory from my youth or childhood. I’ll get a feeling about it, a stirring inside, and I’ll have to write it down in a notebook in case I forget about it. Or I’ll cut out the article (in the case of the folly) and put it in my ideas box.
Sometimes this initial idea will root itself in the back of my mind and I’ll dwell on it until it grows. At other times my interest in it fades away and I’ll move on to something different.
Developing an initial idea involves daydreaming, but also rational thought. There will follow a period of a few months in which I will settle on a time and a place for my story and start reading around the subject. Going back to the folly idea, which was the basis for my fourth novel A place of secrets, I asked myself who built follies and why, and came up with ‘star-gazing’ as an answer. This led me to read Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower, which suggested atmosphere, and a nonfiction book about follies that pointed me to the eighteenth century as a time that they were fashionable. Parson Woodforde’s diaries conveyed the remoteness of rural Norfolk at that time. I also read a great deal about astronomical discoveries being made then, and the role of astronomer William Herschel’s sister Caroline in identifying the planet Uranus. Gradually, from this, an eighteenth-century story with a female amateur astronomer and a setting – Starbridge Hall - began to emerge. Having decided I wanted a parallel narrative set in the present, it was fairly easy to dream up a protagonist who was an auctioneer, which gave her access to artifacts from the past. I tell you all this to indicate that some of this preparatory work is rational decision-making.
It’s when I begin to write that the dreaming takes over again and the characters come to life. When I have a rough first draft, which takes six months or more, it is time to go back and revise it, which can take several months.
In the case of A Beautiful Spy, I was actually researching the backstory to another novel altogether when I came across the real-life story of Olga Gray. Being absolutely fascinated by her I dropped the original novel and started to research her instead.
You are extremely careful about historical settings. What research method do you use before starting a new novel?
I’ve described some of my research methods in my answer to the previous question, but detailed historical research is also integral to my writing. I’ll read the kind of history books that are relevant to my story, memoir and diaries from the period in question, plus contemporary fiction, as all these can provide tiny details that the history books miss out, such as objects that people owned, what fuel they cooked with, how they addressed their servants, what world view they might have.
I use the Internet a lot – Pathe films have been great for describing scenes in the Blitz. It’s easy to find pictures of buildings, old streets, etc, without having to go there. For A Beautiful Spy I examined documents from the National Archive, which gave brilliant details of Olga Gray’s spying activities and her handler’s methods.
Pre-pandemic, I visited various of the London settings and took photographs. Such research, whilst being essential, has to be put to the back of my mind while I’m writing or the story will become overwhelmed by unnecessary detail. It provides atmosphere and authenticity and I can pull bits out as I need them.
Literary influences often affect an author’s writing style, do you feel that there are particular ones that have had an impact on your own books?
I always loved the novels of Elizabeth Goudge when I was a teenager. They’re undoubtedly considered a bit old-fashioned now, though many of them are still in print. I loved the family atmosphere and the tenderness of her characters and the way that the stories are haunted by the past. I wouldn’t say that her writing style has influenced me. I have not consciously followed anyone else’s style – I can’t say who I might unconsciously have styled myself on.
There’s no doubt that we can’t escape the effects of our culture. I read a lot of fiction, and usually consciously, with a writer’s eye. I’ll notice a particularly vivid way of describing something, or an effective use of dialogue, or the brilliant way a writer has set up a scene. I don’t copy what they do, but I learn from them. When it comes to historical fiction I’m a great admirer of Hilary Mantel. What I’m doing in my work is different to her, but I love the way she dramatizes her characters’ movements and gestures in a scene so that the reader feels immersed in the sixteenth century.
Is there an era you have never chosen and that you would particularly like to explore?
I’d love to write about Elizabethan times – ordinary people’s lives – but I haven’t worked out yet how to frame what’s in my head. Perhaps it will come to me.
Can you already tell us more about your new work: A Beautiful Spy?
Yes, it’s a novel based on the real life of Olga Gray an ordinary middle-class young woman in the 1930s, who works as a secretary, but is recruited by the Secret Service to work under cover, spying on the Communist Party of Great Britain, members of whom were, even then, hand-in-glove with Soviet Russia and working for world revolution.
Olga was a woman of extraordinary stamina, but the pressures of living two separate lives told on her and is an important part of the focus of my novel. For close on seven years she pretended to family, friends and colleagues that she was living an ordinary working life. They did not know that she was a spy. It was incredibly lonely and nearly broke her.
Her only confidant was her charming, manipulative handler, Maxwell Knight (the real-life inspiration for ‘M’ in James Bond), who, eventually, she felt betrayed her. Olga’s story lent itself to fiction both as a suspenseful dramatic narrative with a climactic ending, but also as a psychological study of character.
The story is told from Olga’s viewpoint. I found the task of imagining her inner thoughts a challenging one, not least of all for ethical reasons, but when I changed her first name to Minnie, I felt I had more creative freedom. In general, I tried to stick to the facts as much as I could, but occasionally I needed to make changes, such as conflating two minor characters into one, for the sake of the conventions of fiction or to fill gaps in historical knowledge with totally imagined scenes that I hope feel authentic. So far no reviewer has complained!