This week my guest is fellow author Jenni Keer. She’s talking about her gradual move from contemporary to historical writing as she has just released a new novel with Headline Accent – The Secrets of Hawthorn Place. Over to Jenni …
Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Morton, where today I’d like to talk about tweaking genres.
Back in 2019 I released two contemporary romcoms, The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker and The Unlikely Life of Maisie Meadows, and was delighted when Lucy Baker was shortlisted for two awards. Despite their success, however, my new plot ideas increasingly had historical threads – history being a lifelong passion of mine. Museums always give me tingles, and, hey, who doesn’t love a period drama? These story ideas wouldn’t leave me, so I decided to dip my toe in the waters by writing a dual timeline. This is always a risk because readers, but especially publishers, want you to be a brand, and Brand Jenni Keer was contemporary romcoms…
Undeterred, I embarked on The Secrets of Hawthorn Place – an idea I had about two freakily identical houses with an unbelievable connection. The key to the story was always the architect who designed them, the fictional Percy Gladwell, and once I’d settled on the Arts and Crafts period (late Victorian, and a fascinating movement in terms of art and design) I realised I had A LOT to learn – not only about architecture, but also about that period generally.
I’m a big fan of research, even for my contemporary stories, and love to feed in those extra details that prove I know my subject. Everyone who read Lucy Baker assumed I was a knitter but the truth is I couldn’t tell you which end of the needle to poke in the wool. Instead, I thoroughly researched the subject to make sure my character was believable. It’s not always a case of “write what you know”. Sometimes “know what you write” is equally valid.
There are a lot of things I took for granted when writing my contemporary novels because I automatically know, for example, which TV shows are popular, or what appliances a modern kitchen contains. Percy’s story was set in the 1890s and suddenly I had to consider how a room might be lit, or what mode of transport he was using to get from one place to another, with the knowledge that if I got something wrong, an eagle-eyed reader would call me out. This meant, for me, that writing in a different period took much longer.
I thought hard about Percy’s voice in this book, not just the structure of his sentences, but also the words he used. The etymological dictionary was my best friend because I found that I couldn’t use words like “weekend” or “hug”, or phrases such as “cut the mustard”, or even have him “doodling” when he drew up his architectural plans. (The word doodle wasn’t in common usage until the 1920s.) These are details that are important to get right, because it doesn’t take much to pull a reader out of your story. Arghhh, so many pitfalls for the historical author…
I learned quickly that, when writing an historical novel, not everything has to come from that exact date. I looked about my house and considered my clothes, and realised that most of my possessions are not from 2021. My car is 15 years old, the furniture in my house is antique, and my favourite cardigan is from the 1990’s. So I found it useful to remember, especially when Google couldn’t answer my questions, that if I couldn’t find a description of a lamp from the 1890s, I could easily substitute an earlier one, safe in the knowledge we don’t update our household items on a yearly basis. I also began to amass a collection of reference books from late Victorian to the 1920’s, including a fantastic Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – first published in 1861 and used by generations of women – and a set of encyclopedias from 1910. Seeing, touching, or even owning, objects from the period is useful, and I found it hard writing in a pandemic, when I couldn’t visit Arts and Crafts houses, or visit my locations. There is only so much you can learn online.
Don’t get me wrong, there are unexpected advantages to writing about the past. The number of times I’ve heard authors curse mobile phones because they spoil plot lines – particularly my crime writer friends. In many ways, life was simpler in times gone by. And you don’t have to be an expert on everything from a particular era to be able to write about it. I don’t want to swamp my reader with info dumps, because a few carefully chosen details are enough to submerge them in the period. I have adapted the way I work now – often giving myself a broad overview of the period, but doing the detailed research as I write, so I’m not wasting time researching things that I don’t need for the story. That doesn’t stop me from getting sucked down research rabbit holes though, and I can waste hours investigating things I won’t use, but that I find fascinating. But who knows? Maybe these snippets will be useful for a future story.
Often, when authors change genre, they use a pseudonym so that readers know what to expect when they read the book. (Think of J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith.) However, I am only tweaking what I write and the novels still have my Jenni Keer voice, so I have kept my name, even though what I am working on now is totally historical. The transition has been gradual, so hopefully I will carry me readers with me, and my genre still falls under the broader romance category. With some VERY exciting things in the pipeline, I hope readers enjoy The Secrets of Hawthorn Place and follow me on my exciting author journey as I get pulled further and further into the wonderful world of historical fiction.
Thank you so much for listening to my rambles.
About Jenni Keer
Jenni Keer is a history graduate who embarked on a career in contract flooring before settling in the middle of the Suffolk countryside with her antique furniture restorer husband. She has valiantly attempted to master the ancient art of housework but with four teenage boys in the house it remains a mystery. Instead, she spends her time at the keyboard writing commercial women’s fiction to combat the testosterone-fuelled atmosphere, with her number one fan #Blindcat by her side. Much younger in her head than she is on paper, she adores any excuse for fancy-dress and is part of a disco formation dance team.
To keep in touch with Jenni you can use the following links:-
Facebook : Jenni Keer Author
Instagram : jennikeer
Twitter : @jennikeer
Tiktok : @jennikeer
About The Secrets of Hawthorn Place
Two houses, hundreds of miles apart . . . yet connected always.
When life throws Molly Butterfield a curveball, she decides to spend some time with her recently widowed granddad, Wally, at Hawthorn Place, his quirky Victorian house on the Dorset coast.
But cosseted Molly struggles to look after herself, never mind her grieving granddad, until the accidental discovery of an identical Arts and Crafts house on the Norfolk coast offers her an unexpected purpose, as well as revealing a bewildering mystery.
Discovering that both Hawthorn Place and Acacia House were designed by architect Percy Gladwell, Molly uncovers the secret of a love which linked them, so powerful it defied reason.
What follows is a summer which will change Molly for ever . . .
Buying Link : Here
A very interesting post, Jenni, especially as like you I write contemporary but want to write historical novels too – I may join you on the historical side one day! Mx
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Fascinating article, Jenni. I too love historical fiction and especially dual timelines so I’m really looking forward to reading The Secrets of Hawthorn Place.
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Yes the blurb for Jenni’s invites you in …
I hadn’t realised Secrets of Hawthorn Place was historical / dual timelines until I read this, Jenni. So it’s now added to my TBR pile 🙂
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Yes added to mine too 😀