Today we travel to colonial India in the 1930s, in Liz Harris’s fascinating new historical fiction novel, Darjeeling Inheritance. Firstly, before we chat, a little about her novel.
by Liz Harris
After eleven years in school in England, Charlotte Lawrence returns to Sundar, the tea plantation owned by her family, and finds an empty house. She learns that her beloved father died a couple of days earlier and that he left her his estate. She learns also that it was his wish that she marry Andrew McAllister, the good-looking younger son from a neighbouring plantation.
Unwilling to commit to a wedding for which she doesn’t feel ready, Charlotte pleads with Dan Fitzgerald, the assistant manager of Sundar, to teach her how to run the plantation while she gets to know Andrew. Although reluctant as he knew that a woman would never be accepted as manager by the local merchants and workers, Dan agrees.
Charlotte’s chaperone on the journey from England, Ada Eastman, who during the long voyage, has become a friend, has journeyed to Darjeeling to marry Harry Banning, the owner of a neighbouring tea garden.
When Ada marries Harry, she’s determined to be a loyal and faithful wife. And to be a good friend to Charlotte. And nothing, but nothing, was going to stand in the way of that.
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Darjeeling-Inheritance-Colonials-Liz-Harris-ebook/dp/B0938Y6XVS
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Darjeeling-Inheritance-Colonials-Liz-Harris-ebook/dp/B0938Y6XVS
Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/Darjeeling-Inheritance-Colonials-Liz-Harris-ebook/dp/B0938Y6XVS
Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/Darjeeling-Inheritance-Colonials-Liz-Harris-ebook/dp/B0938Y6XVS
Welcome, Liz. It’s great to have you here. Tell us a little about yourself. Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
Writing does both things, and in that order – it energises and it exhausts.
There’s no greater thrill or excitement than that of creating a world that didn’t exist before you put your fingers to the keyboard, and then giving birth to characters who owe their existence to you, and whom you can feel grow and take shape beneath your fingertips. I feel that excitement every day that I write.
I wake up early when the world is quiet and there are no interruptions, such as phone calls and the ping of incoming emails or notifications, and I lie in bed and think about the next stage of the story, and how I’m going to develop the plot and characters. By the time I get up, I’ve decided the scene/chapter on which I’ll be working that day. I’m never, therefore, faced with a blank computer screen and an anxiety about how to fill it. I sit down, open the laptop, and start writing. But writing is inevitably tiring, and at a certain point – usually after I’ve written 2000–2500 words, I know I’ve done enough for the day, and I stop. The act of writing is tiring as, along with all authors, I’m thinking not only about the right words to choose, and the order in which to put those words, but I’m also living more than one life, if that makes sense.
In order to bring the setting alive for readers, and to ensure consistency of characterisation, I mentally transport myself to the time and place in which my characters lived, and stand in their shoes to decide how they would respond in a given situation. When writing Darjeeling Inheritance, I walked through the tea plantations with Charlotte, Andrew, Ada and Dan, and into Darjeeling itself, and I hope very much that my readers will walk those same paths.
To be able to feel at home in your setting in such a way, it’s essential to research your period and location before you start writing. But research doesn’t end the moment you start the book. All the time that you’re writing the novel, you’ll come upon things you need to find out.
I could draw an analogy between writing a novel and a train going on a journey from A to B. The author knows the station (A) from which the train will leave, and the station (B) at which the train will complete its journey. The author knows also the larger stations between A and B, but not the smaller ones. Those small stations will become apparent as the book progresses, and will require, almost certainly, some research into points not hitherto considered.
So writing goes hand in hand with researching, and at the same time, with continually imagining how your characters will respond in a particular situation. All that is huge fun and very energising, but it’s also exhausting.
The great thing is that the following day, after some mental rest, you’re once again fired up to re-enter your fictional world.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
It would help enormously with planning if there were a set time for research, but alas there isn’t. It takes until you’ve exhausted all the resources you were able to find and, confident about your plot, setting and characters, you feel ready to begin.
To write Darjeeling Inheritance, a novel set in 1930, the events in which take place on three tea plantations in – yes, you guessed it! – Darjeeling, I had to learn about the flora, fauna, climate and terrain , for example, of Darjeeling, which lies in the foothills of the Himalayas, and about the process of tea production, and the customs and habits of the British who lived in India during the British Raj, 1858 to 1947.
I had to learn about the history of the period, and about the houses the British lived in, and where the tea pluckers lived. And I had to know the daily routines of both. I had to research the clothes that the British wore, and those of their servants, too, and I had to familiarise myself with the role that each servant played in the British household. Books and the internet are the obvious ports of call, and so, too, is a visit to the location, should that be possible.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Standing in a man’s shoes and imagining how they’d respond in the situation that I’m about to write, while remembering at the same time that the male characters in novels that are set in the past must reflect the customs, beliefs and attitudes prevalent at that time. It’s a delicate balance. There’s decreasing tolerance today to the depiction of what used to be the normal way of thinking, but which has become abhorrent in the modern world.
Half the battle towards getting it right is to recognize from the outset that keeping a character true to the beliefs of his time is a potential pitfall, and has to be worked around in a way that allows the character to reflect the attitudes of his or her period without alienating the modern reader.
When it comes to characters who are firmly rooted in the modern world, I always remember in amusement the words of Melvin Udall, a successful romantic novelist played by Jack Nicholson in the film ‘As Good As It Gets’.
As Melvin was arriving at his publisher’s office, a female fan asked him the question, ‘How do you write women so well?’
‘I think of a man,’ Melvin said. ‘And I take away reason and accountability.’
I imagine that Melvin would suggest that you reverse the process for a man!
We’d love to hear more about your latest book. How do you select the names of your characters?
For my historical characters, I go to parish records for the year and area in which they were born, not the year in which the story takes place. As I’ve no interest in setting a novel much earlier than 1900, this can be done. I go also to newspapers from that period, where they are online. I wouldn’t want to give the name Kylie to a woman born in 1900. It’s also possible to access from the internet lists of the most popular names for a particular year. A note of caution, though, when you’re accessing such lists. Many more lists of names originate in the US than in the UK, and if your novel is set in the UK, you need to ensure that you haven’t got on to a US list by mistake. The popular names are not the same.
There are certain things to be kept in mind when you’re choosing the names for your characters. As my very first editor told me when she was editing the first of my novels to be published, readers skim.
She pointed out that I had four characters whose names began with the same initial letter, and that most of the names had the same number of syllables. It would be too easy for readers to confuse the characters, I was told, and I had to change the names. This applies to both first names and surnames. This is not an easy thing to do when you’ve lived with a character with that name for the months that it takes to write a novel, and I’m now very careful when I plan the characters not to repeat the same first letter, and to vary the number of syllables.
Furthermore, after I’ve had eleven novels published, I’ve only just noticed something myself about my names – I tend to repeat the same names. Until recently, I had no idea that I did this. I think this must be because of the distance between completing one novel and beginning another.
After writing the novel, the editing process begins. This takes time. Then there’s the dedication, acknowledgements and possibly an authorial note. There’s then a period of promotion, and then the start of research and planning for the next novel. There’s quite a gap in time between writing one novel and starting the next, therefore. And as soon as you start the next novel, you’re drawn into a different world. The world of the last novel recedes, and all your thoughts are on the next. It was only recently, when I had to stand back to consider a point, that it suddenly hit me that the same first names keep cropping up in my novels, and I’ve even used the same surname twice. I’m now alert to this tendency, but it’s taken me eleven books to see what I was doing.
Be warned! It’s easily done.
Are any of your characters in this book based on real people you know?
As far as my books generally go, nothing is consciously based on anyone I know. I would never want my plot to be constrained by what a real person did or didn’t do. But as, very occasionally, I’ve drawn upon situations that I know to have happened, I suppose it’s inevitable that some of the responses I give my characters are inspired by responses that I imagine the real person would have made at the time.
I’ve never wanted to write about kings or queens, or famous people, past or present. My novels are historical in that they’re set in the past. The history is thoroughly researched in order to ensure its accuracy, but each book is a work of fiction, peopled by fictional characters, who are drawn from my imagination, even though my imagination may be coloured by the people I’ve met throughout my life, by where I’ve been and by what I’ve come to learn about myself.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favourite? Why?
The scene that I’m writing is always the favourite of the moment. I’m on the tea plantation with Dan or Andrew, or I’m sitting with a coffee in Keventer’s with Ada and Charlotte, listening to their discussion, and inhaling the flower-scented air as I absorb the sights and sounds around me. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than there.
Until the next day. The next day I’ve moved to a different location, and I’m with different characters. So the next day’s scene is my favorite scene.
But after the book is written, and taking the book as a whole, there are two scenes in Darjeeling Inheritance that I know are my favourites. I’m afraid I’m not going to be telling you the first as I’d be giving away a spoiler, but the other is the final scene. Here, it all comes together in what I hope that readers will find a moment of huge satisfaction. I certainly do!
Many thanks for interviewing me, Elizabeth. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed answering your questions.
Born in London, Liz Harris graduated from university with a Law degree, and then moved to California, where she led a varied life, from waitressing on Sunset Strip to working as secretary to the CEO of a large Japanese trading company.
Six years later, she returned to London and completed a degree in English, after which she taught secondary school pupils, first in Berkshire, and then in Cheshire.
In addition to the ten novels she’s had published, she’s had several short stories in anthologies and magazines.
Liz now lives in Oxfordshire. An active member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Historical Novel Society, her interests are travel, the theatre, reading and cryptic crosswords. To find out more about Liz, visit her website at: www.lizharrisauthor.com
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Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Liz-Harris/e/B009V1G8UA