Twisting Fact into Fiction

The Dark Unwinding takes place in 1852, when 17-year-old Katharine Tulman is sent to her uncle’s remote estate of Stranwyne Keep to have him committed to a lunatic asylum. But instead of a lunatic, Katharine finds a genius inventor with the mind of a child, and discovers that she must choose between her own inheritance and the community of more than 800 men and women supported by her uncle. Her choice is made even more complicated by a handsome apprentice, a secretive student, and the strange visions that make Katharine begin to question everything, even her own sanity.

Photo by Rusty Russell

Sharon Cameron found inspiration for The Dark Unwinding from a real-life English manor that was once owned by a crazy duke not so dissimilar to Katharine’s uncle. Below she explains how she discovered the story and how she twisted the truth to create the fictional world of her novel.

Besides the obvious glee I took in researching subjects such as madness and life in a Victorian manor, one of the best things about writing a story like The Dark Unwinding is all the stuff you don’t have to make up. History is so conveniently full of the bizarre that sometimes all an author has to do is search out the weirdness and have fun with it. Which is exactly what I did with Welbeck Abbey, the English manor house that provided the inspiration for my fictional estate of Stranwyne Keep.

It took two minutes of reading about Welbeck to know that I wanted to use it as a setting. Atmosphere in a story is important to me, and gas-lit carriage tunnels, an ancient mansion with hundreds of rooms painted pink, and an underground ballroom lit by a thousand gas jets definitely fit the bill. And the man who created it all was just as fascinating: a reclusive (possibly crazy) duke who roller skated and squandered his family fortune with massive building projects. The creepy combo of secret tunnels and pink rooms and possible insanity was too fantastic to resist, and eventually became the peculiar estate Katharine is sent to visit in The Dark Unwinding.

But as wonderfully weird as the real history of Welbeck was, some of it just didn’t work for Stranwyne Keep. Like the iron and glass stables (one of the largest glass ceilings ever constructed at the time), the marble-tiled cowsheds, and the fact that the Duke had walls built around his bed and only spoke to servants through a letterbox. In the context of the story I was creating, these realities just felt unbelievable. How could all that exist, and no one even know that it was there? How could I depict a character in a novel that no one ever saw?

So it was time to take the truth and twist it a little. I toned down the size of the house, cut the number of employed men from 1500 to 800, and put my own spin on the Duke. In my story, Stranwyne’s owner is reclusive because he’s an autistic savant, a genius with machines but with the mentality of a child. The real Duke had the ability to run his estate, hire men, design buildings, and even went out in a carriage. (A modified carriage that allowed no one to see inside, but still . . .) I was careful to use completely different names, and even set the story in a different part of Britain, so that no one could be tempted to use my story as a history lesson of Welbeck, which it certainly isn’t!

Accuracy in historical fiction is important. Dialogue and events need to be true to the time period. The reader wants to (and should!) believe that a story could have been real. That’s the author’s job. But there is also a reason why we use the word fiction for a story like The Dark Unwinding. Sometimes we have to let ourselves be inspired by historical events or places rather than write about them exactly as they were. Sometimes twisting the truth in just the right places can create an original, believable, made-up world that feels completely real to the reader . . . mostly because parts of it were.

 

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