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Contemporary Fiction

Meet Kate Riordan

Kate Riordan. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Kate Riordan
December 5, 2020
December 5, 2020

Author Kate Riordan writes historical fiction, mystery, suspense and contemporary fiction novels. Her first historical novel published by Penguin was hailed as a must-read for fans of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. With her fourth novel, Kate made a move into writing psychological suspense with the thriller The Heatwave, followed hot on its heels by the novel Summer Fever.

We’re truly delighted to have Kate join our ranks as a writing coach. Get to know Kate – and see whether she’s the writing coach for you – in this article about what she loves to write and why.

My childhood introduction to stories and history

My favourite film growing up was Back to the Future, which came out when I was seven. I went to see it with my dad at the Odeon in Muswell Hill and, during the walk home, euphoric from the film which had held me rapt for 116 minutes, I fired questions at Dad about the space-time continuum (he did his best).

But what had really stolen my heart was not the physics behind the Dolorean’s flux capacitor. It was the 1950s. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Marty was so keen to get back to the eighties, with its litter and homelessness and dysfunctional families, when he could have stayed with Doc in ‘good ol’ 1955’.

The same year, during a holiday on the Norfolk Broads, I had a peculiar experience with my mum at the site of a Roman fort.

It was one of those overcast English summer days that only clear as evening approaches. Under clouds yellow like old bruises, Mum and I were playing with a ball when something shifted and tautened in the air. I felt absolutely certain that I was about to see – almost could see – a procession of Roman soldiers. The ground seemed to vibrate from the stamp of their boots.

Without a word to each other, we ran. I don’t believe in ghosts. And yet…

There’s something deeply seductive about a place you can never visit; where – to paraphrase L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between – they did things so differently. It’s the ultimate form of travel.

The Jesuits said ‘Give me a child until he is seven years old, and I will show you the man’. Well, when you boil it down, it was those two experiences that made me want to write historical fiction.

The appeal of historical fiction

There’s something deeply seductive about a place you can never visit; where – to paraphrase L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between – they did things so differently. It’s the ultimate form of travel.

For me, the best examples of historical fiction have a seam of yearning running through them because the writer understands that, whatever she does with her characters, they are somehow already doomed. (I like sad books.)

My move to a contemporary story

Lately, though, I’ve felt the pull of my own times.

Maybe I needed to hit forty; to accumulate enough years to be able to look back across them with some objectivity. Or maybe it’s a confidence thing, because it’s true what they say: you do give less of a toss about what people think as you get older – one of ageing’s few upsides.

I realised that my historical settings had acted as a protective barrier between me and the reader – because surely no one would suspect this character of being part-me if she was wearing button-boots and a corset?

In fact, good historical fiction isn’t just escapism. It also attempts to shed light on contemporary concerns and fixations – the idea being that time travel, like any other kind, can help us see patterns and truths that might elude us when we’re too close to home and our own everyday experiences.

I realised that my historical settings had acted as a protective barrier between me and the reader.

Nevertheless, in terms of my own writing, I was beginning to feel a bit constrained. There was a limit to how much I could explore the kind of fraught family and relationship dynamics I was interested in when writing from the perspective of a hundred years ago.

The female experience in particular has changed so radically, even in the last few decades.

In my first novel, The Girl in the Photograph, I wrote about a depressed woman in an unhappy marriage who is fearful of being sent to an asylum. All it required in the late 1800s was a husband’s signature.

As a premise, this is as richly interesting as it is terrifying. But having done that, I found I wanted to write about what happens when a marriage falls apart now: the quiet, heartbreaking drift from soulmates to housemates.

Contemporary stories bring a different research process

There were other reasons I began to be pulled more and more towards the present.

For one thing, I was never one of those historical writers who secretly loved the research more than the storytelling. When I sat down to write The Heatwave, much of which takes place in 1993, it was liberating not to have to look up the historical details, to cross my fingers that I’d got it right.

Also, as a reader, I really love the particular in books. If a character observes the exact weird thing I’ve noticed myself about the world, it’s such a comfort. As the kids would say, you feel seen. In the film Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis says, ‘We read to know we are not alone’. Lewis may not have said it in real life but it’s a lovely concept; the writer reaching out across the ether to take the reader’s hand.

With The Heatwave, I unashamedly plundered my childhood memories of holidays in the south of France in high summer. I wrote about the glass mustard jars you washed out and kept afterwards because they were covered in Disney characters, and of the pillowy sweetness of Bonne Maman strawberry jam stirred into fromage frais.

Those kinds of specifics resonate with readers, either because they know them too, or because they’re deliciously unknown and exotic. Either way, they feel real because they are.

I didn’t need to head to the British Library to check this stuff was right. I knew it. And those kinds of specifics resonate with readers, either because they know them too, or because they’re deliciously unknown and exotic. Either way, they feel real because they are. These tiny things punch above their weight, lending conviction to the whole story.


My contemporary novel still reaches back into history

Yet despite my brave intentions, The Heatwave is still very much a transition story.

Although the ‘present’ day is 1993, the narrative also flashes back to the late sixties and seventies, which I did have to research. Apparently, I find it hard not to go back at all.

The book I’m working on now is another tentative step towards true contemporary fiction. It’s set in a vague, pandemic-free now, and I am genuinely excited to be writing about dating apps and sexting.

But there’s only so far I can fight my old passion for the past, which set hard inside me so long ago. The story’s central paradox (thank you, Louise!) is that my protagonist is trying to find love and contentment for the future with a dangerous old flame from the past. What has gone before still hangs heavily over today, informing, colouring and perhaps dooming it. I might have moved away from historical in the general sense, but my characters are still products of their past experiences, just as we writers are, whether we like it or not.

Someone writing in a notebook
Kate Riordan. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Kate Riordan

Kate Riordan is the bestselling author of six novels, and has been a Richard and Judy Book Club choice. Her novels are published by Penguin Random House.

Members of The Novelry team