Bruce Bishop got the idea for his new novel from an unlikely source: a series of four letters a bride wrote on her honeymoon in Europe in 1927. Bishop’s mother gave him the letters 40 years ago, when he was only 18 years old, and told him to hang on to them.
Bishop kept the letters throughout his adult life while he worked as a journalist, a guidebook writer, and a museum director, among other roles. In March 2020, while stuck at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, Bishop finally took the letters out from his desk and used them to create the story that would become Unconventional Daughters, his first novel.
“It just seemed like a really good time to write,” he explains.
Unconventional Daughters is a historical family saga set predominately in Yarmouth. The story focuses on Eva Carroll, a young woman who marries her stepfather—a union which is especially scandalous in the 1920s. When Eva’s two aunts return to Canada to reunite with her mother, family secrets come to light.
Bishop did extensive research for the novel, which takes place over the backdrop of transformative events such as the Halifax Explosion, the Spanish Flu, the First World War, and the Great Depression. Although the characters are fictional, they are inspired by a real family that he learned about through his research.
While searching through archives, Bishop discovered a box of photographs and clippings that one of the sisters in the family donated. He wondered how the family lived.
“That’s where the whole fictional side of things comes in,” says Bishop.
He discovered references to an equestrian and a countess. He decided that in the novel, one of Eva’s aunts would be a famous equestrian, while another would be a countess who buys her title to achieve higher social status. Their home in Yarmouth was based on a real house that’s still standing.
The novel also allowed him to share his love of Yarmouth and its history.
“It gave me a chance to kind of brag about my hometown, but also to find out more about it,” says Bishop. “It’s mostly a great history. But just like any period of time, there’s some parts of the history that I found about the town that weren’t so nice, too.”
He hopes that the book will allow readers from Nova Scotia and across Canada to discover a little-known part of Atlantic Canadian history. He thinks that it’s important for Canadians to consume their own stories, whether those stories are on the page or on the screen. Bishop says that Unconventional Daughters is unapologetically Canadian.
“This is a story about Southwestern Nova Scotia. Period.”
Bishop chronicled his writing process through a blog on his website. He self-published the novel, rather than go the traditional route, which is now available as a paperback and ebook.
He’s currently working on an interlinked novel set in Halifax in the 1930s. The book is titled Unconditional Sons and will be released in June.