When I am writing my first few drafts my main concern is to get the story out there, and for that reason at the beginning I tend to write in broad brushstrokes. This is especially true in the dialogue when things are getting tense, and I just want to progress the argument. I find I am using generic dialogue; dialogue that I’ve heard countless times before, usually in bad movies:
Are you threatening me?
What the actual character might say would be totally different, more subtle. So one of the first edits I do is to edit for truth. What I mean, is to get beyond the general, and into the particular.
In a piece I read at a recent writing workshop, a father shouted at his daughter; ‘Never darken my door again!’ I’m quite sure that this was the intended sentiment, but would he really have said those words? In 1940’s Warrington? He might have said, ‘Sorry Lesley. We can’t help you any more, your mother and I … we’ve agreed.’ Or if he was really mad, he might have stood on the doostep and said, ‘No, not this time. You’re not coming in. Not until you get yourself sorted out.’ Or there could be any number of truthful responses depending on the situation. The problem is always to get at the truth. The truth is often less dramatic, but more thought-provoking, for whilst it is just a storybook response — a general dialogue that could be said by anybody — your book will lack depth, because storybook responses convey just that; this is a story. The truth of the responses for each individual character is what makes a book feel real.
This is especially true for historical fiction. To make something true and real, we have to search for the reality of each encounter in the past, in the surviving historical documents and artefacts. It means knowing exactly what the setting is, in detail. We need to have precision. What chair was the person sitting on? Did it have a cushion? How heavy was the cutlery? Inventories or wills of the time will help you understand exactly what furnishings your characters might have owned. The research will help, but also the surgeon’s mindset of not letting vague generalities suffice in your writing..
Responses need to be true to the period, including that in most cases a religious belief will have a large bearing on our characters’ moral assumptions. Church will be a part of your character’s life that cannot be ignored, and the state of the immortal soul often of prime conern. The feeling that God saw everything could not be escaped if you believed (as most did) in an all-seeing, all-knowing God.
Our characters must feel true to life, from the perspective of the period. Here’s Robert Merivel from the opening of Rose Tremain’s novel, ‘Restoration.’
‘I am, I discover, a very untidy man. Look at me. Without my periwig, I am an affront to neatness. My hair (what is left of it) is the colour of sand and wiry as hogs’ bristles; my ears are of uneven size; my forehead is splattered with freckles; my nose, which of course my wig can’t conceal, however low I wear it, is unceremoniously flat, as if I had been hit at birth. Was I hit at birth? I do not believe so, as my parents were gentle and kindly people, but I will never know now. They died in a fire in 1662. My father had a nose like a Roman emperor. This straight, fierce nose would neaten up my face, but alas, I don’t possess it. Perhaps I am not my father’s child? I am erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad. Perhaps I am the son of Amos Treefeller, the old man who made head-moulds for my father’s millinery work? Like him, I am fond of the feel of objects made of polished wood. My telescope, for instance. For I admit, I find greater order restored to my brain from the placing of my hands round this instrument of science than from what its lenses reveal to my eye. The stars are too numerous and too distant to restore to me anything but a terror at my own insignificance. I don’t know whether you can imagine me yet. I am thirty-seven years old as this year, 1664, moves towards its end. My stomach is large and also freckled, although it has seldom been exposed to the sun. It looks as if a flight of minute moths had landed on it in the night. I am not tall, but this is the age of the high heel. I strive to be particular about my clothes, but am terribly in the habit of dropping morsels of dinner on them. My eyes are blue and limpid. In childhood, I was considered angelic and was frequently buttoned inside a suit of blue moire, thus seeming to my mother a little world entire: sea and sand in my colours, and the lightness of air in my baby voice. She went to her fiery death still believing that I was a person of honour.’
I love the detail and particularity of the description. I felt as though I was being offered the truth by Merivel. Not a vague description, but something that could only be him and nobody else. So the truth also means removing or transforming familiar, generic characters. Readers instinctively recognise the attempt at truth. Without it, your story will just be a story, and never transport the reader to another time and place.
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