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On the Record – The Permanence of History through Fiction #amwriting

 

“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” – Desmond Tutu

Mr Swiftstory and I have been watching The Secret History of Writing on TV. If you live in England you can watch this programme on ‘catch up’ and it’s well worth a look. One of the things that surprised me was how places like Turkey changed their written language from Arabic letters to Latinate letters overnight, and how this affected their society. Writing meant the unstoppable spread of ideas, and to me as a writer, this is its first appeal.

The Permanence of Speech

But it’s not only the printed word that is permanent. Yesterday I gave a zoom chat along with some other authors and discovered afterwards that it had been posted on Youtube here. It made me realize that now, even the words you speak – far from being transient, are now indelible on the internet for everyone to see/hear. So they have gained a kind of longevity. (But no-one knows for exactly how long). Making a gaffe could be painful, and worse, it could be around for very long time. So now, instead of the written word being recorded, the spoken word is also being made less ephemeral through podcasts, youtube and other types of recording equipment.

Tape Recorder Permanence of Words
Pic from Encyclopedia Britannica

The Urge for Permanence

When we write books, often we are looking to give our words some weight and permanence, and this is why authors love to be published in a paperback or hardback edition. Digital words are only on loan to us, and so the kindle versions of books might be lost to us if no physical copy ever exists. So why do we want our words to be permanent? One obvious answer is, as a salve to the ego. A sort of proof that you were here on Earth and had made a big enough impression to leave a physical object behind.

The Inside Story

Yet its more than that, because books actually come from INSIDE us. They are a form of direct transmission experienced like an intravenous drug from one vein to another. And the fact you have experienced that journey is evidenced by the physical object, the book. This is why we can’t bear to part with books that have meant something to us, even if we never read them again. A novel transports us from the surface to the interior of who we are, and helps us understand why others behave the way they do.

It isn’t just the words but the story they carry. The novel can be a record of lived experience. In fiction the experience is an imagined one. This often makes it more of a reality for the reader than a non-imagined history. When writing A Plague on Mr Pepys, I turned to Daniel Defoe’s book Journal of the Plague Years, even though it was written years after the event and he must have had to re-imagine it all. The re-imagined history was stronger than the bare facts.

Historical fiction seeks to render realities of the past into present lived experience. But will historical fiction be permanent?

Pic by Guillaume Henrotte

Archivists will probably not save historical fiction from the fire or flood. They have to decide which documents contain intrinsic value for future generations and so deserve permanence, and often this decision is based on whether the documents are ‘true’ or ‘first-hand’ accounts, and so there becomes a hierarchy of sources:

“One word in the archival lexicon used repeatedly without reflection is the word permanent. Archivists speak almost instinctively of their collections as being the permanent records of an individual or entity. The materials in archives are separated from the great mass of all the records ever created and are marked for special attention and treatment because they possess what is frequently identified as permanent value. Whether by accident or design—and the distinction is at the heart of the modem idea of appraisal—certain materials are selected by archives for preservation into the indefinite future. They are in that sense permanent.’’

On the Idea of Permanence  – James M O’Toole American Archivist 1989

Re-presentation

Our interpretation of the past shifts with every generation, so historical fiction needs to tap the archives anew for new fresh ways of re-presenting the same stories from history and then by making sure those interpretations are as widely available as possible.

In the programme The Secret History of Writing, much was made of the impact of printing on the permanence of ideas.

The Massachusetts Historical Society declared in 1806:

“There is no sure way of preserving historical records and materials, but by multiplying the copies. The art of printing affords a mode of preservation more effectual than Corinthian brass or Egyptian marble.”

So by printing multiple copies, we ensure that our re-presentations of history are never lost, even if archivists don’t save it, and despite any dystopia where there is no wifi, electricity, or wind-up radio.

 

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Blog Writing Craft

Author in Search of a Character – Why James Burke?

I’m delighted to Welcome Tom Williams to my Blog today to tell us about how he came to write the Burke series, described succinctly by Paul Collard as ‘James Bond in Breeches.’ Over to Tom:

Why James Burke? Would it make any sense to say I did it for the money?

If I’m being honest, it can’t really have been for the money, because I know that writing fiction (and particularly historical fiction) is never going to make you rich. But I started writing about Burke as a (sort of) commercial exercise.

Let me explain.

My first novel was The White Rajah. It was based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Like most would-be novelists with my first book, I desperately wanted to write the Great British Novel. I was fascinated by Brooke’s character and the history of how he had come to rule his own kingdom in Borneo and I tied this in with ideas about colonialism and the morality of British rule around the world. Just in case I hadn’t weighted the book down with enough “significance”, Brooke was almost certainly gay and there’s a whole subplot about that. And, as the cherry on the cake, the whole thing is written in the first person and (given that this first person was writing in the mid-19th century) not in the most accessible language.

Despite this, I got an agent! And the agent got rejections from every major publisher he approached. It was, they all claimed, “too difficult” for a first novel. “Why don’t you,” he suggested, “write something more accessible? Still historical, but more the sort of thing people are going to want to read?”

I was stumped. I asked friends for ideas. I even asked Jocelyn, an Alaskan tango dancer I’d met in Buenos Aires (as you do).”Why don’t you,” she said “write about the early European settlers in South America? They have some brilliant tales to tell.”

Jocelyn does not like stories with a lot of violence. I think she was looking more at the explorers and the politicians, or even the ordinary people who left Europe in vast numbers to build a new world in the New World. But when I started randomly looking for European figures in the early colonial history of South America, the one who caught my eye was James Burke.

Burke was a soldier, but we have good reason to believe that he spent most of his time as a spy. The first book I wrote about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, is very close to his true story. Sent to Buenos Aires to scout out the possibility of a British invasion, he explored what is now Chile, Peru and Bolivia, returning to Buenos Aires to assist with the British invasion when it finally came.

I’ve obviously never met Burke, but the little we know about him still gives a strong idea of his character. He was an Irish Catholic who had joined the French army because the British Army did not offer an impecunious Irishman much possibility of advancement. We know he was something of a snob, at one stage changing his name to something that sounded more prestigious than Burke. He ingratiated himself with rich and powerful men, but he does seem to have been good at his job. In any case, there was a James Burke on the Army list long after the Napoleonic wars were over, so he did seem to be kept busy doing whatever it was that he was doing.

It’s this uncertainty about his career that makes him an ideal candidate for a series of books. (If you want to sell nowadays, it’s best to write a series – like Deborah’s excellent trilogy based around Pepys’ life.) He was a spy. He moved in the dark and nobody is quite sure what his missions were. So I can make them up. And what a brilliant period of history it is to make up spy stories about. I’m in a long tradition of sales of derring-do about spies during the wars with France, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin and Iain Gale’s James Keane.

Each Burke story is set around a different Napoleonic campaign. After the British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver) we see him in Egypt’s during Napoleon’s invasion that country (Burke and the Bedouin) and in Paris and Brussels during Napoleon’s textile and returned to power (Burke at Waterloo). The latest story (though not told in chronological order) finds him fighting in the Peninsular War, specifically around the battle of Talavera.

The Burke of Bedouin and Waterloo is entirely fictional, but his adventures in the peninsula are based on another real-life spy, Sir John Waters. In all the books, whether Burke’s adventures are entirely fictional or based on fact, the military and social background is as accurate as I can make it. In fairness I can’t make it all that accurate, but I have gradually found a network of people who really understand the Napoleonic Wars and who have been generous enough to share their understanding with me.

I like James Burke as a hero because he is often far from heroic. Cynical, snobbish, and an inveterate womaniser with an eye for the main chance, it’s easy to dismiss him as an arrogant officer who relies on the solid good sense of his servant, William Brown, to achieve anything. But Brown will be the first to disagree with you, pointing out that when the chips are down Burke will, often reluctantly, always do the right thing. The fact that the right thing isn’t always what his military masters would want him to do, just makes it more interesting. When push comes to shove, he is not only physically but morally brave.

I have come to be quite fond of James Burke. His next adventure will see him in Ireland in 1793 where he is charged with infiltrating the Irish nationalist movement. Perhaps this early mission explains much of his cynicism, for it is his darkest and most morally dubious adventure in the series. But that’s to come. For now, we can relax and enjoy the fun as his schemes, fights, and romances his way through the chaos that is the Peninsular War.

Burke in the Peninsula will be published on 25 September. It is available on Amazon at £3.99 on Kindle and £6.99 in paperback.

You can read more by Tom Williams on his blog, http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/. His Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams and he tweets as @TomCW99.

And The White Rajah did eventually see publication and is worth your time. Here’s the link: mybook.to/TheWhiteRajah

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Blog Writing Craft

Introverts and Extroverts in Historical Fiction

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA

I recently came on a discussion in a facebook group about introverts and extroverts in fiction. (Sorry to whoever started this thread; I can’t find it again now!) But it really made me stop and think, because as a reader I have always been a fan of what I call ‘quiet books’. The more page-turning a book is, the less memorable. So as a writer I need to find a balance between the speed my reader devours the book, and the feeling or memory that the book leaves behind, both of which rely on slowing the pace.

Stakes

The fashion these days in books on the craft of writing is to tell you to concentrate on high action and drama and to have plenty at stake in an external way. This is what we see a lot of in film and TV drama, when the focus is on the physical demonstration of action. In these media, it’s necessary because we have no access to the interior thoughts of the characters.

But novels are different, and as a novelist I’ve always been much more interested the in motivation of my characters. They act, but not necessarily in a high stakes way. The suggestion that some readers might prefer to read about introverted characters, but that most fiction is aimed at extroverts, is a refreshing idea.

What is an introvert, and what might they want to read?

According to Healthline Carl Jung wrote that introverts and extroverts could be separated based on how they regain energy. Introverts prefer a less stimulating environment, and need time on their own to recharge their energy levels, whereas extroverts recharge by social interaction and being with other people.

It made me wonder if introverts prefer reading books written in the first person, where the ‘I’ conveys the inner feelings of the protagonist, and it is as if you are the only person through whom the story is being told. Perhaps a more extrovert reader would prefer multiple points of view and multiple characters which would mimic their preferred way to refuel?

Drawing Room Drama

In historical fiction, the history that has survived is often of the ‘high stakes’ variety. War, bitter battles for control over crown or state, murderous religious divides. Yet one of the most enduring historical fiction periods is the Regency period, presided over by the giant Jane Austen, whose quiet wit, and focus on the drawing room intrigues of societies marriage market, prove endlessly popular.

The Spectrum

As a reader I enjoy both types of fiction, but I couldn’t read an endless diet of historical thrillers. The non-stop breathless action makes me long for a quieter book. I suspect that like most readers, I am on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert, but heading more towards the introvert. As a writer, I need to recharge often after my most dramatic scenes, as I am literally living them as I write.

What do you think? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you like to read about introverted characters, or must they always be the ‘go-getting’ adventurous type? What type of books do you like to read, and would you categorize yourself as an introvert or extrovert?

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Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – the joy of writing extraordinary commoners

I’ve just started a new book and after quite a bit of research, this is the first week of actually typing anything for my new project, book two of a series set in Italy. I’m a pantser, so I just launch straight in and then try to write my first draft as quickly as possible, and allow a lot of time afterwards for editing, refining and re-structuring the story. I have an overarching view of the story in the form of two sheets of A4 paper which are my only outline, plus of course the memory of what happened in Book 1. So far this week I’ve managed just over 7000 words, which is average for me. It gets slower as the story develops in complexity and as I figure out where the characters are taking me and what new research I need to do.

The piles of books on my desk (above)represent the things I am working on. On the left – things I’d like to write about – the writing wish-list. In the middle, books about my last series (in case anyone asks me awkward research questions!) and the next two piles are books about the stories I’m working on right now. There’s a lot about poisons as my main protagonist is a poisoner.

Again, the second book in my ‘Italian’ series is about a commoner. Publishers are often keen that novelists should write about ‘marquee names’ – which means to say people they’ve heard of. They know they can sell any number of books about Anne Boleyn. If the book is about someone people have heard of, its much easier to sell.

This is not actually true. The Girl with the Pearl Earring sold well, despite having an unknown woman at its heart. As did The Miniaturist. Besides,  Royal courts have never much interested me. Instead I’m interested in individuals who have made their mark in history despite being supposedly ‘nobody special.’ My job as a novelist is to make them special and unforgettable. This is a joy, as unlike Anne Boleyn, where there are thousands of interpretations of her life, each of my characters can shine out from her historical past like a gem in a very direct way.

The three women I wrote about from Pepys’ Diary were women he mentioned in passing. Yet now I have re-imagined rich and vibrant lives for Deb Willet, Bess Bagwell and Mary Elizabeth Knepp. You won’t know who they are because they are footnotes in history. The only portrait of them that exists, is in Pepys’ Diary and my books, and so to me these characters are unsullied by other interpretations. I got to know them through my own internal imagination and Pepys’ direct descriptions rather than through some other biographer’s lens. These women now live as more than footnotes and have been given imaginary voices, and I hope voices that concord with their status in the period.

Pepys Library in Cambridge

Because of the fact my characters have no biographers, my research is mostly background. I read very few books that pertain directly to my main characters. I love old maps and take great care with the settings to make them as authentic as possible. Here’s one of old Palermo I used in Book I of my new series. Historical events, and their impact on the people in my stories are my main interest. The cities of Palermo and Naples at that period were subject to earthquakes, rebellions and the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Politics always looks very different from the bottom, rather than from the point of view of those who make the decisions at the top.

My new series is based around the life of Giulia Tofana, an Italian 17th Century poisoner. She allegedly killed 600 men in the cities of Rome and Naples. She is half legend, half real person. Her story has been embroidered and changed over the centuries, but no-one has written a biography of her. So I had to find an internal way to bring her to life, and one of the ways I attempt to do that is to give her a strong setting, and within that to furnish her with a strong set of opinions. For her poisonings to be convincing, her view of the world has to be skewed in some way by her life’s events. In the first book we see these events brought to life, but by book 2 she is now in a very different situation. From being a courtesan in the first book, she now finds herself a nun in charge of a family of young women incarcerated against their will.

The first novel in the series, ‘The Poison Keeper’, is finished and has been contracted to Sapere Books for publication early in 2021. In my first week writing Book 2, I’m wrestling with how much backstory a new reader needs to jump them into the story. I’m also researching the history of the silkworm which will play a big part in the unfolding events. And as always I’m enjoying breathing life into Giulia Tofana, a woman who has not yet been voiced in an English-speaking novel.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

My new WW2 novel will be published soon, and my latest book is here

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Blog Writing Craft

How a cemetery in Bodmin, Cornwall inspired the idea for a Time Travel novel

I’m delighted to introduce Diane Scott Lewis to talk about her new book, Beyond the Fall, and the visit that inspired it.

A Cemetery in Bodmin, Cornwall inspired the idea for a Time Travel

Over a decade ago my husband and I visited Cornwall, England so I could research a novel. In the city of Bodmin we explored the eighteenth century courthouse and the Bodmin church, St. Petroc’s. St. Petroc is the patron saint of Cornwall. He founded a monastery in Bodmin in the 6th century. The name Bodmin, the largest Cornish settlement recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, may mean “Abode of monks.”

A ruin—which could have been the chapel of St. Thomas Becket from the 1300s—was next to the church were a woman in a large hat and loose gown walked through the overgrowth. When next we looked, she was gone. My husband and I laughed that perhaps she was a ghost.

RuinsBodmin (2)

The church, a wonderful gothic structure, dates back to the fifteenth century. We entered the dim, cool interior, where we inspected the twelfth century Norman font, carved with eyes that are supposed to open during baptisms. The effigy of Prior Vyvyan—a Cornish bishop in the 1500s—lies on a chest, both carved from Catacleuse stone and grey marble. Fine woodwork, a rood screen and bench ends were constructed around this time.

To the side of the church was a cemetery of weathered headstones and Celtic crosses, crooked and ancient-looking in the shadows.

Bodmin cemetery (3)

Years later when I looked at the photograph my husband took, inspiration struck. What if a woman researching her ancestors poked through a neglected cemetery, moved a fallen headstone and was whisked back in time to 1789? How would a modern woman survive in the more primitive eighteenth century where women had few rights? Miners out of work, grain riots, and the French Revolution, all happened in this year. Would she be condemned as a spy, or a witch, with her strange ways and odd clothing?

My recently release novel, Beyond the Fall, a time travel adventure, tells that story.

perf5.000x8.000.indd

Blurb: In 2018, Tamara is dumped by her arrogant husband, travels to Cornwall, England and researches her ancestors. In a neglected cemetery, she scrapes two fallen headstones together trying to read the one beneath, faints, and wakes up in 1789, the year of The French Revolution, and grain riots in England. Young Farmer Colum Polwhele comes to her aid. Can a sassy San Francisco gal survive in this primitive time and fall for Colum, a man active in underhanded dealings or will she struggle to return to her own time.

Buy the Book

For more information on Diane’s books, find her on her website: www.dianescottlewis.org

About Diane: Diane Scott Lewis grew up in California, traveled the world with the navy, edited for magazines and an on-line publisher. She now lives with her husband in Pennsylvania.

 

 

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Blog Writing Craft

Secrets of Historical Fiction versus Non-Fiction by Annie Whitehead

I’m delighted to welcome Annie Whitehead to my blog today. Annie is both a historical novelist and a historian, and here she lets us into her writing secrets. Over to Annie:Whitehead

September 15 2018 saw the publication of my first full-length nonfiction book. I’m incredibly proud of it, and sometimes look at the pages and think, ‘Did I actually write this? How?’

But then, sometimes I look at my historical novels, and think the same thing, so perhaps it wasn’t that difficult.

I do remember that the research process for the nonfiction book was difficult and, at times, frustrating. Now, I’m not for one minute saying that authors of historical fiction don’t do diligent research, but this was different, somehow. There were many points at which I had to think not ‘Why did this character behave in this way?’ but ‘Do we definitely know that he did this?’ I had to be absolutely sure, or it couldn’t go in the book, at least not without some exploration of the veracity of the source in question. I found the research very stop-start, whereas the fiction research could sometimes be left to one side: I’d write the chapter, and then go back to fill in the details about what the characters would have been eating/drinking/wearing.

I’m sure all fiction authors will be familiar with the brackets, or the red text that will prompt them to go back and fill in exactly how many hours a certain journey might have taken at a given time of year and precisely which type of carriage/horse/train would have been used.

I did find though, that once I had all the research in place, the writing process for the nonfiction was perhaps easier because I had everything I needed; it was then just a question of putting it all in the right places.

So my experience would suggest that:

Fiction = do as much research as you need in order to get the scene written, but don’t let the research slow your flow.

Nonfiction = don’t write a word of your book, not even the introduction, until all your research is done.

Which do I prefer? Well, that’s really difficult. Writing fiction, there were times when I was happy that there was a gap in the records. When characters disappear from the pages of the chronicles, the author is at liberty to make up all sorts of stuff about them behind their backs. Gaps in the records don’t help the nonfiction author much though, leaving little choice but to say, ‘We simply don’t know.’

The reverse is also true: When we know for a fact that a person was in a certain place at a certain time, it makes piecing together the nonfiction story so much eWhitehead 1asier. But it’s very inconvenient if that person’s known and recorded presence gets in the way of a good fiction story arc. Then comes the difficult choice of removing them altogether or changing the dates. Either of those decisions might be frowned upon by readers.

My nonfiction book is a history of Mercia, and by the time I wrote it I’d written three novels all set in this ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom and all written about characters who actually lived. In the course of my research, I discovered new (to me) evidence about some of these people, which I thought might be at odds with my original portrayals, but I found that I was able to keep my nonfiction, historian’s hat on throughout the writing process, and could separate my fictional characters from my factual subjects.

Until…

I’d come to an especially tricky period of Mercian history, where kings chopped and changed almost with the days of the week, and at a time when murder was still as good a way as any of removing ones’ political rivals.

In the early eighth century the royal dynasty which had retained power from the middle of the seventh century was on the wane. A successful king, Æthelred, son of the famous pagan king, Penda, had won supremacy over the powerful Northumbrian kings, and decided that his latter years would be better spent in contemplation, so he abdicated and retired to a monastery. He had a hand in choosing his successor and, though he had a son, Ceolred, he chose his nephew, Coenred, to take his place. The nephew reigned for a few years, to be succeeded by Æthelred’s son. It seems Æthelred was right not to pass the kingship immediately to this son, who turned out to be rather feckless and Ceolred seems to have been pretty much universally loathed. Some even think that he was poisoned.

The official history then declares that the crown passed to Æthelbald, who was no direct relation of the previous kings and reigned successfully for the best part of half a century.

Except…

Whitehead DSCF4260There is one – just one – mention of another ‘C’ king, by the name of Ceolwald. Was he another son of Æthelred’s? If not, where did he come from? What happened to him? Whoever he was, his reign, according to this particular list, was sandwiched between that of Ceolred and Æthelbald.

Ceolred died in 716, and Æthelbald succeeded in 716. So where did Ceolwald fit in? If he had indeed been related to the ‘C’ kings, and if indeed he became king, then he surely didn’t reign for very long and this hints at some kind of palace coup. And for the historian, that’s it. That’s all we can say about him, unless we follow the example of one eminent historian who simply declared that the one and only source which mentioned him had ‘simply got it wrong.’

But oh, how the novelist part of my brain was whirring! Of course, if he were to be included in the plot of a novel, he’d have to be introduced so much earlier.  Was he the brother of the feckless king? Was it he who administered the poison? How did he then get bumped off? I got quite giddy with the possibilities and, who knows, he might just make an appearance if I write a third novel in my series about Penda and his family.

Research is never wasted. Whether it involves the chasing down of every charter issued by a certain king or finding out when the fork was first used at English dining tables, it all adds to the files. For nonfiction, we can try to pin down every known detail, which is extremely satisfying, and for fiction we can base chapters and chapters on one single record. Both are equally rewarding.

Photograph above is Annie’s own, the Repton Stone, said to depict King Æthelbald.
Find Annie on the links below:
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Blog Writing Craft

Shades of Historical Fiction – finding the right tone

Tones starfire-chartThe website Writers Write gives us 155 words to describe a writer’s tone.  There are probably many more than this, as each writer’s tone also conveys what we call ‘voice’.

Tone conveys your attitude towards your subject, your audience, and your personal perspective on life. It is expressed through the structure and length of your sentences, the particular point of view, and the level of formality. An opening page must give the readers the tone of what they will be reading, and this includes its pace, level of tension, amount of historical detail, and authorial involvement.

In historical fiction, the mood, feel and atmosphere of your writing is important, because you are building a world that no longer exists. The mood either reinforces the political, religious and social concerns of the era, or it can undercut them with a more modern interpretation (as in The Judge Hunter).

Below I have copied extracts from three first chapters, to give an idea of how much a reader can glean about the book just from the first pages. Beneath each extract are a few words to condense the impression I got from each of these books. Please feel free to add your own impressions in the comments, and do check out the authors’ books via the title links.

The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley

– CHAPTER 1 –
London, February 1664

Balthasar de St. Michel was contemplating his excellent good fortune at having such an influential brother-in-law as Samuel Pepys when he looked up and saw the head of Oliver Cromwell, mummifying on a pike. Revolting, he thought.

It had been there for—what—three years now? When the late king’s son, Charles II, was restored to the throne, he ordered the moldering corpses of his father’s executioners dug up, hanged, and decapitated. “Symbolic revenge.” Ten of the fifty-nine men who signed the King’s death warrant were rather less fortunate than Cromwell. They got hanged and butchered while alive.

Balthasar shuddered and moved briskly along to his destination, the Navy Office in Seething Lane, a busy warren near the Tower of London.

“Brother Sam!” he said with a heartiness suggesting it was a social call.

Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy, looked up from his desk. His face did not convey delight. He knew from experience that this was not a social call.

“Brother Balty. I fear you find me much occupied.”

“I was passing by. Thought to stick my head in. Say hello.”

“Good of you,” Pepys said heavily.

“What’s the commotion?” Balty said, looking out the window at the bustle in the courtyard below.

“Meetings. So as you see, I am somewhat—”

“Say, how long are they going to leave Cromwell’s head on that pike?”

Pepys sighed. “I wouldn’t know. For as long as it pleases his majesty, I expect.”

“Frightful thing.”

“Yes, I imagine that’s rather the point.”

“Weren’t you present when they”—Balty made a chopping motion—” lopped off the king’s head?”

“Yes. I was sixteen. Played truant from school. And was well whipped for it. Now if you’ll—”

“Didn’t you also see the execution of the first of the regicides? What’s his name . . . Harrison?”

“Yes. Well, good of you to—”

“Must have been ghastly. Hanging, disemboweling, cutting off the privy parts. Then—”

Yes, Balty. It was horrid. So much so that I endeavor not to dwell upon it.”

“People will suspect you’ve a penchant for gruesome entertainments.” He pronounced the word in the French way, himself being half French. Balty and his sister, Pepys’s wife, had the tendency to lapse into their father’s native tongue.

“My penchant, Balty, is to be witness at great events. I do not attend only executions. I remind you that I was aboard the ship that brought his majesty back to England from Holland four years ago.”

Pepys did not mention—to Balty or anyone, for that matter—the diary he’d been keeping since 1660. He wrote it in a shorthand decipherable only to himself, so that he could tell it all.

informal, funny,  smart, swift, pacey, 3rd person – notice how the historical desciption is at a minimum, but the witty dialogue makes this skip along the page. The reader is kept as an amused witness.

Plague Land  by S D Sykes

Prologue
Somershill Manor, November 1350

If I preserve but one memory at my own death, it shall be the burning of the dog-headed beast. The fire blazed in the field beside the church – its white smoke rising skyward in a twisted billow. Its odor acrid and choking.

‘Let me through.’ I shouted to their backs. At first they didn’t respond, only turning to look at me when I grabbed at their tunics. Perhaps they had forgotten who I was? A young girl asked me to lift her so she might see the sinner die. A ragged boy tried to sell me a faggot of fat for half a penny.

And then a wail cut through the air. It was thin and piteous and came from within the pyre itself – but pushing my way through to the flames, I found no curling and blackened body tied to a stake. No sooty chains or iron hoops. Only the carcass of a bull, with the fire now licking at the brown and white hair of its coat.

The beast had not been skinned and its mouth was jammed open with a thick metal skewer. I recognized the animal immediately. It was my best Simmental bull, Goliath. But why were they burning such a valuable beast? I couldn’t understand. Goliath had sired most of our dairy herd. We could not afford such waste. And then a strange thing caught my eye. Beneath the creature’s distended belly something seemed to move about like a rat inside a sack of barley. I tried to look closer, but the heat repelled me. Then the plaintive call came again. A groan, followed by the high-pitched scream of a vixen. I grasped the man standing next to me. It was my reeve, Featherby.

‘How can the beast be calling?’ I said. ‘Is it still alive?’

He regarded me curiously. ‘No, sire. I slaughtered him myself.’

‘Then what’s making such a noise?’

‘The dog-headed beast. It calls through the neck of the bull.’

‘What?’

‘We’ve sewn it inside, sire.’

I felt nauseated. ‘Whilst still living?’

He nodded. ‘We hoped to hear it beg for forgiveness as it burns. But it only screams and screeches like a devil.’

I grabbed the fool. ‘Put the fire out. Now!’

‘But sire? The sacrifice of our best bull will cleanse the demon of sin.’

‘Who told you this?’

‘The priest.’ These words might once have paralyzed me, but no longer.

Small descriptive details, short sentences, horror, fast-paced, action, suspense,  1st person and close to the unfolding events, dialogue spare and terse.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

St Vitella’s Convent, Loro Ciufenna, August 1528

The Testament of Sister Lucrezia

Chapter 1

Looking back now, I see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn’t as if Florence didn’t have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn’t walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.

The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of the Gospels made flesh for anyone with eyes to see. And those who looked saw something else as well. Our Lord may have lived and died in Galilee, but his life was re-created in the city of Florence. The Angel Gabriel brought God’s message to Mary under the arches of a Brunelleschian loggia, the Three Kings led processions through the Tuscan countryside, and Christ’s miracles unfolded within our city walls, the sinners and the sick in Florentine dress and the crowds of witnesses dotted with public faces: a host of thick-chinned, big-nosed dignitaries staring down from the frescoes onto their real-life counterparts in the front pews.

Descriptive, religious, contemplative, political, artistic – notice the authorial distance, both in the sense of looking back at something long ago, and the summary of Florence’s history in that last long sentence. The book starts with a leisurely, descriptive prologue of the Nun’s death, which is a tour-de-force and worth seeking out by clicking the book title.

The promise of mood and tone

Much of tone is natural to the writer, but after you have a draft, it’s worth analysing your first pages to see whether they promise the sort of book you have produced, and to use pace, language and syntax to pinpoint its tone. Aim for consistency; a reader will be disappointed if you don’t fulfil their expectations. Your book’s tone will also inspire the mood or tone of its front cover, its blurb, and the way it is sold to readers, so once you have identified the tone, it is worth seeking out books with a similar feel to compare choice of language and point of view.

(Colour chart borrowed from this website)

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Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction 10 Editing Tips: No 10 Feigning Accuracy

I’ve had a reader take me to task – rightly – over an incorrect detail of clothing worn by the hero of my books, the 16th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, even while they seemed quite happy to accept the much more flagrant invention of turning him into a spy who solves murders.

Stephanie Merritt (SJ Parris)

Feigning Accuracy

Feigning accuracy? Surely she means being totally accurate with the historical facts?

Well, I left this post until last because historical accuracy is a lot more complicated than it might seem, and the focus of a never-ending conversational loop for historical novelists. Recently, I was pulled up for inaccuracy by a reader. She had looked up one of my characters – called Koniev – probably on wikipedia, and said I’d spelt it wrong. It should be ‘Konev’.  Yet here is a photo of some of the real newspapers of the period that I used for my research into this character.

Jpeg
1945 research for Past Encounters

So who is right? The answer is neither of us. Or both. But the problem is, my sources are different from my readers. You will always be accused of inaccuracy by someone, not because you haven’t done your research, but often because your research sources may be different from the reader’s.

If you write a unique view of a character, one that a reader knows and loves, if it doesn’t agree with their previous reading on the subject, it might be deemed inaccurate — even though your new interpretation is well-supported by primary historical sources. When editing, it is good to take account of the probable sources of your readers.

I write a lot in the 17th Century. A popular book right now on the period is a very good book called ‘The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain.’ Now I would be foolish to insert facts into my novel that disagreed with this perceived authority, because I would probably then have trouble convincing the reader that my facts were the correct ones. The cost of things for example, is widely contradicted in different books on the Restoration period, because of the fluctuation of currency in the period. But I am aware that the Time Traveller’s Guide will probably be one of my readers’ sources, so that is the secondary source I might choose to use. We are not historians, and yet the ‘man on the street’ presumes we are, and judges us by the ‘facts’ of today’s published historians.

But our job as a writer is to produce truth rather than accuracy. Accurate things may not ring true – inaccurate things might ring truer.

For example: As Sol Stein says about his play Napoleon, in which Talleyrand confronts Napoleon:

‘Talleyrand provokes the younger man (Napoleon) into a flash of anger. Talleyrand couldn’t say, “Don’t get so hot under the collar” or “Cool it” in the argot of today. He says “Save your blood the journey to your face, I meant no harm’. You won’t find anything like that in the recorded conversations of the time. It is dialogue invented to suit a period, as John Fowles said, a form of “cheating” in which writers use a newly-minted language to simulate an old.’

In the past I have used inaccurate dialect for a Northern girl from 17th century Cumbria. She tells her sister not to ‘get into a fratch’. Fratch is 18th century dialogue and therefore not accurate. But it conveyed the spirit of what I wanted more closely than anything else, so I used it. In a historical novel, invented dialogue goes on all the time, with the writer striving to make the characters live and breathe, preferably without sounding like they have come from a pastiche of Victorian literature.

William Powell Frith
Victorian accuracy – King Henry & Anne Boleyn, Deer Shooting in Windsor Forest by William Powell Frith

Accuracy about the internal lives of historical personages is difficult to achieve. Often the novelist is writing about a woman who played an extraordinary role in history. Or a great man – A king, for example. Let’s take Henry VIII. Say I am tempted to put his thoughts on paper. I might use the most obvious; ‘How can I divorce Anne Boleyn?’ But the reality is much bigger than that, and the question much more complex. This is a man who has been enormously well-educated, who has talked with the foreign leaders of the day, who has multiple concerns about the religion and politics of the time, plus a keen sensibility for music and architectural beauty. Your job is to convey the scope of this man within the meagre pages of your book. It is a bold and presumptuous undertaking. A novelist must insert as much subtext as possible to round out the character, and genuinely try to understand the man. Otherwise the character will be a cardboard cipher.

There is nothing more off-putting than realising you have given King Henry VIII the ‘voice of a middle-aged hairdresser from Morecambe’.

To be accurate you must be able to enter the head of your character at that time, but to make him live you must be able to subtly parallel his attitudes with something of today. The Victorian emphasis on Henry VIII might be quite different from our 21st century one.

If you’re not an intellectual, don’t write about a historical genius and expect him to somehow come over as more intelligent than yourself. To do so would need a dash of divine inspiration – to write out of your own socks, so to speak, and it rarely succeeds. I recently read a novel in which one of the main characters was a ground-breaking scientist, and yet his dialogue showing his passion for his work was filled with bland generalities. It just didn’t ring true.  Most writers humbly and sensibly choose to write history from the point of view of an ordinary or minor character within the milieu of the ‘marquee name’ of history.

If you choose a big name like Henry VIII, can you tweak a scene to make it more true?  Can you give the witnesses an agenda which will give it extra emotional impact? The bare facts in the annals of history can be enhanced. Does your scene show the full vigour of the man? Is it truer than the bare facts of history?

You can feign accuracy by adding detail to the facts, as long as the detail is correct – the rough texture of the blindfold worn at the execution will stick in your reader’s mind although that ‘fact’ was never in any historical record. So when editing check that you have complete clarity about what your character is doing and saying, where they are, what they can see, feel, taste, touch. Clarity is what gives the novel truth and therefore the semblance of accuracy.

And actually, what the reader often wants, as well as a sense of history, is emotional accuracy. They want to feel what is was like to live through that particular time; not what it looked like from the outside, but what it felt like to be in someone else’s skin, and to be able to re-live it now. And you can only do that by engaging the heart of the reader.

There are many discussions about accuracy on Goodreads, or anywhere where writers of historical fiction gather. Each of us historical novelists has our own ‘accuracy barometer’, which is set to warn us of fair sailing or stormy weather ahead.

Find my other editing posts on these links:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6 Status No 7 Detail No 8 Suddenly No 9 Change

Susanna Calkins tackles this for Writer’s Digest.

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-to-write-historical-fiction-7-tips-on-accuracy-and-authenticity

Categories
Blog Writing Craft

10 tips for Editing Historical Fiction no.8 ‘Suddenly’

300px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fogIt must be a month ago that I started thinking about writing a blog post on the difficulties of writing about sudden events, which was something highlighted by Hilary Mantel in her Reith Lectures. In the meantime I’ve been on holiday in walking in Wales, and with historical fiction writers Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden in the Mani peninsula in Greece.

The thoughts about ‘suddenly’ have come and gone in that time, but I realised that in my own writing I tend to use a change of viewpoint to denote that something is about to happen. In fiction, a sudden event can feel unbelievable if it just pops up without warning, and the result is that it often makes the reader laugh – very much like someone jumping out of a tree and shouting ‘boo!’

So the sudden event needs to be foreshadowed in some way. Often sudden events are heralded by a noise: a bang at the door, the sound of musket fire, the cries of an angry mob. Sudden events in the middle of a scene are harder to manage, than at the beginning or end of a scene where white space can help isolate and give impact to the incident.

But one of the effective ways to do this is to shift viewpoint. Here’s an example;

‘William gave a sudden lurch forward and pushed her into the water.’

Now remove the ‘sudden’ and foreshadow it with a change of viewpoint.

Bird’s Eye View

The cry of a gull caught her attention. She looked up. Their two figures would be like dots, she realised, two dark smudges on the edge of the rolling green, where the white line of the cliff cut into the blue of the sea. The gull swooped, hoping for food.

Without warning, Wiiliam lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Magnifying Lens View

Alice saw the change in his eyes, the way the irises opened out into round circles. A wave of uncertainty. He blinked once.

Without warning, William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Far Distance View

Mrs Rogers shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun. Two figures stood on the edge of the cliff. A man and a woman; the man was hatless; the woman’s skirts billowed in the wind. They arrested her attention because they weren’t looking out to sea, but at each other.

Without warning the man lurched forward and pushed the woman into the water.

Far Past View

She had the impression of standing on the back of an ancient animal. She almost expected to feel it breathe. Time slowed. He was looking at her with a strange, amused expression.

Without warning, he lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Far Future View

A pause. Years later she would wonder why she hadn’t felt an ounce of warning.

That one minute her feet were on solid ground, the next; William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Of course these are extremely crude examples, without any novel to give them context, but the principle of shifting the viewpoint seems to de-stabilize the reader and make the sudden event feel more natural. The important thing is to provide a context, so the sudden event flows naturally from the preceding text, although still remaining sudden. Try it, and see if it works for you.

But – Character Reaction is Key

The sudden event need not be explained, but the character reaction must be short, quick, visceral. It is this that makes the event seem sudden and brings the reader along with you. Try using strong verbs which contain a sense of movement, and aim for clarity and precision.

A rush of air.

Her back slapped into something hard.  A shock of cold sucked the air from her lungs. Her feet thrashed in the heavy dark until her head broke water, eyes stinging, into the cries of the gulls. Through the blur of salt, she tilted her head up to squint against the sun. Where was he?

The cliffs were empty.

Notice also the amount of white space around the sudden event.

The picture for this post is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar Friedrich. 

You might like these posts too:  No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6 Status No 7 Detail

Categories
Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction: Ten Editing Tools. No 5 – Foreshadowing

Peter_Graham_-_Wandering_Shadows_-_Google_Art_Project
Peter Graham – Wandering Shadows

As a historical fiction writer, I often want to include major events in history, and usually these are the ‘real’ history that inspired the book. By ‘major’, I don’t necessarily mean big battles, (though the Battle of Worcester forms at least one set piece for me) but they are usually pivotal points of changes in history or changes in character, or preferably both. One of the main pivots in my book Pleasing Mr Pepys is when Mrs Pepys discovers her husband in flagrante with her own lady’s maid, Deb Willet, on his knee. The foreshadowing in this case took the form of Mrs Pepys’s suspicions – her careful examining of her husband’s clothes for Deb’s hairs, and her bribing of the kitchenmaid to spy on Deb’s chamber.

So when editing, one of the things I do is to look for the big scenes, particularly the real events of history, and see if I can foreshadow them more. What I’m aiming for is a build of tension that will lead the reader, as if up a mountain slope, to the pinnacle of tension – by which time, the scene istelf arrives and is all the more satisfying for its release. I usually have about eight pivotal scenes in my books, but only the later few will be deeply foreshadowed, because the early ones are at the beginning of the character’s transformation and so don’t need as much development.

If you have a character that needs to show particular bravery in a late scene in your novel, you can foreshadow by making your character cowardly earlier on. This sets up tension, as the reader wonders whether the character will crumble under pressure. Opposites are a great way of stretching the character arc. For example it is much better to start with an overbearing character and make them humble by the end, than to start with a self-effacing person and make them humble by the end. The bigger the psychological distance travelled by your protagonist, the more impact it will have. Fear in the reader is a good thing, but you must then have at least one scene where the change is foreshadowed – where the character steels him/herself to be more courageous. Often this can be done with an object – ‘he looked at his father’s medals, glinting in the drawer, and knew he could not let him down’. (More on this in my next post).

Avoiding Blatant Premonitions

Every now and then I read books with sentences like, ‘Little did she know, all that was about to change,’ or ‘What I didn’t know then, was that it was the biggest mistake of my life’. These sentences always make me wince.  Especially the ‘little did she know’. They are so blatantly manipulative and only really work well in books which are supposed to be funny, or tongue-in-cheek.

Premonitions and dreams are another obvious form of foreshadowing. Actually, I have used both, but with extreme caution! (in Pepys’s Diary he reports that Mrs Pepys and Deb go to a fortune teller, so I couldn’t resist using it.) But – bear in mind the character’s intelligence and personality. Would they really take notice of the premonition, or would they dismiss it? Deb and Mrs Pepys have really different reactions to what they are told. Describe the premonition in an interesting way – hairs standing up at the back of the neck, tingling spine and clenching of stomachs are all clichés.

Foreshadowing is often a question of mood. This is something else I look for as I’m editing. A sense of instability can be conveyed through setting, rickety houses, a blur of rain, slippery cobbles that make it hard to stand upright. Weather has long been used for this purpose, but beware of making it stormy in angry scenes, rainy at funerals etc. The still millpond could be a better backdrop for an angry scene and reflect back the deeper things unsaid.

Do let me know books you think use foreshadowing really well, so I can pass them on as recommendations to my students.

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads

More on foreshadowing? Read this great post from NowNovel here

Picture from Wiki Commons