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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

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Blog Reviews

Historical Fiction – learning from ‘The Nightingale’ and ‘The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez’

Nightingale 2Vianne and Isabelle are sisters whose challenge is to survive after the fall of France to the Nazis in WWII. Vianne’s house is requisitioned by the Gestapo, whilst her husband is away fighting, leading to knife-edge tensions as she tries to protect her daughter Sophie, and her Jewish neighbour, and best friend, Rachel. Meanwhile, rebellious Isabelle thinks her sister too passive, and joins the rebel partisans in the French resistance. Isabelle moves back to Paris to live with her father, with whom she has a less than warm relationship. She falls in love, but the relationship cannot blossom under these dangerous circumstances. Isabelle eventually becmes responsible for saving downed airmemn by leading them across the Pyrenees and into Spain, until she is caught – with harrowing consequences.

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.

For a historical fiction writer, Kristin Hannah’s book is a masterclass in maintaining tension through plot and character. It is not just the setting that creates the edge-of-the-seat drama. Both female characters are strong in their own way, with allegiances for which they are prepared to sacrifice everything. For both women, every chapter contains a harsh choice to be made, and one that will affect not just the protagonist, but those vulnerable people who under her care. The choices also force the women at each step to re-evaluate their position, and so each of the sisters changes and grows through the story. Both women make mistakes, but this adds to their humanity as they do their best to make the right decisions when every choice could lead to disaster. For me this was a five star read that I couldn’t put down, and when I’d finished I wanted to start all over again to see just how she did it.

Christoval AlvarezIt is the year 1586. England is awash with traitors, plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and bring about a foreign invasion. ‘The young physician Christoval Alvarez, a Jewish refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition, becomes a reluctant spy in Sir Francis Walsingham’s espionage service. His religion is one secret, but I shan’t spoil the surprise by telling you about Christoval’s other, and even more dangerous secret. Despite the espionage theme, this is a novel that relies not on plot, or even on tension, but on immersion to hold the reader. Ann Swinfen’s descriptions of Tudor London are lengthy, but also delicious.

A short way along Bankside, near the church of St George, we came to the Marshalsea, a towering grey wall surrounding it, crowned with iron thorns, blackened with London’s sooty smoke, and somehow greasy, oozing a foul stench and dirt of its own, like some diseased and rotting body past hope of any cure. Hell in Epitome, it was called. I had never been inside, but Simon knocked confidently on a low-browed door in a kind of lodge bulging out from one of the corner towers like a carbuncle. He exchanged a few words with someone inside, and we were beckoned in.

Reading this first book in the series I was transported effortlessly to late 16thc London. The plot meanders a little in the middle, because as it is based on the real events of the Babington plot, not everything can fit conveniently to move the reader on. This didn’t matter though, because what the book showed me was that authenticity of setting, and the application of the right detail adds an enormous amount for a historical fiction reader. I read historical fiction to be taken to another time and place with all its sounds, sights and smells, and at this, Ann Swinfen is a master. I shall be reading the rest of this series. Very highly recommended.

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Blog

Subtlety and Melodrama in Historical Fiction

Many of my books are set in the English Civil war, a time of high tempers, and of settling disputes by the sword. Writers of historical fiction find they are often writing against backgrounds of high tension. So with all the fighting, blood, gore, deaths and subsequent tears, how do you avoid sentimentality and melodrama?

Villain

To me, melodrama is when the response to an event is out of all proportion to its gravity. But this can be difficult to assess when your characters are living in such turbulent times. Particularly as like most writers, I was attracted to  the period precisely because of its inherent drama.

 

One clue is when my characters become unrealistically heroic or too obviously villains. They lose their ability to speak normal sentences and become cartoonish and predictable. ‘So you thought I was dead, did you? Mwa,ha ha!’ Make sure their speech is something a real person might conceivably say.

Focus on the detail of the person – ground them in reality by noticing small things – frayed cuffs, the way their eyes are never still, the trace of humour in the lines round their eyes, the way the heel of one boot is ground down by the way they walk. Precision makes the character specific, rather than a mere archetype fulfilling a role.

As for the villain’s behaviour (yes, if you’ve started calling him a villain you have a problem!) – in real life people only use violence as a last resort. So the key is to make sure the provocation, the actual build-up, is bigger than the punch (or gunshot, or whatever.) Good clear motivation, a motivation that is not simply revenge for past wrongs, will help.

My teen books are more prone to melodrama because the action needs to be fast-paced. In one of the drafts of my teen books I could feel the melodrama building and realised I simply had too much action, with no pause for breath. I divided up the action allowing more time for reflection and more time for my protagonist to react in a meaningful way rather than with a knee-jerk reaction. This led to a different more plausible set of actions to move the story forward. Often when I outline, I find that I have relied on big implausible story gestures that need to be re-thought once I am actually writing.

Too many violent episodes, too many over-dramatized deaths, characters that do not develop – these are all death to subtlety. An approach I have found useful is to remind myself of the reality of the world I am writing about. Go back to the research. In other words I need to see the deaths against the context of the 17th century. This was a time when early death was really quite common. In a world where burials were constantly happening, where everyone lost at least one family member before their time, people were more accepting of death, and it probably took more than just the fact of someone’s death to bring on tears. Emotional investment in the characters relationships is brought about by the reader knowing them in small and subtle ways, not always by grand gestures. To me, too much crying indicates either a weak protagonist or a slip into melodrama and sentimentality. It shows I am trying to manipulate the reader to feel something, when the reader’s emotions should be engaged enough not to need any extra push from me!

Subtle fiction is fiction where the between-the-lines dialogue, the thoughts which are unsaid, are as important as the spoken words. Unspoken thoughts can be conveyed through deep point of view narration in a way that is impossible in film or drama, and this is something only a novelist can take full advantage of. When I find myself tempted to melodrama, this is the technique I use to haul myself back.

 

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Historical Fiction – The Power of Then, and the Power of Now

All historical fiction readers understand the power of Then. The lure of an unknown time or place which is only unknown because it happened to take place before we were born. Unlike fantasy, this is an unfamiliar world which, if we took them back far enough, our own flesh and blood ancestors would be able to recognise. The small everyday details are what represent for me the power of Then. The type of flax cloth used for washing your face, the way a fire was lit with a tinder-box, the particular smell of tallow candles, the tickle of a feather in your hat. As a novelist my job is to place the reader in that time, but only recently have I come to understand that the job of doing that is really all about the power of Now.

The best plots spring straight out of Character. In other words, if my characters have strong enough motivations, particularly opposing ones, then the plot will naturally arise from their thoughts and actions. My most convincing writing arises when I inhabit the character so well that I lose track of time and am fully in the Now with that person going about their daily life. When I am trying to force the character to conform to a plot idea, historical event or action, then the writing becomes harder and less natural. Much of it is about listening to the character’s voice and letting them speak.

For a historical novelist to find that voice might mean reading diaries of the time, listening to archive material or looking up dialect dictionaries – all things I did to try to find voices for my two country girls in The Gilded Lily. I also read plays by Aphra Behn and by Dryden. My previous characters had all been well-educated, spoke proper English and had broad philosophical and worldly horizons. Not so Ella and Sadie Appleby, my two working maids from a small isolated village in The Gilded Lily. Their vocabulary was of necessity smaller, many of their thoughts were conveyed by gestures – a shrug or a raise of the eyebrows. They had naive views about finding fame and fortune and their place in the world, but more complex views about justice and fairness and honesty.

And I wondered how this would change as they went on the run in the big city, whether they would learn new ways of speaking or  new ideas, or yearn for new horizons. And of course they do – the city moulds them into someone different, but not just the city, the London characters they meet; the wigmaker, the pawnbroker, the astrologer.

Of course I live in the twenty first century so after my research the voices I heard in my head were not pure 17th century, but unique voices, a blend of 17th and 21st century expression. It is odd, but once I can hear my characters speak, then the characters become flesh and blood. Them surprising me is all part of the Power of Now. This is probably one of the reasons why I enjoy writing my books from several different contrasting viewpoints. I spend time in the company of each character, walk a few miles (or chapters) in his or her shoes.

For The Gilded Lily that meant becoming so familiar with my 17th century map of London that I could literally walk the city streets and turn left and right from Sadie and Ella’s lodgings to the Pelican Coffee shop where Jay Whitgift, the handsome, but deadly, rogue did his business. As I went I practised walking as they might walk, looked up at the landmarks on the way.

For me, a narrative structure arises from the choices of my characters not from my own choices. How can that be, when I am both creator and created? This is the mystery and excitement of writing for me – the discovery of a great adventure, or that moment when I come back to myself and read it back, and see that the character is alive there on the page.The Power of Then, and the Power of Now.

ABOUT THE GILDED LILY

Ella Appleby believes she is destined for better things than slaving as a housemaid and dodging the blows of her violent father. When her employer dies suddenly, she seizes her chance – taking his valuables and fleeing the countryside with her sister for the golden prospects of London. But London may not be the promised land she expects. Work is hard to find, until Ella takes up with a dashing and dubious gentleman with ties to the London underworld. Meanwhile, her old employer’s twin brother is in hot pursuit of the sisters, and soon a game of cat and mouse begins. As the net closes on the girls, danger looms from quite another unexpected horizon… – click on ‘Books’ for more.

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