Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so on.
Were your novel set within living memory, in Britain, or the US, or somewhere else your potential readers know at first or at least second-hand, then you could write phrases like "Trafalgar Square Tube" or "Bridezilla" or "TV Evangelist", and they'll conjure up a full set of denotations and connotations which become part of your readers' experience of the novel. But for readers to feel the same density and complexity in life in 5th Century Athens or on the planet Zog, you can't rely on that existing knowledge: you're going to have to supply more of the cultural/physical hinterland. Another reason our books tend to be fat is that readers who want to spend time in another world want to buy into a full, substantial world: to sense that for each street the story takes them down, there's a whole village fanning out beyond it, for each moment in the chapel there's a whole history and geography of faith and heresy underpinning and overlying it that single prayer. Readers want to sense that every wardrobe or weapons store that's opened has twenty garments or guns in it, even if the only ones that matter are the right one the character fails to pick out because it belonged to their hated, abusive grandmother, and the wrong one they do pick out, which leads to disaster in thirty pages' time. But the reader doesn't know what those other eighteen will look like so, rather than do as cheap TV dramas do with their obviously empty suitcases, you're going to have to fill those cupboards.
Or are you? I'm reading Fahrenheit 451 at the moment, and it's startling what Ray Bradbury doesn't put in: what doesn't get explained, what doesn't get described, what actually isn't there at all. And yet I'm experiencing a vivid world; it's self-sufficient and convincing in how the characters struggle to operate in the only reality they know. If you asked me to free-write my experience of that world, it would be full of things Bradbury didn't put in it. (Which is probably why "the film of the book" - any book - always leaves fans of that book disappointed.) It's not coincidental that it's Bradbury who says, in Zen in the Art of Writing, "The artist learns what to leave out." Just because readers want to sense the presence of all those other streets and lives and faiths and garments and guns, doesn't mean that you should put them all in.
But Bradbury hasn't said, "The artist learns to leave everything out"; what we must learn is to know what the reader can and can't do without, in order to create the world for themselves. The art is in picking which glimpses you offer the reader of those other streets, that religion, those garments and guns. That almost certainly means you imagining or researching an awful lot more than ends up on the page, and then picking which bits of your material will have the best and strongest effect, while taking up the least space on the page. For more on how to pick the details that are evocative, without slowing up the story, click here. And finding the right kind of feedback and beta-readers is the way to grow the judgement of what to leave out, and the confidence to do it.
The other reason that all the imagining/researching too often ends up on the page, is that we too easily feel that any map smaller, and with fewer dimensions, than the world itself is imperfect (which it is, in strict logic: some things are left out). There's always another bit that could and "should" go in: another alleyway or heresy to write, another, subtly different garment which these people really did have ... That's perfectionism in the negative sense: the idea that if you don't create the perfect version, you've failed.
But all maps are selective: all mapmakers take decisions about what to include and how to show it. As important as learning what to leave out, is learning to forgive your (nearly) finished novel for all the things it's never going to include: for all the things it could have been, for all the roads you could have taken this project down and didn't, because you chose to go another way. Unless you're utterly incompetent and have no capacity at all to change how you write something, there will always be other ways you could write it. There is no such thing as a perfect novel in the absolute sense: there will always be avenues/heresies/weapons-stores you could write, which might be just as good, in a different way - but you've decided not to. So be it.
Posted at 02:41 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Craft, Creativity, Genres, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Religion, Research, Science, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, THE WORKBENCH, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
It's a hardy perennial: what makes a book-length act of storytelling count as historical fiction? You'd be surprised at how many different answers there are. Whether a book is historical fiction also depends on whether you're asking as the writer, the reader or the seller of it. So I can't give you fixed answers (no change there, then): we're slithering about in very elemental ideas of space and time and people, here. (And there's a whole other post, some day, in the question of when historical fiction becomes creative life writing.) But here are some ways to think about the issues.
Fiction that uses History because it's distant from us
The Historical Novels Review, for understandable reasons, has tackled this issue, and Sarah Johnson's definition of Historical Fiction is a novel set fifty years ago or more, which the writer is writing from research, not direct knowledge. The Historical Novel Society, on the other hand, has an or where the HNR, implicitly, has an and: "... written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events."
I do think this is the only fundamental, inescapable definition: that it is a novel written about Then, as a world separate and different from Now. Of course, there is a sense in which all novels are historical: they're written "as if" these events are past. But I think there must be some sense of the writer setting out to exploring a time which is long gone, and therefore has a real sense of Otherness about it. Even if your project is to explore the eternal human things, the point is only made if everything else about your characters' lives is different from ours: contingent and particular to their time.
Fiction that explores History as a process
One of the earliest critics of the genre, György Lukács, argues that it's "unarguable" that an historical novel must include real historical events and at least one real historical character (although he agrees with Rose Tremain that the main character must be fictional). I think that's very odd, but it's his Marxist conviction that what matters in human understanding is the processes by which society changes. It's also, arguably, a very "traditional male" view: that what counts as historical is the stuff that makes it on to the record - i.e. men's stuff. (The Commentary part of my PhD thesis explores all this further, and if you really want to, you can download it here.)
Historians study change change from one particular state to the next, so they can form general principles about how these things work. Fiction, on the other hand, "resists generalising", as Jane Smiley puts it in Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Novel. That makes trying to use fiction to explain your history book stuff a dangerous game. In real life we are less aware of the big changes that Historians will notice later, and more aware of the continuities of life in our own small compass. But this is also, perhaps, the place where the novel set in a recent time can work as an historical novel: when the project of the novel is to pinpoint a very clear moment, with the big, slow process of history as the flow of time only implied.
But if fiction is rooted in the particular and the individual, the moment we live in includes our experience of it being part of the flow of historical time: our sense of Then is part of our Now. That's why I don't actually think I write historical fiction at all: I write fiction about history, and I'm not alone in that. The parallel narrative is a dead giveaway, of course, but characters coping in a place and time of acute change is another. Just don't make them unconvincingly clairvoyant about the future.
Fiction that uses History as a setting for genre
The classic story-pleasures can be given extra flavour by being imported into another time and place. Historical Crime and Thriller does well at all ends of the literary-commercial spectrum. Historical Adventure is an easy sell because we all know that adventure was far more adventurous in an unwired, indeed unmapped, world. Historical Romance is the one that people are sniffiest about. There is a sense in too many readers, writers and reviewers that if it's swords, sandals and broken bones it's historical fiction, but if it's sewing, slippers and broken hearts it isn't, it's romantic fiction. Which wouldn't matter if people weren't so snobbish about romance as a genre, though in reality every genre has exactly the same ratio of rubbish (and un-historical rubbish at that) to good stuff. On the other hand I am - apparently - unquestionably an historical novelist, despite the fact that at the heart of most of my stories are characters falling in and out of love and bed and wedlock. Maybe it was the death by being shot through the liver at the siege of Badajoz, in The Mathematics of Love, which got me in.
On the other hand, under the broad umbrella of Women's Fiction, Historical Drama is very welcome indeed, as it's so rich in possibilities for one of fiction's most honourable functions: that of giving voice to the voiceless. And, as ever, once you get into literary fiction, all the boundaries of genre and plot begin to melt and run: Wolf Hall is discussed as fiction by many who would never say they read historical fiction, and it's also on some History degree reading lists, not because it's "true" in the historian's sense, but as an example of how all narrative needs to think of itself as an act of storytelling.
Fiction that uses a period of History as a character
For the writer, it's often the smell of a place and time that first hooks us, and then we look for a character and story to embody it. But a couple of years ago I heard a bookseller saying that the Second World War had only just "become historical fiction". In other words it was an era that, for the readers of fiction, had only now acquired its own personality, as a particular country has a personality that visitors seek. I assume this is because few are still alive who lived through 1939-46 as an adult. Readers' sense of the period is mediated through (grand)parents, school, non-fiction, documentaries, gift shops, music, re-enactments. That's what readies readers to buy our stories which are one step away from those "facts": a whole story which never actually happened.
The thing is, to sell a book you have to convey what the book will give the reader. The analogies between space and time always crop up when you're talking about this stuff. The past is a foreign country, as L P Hartley says: they do things differently there. Readers have to have acquired some sense of what that country is, before they will want to travel in it. "This book is set in a period which means nothing to you but I promise it's really interesting", is always going to be a tougher sell (believe me, I've tried) than "This book is set in Tudor/the WW1 Trenches/Napoleonic times", or one of the other periods which we're fed by school and films and national myth.
On the other hand, where you can draw on readers' existing tastes, but push beyond their edges, there's lots of potential. A Secret Alchemy's Wars of the Roses setting is every bit as glamorous and violent as Tudor times, but less well-trodden territory: that was part of what drew me to the period, and it did the same for readers.
Saturday 29th March was the anniversary of the Battle of Towton: the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As you may know, my novel A Secret Alchemy is woven from three strands, two of the fifteenth century and one of our own time, so here is a scrap of thread from each:
Una – Saturday
We roll on up the motorway, out of the plump, low Midlands towards a bigger and rougher landscape of hills and moors and deep-carved river valleys. There are signs to the junction at Ferrybridge and I think of young Anthony seeing his beaten fellows limping back from there, waiting on Towton moor for the battle that would certainly come and the death that might.
It didn’t, not for him.
And then, half a lifetime later, he rode back over that old life, retracing himself from Sheriff Hutton to Pontefract, knowing that this time he was, certainly, going to die. We know that they told him, and we know the journey need have taken no more than a day, so near midsummer: a long, hot, single day.
But I can’t think what he thought as he rode, or feel what he felt. He was a man of – no, not piety, that’s too smug and narrow a word, and faith too weak. He had a belief that’s hard for us to feel, perhaps impossible: a structure of absolute certainty that transcended faith, a knowledge as much part of him as his own bones, clothed in words and rituals that had clad him since the chrisom-cloth first wrapped him, since he was borne to church, to be baptised with holy water to bless him, and salt to scare away the Devil.
I’m very tired, and deeply shaken, and it suddenly seems unbearable, too, that I can’t know Anthony, that I can’t read his books, talk to him, walk beside him, look into his eyes, touch his hand. Perhaps if I try hard enough, perhaps if I imagine completely ... I try to feel him riding at my shoulder, but he isn’t there.
Elysabeth – the 1st yr of the reign of King Edward the Fourth
There were more battles. And then came the news of the fight at Towton.
Even by those first reports, it was clear that the slaughter had been like no battle before. My father was thought to have fled north with the King and Queen, and Antony was most certainly dead.
My mother’s grief for the loss of her first-born son was no less for being silent, or for the news being still uncertain. My own, coming so hard upon the loss of my husband, seemed more than my flesh might bear. And still we could not be sure. It might be a false report, I told myself, but if it were, would a true one not have come by now?
It was a week before a messenger from my father brought news: he and Antony were both safe at York, and the King and Queen were fled to the Scottish king.
Our joy that Antony lived was the sharper for having thought him lost. But if it had not been one of our own men who told of my father’s going to Edward of York, kneeling first in surrender and then in fealty to his new king, and Antony with him, I would not have believed it.
Antony – Tierce
Micklegate Bar is the strongest gate of all. Now I am leaving by it, in the company of my captors. And we entered by it so many years ago, when my father and I rode as the staunchest Lancastrians to join Queen Marguerite and see off the Yorkist rebels for good. Duke Richard of York was already dead, killed almost under the walls of his own castle at Sandal, his second son Edmund with him, and King Henry rescued in the second fight at St Albans. My father pointed upwards to the men’s heads stuck on pikes, leering down like puppets from the gate tower. They were black, not with age but with tar, the better to preserve their rictus of fear: the threat of death to the traitorous. I was nineteen, and I did not know that the wheel of Fortune would turn again so soon.
‘See that one, son? Edward’s father of York, and a very great man, whatever he did. Edward’s brother at least was laid in the ground unbutchered. But that’s what gives Edward the fire in his belly. He and Edmund were brought up together, so close in age you might call them twins, and no older than you are. He has much to avenge. When he comes north to find us, it will not be an easy fight.’
If Edward had much to avenge, then the fight at Towton was a vengeance I had not thought it possible any mortal could wreak. It was the only time, they said, that Edward gave no order to spare the commons, and forbade his men to take any prisoners for an honourable, profitable ransom. All the enemies of the House of York were to be killed.
At Tadcaster we leave the Roman road that leads to Doncaster, and turn south. The sun is hot and high now, and I pull my cap down to keep the brightness from my eyes. No more than a couple of miles’ ride, and we are in Towton village. Chickens scatter from beneath our hoofs and a glimpse of skirts shows how the women whisk themselves indoors. Beyond the huddle of cottages and alehouses the road runs level; on our left hand the heat is beginning to shimmer above the higher ground. Even the larks have fallen silent, and only a sleepy dove, calling from the trees of Carr Wood, is still awake.
How bare and high the road seemed that day, with the sky hanging like lead over the frost-hardened earth, and the becks that we could not see until we stumbled on them, so deep had they cut their way into the land. Old soldiers felt the raw wind that stung our faces and looked to the east and shook their heads. Young ones left off rubbing blisters and asked what they saw. ‘Snow by the morrow,’ someone said.
We were part of the vanguard, south of Towton village. Places were set, tents put up, horses untacked and watered, ale barrels broached and cannon shot stacked. Squires polished armour and checked straps and buckles, clerks scratched at lists and camp women set snares for rabbits. The men piled their fires as high as they could get wood for them and smoke began to rise. By the time I had accounted for my men and seen them settled, I could smell charring meat and fat dripping on to embers. Some was not meat but fowls, no doubt got against the rules of war. But I knew better than to ask or to tell my father. He was in command of the second battle – supporting his new young grace of Somerset – and might decide he should seek out the felons, though there were far greater matters at stake.
A shout from the London road made us leap to our feet. A straggling handful of men, a few mounted on horses whose heads hung almost to their knees. No threat to us even before we could see their badges in the failing light. A lad with more energy to waste than the rest ran to them, and ran back to bring the tale: this was what remained of our vanguard. York’s men had forced through at Ferrybridge, and were even now but an hour or two away.
It was all but dark already. They would not arrive in time to attack tonight, my father said, coming out of his tent with a list of the musters who had joined us since yesterday. But we must make sure everything was in readiness.
We had need of all our strength on the morrow to hold on to a dream of any kind of good. Hard to believe it now, with the sun beating down on my head and the horses half asleep under us as the road drops gently towards Saxton. Hard to believe that some men who lay down to sleep that night never woke to fight but had the snow for a gravecloth. Hard to believe that the wind and sleet drove so hard in our faces that we could not see the enemy, and our archers’ arrows fell short time and again. The noise was as brutal as the press of men about me: steel and flesh, and cries for the King shrieking in our ears. So close did we fight that it seemed each army barely moved, or gained on the other. It never grew fully light, but the day crawled on. Too late did we realise that where once Cock Beck had guarded our flank, now we were turned inch by inch, and pushed back to where the ground fell away, and the men with it, tumbling helplessly down to the ice-covered rocks and bloody water. It was said the waters ran red for days. Men who could walk slipped away, those who could only crawl were left for the villagers. We who were captured in hope of ransom knelt and prayed that our knighthood would earn respect, and our estate earn safety. It was certain that the cause of Lancaster was lost.
But soon we realised that, with the battle won, Edward of York had reconciliation, not vengeance, in his mind.
‘Has not God shown by this victory that there can be no hope of peace while Henry with his usurper’s blood still wears the crown?’ he asked my father, with a solemn face. Then he smiled. ‘Sire, I have lost my great Plantagenet father, and must have men about me of worship: of courage and wisdom. There’s peace and prosperity waiting for us all, had England but strong and godly government at last. You are one of the few who can give it that peace and prosperity. What say you, my lord Rivers?’
My father went to Mass and prayed for guidance, and I prayed, too, that the oath of allegiance which would secure our family would also be acceptable to God.
One of the things that happens, when you blog about Creative Writing PhDs, is that people ask you for advice - including the whole business of applying for the thing in the first place. As you'll know if you've read that earlier piece, a CW PhD is at once delightfully broad and free-form, and - well - nightmarishly broad and free-form. And, as ever, what gets said about other kinds of PhD often doesn't apply, or only applies in a mutatis mutandis sort of way, which wouldn't matter except that it can be very difficult to know exactly which bits of the normal way of doing things you need to mutate, and how.
So, for what it's worth, this is what I said to someone who asked me about their PhD proposal. I won't pretend that it's The Answer: all I know is that mine did get me onto my course, and, indeed, out the other end. But, as I was discussing in that earlier post, different universities have different regulations, and different departments have different interests, and that's before we've started worrying about how it works in Australia, or the US, or anywhere else. So do read what follows with that in mind. But I hope gives you an idea of what to think about.
When you're glaring at that blank paper or online form and panicking, I suggest that your first port of call is the coffee pot, your second any notes the form has about what you should cover, and your third the Creative Writing department you’re applying to. Ask to speak to your potential supervisor or someone else who supervises PhDs, because they’ll know what they want to see in a proposal, and should be willing to offer some guidelines. They do actually want good, coherent proposals, after all, so they can work out which of those are by good students who will finish the course. It’s in their interests to be helpful.
The next thing to do is to look at the regulations for the CW PhD itself, and think of them as a set of questions. How will you demonstrate the things they’re saying the PhD should have? It's a bit like when you apply for a job by reading what the spec is, and shape your CV and interview so as to explain just why you fulfil each part of it so well. For anything you really don't, then say something about how you'll set about filling that gap. And don't forget that at least some of the people assessing your application won't be writers,: try to make sure that you explain what you plan in terms which make academic sense to - say - a historian and a German Literature specialist.
So: what will the creative piece be, and how will you set about writing it? Will it needs substantial research, and how might you set about that? How will you reflect on your writing of it? What other creative writing will you explore and why? What other critical writing will you explore and why? What theory might be useful to you, as a reflective creative practitioner (it's worth trying to get a few academic buzz-words in) and why? For each of these three sources - creative, critical, theoretical - which will inform your creative piece, which your critical work, and which is relevant to your work on both? What do you hope to end up with, in terms of a discussion and conclusion which hasn't been made before? Then check that it's clear how your plans meet the criteria in the regs: for example "the critical and theoretical field associated with your genre" or any other such phrase?
Also, I'd suggest that being reasonably (if provisionally) clear about what you'll read and research makes it clear, by implication, how you're going to keep things manageable. One of the things which makes PhD students flounder most often is when the initial idea was simply too big, and too amorphous. Those deciding about your application will be thinking, first and last, "Will s/he finish?" How you describe your project should imply where the boundaries of it are. You also need a bibliography, and that's another important element: many academics get their first, quick sense of how good any student is by looking at the length of the bibliography and what kind of books are in it. Mine had about sixteen references for a 2,300 words statement, and it wasn't any too many.
You need to cover all those bases, but the CW PhD does have one thing in common with the others: it should all take place under the arc of the question you hope to explore. By definition a PhD has to say something original but, luckily a creative piece is original by definition: it is something that didn't exist before. But you should also be setting yourself up to say something in the commentary or exegisis/essay-type-piece which presents genuinely new understanding. That might be writing about a writer or an issue which has never been written about coherently before, or it might be by providing a new insight into stuff which has been written about, but not in the way you're going to. You don't have to know the answer now - finding that is what writing the PhD is all about - and it doesn't have to be a Yes Or No. Your question may be the more open sort of "What's going on when...?" (mine was), but it still needs to be well-defined and specific. It can be helpful to think in terms of Richard Sennet's idea of Problem Finding: you need to have (provisionally) found your problem, but not answered it.
Don’t be too daunted, though. You aren’t locked into what you say you want to do – everyone knows PhDs evolve and change as you work on them. The right problem to base your PhD on may not be the one you first thought it would be at all. The only thing about my proposal that stayed the same was the novel – and I have friends whose creative piece changed hugely too. The first few meetings with your supervisor will be all about thrashing out what you're actually planning to do. The main thing your proposal needs to demonstrate is that you DO have a huge and thought-through enthusiasm for a project, a clear plan of action which will mean you don’t get too lost along the way, and a goal of creating a coherent piece of critical as well as creative writing at the end.
As an ex- wannabe-actress, I actively enjoy the performing side of being an author, even if I do need plenty of Piglet-time afterwards before I can get back into writing-mode. So I'm looking forward to providing a Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, on 27th November, and if you can make it, do come and say Hi afterwards. I've never been to Belfast, either, so I also hope I'll get a little time to have a look round.
It's always particularly easy and enjoyable when you're slotting into an established structure and venue, as with the Literary Lunchtimes, but I was surprised to find myself actively happy, a couple of weekends ago, as I turned off the A1(M) to Harrogate. It had been a long drive through Friday traffic from South East London, the sky over the Pennines was inky black and slashed with lightning, and there were rain-soaked roadworks. This was a brand-new festival, and I hadn't got much time left to to prepare an event I was chairing, billed as Wives of Tyrants: Tudors to Nazis. Why was I feeling so happy, and so looking forward to it?
As an author your only responsibility at an event is to be audible, interesting and well-mannered company for the audience and the other authors; it may not be easy, but it is relatively simple. Elizabeth Fremantle and Jane Thynne did it all just brilliantly. But when you're chairing, you're trying, in real-time, to find the coherence in two or more writers and their books and what they have to say about them; you're trying to draw out a discussion from them that the audience experiences as a well-shaped, coherent, intriguing and satisfying forty minutes; you're trying to hold back on what you might say about your own work because it's not about you, today; you're trying to fit in the readings and the questions, and still land the plane dead on 10.58 ... and you're nonetheless trying to avoid making the discussion so complete, or so focussed on the non-fiction interest, that the audience decide they don't need to buy the novels at all.
I love chairing, but in many ways it needs more prep, and can go more horribly wrong, than my own events. So it was nice, too, that the whole festival took place in the same, large, comfortable, agreeably Victorian hotel, The Old Swan. In the gaps where I was tired or had done enough talking and listening for the moment, I could just disappear upstairs to my own room and kick my shoes off. I don't think I once got that lost-in-translation feeling I usually get at some moment, where you eye the hospitality tray and its potlets of nasty UHT milk, and want to be at home.
The first Harrogate History Festival was the brainchild of Manda (MC) Scott, chair of the Historical Writers Association, after an earlier festival, and a marquee-full of books, were drowned in the floods. A roof and solid walls make life so much better, Manda decided, and who better to team up with than Harrogate, which has been hosting the crime writers' equivalent for a decade?
Another thing that made Harrogate such fun was how smoothly it ran: even the microphones were the nifty kind which curl round your ear and you're scarcely aware of. I don't think administrators and curators and committees get nearly enough gratitude when events go well, considering what a difference it makes to our performance if we can relax back onto a solid structure of the right things happening in the right places at the right times. My singer sister suffered hideously when no one remembered to tell her and the other singers till the day that a production of L'Orfeo was to be at Baroque pitch, but even with less critical issues there are always the times where no one knows where you should go, lack of publicity makes a thin audience, and no one's cordoned off the event space or silenced the coffee machine.
Yes, any festival's function, at one level, is to sell: sell tickets; sell books and more indirectly authors-as-brands; sell hotel rooms, drinks, nearby attractions, and next year's tickets. It worked, too: the bookroom was packed, 2000 people bought tickets - far more than even optimistic estimates - many events were sold out and all were full, and all is set for the second Harrogate History Festival in 2014. And the fact that all the authors and chairs must be paid has been built in from the beginning. But what really made Harrogate such a blast was that although we were all in economic relationships with each other, it genuinely felt like a communal event too: the gathering of the Clan History, if you like.
There were writers I already knew, from old hands like Robert Low to students from the Arvon course that Manda and I taught, blogging friends such as Sally Zigmond and Alison Morton, there were Self-Editing graduates, blog readers, strangers in the book room who bought my books, strangers in the greenroom who've written more than I ever shall, strangers I sat next to in other sessions and agreed or disagreed with. The jam-packed event on the Search for Richard III sparked interest in my own A Secret Alchemy; a Random Penguin publicist said something super-useful about the book I'm basing on this blog; historical crimewriter Andrew Taylor and I had an illuminating conversation, over a late-evening Chinese meal with Lloyd Shepherd and Robert Ryan in what used to be the Royal Baths, about the different ways writers work.
The more people I talked to, I realised as I drove away through the most deliciously sunny Sunday afternoon, the stronger a sense I had of a web which connects readers and writers of every kind to each other. We were all readers before we were writers, of course, and the web is spun from our endless, shared fascination with the Otherness and Sameness of the past to our own time. I'm glad we'll all be back in Harrogate this time next year.
... you put one thing in an essay - your agent says another thing in passing - you
remember one of the lives you nearly chose to follow in one of those yellow-wood moments before you decided for something else; your agent says a second thing because of what you said; you remember one of
the things you most loved when you were ten; you realise that another childhood love was a place which has been knocking on the doors of your brain for a couple of years now ...
- and you have an idea - the first idea for months - perhaps a year or two (it's astonishing how teaching and parenting and trying to finish a big project while learning to write new forms suck up your creative brain) ...
- it's not a short story idea - those are two-a-penny - it's not a non-fiction idea - that's on the back of the stove now that the dreaming stage has become the stewing stage - it's big cloud of an idea: as cloudy and vivid and suddenly, oddly specific as a dream - and it's yours ...
- you spend a lunchtime or two in the Goldsmiths library and an evening or three online, while every now and again some bits of ideas float and whirl in on the wind from goodness knows where ...
- you look back at which bits of earlier novels felt almost transcendant as you wrote them, being so right - and which of those also seem to transport readers - you look forward to ...
No, you don't look forward. This is not about what you will produce: this is about something that somehow, already exists, and what you need now is to find the process that will coax it forward, out of the mist, until you can see it properly: the bones and sinew and flesh, the crabbed old scar on one cheek and the driftwood cottage tucked down by the millstream; your job now is make it present to yourself. Later - months from now - your job will be to make it present to others, but for now the bits and pieces are coming in from all round you, like the swirling, messy wind before a storm, and you're catching them and putting them into place - a post-it-note kind of place, infinitely re-moveable ...
- you pack one of the Goldsmiths books in with the notes and clothes and business cards, and climb into the car to head off the Harrogate
History Festival, by way of Hull; you start through the Blackwall
Tunnel and along the A12 and up the M11 where the names speak of The Mathematics of Love, and you take advantage of a traffic jam to set up your
phone so that you can record some notes without technically breaking the law, and the signs start saying THE
NORTH as you turn and slip across on the A14 to the A1(M), where placenames from A Secret Alchemy begin to reel past, A1, A1(M) where something about the configuration of the landscape and the lives in your head makes tears start in your throat, M18 where you stop for coffee and can hardly keep your hands off that Goldsmiths book even though the clouds are inky over the Pennines and you need to get going again, M62 ...
And cloud by cloud, clue by clue, clod by clod, a whole new novel drops into your lap.
Whether it will work - whether my sense of this as a whole novel will turn out to be right, once I start counting the bones and fitting them together - whether I shall in the end look at what this process has produced, and find that it that doesn't work for me, doesn't work for others, doesn't work for people who I need to buy it in metaphorical and literal ways ... I don't know. All I can do is trust that my own sense of a story worth finding aligns with readers' instincts for a story worth reading. We shall see.
A writing exercise which the wonderful Debi Alper taught me is to write a two-character scene in first person, from the point of view of Character A (who might be yourself). Then you re-write it, as exactly as you can, from the point of view of Character B. Then you pick one viewpoint, re-write the scene with an external narrator (i.e. in third person), and move point of view once, finding the most effective moment in the scene to shift. Even with veterans, this exercise can be salutary, and in several different ways.
- The Other character becomes pure character-in-action. In the first version you may know almost nothing the Other one, but your intuition or conscious brain still has to work out what they would be doing and saying, which means working out some of what they think and feel. Mind you, when your storytelling imagination is on form and the scene is falling out of your pen, you may genuinely not need or want to dig into in their psyche. Just as the Viewpoint character can't see into the Other character's head, so you as the writer may well not need to either.
- And then you do need to know more, to write the second version. And how big is the gap between these two characters? Not just in how they see the world, but in what they want of the world and each other, and in how they try to get it? It's the gaps between what two different people want, and the differences in how they try to get what they want, that drives your narrative. Sometimes it becomes obvious that there's just not enough gap to cause enough trouble (many writers talk of "conflict", but I don't think that's very helpful). Other times you realise that the response of the Other was convincing seen from the outside, but doesn't make sense once you've understood more of their inside.
- The way the change of viewpoint also usually leads to a change of voice becomes very clear - sometimes for the first time - to many writers. And, since part of learning to write is about learning to be bad, this also one of the exercises where the less developed writers in the room start to get an idea of just how much more they could learn, and what possibilities are opening up for them.
- In the second version of the scene, your new Other character is one who you already know well from the inside. This version, therefore, becomes an exercise in how you get the reader to understand what a character thinks and feels, purely through gestures, tones of voice, words and so on. And is there a gap between what your new viewpoint character understands and thinks and says, and what we as readers see? In that gap tragic, or comic, or ironic?
- Switching into third person is a good way of realising how an external narrator can get just as close into a character's consciousness, if you use free indirect style (and why wouldn't you?). And as well as being able to move outwards to stuff no character knows, you can, arguably, get closest of all: an external narrator can tell the reader about fears, motivations and drives that the characters themselves don't understand or admit to.
- Moving point of view is startling for writers who have always written with an internal, character-narrator, or in third person but locked to a single viewpoint per scene. They realise how point of view isn't just something they'll be smacked on the wrist for "getting wrong", but a powerful and flexible (read: grownup) technique which they really should have in their toolkit. It's also a small, clear exercise in handling such a move.
I've had students say that it's completely changed how they perceive the scene, and the event, and their main character, and the story; I've had students realise they might have picked the wrong protagonist; I've had students cry, as the original antagonist turned out to be bearing the emotional weight of the scene.
And now I've got a new way of thinking about all this. Back in August, I spent a week teaching a course on Historical Fiction at Lumb Bank, the Yorkshire centre of the Arvon Foundation. My fellow tutor was Manda (M C) Scott, and one of the many brilliant things she said (quoting someone, I think, but I'm afraid I can't remember who) was this: "Every character is the hero of his own story."
In a novel, we all know, the main character/s are our hero/es: this is their story. But the Others? Even in fairy tales antagonists have some rudimentary motivations for getting in the way: misers want gold, older brothers are jealous of Dad's favourite son. And yet even if your project is rather more emotionally nuanced than Snow White, it's still easy to think of the other characters purely in terms of their relationship to your MC. But if you think about the story that these characters tell themselves, it might be very different. Your MC isn't their MC: they are the centre of their own story. Your MC is only part of it. And then there are all those lesser and minor characters - the best friend, the boss, the hat-check girl. What's their story? What kind of hero are they? What - if you want to use the Hollywood cliché - is this hero's journey?
And another thought: most people, most of the time, are trying to behave in accordance with their values: their idea of how they'd like their story to go. They may not manage it - particularly if their values and their feelings are at odds. They may be prevented from behaving as they'd wish ... or at least they may tell themselves or others that they are. You or I might disapprove of the values that underpin what they do, but those values still have some kind of central coherence for them. And much of what your Other characters do to your MC is, in a sense, directed by that wider sense of themselves and their story. What would a story built round them be like? How does that affect your hero's story? How does that affect your project?
These are all the posts I think I mentioned at Arvon Lumb Bank, when M C Scott and I had the pleasure of spending a week talking about writing historical fiction with fifteen writers who are rash enough to want to join us - and then wrote some truly fantastic stuff. We also had a splendid evening with Robert Low, ex-Para, ex-journalist and current Viking.
If you were there, and remember me mentioning a post or a book or a topic which I haven't put here, do say so in the comments, and I'll do my best to dig it up. If you've been digging in the Tool Kit section of the blog, quite a few of these will be familiar, but some may not.
And I distinctly remember mentioning Sarah Stovell's novel The Night Flower, as a great example of first-person historical voices working in parallel, because it wasn't at that point published (it is now). And also Linda Buckely-Archer's children's time-slip trilogy Gideon The Cutpurse (calle Time Quake in the US). I know there were others, obviously, so let me know if I mentioned anything else you haven't been able to track down.
READING LIKE A WRITER:
AN EDUCATION IN WRITING: in which I dissect 100 words of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day. Just watch those verbs...
BOOKS FOR WRITERS : all the books I mentioned should be on this list, including The Seven Basic Plots, and if you remember one that isn't, mention it in the comments here.
SHOWING AND TELLING: the basics : even though you know this stuff...
PSYCHIC DISTANCE: what it is and how to use it : the examples will be familiar...
CHARACTERISATION-IN-ACTION : some of these will be familiar from our Arvon week, but there's more
MORE ON CHARACTERISATION : which comes more naturally to you: thinking about characterisation from the outside inwards, or from the inside outwards?
PROLOGUES : why you probably shouldn't, why occasionally you should.
POINT-OF-VIEW AND NARRATORS SERIES:
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 1: the basics : what point of view is, what a narrator is, and why it matters
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 2: internal narrators : character-narrators who narrate in first person
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 3: external narrators : limited, switching and privileged point of view in narrators who narrate in third person
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 4: moving point of view and other stories : how to work with a moving point of view, second-person narrators and other stuff
DESCRIPTION : how to stop your descriptions being slabs of scene setting, and turn them into storytelling
6 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DESCRIPTION : more on the how and why of evoking places, people and everything else
FLASHBACKS AND BACKSTORY : how to handle the stuff from Before The Story Starts.
SIXTY-PLUS WAYS OF ARRANGING THE SAME 11 WORD SENTENCE ; yoga for writers, in other words
SENTENCE STRUCTURE AS STORYTELLING: how the order of the elements in your sentence can make such a difference
HOW THINKING ABOUT GRAMMAR can help your prose to sing
THE COMMON SCAFFOLD: all the things which get into your first draft for good reason, but then need fishing out again
CLUSTERING : as a way of finding material, with a picture of the clusters I worked to develop a story.
TWELVE TOOLS (NOT RULES) OF WRITING : just what it says on the tin
THE THIRTY-THOUSAND DOLDRUMS : somewhere between 20k and 40k, and decided that the whole thing's a disaster? You are not alone.
SCRIVENER SOFTWARE : why I'm a complete convert to the only writing software real writers use, whether they're pantsers, planners, or imaginers-on-paper.
THE SYNOPSIS: Relax! : the synopsis won't make or break your novel's fate, but it can help to give it the best chance. Here's how.
When I first started dreaming Elizabeth Woodville, fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the centre of her story was her marriage to Edward IV. But what was that marriage made of? And since writing a novel is "like remembering something that never happened", as the novelist Siri Hustvedt says, how could I write Elysabeth as if I could remember her, so that readers, too, would feel she was someone they knew?
If you want to read how I remembered her in full, you can buy or download my novel A Secret Alchemy at the Independent Bookseller's site The Hive here, or on Amazon here. If you're interested in what I did to bring her alive, read on. And my Pinterest board for A Secret Alchemy is here.
To me, Elysabeth Wydvil isn't so much a White Queen, as a Silver Queen: silver as one half of the alchemical marriage. That idea of alchemy was so important in how the late medieval world felt and saw itself - and it's how Edward IV spoke of his kingship, weaving magic to make his usurped throne secure. Gold and Silver, Light and Dark, White and Red ... In A Secret Alchemy, all the marriages which work, in the medieval and the modern strands of the novel, are light/dark pairs. And it seemed to me, too, that Elysabeth having been married before might explain something else: why Edward never got bored with her. Unlike the usual kind of queen - a virgin, foreign princess who'd never met her husband - Elysabeth knew what she was about, when it came to her second wedding night.
I had learnt in years of wedlock what it seemed he had not in his bachelorhood, not even from all those yielding women: how desire, held in check, feeds on itself and grows. If I could hold him back ... He raised his head, and looked towards the bed. ‘You have Melusina to guard you,’ he said seeing the hangings. ‘Melusina the dragon, not the snake, with her wings and her double tail.’
‘Yes. My mother bespoke it of the Sisters at Lincoln for ... my first marriage, to help get me with child.’
Even as I said the words I wished them unsaid. But he smiled. ‘You are beauty itself as you are. But you must have been more beautiful still with a great belly.’ He pressed a hand there. ‘God willing, I will fill you with a fair prince. Would that your ancestress could know how her task is fulfilled in us, that golden sun and silver moon should unite in the secretum secretorum, and bring forth peace and prosperity. For you are my lady moon.’
‘And you are my lord the sun,’ I said, of course. I said it well: the words rang like a charm in the ever-brightening quiet, like a spell I did not know I could cast. I slid my smock off one shoulder, and slowly he reached and slipped it off the other so that it dropped to my feet.
But such pleasures had to come second, in daily life, to the business of surviving in the ruthless realpolitik of the Wars of the Roses. Elysabeth was bred up "to be the wife of some good knight" in the family business of her class: owning land, serving the king's government, in return for being granted power. Edward, too, was bred for the same business on a grander scale, as the eldest son of the Duke of York. They were cut from the same cloth, and joined in the family business of running the kingdom. And that family business included killing family members, if the safety of the throne demanded it. Edward ordered the murder of the deposed Henry VI in the Tower of London, which was commanded by his young brother Richard of Gloucester. Four years later, their other brother George of Clarence finally betrayed them once too often. Edward delayed for weeks before he signed the death warrant. I imagined Elysabeth slipping out of her own apartments, on the night of the execution, to go to him.
From somewhere close by came a giggle. The sound was like a blow in the face.
‘No, Ysa, that is not what you think,’ said Edward
‘No ... Oh, for God’s sake, you know how it is with me! If it were a woman of mine, it would still mean nothing, and you know it!’
I pressed down my hurt.
He turned away. ‘Besides, it’s no woman, it’s young Hatton’s catamite. Will you drink Rhenish? Or would you have me call for a different wine?’
‘No, no. A little Rhenish, if you please, my lord.’
He filled two cups, and handed one to me. He did not pick up his own, but held out his right hand to me, palm up. ‘And do you know what this hand has done?’
‘It has signed the warrant,’ I said.
‘The lawful warrant of execution of the sentence that His Grace the Duke of Clarence be put to death.’
‘Of my brother. I have killed my brother.’
‘You had no choice.’
‘Oh, but I had, Ysa. I could have chosen as I chose before.’ He turned away, then drank deep, staring into the fire.
‘You chose to trust him and he betrayed you, time and time again.’ The Rhenish was beginning to warm my cheeks, but my hands were chill. I held them to the fire. ‘Many men – many kings – would not have done so much. You gave him everything he wanted, and still he did as he did. The time had come to finish it. Now it is finished.’
He spoke low, as if to the infernal depths of the fire. ‘Perhaps if Edmund had not been killed ...’
‘Perhaps. Who is to say? We cannot know what might have been.’
He raised his head. ‘By God, you’re like your brother Antony when you speak thus. Are you a philosopher now, Ysa?’
‘No, indeed I am not.’
He smiled. ‘I think you were born to be a queen.’ He poured us both more wine. ‘Did you know it when you were a little girl?’
‘No. I knew my fate would be as it first appeared: to be the wife of some good knight.’ I drank. The Rhenish smelt of flowers. ‘And so I was. Though sometimes my father would jest that my mother might indeed have been a queen by her first husband, Henry of Lancaster's uncle, were it not for—’ I stopped, but contrived to hold my face in the likeness of jesting.
He was not deceived. ‘Were it not for Henry?’
I was silent.
‘So I am twice a murderer?’
‘No!’ I cried. ‘These matters must be ended, by whatever means is best. Finished. Sometimes it is in battle. Sometimes it is ... otherwise. Great matters – the business of a kingdom, a man’s business, and a man’s end ...’ I got up from my chair and moved towards him, slowly enough to hold his gaze. ‘And you are a man, sire. A man, and more.’ I put my hand up to his cheek. It was full and slack these days, cracked with sun and cold, stained with drinking. But it was still gold as well as red that glittered harshly along his jaw, and in his neck and collarbone the muscles were thick under my fingers. I saw his eyes arrested, and rejoiced even as I turned my head so that the candlelight might catch my cheek and the lock of hair that had escaped my cap and fallen on my breast. ‘A man, and a king.’
But, as you may have realised, A Secret Alchemy isn't just Elysabeth's story. It's also the story of her brother Antony, who was surrogate father to her son, Edward, the older of the Princes in the Tower. And it's the story of Una Pryor, a historian in our own time, newly widowed, who starts the book planning to write a history of Elizabeth and Antony. In researching them, she finds a new happiness, but she also realises something fundamental has changed:
It isn’t that I don’t know what happened. With patience it’s possible to leave few stones unturned, though even now there may be more scraps to be ferreted out, or stumbled on as we did the letter, more connections to see, more conclusions to reach. The gaps you have to bridge do get smaller.
But bridging gaps isn’t what I want to do, not any more. ‘You have to make it whole,’ said Mark.
Perhaps I’ve found some kind of answer, some way of telling the truth in the blanks between the facts where, till now, there’s been nothing. A way that is neither truth nor falsehood but is whole. But do I dare? There are no authorities for this, no references and precedents and peer-reviewed journals; no familiar track with familiar rules. My only authority is what I choose to write. The freedom’s frightening, the track, such as it is, is strange: Narrow Street, East Smithfield and the Chantry, St Albans and Grafton, from Astley to Pontefract and York and thence to Sheriff Hutton, and a letter that was there all the time...
I know the journey has a beginning, a middle and an end, that it is whole, but Anthony and Elizabeth could not. To them it was a pilgrimage: the past was past, the future unknown. All they had was the moment.
At each moment – each station of the cross – they’re no more beyond my reach than Adam is. But there’s only one way to reach them, I’ve been thinking, slowly and uncertainly since yesterday: only one way. I must dare to do it this way, because otherwise I’ll never reach them.
In writing A Secret Alchemy, Una's search for Elysabeth became mine, as I described in Bloody Battles and Pleasure Palaces, because in writing a novel about real historical characters that is, in a way, what you're doing: creating memories that you don't have. You're re-imagining and re-recreating a life by taking that what we know, and what we find out, and what we imagine, and making a single tapestry of past and present.
And that's the challenge, and that's what, as a writer, you always hope you got right. Maybe I have. I was certainly delighted when Sarah Vine said of A Secret Alchemy, in The Times, that it's woven from "the gossamer-thin threads of memory, real and imagined ... There are many twists and turns in this tale, some of them real, some of them not; together they add up to a spellbinding whole."
I've blogged before, here and elsewhere, about writing A Secret Alchemy, and for a roundup of those posts, and another extract, click through to my post about "Elizabeth Woodville, that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair".