Saturday, 19 April 2014

Dark Aemilia Publication

It is 23 days since my novel Dark Aemilia was published by Myriad Editions. Why, you might ask, did I wait this long to blog about such a momentous event? Partly because in a rather OCD manner, I felt that I should complete my Top 10 writing tips before having an intermission to talk about My Actual Writing Life.

Partly because of emotion - the joy of knowing that my book is out there is counterbalanced by the anxiety of not knowing what out there will make of it. 

Authorial anxiety

And partly because of good old fashioned busyness: I have spoken at two conferences and chaired a short story seminar since the book came out. And as well as working for the Open University, being the mother of teenagers is somewhat time consuming. 

Here's Georgia, on an early pub outing before she went all Katie Puckrik:

Georgia sitting quite near a bottle of beer

And the one in the green-rimmed shades is Declan during his 2008 film-making phase: 
Declan and Digby in the mean streets of Brighton

Keeping tabs on the two of them is a bit like trying to glue peanut butter to the ceiling. Writing fat books set in the Early Modern period is a breeze in comparison.

Writers, as Fay Weldon once said, have lives. One of the defining attributes of my own writing life is muddle - each day seems like an attempt to extract writingness, or to decide whether reading other people's books or talking about being a writer, or watching films to learn about plot is writingness enough, or whether real writing, in a notebook, must always take place. (It should do, but must it?) 

Publication day is always going to be one of the great events in the life of any writer, but it is also a curiously anticlimactic experience.  Unless you are already famous, the emergence of your new work will be incremental rather than immediately operatic. Your novel may already be on sale (mine was spotted at various airports by various friends). It may not immediately appear in all known bookshops. Amazon may seem curiously immune to its status as a major cultural artefact. And so on. The last 23 days have not shaken the world. It has remained on its axis, though there was a small earthquake in Rutland the other day so it did wobble slightly.

But just to focus on the great event of the birth of Dark Aemilia, here is a short extract from the speech I made at my launch party: 

'Like most writers, I’m rather obsessive and end-driven. It’s easy to get sucked into a state of mind in which all you think about is the next goal that Must Be Achieved – finish the draft, find the publisher, get reviewed, appear on the short list, improve your Google ranking. It can go insatiably on and on. But sometimes, a good thing, a brilliant thing, happens. And then it is time sit back and say – this is great. And today is one of those days – one of the happiest and most satisfying days of my life. Dark Aemilia is an actual book, and in one way, it doesn’t matter what happens next.'

More on how this all goes later, and before then I will impart six more nuggets of timeless wisdom about writing historical fiction. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction - think laterally

Historical fiction is a broad and eclectic genre. You don't have to write a story that is a copycat of what has already been written. So my fourth tip is to think laterally and customize tropes and conventions from other genres as freely and cheekily as you like. Remember that there are already numerous sub-genres that have done exactly that: romantic historical fiction, historical thrillers and alternative histories, which are part historical fiction, part fantasy.

Examples include Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet (historical romance) which tells the story of the relationship between John Donne and Anne More; Dissolution, the first book the Shardlake series of Tudor crime thrillers by C.J. Sansom and Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove, which is set in an alternate sixteenth century England which has been invaded by the Spanish Armada. Some books span more than one sub-genre - for example, Fatherland by Robert Harris is both an alternate history (imagining that Germany invaded England at the end of World War II) and a thriller.

Rutger Hauer in the TV film adaptation of Fatherland (1994)

This is good news if you are fan of a particular genre of writing, and can help shape and focus your ideas .Plot can be an issue for many new or inexperienced writers, and both romances and thrillers operate within certain constraints and conventions, which both limit your options and clarify your narrative goals. (A romance should be a love story in which your protagonist has to overcome a series of obstacles to be with their lover; a thriller should revolve around a quest or 'chase' story, with the protagonist seeking to resolve a mystery or use their ingenuity to avert disaster or achieve their goal.)

The literary historical novel is also having a renaissance, following the success of authors like Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel. The bets are off here - you can experiment and delve into much darker or stranger terrain if you want to write in this form. The recently announced long list for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction included a number of historical novels. (The books in question are: The Strangler Vine by Miranda Carter; The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent  and The Undertaking by Audrey Magee. There are also historical elements in two other books on the list: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner moves backwards and forwards in time, and  The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri  covers several decades of Indian and American life. 

Hannah Kent, author of 'Burial Rites'

So - the good news is that this genre can be bent and twisted and adapted to any form that you like. You can use certain conventions, you can make lateral connections, and you can subvert the whole lot if you want to.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction - tell a good story

Tell a good story – character and plot are just as important in this genre as in any other. Don’t make the mistake of letting the setting dominate everything else.

Historical fiction encompasses a wide range of sub-genres, and some historical novels are more page turney than others. (Excuse the erudite literary jargon there.) A novel like 'The Name of the Rose' demands more patience and application from the reader than 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. 'Story' tends to be more overtly important in popular fiction than in literary fiction, though all these terms are inexact and some writers think that a plot is over-valued by editors in literary writing, as this blogger has pointed out.

So what do I mean when I suggest that you should 'write a good story'? My advice is that you should be able to lose yourself in the world that you have created, that you should create characters that obsess you and fascinate you, and that you should have some idea about the needs and desires of these characters. I don't mean that you should have a three act structure or a shopping list of must-haves taken from 'how to write' books' (Although I do suggest that you should be aware of all these things.) And I don't mean that you should be scared of experimentation.  A good story is, in the end, the story that you needed to tell, which you have lived with and lived inside and committed yourself to.

Millais, Boyhood of Raleigh

There is something organic and instinctive about the best stories and the best story tellers. Don't just read historical novels, but be voracious and catholic in your reading, and return to books that you have loved in the past. My personal favourites include 'Rebecca', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Pride and Prejudice', 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase', 'Lucky Jim', 'The Talented Mr Ripley', 'The Weather in the Streets' and 'Affinity'. 

The only historical novel on the list is Affinity, and I read it before I had any intention of writing in this genre myself. I challenge anyone to write a better plot than Sarah Waters has in that book. I finished it on a train and actually laughed out loud, not because it was funny especially, but because of its sheer audacity and cleverness. It was the perfect ending, the most satisfying and wonderful sleight of hand by the author. If you haven't read it, and you are wondering what I am banging on about, please do.

A good story is a succession of events which make you want to know what happens next. A clever story is one which surprises you constantly, subverting your expectations. You can write anti stories or meta fiction or undermine the form if you like. But this series of blog posts is aimed at anyone starting to write historical fiction, and in my opinion, mastering the art of story telling is a sound starting point. Just as Picasso began by learning the conventions of drawing, so we can learn from the convention of the traditional tale.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

How to write historical fiction - be bold

This is the second of my top 10 tips for writing historical fiction.

Don’t be intimidated by the facts, or the personalities that you discover. The facts are a starting point, not a straitjacket. Remember that even biography is an inexact science.

Once you have done enough research to get a strong sense of the time and place you are writing about, and the people who lived there, you need to free yourself from the idea that you need to be 'faithful to the facts'. You must get the facts right, yes, but you actually need to be unfaithful to them. Being historically accurate means that you don't change the dates of battles, the deaths of known historical figures, or make other blunders which are anachronistic and undermine your credibility as a historical fiction writer. (This does not apply if you are writing altered history, of which more in a later post. But altered history has as much in common with fantasy as it does with this genre.)

Charles II, by Peter Lely

However it is possible to decide that - for example - Thomas Cromwell was beaten and despised by his father, and this was a formative element of his psychology, as Hilary Mantel does in Wolf Hall, or that Charles II rewarded an obscure physician for saving his favourite dog, as Rose Tremain does in Restoration. If you don't make such leaps of imagination, then you might as well write a text book, which is fine, but it's not fiction. 

Biographers create a story: the story of the life of their subject. They research that person's life and perspective, using letters, their own work, their own diaries, the diaries of others, and perhaps interviews if their subject is still alive or died recently. Once this work is done, the biographer uses supposition to try to enter the consciousness of this person. They may dramatize or even invent certain scenes to bring the 'story' alive. Some are more audacious than others - Peter Ackroyd is well-known for using the devices of a novelist to explore the lives of writers like Charles Dickens.

Fiction writers go beyond supposition - they invent. You have just as much right to do this if your book is set in 1614 as you do if it is set in 2014. And this still applies if you are basing your story on the lives of real people.

Fay Weldon 

You can't write historical fiction politely. You have to force your way into the past, and claim it as your own, no matter how crazy or impossible this may seem. This is what Fay Weldon said to me when I was working on an early draft of my novel Dark Aemilia 'If you are going to put William Shakespeare in your book, he has to be your William Shakespeare, and no one else's.'

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction - know your field

One of the reasons I used to think that writing historical fiction was not for me was that I didn’t think I knew enough about history. I had the idea that it would be better to write about ‘what I knew’ because it would save me a bit of time. If I based fiction on familiar, everyday facts, then I could put the energy I would have put into finding out about farthingales or dropsy into writing the actual story.

So my first novel was set in my home town, Brighton, in what was then the present day. (The year 2000 or thereabouts.) But it turned out that research was essential if that story was to work. When confronted with the blank page, unless you can really recall the precise texture and detail of an experience, you have three choices:

1.   Use your imagination
2.    Be extremely brief.
3.    Find out about the precise texture and detail of the experience.

Choices one and two are fine, and I use them regularly. In fact, all fiction is a mix of research, memory and imagination, and if you aren't prepared to go for it and make stuff up, you are probably better off doing something else. Brevity and elision are gifts to the writer – fading in an out of scenes, cutting to the chase, avoiding adverbs and adjectives Unless Absolutely Necessary – this is good, effective writing.

The librarian by Dj94

But Choice 3 will get you in the end. You need to know your subject. You need to know your subject if you are writing chick lit, or crime, or a literary novel set in a call centre. There is no escape from this. And when you set out on your finding out mission, the greatest surprise of all is that it is extremely enjoyable. 

As long as you keep your story and your reasons for doing your research in mind, and don’t panic about spending time away from writing new words down, this part of the writing process not only grounds your story in actuality and real events, it also inspires lots of new ideas, and helps you refine existing ones. Becoming an anorak is among the great pleasures of writing.

Ford Maddox Brown The Last of England

I am starting a new historical novel now, set in a new period. (The Restoration.) And I'm going through the same process I went through with Dark Aemilia. The first stage is scoping out – I am reading big, fat books about Charles II and the other major players in the period, and slightly thinner books about Restoration drama. I’m not sure what I will need for my story at this stage, so I am assuming I will need everything. I am a bit like someone packing up before emigrating, because writing a new historical novel, set in an unfamiliar period, is like moving to another country.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Top 10 tips for historical fiction

Okay, so my new historical novel 'Dark Aemilia' comes out next month, and in this blog I'll be focusing on historical fiction and all things associated with it. Here are ten suggested 'top tips' which I hope might be useful both for new historical writers and people already writing in this field who want some fresh advice. I'll be fleshing these out in ten posts over the weeks leading to the publication date.

1. Know your field. Read everything, visit museums, find physical objects that inspire you, talk to family members, watch documentaries and films, pursue all lines of enquiry that are relevant to your chosen period or subject. Be an anorak, it’s more fun than you might think!

2. Be bold. Don’t be intimidated by the facts, or the personalities that you discover. The facts are a starting point, not a straitjacket. Remember that even biography is an inexact science.

3. Tell a good story – character and plot are just as important in this genre as in any other. Don’t make the mistake of letting the setting dominate everything else.

4. Think laterally. Is your story a romance or a thriller? If so, borrow from these genres. (Try and avoid a zombie mash-up if you can, this is as passé as Jeremy Paxman’s beard.)

5. Put your reader in a time machine. If you have found a way to immerse yourself in the period, try to give them the same experience.

6. Be succinct. Less is more in historical fiction – don’t get bogged down in long descriptions or expositional dialogue.

7. Look for ‘the gaps in history’. Hilary Mantel has talked about using the unknown in history, the unrecorded and forgotten moments. You can do the same thing. You can also search out periods that are less popular than the Elizabethan era, or more distant in time.

8. Character, character, character. Why is ‘Wolf Hall’ so successful? Or ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’? They are all very different in their approach, but all have vivid and believable characters that the reader cares about. Even an apparently unsympathetic character like Thomas Cromwell becomes engaging and absorbing when we are party to his thoughts and fears.

9. Develop genre awareness. If you want to write a Tudor crime thriller, make sure you read C.J.Sansom. If you want to write about the life of Charles II, read ‘Restoration’. And so on. If you are worried about your style being influenced when you are writing your own book, then stop reading other writers during this period, but it should definitely be part of your preparatory research.

10. Read outside the genre. It’s essential to read as widely as possible and as eclectically as possible if you want to write well and raise your game to the highest possible level. Historical fiction is not just a ticket to escapism, it’s a vibrant and varied genre in its own right. 

Monday, 13 January 2014

Breaking Bad and Charles Dickens

Okay, so the idea now is that I focus on historical fiction due to the impending publication of my first historical novel Dark Aemilia. So that will be done. But that doesn't mean that I will be donning a metaphorical farthingale and restricting myself to opinions about books set more than fifty years ago. My fundamental belief is that good writing can and should transcend all genres, and that if you want to write well in one field, you would do well to learn the tricks of your trade by reading (and watching) widely and attentively. If you don't do this, your writing runs the risk of becoming predictable and derivative. Taking an idea from one area and applying it to something different and unexpected is one of the hallmarks of creativity. Which brings me to Breaking Bad.

I am often worried when I come late to the party - normal for me - after hearing a lot of hype about a film or TV show. I was underwhelmed by Inception and Gravity, both wildly praised, and I can't stand the mighty post-Russell T Davies Dr Who or Sherlock, its psychic twin. (All of these are brilliantly performed, but woefully underwritten in terms of character and plot, in my opinion.)

The old fashioned, well-crafted novel is somewhat out of favour in literary terms, and it can seem overly prescriptive to insist that character driven plots will always trounce the opposition. But the magisterial Breaking Bad shows how brilliantly this formula can work. Walter White's predicament is Shakespearean in its intensity, but Dickensian in delivery. Walt is driven by insecurity and desperation for money, and his world is that of the average middle class US citizen. The American Dream has failed for him, delivering only debts and fears. His cancer diagnosis liberates him from his old life, and enables him to live with immediacy and passion. But not, obviously, in a good way.

We believe in Walt, and Jesse, and Skylar. We feel we know them. Effective characters can do bad things, and things that are implausible or extreme. The only proviso is that we have to a. accept their behaviour and b. be engaged by it. Spoiler alert if you have never seen this show: Walt has murdered two people by the end of episode three of the first series, and we still care about him.

So how does this relate to Dickens? Because this is slap bang in his territory - not geographically but in terms of character and class. A society in which respectable people can't afford medical bills is very Victorian, as is a world in which class defines relationships. The canvas of Breaking Bad is Dickensian in breadth, undermining not only the US insurance and medical system, but also its conception of right and wrong, and the assumptions made by mainstream society. Debt, hypocrisy and hidden or secret identities are all recurring themes in Dickens - even the fact that Walt is much older than Skylar is a Dickensian trope.

But equally important is the genre and mode of delivery. Dickens wrote in instalments, publishing one or two chapters of his novels at a time. Often, he was writing to tight deadlines, barely ahead of publication. Kevin Spacey has stressed that 21st  century TV viewers like to binge on box set TV and challenged TV companies to follow the lead of the makers of House of Cards and release TV episodes at one time, the instalment format gives an added sense of drama and tension to the storyline. And like The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and many other celebrated US TV serials, the writers use this format to expand and develop the characters, bringing in twists and unexpected elements of back story which gives us fresh understanding.

I'm not the only person to make this comparison,either. Griff Rhys Jones said much the same thing in a recent interview with the Telegraph.