Sunday, 13 July 2014

Days

One of the great challenges of life is to live in the moment, which is not to be confused with not taking responsibility for what happens in future moments. Writers are in the business of pinning down moments, but ironically this can mean that actual moments (and hours, days, weeks, months, et cetera) are spent in dark rooms in front of a white screen. The sun shines, stuff happens and we are locked away.

But it is a worthwhile mission. This is a way of finding meaning in a chaotic world. Instead of letting experience wash over us, we try to get inside it. And this can help us cope when we need something to cling to. Life isn't a meek, biddable creature, at the beck and call of any of us. It's a mean, unpredictable monster of a thing. And yet some of the time, most of the time, we are numbed by its routine.

Philip Larkin's poem Days expresses some of these feelings and contradictions...



Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Feeding the soul

I'm not much of a mind-body-spirit type of a person, though I am quite keen on yoga. There is a small part of me that still thinks I am a Bryan Ferry girl, circa 1981, and therefore anything hippyesque Must Be Shunned. 

However, this is not altogether rational. And more and more, I feel that the writing life is not a life that should be lived exclusively in the head. We are not brains on sticks. Nor are we sentient robots who can usefully plug ourselves into an electronic machine - laptop, PC, whatever - and then tap our trapped thoughts out onto a keyboard. Writing connects up our physical, emotional and mental selves, it links sensation, memory, habits, everything.

Therefore - and here comes the spiritual bit - it also connects to what we might call our souls. By which I mean that inner part of our psyche which is unique: consciousness, imagination, our inner being. As Julia Cameron has said, much of our time as writers draws on this, and so it should. But sometimes we need to feed our spirits, and our energy as Artists. (I know this sounds a bit embarrassing, but this is what you are if you are in the making-up game.) 


Claire Keegan
Sometimes, though, you need to do the opposite and feed that inner being, and find ways of recharging your energies. I found the perfect way to do this at the London Short Story Festival on Sunday, when I went to a brilliant writing workshop run by Claire Keegan. If you don't know her work, you are in for a treat, and if you ever have chance to hear her speak, don't miss it.

Keegan was talking about the short story, with the focus on the sentence and the paragraph, and the way that the draft text and the imagination work together when we are developing a narrative. I thought it might be a restrictive way to approach fiction before I went, but the reverse was true. Her approach makes you proud to see writing as a calling, but at the same time she insists that good writing only happens when we abandon pretension and egotism and let the words find their own logic. As she put it: 'I believe that whatever you have to write is under the text in front of you.' 

There were lots of other insights as well, such as: 'We should draw on the strangeness of being alive, the stuff we can’t say to each other.' 

I came away brimming with ideas, and with hope for the writing I haven't done yet. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Theft and juxtaposition

Okay, so this is my final handy writing tip for anyone interested in this wide-ranging genre. The last post was about reading an eclectic range of books set in the past; in this post I will go further and suggest that you can also import ideas and tropes freely from thrillers, crime novels, sci fi, fantasy, ghost stories, romantic fiction, life writing, travel books, graphic novels and literary fiction. It's also useful to stockpile ideas and inspirations from other art forms - films, visual art, music. You may want to write a book set in the past, but that doesn't limit your creative research (as opposed to your factual research).

Still from Ridley Scott's seminal 'Blade Runner'
Richard Lee, founder and chairman of the Historical Novels Society, suggests that it is not accurate to talk about historical fiction as a genre at all. He says: 'The first self-evident point to make is that historical novels are not a genre. ‘Crime’ is a genre, ‘romance’ is a genre, ‘literary’ is a genre. Historical novels can be any of these. The defining characteristic of historical fiction is merely that it is set in the past.'

This is a useful and freeing way to approach historical fiction. And feeding your writing habit with your knowledge and passion for writing in all genres makes sense if you want to write a historical novel that is fresh and original. (If this sounds counter intuitive, it isn't. The more you read, the more ideas you will have, and the more bizarre and brilliant juxtapositions you can make. Fact.)


You don't have to write a zombie mash-up, or fan fiction, or an overtly genre-busting novel. The sky is the limit, and you can write any kind of book you like. Writing historical fiction isn't synonymous with writing escapist costume dramas. There is no need to constrain your imagination, your language or your originality. As long as your story takes place more than sixty years ago, and as long as the thought of it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you can go anywhere you like.

Good luck!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Top ten tips for historical fiction - genre

If you want to write good historical fiction, whether your aim is to entertain, sell millions of copies, subvert reader expectations, win the Booker or an ambitious combination of the above, you need to understand the genre that you are working within. This means reading widely and familiarising yourself with the books that are already out there. This is a broad church, and even within the over-arching genre of historical fiction, you will find a wide variety in terms of subject, form and style as well as historical period. My advice is not to read narrowly within the sub-genre that interests you, but to spread your net widely and read as much as you can across as wide a spectrum as possible. 

Image via Wikipedia
A slight difficulty here is that historical novels can be lengthy and time consuming to read. (Relatively) short historical novels I would highly recommend are Mrs Shakespeare by Robert Nye, Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, Affinity by Sarah Waters, Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Orlando by Virginia Woolf. On my current reading list is Pure by Andrew Miller and and An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears. And books that I have mentioned before that weigh in more heavily but were well worth the effort include both Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. 


Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter's 1992 film 'Orlando'
I'd also recommend developing sub-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 the hidden lives of women, read Philippa Gregory and Susannah Dunn. And if you want to read books that experiment with historical themes using literary innovation, I would recommend Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers, Unexploded by Alison Macleod and When Nights were Cold by Susanna Jones. 

It's great to immerse yourself in the work of other writers, whether they are your contemporaries or the long-dead authors of literary classics. As well as enjoying these novels and losing yourself in their pages, it is also worth jotting down notes as you go, and reading acquisitively, so that you can learn from the example of others. 

How do they set the scene? Why are they writing the story now, and what does it say about the 21st century? How important are the various ingredients of the conventional novel - character, theme, plot, pace? Is the story undermining any of these conventions? Is it part of a sub-genre? Is this sub-genre literary fiction, and if so, what makes their approach 'literary'? Which elements of their technique might you want to emulate? Which elements do you feel are less successful?  

There is no need to write reviews of everything you read, but I'd recommend making notes, and using Post It notes to mark your place easily. Writing historical fiction doesn't just involve researching your period, it involves researching the ways in which you can bring that period to life, and customise lost reality for your own purposes. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Top tips for writing historical fiction - character, character, character

Why is ‘Wolf Hall’ so successful? Or ‘Restoration’? 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.


When writing my own novel, 'Dark Aemilia', I fell in love with a real historical character, Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, the first woman to be published professionally as a poet in England, and she was the main inspiration for my story. I worked hard on the plot, and on the structure of the novel, but the themes arose from her character and the way that she responded to the relevant work of William Shakespeare - the later Sonnets, which are full of pain and rage as well as passion, and 'Macbeth' (or as I should say, 'the Scottish play').
There were times while was writing the novel when I was discouraged - VERY discouraged - and it was extremely useful to have in Aemilia such a robust and determined colleague. It was impossible for me to give up when she had surmounted obstacles which were so much greater, and embarrassing to whinge when she had had to contend with the forces of Early Modern Patriarchy, and all I had to contend with was an agent operating in Agent Time (which moves very, very slowly) or a faulty washing machine. Write about someone you love, and you won't care if some readers don't like them. Write about a character who inspires and obsesses you, and getting up at 6am each day to get the words down will feel like play rather than work. 







A key question here is: has human nature changed? I don't think it has in fundamental ways - all people fear death, seek pleasure, feel hungry and so on. But everything else - all the customs and assumptions - are constantly changing. In my own lifetime, social media has transformed social life and even the way we think. I think that, as with language, historical characters are a hybrid of what is intelligible to modern readers and what is plausible in terms of the period you are writing about. 

It is a challenge, and not everyone will agree about the extent to which the past and the present should inform your characters. But the more you write, the more time you spend with the characters in your story, the more idea you will have about their 'voice' and their identity. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Top ten tips for historical fiction - find the gap

It is Mr Gradgrind in 'Hard Times' who says: “NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life... Stick to Facts, sir!”

Ironically, Charles Dickens was quite a fan of facts himself - like many authors who start out as journalists, he was engaged with social and political life and the zeitgeist, and in many ways facts were his inspiration. But he knew they had limitations. 'Hard Times' is a novel which seeks to expose the ills of the education system, and of the industrial machine economy of the Victorian age, and to do this Dickens deploys factual information to dramatic effect. This is a society, he suggests, in which the imagination has been suppressed and the human spirit is being crushed.  He uses hyperbole and exaggeration, but he is still using a factual framework.



Facts were useful to Dickens, but they did not constrain him. Most of his novels were written in the recent past, as were those of George Eliot and Jane Austen. But one of his best loved novels, 'A Tale of Two Cities' dramatises the French Revolution. And what the reader remembers is the character of Sydney Carton, his doomed love and his final words before going to the guillotine: 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known..' Do we care that there is no historical evidence that an Englishman named Sydney Carton was executed in the cause of true love during the French Revolution? No, we don't. (Well, I don't, please feel free to comment if you find the plot of this novel annoying.)

Writing historical fiction means that you need to develop a sophisticated attitude to facts. You need them, but you also need an engaging narrative, a plot, coherent themes, characters who readers can engage with. Though we are adept at making the past into a series of myths and stories, it is of itself both chaotic and filled with far too many facts to pack into even the longest novel - Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' is a veritable compendium of arcane facts, but even he had to miss some information out. And his story is a well-constructed thriller. 

If you find facts daunting, it is a good idea to a. find a period or social group about which (or whom) relatively little is known or b. to write about the more distant part or c. to write alternate history and mix fact and fantasy. Gaps are just as useful as facts. 


Monday, 2 June 2014

Top Tips for Historical Fiction: Be Succinct

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

Dump any research information that isn't relevant to your story. One reviewer praised Sarah Waters because (in The Night Watch) he knew the knobs on the radio were made of Bakelite, but she didn't say so.

Your book may be long - it may need to be long in order to address all your themes and tell a complex, nuanced story. But it shouldn't be long because you have padded it out with stuff from some archive.



In the brilliant Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue keeps description to a minimum, but vividly conveys the eighteenth century setting nonetheless. Comprehensive detail, words piled on words, aren't needed to conjure a scene. What you want is the right image, a key detail, which will stand for the greater whole.

Er, that's it. Less is more, as I say.