One thorny challenge for the writer of historical fiction is how to capture and convey the language of a particular time and place in history, or indeed, whether to bother at all. To what extent should an author seek to reproduce past patterns and modes of speech, bearing in mind that they should be comprehensible and engaging for the modern reader?
This has prompted much discussion over the years, particularly with respect to the language of Shakespearian English, for it is striking to any speaker of English today that many of his sonnets do not rhyme, and his comedy is often desperately short on laughs. Why should this be so? It would seem that this is largely down to shifts in the spoken form of the language, and the following discussion of how it has changed – featuring examples of lines from Shakespeare rendered in both Received Pronunciation and ‘Original Pronunciation’ – is both illuminating and entertaining. There is an earthy rusticity to Shakespeare’s language in its originally accented form that is missing from its contemporary delivery which greatly enhances its comprehensibility, restoring missing rhymes and puns. It’s well worth listening to: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/10/31/listen-shakespeare-sounded-original-pronunciation/
There are few authors who do not extol the virtues of rewriting your manuscript, usually recommending that you should do so several times over, but how much is enough, and how should you approach it? For a lucky handful of souls, the words may spring ready formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, but I have not encountered anyone for whom this is the norm. The occasional sentence or paragraph may present itself in such a fashion, but not, surely, anything longer.
One piece of advice frequently given, and followed, is that a writer should hammer out a rough draft before going back and tearing the whole thing to pieces, restructuring its plot, characters and prose, and then going back and repeating the process. Others, such as myself, prefer to adopt a more organic approach to composition, revising as they go along, constantly tweaking and moulding to ensure that the tale emerges in a pleasing shape and style, to which so drastic an act of violence need not be necessary. It may well be the case that ideas relating to its enhancement later suggest themselves, but as I tend to plan my pieces in considerable depth before writing the first line, drastic revision is seldom necessary.
Those who write for a publisher have deadlines to meet, but for those of us who are able to dictate our own writing timetable, we possess the luxury of being able to impose or revoke them at will. Personally, I do find self-imposed deadlines useful, as they help to keep me on track and stop me from drifting too far from the daily discipline of writing. Although I can take as long as I wish, once I have come up with a story I am generally impatient to get it typed, knocked into shape and made available for all to read. That said, I do not allow deadlines to prompt me into releasing anything before I am fully satisfied that it has taken its final form, or more accurately, I should say that this will be the case from hereon, for there has been one instance in which I released a novella where I was not entirely happy with its ending. This, however, has now since been remedied and ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ has been republished, but why did I initially release it in less than its fully realised state?
To answer this question, it is necessary to return to the matter of deadlines. As a rule, I tend to be constantly generating ideas, and at any given time will have a number of projects under development. Thus, at present for example, I am nearing completion of a novella – ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ – am a third of the way through a novelette (although it may yet morph into a novella) entitled ‘The Cleft Owl’, and half way through writing the novel ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return.’ In addition, there are half a dozen or so embryonic plots floating around for further novelettes/novellas, and three novels. Having a timetabled plan with projected completion dates and release schedules thus comes in useful, ensuring that at any one time I prioritise a particular work. Problems only really arise if this schedule is interrupted by the intrusion of something unexpected, as was the case this past July when I awoke from a vivid nightmare and immediately scrawled down five pages of notes that became ‘3:05 am’. This story was the closest that I have ever come to experiencing an Athena springing from the head of Zeus moment. So striking was the effect of this dream, that I felt impelled to drop writing ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ until ‘3:05 am’ was completed and published. This, naturally, threw me off track. So, why should this be a problem? As my deadlines are self-imposed rather than external, why would I wish to stick to such a deadline?
I stuck to my initial declared deadline for one straightforward reason: I had, rather blithely and naively, declared on my website, blog and Amazon author page, as well as in the supplementary matter to ‘Old Crotchet’, that ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ would be released before the end of July 2016. As I had announced this, I felt that I had to stick to the deadline, and thus the novella came to be uploaded on 31 July with an ending which was a little rushed and compressed, that made for a less satisfying read than the preceding portions of the story. This, however, was a state of affairs that I could not let stand, so I returned to the manuscript late last month and fleshed out that which I had seen in my mind’s eye, but was left obscured from the reader in its initial abridged form. It now possesses the ending that it should have done all along.
What have I learned from this experience of self-imposed deadlines? Do not make rash and specific statements with respect to release dates; it is better to keep them vague. It is, moreover, better to break a deadline, than to break the flow of your story. As for ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’, I hope to publish this before October is out, but do not be surprised if it should not appear until early November. ‘The Cleft Owl, will be released before Christmas, hopefully during the latter part of next month.
‘Write what you know’ is one of the cardinal commandments that hangs over the heads of aspirant authors, and if taken too literally, could be fatally crippling to the imagination, particularly with respect to the venture of writing historical fiction, for what do you, I, or anyone else living today, know of, for example, the nineteenth century? Nothing, in terms of direct experience of course. That said, there is still a great deal that we can ‘know’, should we care to take the trouble to find out, and it is this process of investigation, this uncovering and reconstruction of worlds long since lost, that makes the writing of this particular type of fiction doubly rewarding, if your interests happen to incline in this direction.
We can never fully immerse ourselves in first-century Rome, fifth-century Gaul, the Russia of Peter the Great, or seventeenth-century England, but neither can we truly know what it is like to have grown up in a country, or culture, of which we have no direct first-hand experience; the nature of the author’s abstraction from a particular context – whether it be geographical, cultural, temporal, or a combination of all three – is only a matter of degree. The interposition of time serves to make this exercise of ‘retrieving’ or ‘recreating’ human experience more difficult, but not impossible, and it is important to recall at this point that the author is creating a work of fiction, rather than a history. The author of historical fiction seeks to create characters, scenarios and behaviours that are historically plausible, rather than necessarily entirely accurate. The primary challenge could be said to be that of producing a work that is both authentic to its period, yet engaging for the contemporary reader, given the transformations in attitudes and beliefs that have occurred over the centuries and millennia that might render the reader unsympathetic to the characters depicted. One thing, however, appears to remain constant across the ages: the foibles of human character.
There are many ways in which we can access past experience and the worldviews that bounded the horizons of our ancestors, the most obvious of these being the use of contemporaneous written sources in the form of books, letters, official documents and archives. These do, however, possess their limitations, particularly as we travel further back in time, for within a couple of centuries we already arrive at a point when only a minority of the population was literate, resulting in a narrowing of perspective that becomes increasingly filtered through the attitudes and preoccupations of elites. Thus, although seventeenth-century England was a relatively literate society by historical standards, the level of literacy varied greatly between class, gender and region, and whereas we are at this point able to directly access the written reflections of the upper classes and many of the middling sort of folk – particularly of men – the voices of the lower orders of society and women are largely lost to us.
There are also the material remains of the past, some of which survive in something approximating their original form, and others which have been updated or repurposed. Architecture, monuments, the visual arts, furniture, personal effects and costume, even the landscape itself, all provide sources of information and inspiration relating to different periods and aspects of our past. The more places that you visit and the more attention that you pay to what you see, the more finely attuned you become to the flow of time and changes in architectural forms, interior decoration, style and the attitudes and beliefs that fashioned them. In the UK for example, visiting properties and sites owned by the National Trust or English Heritage will provide an insight into the lives of the wealthy elite in particular, although a glimpse into the everyday world of the lower orders can be had in the kitchens, stables and working buildings such as watermills, windmills and forges. If you are lucky, your visit will coincide with a day during which corn may be milled, metal worked or re-enactments of different aspects of everyday life staged. Should you have children, the latter will soften the ‘ordeal’ of being dragged around a historic property on a day out, and, hopefully, stimulate their imaginations.
There are also museums of course, which house invaluable collections of artefacts from the past, and a number of which are classed as ‘living museums’, meaning that they attempt to demonstrate a number of crafts, industries and agricultural practices that have now passed away. To witness a defunct or rare craft being demonstrated provides the author with an invaluable aid to the imagination, even should that craft itself not be described in writing. Knowledge of a character having engaged in a particular line of work will have an impact upon how he or she carries and expresses themselves, as well as, potentially, upon the types of aches and ailments that they may suffer from.
London’s Geffrye Museum, whose focus is the domestic sphere, contains a series of reconstructed interiors spanning the period from 1630 to 1998, and is well worth a visit if you are on a trip to London (who knows, a visit may even provide you with the inspiration to remodel your own domestic surrounds). Many living museums tend to focus upon one particular time period, although often also possess exhibits relating to other periods, thus Butser Farm spans a vast expanse of time from the Stone Age to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, whereas Morwhellam Quay focuses upon the Victorian era. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, and St Fagan’s National History Museum in Wales both feature collections of vernacular architecture reassembled onsite. Londoners are spoilt for choice, home as their city is to the great national art collections in the National Gallery, Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, but there are also many provincial art galleries that are worth visiting. One quirky establishment worth visiting if you should be in the vicinity is Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which caused quite a furore when it initially opened in the village in 1960. However, it should be borne in mind that much of its content focuses upon the distinctly modern English invention that is Wicca (or it did when I last visited many years ago. I shall give an update on my impressions following a forthcoming visit early in 2017).
One of the most important concerns for the author writing about the past is avoiding anachronism, which can be difficult. A good rule of thumb with respect to diet is to remember that all of those foodstuffs originating in the New World would not have been available to the inhabitants of Europe, Asia and Africa before 1492. There should thus be no mention of potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, chocolate or chillies, to name but a few, in any work set before the European discovery of the Americas, nor indeed of that noxious stinking weed named tobacco, unless that is your piece should be set in the Americas. Diets around the world have changed greatly since the golden age of European exploration.
Technology is another sphere in which we encounter much potential for anachronism. It is particularly important to note that people’s sense of time has changed greatly since the introduction of the clock, for thinking in the sense of seconds, minutes and even hours, would have been alien to our forebears for the greater part of history. One’s sense of space, time and the wider world has changed greatly, with unified national time not coming into existence until the spread of the railways, communications being far slower during the era of poorly maintained roads than during that of steam and the telegraph.
Our forebears were attuned to the rhythms of the seasons, from which we have, to a greater or lesser degree, been largely insulated since the introduction of gas and then electric light and heating. Our bond with the natural world and sense of place within it has become increasingly attenuated on a practical day-to-day level.
The warp and weft of everyday life, which usually escaped specific thematic documentation and treatment in days gone by, is particularly challenging to reconstruct. What rituals of personal hygiene did people observe? How often did they bathe? How did they look after their teeth? How many changes of clothes did they possess, and how frequently were they laundered? If you are naturally inclined to writer’s block, writing historical fiction, throwing up so many questions as it does, may engender complete and protracted paralysis. Beware.
Once we have done our research and are satisfied that we have gleaned sufficient knowledge to commence writing our tale, the next task is how to create a text that is both ‘authentic’ and yet engaging and comprehensible. It is something of a conundrum, to which I shall return in a later post when I reflect upon creating the characters and voices that inhabit my forthcoming novel set in seventeenth-century Cornwall. Before closing, it may be worth mentioning that I find it helpful to track down and listen to music from the period about which I am writing. Even should it not be successful in eliciting an appropriate mood, it is at least enjoyable.