Sunday, 22 February 2009

The cunning plan worked...

Well... I'm not entirely happy with the epilogue and I've already got 2 whole A4 pages of notes entitled Things To Change which I need to address when I start editing but... for now, the work in progress has reached the end of draft 1. Or 2 or 3 depending on whether you think doing a major rewrite half way through entails a whole different draft and whether you think a version of the same story with different characters is a different book or an early draft.

So, I'm on for the non-fiction editing this week. I may fit in a hair cut and a visit to see a friend as celebrations for finishing the wip as well. And then, as of a week tomorrow, I'm into editing and rewriting with the aim of sending it off to my editor by Easter.

There, I've laid the marker down.

Stay with me....

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Cunning plan update

Well, it's working so far. Got til Sunday and I'm on the last scene. Though there may be an epilogue of some kind. There generally is, I find...

Sunday, 15 February 2009

I have a cunning plan...

OK, as I seem physically unable to bring the writing of the work in progress to an end, I have done something which is going to make me finish it this week. It was supposed to be finished last week – in my mind at least. And we’re talking first draft, here, not the totally finished, hand-it-to-editor item. Sigh…

So, what have I done?

I have agreed to edit a friend’s non-fiction book.

In fact, since he is in a hurry, I have not only agreed to edit it in a kind of 'oh yeah, when I've got a minute' way, I have agreed ona timetable for the week following half term:
Sunday - he will email the final article to me.
By Wednesday evening I will email his 50 000 word typescript back to him, liberally laced with the speech bubbles of MS Word’s ‘track changes’ feature.
He will then pore over my suggestions and all the punctuation I have provided and we will email back and forth (apart from when I’m at work on Thursday) until Friday evening.
He will then come over on Saturday and we will work on the whole thing most of the day.

In other words I WILL HAVE A WEEK WHERE I WILL BE MORALLY UNABLE TO WORK ON THE WIP. I therefore must finish this week.

And, then, following this frenzy of punctuation and suggestion, I will be mentally cleansed and prepared for the hard-core editing of my own work necessary if I'm going to get the book to Will (my editor) before Easter.

So, it’s simple, if you want to force yourself to finish your book, agree to interfere with somebody else’s.

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Hows and Whys of Hisorical Fiction 2

One of the most important things about writing historical fiction – particularly if you’re writing a dual narrative and have a contemporary voice as well – is to decide on a voice or prose style which conveys something of the contemporary world without actually attempting to imitate the language of the period. In Testament this was relatively simple as I couldn’t possibly resort to anything like a contemporary vernacular or I’d have been writing Chaucerian Middle English and that would have left the book with a very limited audience.
Still, I wanted it to be recognisably different from the voice used in the twenty-first century strand. I wish I could tell you what carefully thought out decisions that then entailed but that would be disingenuous. The truth is, I wanted to make it sound different, so I just did. By ear, or feel or whatever.
That’s how I do a lot of my writing, how I make a lot of the really important decisions – unconsciously. By what sounds or feels right.

Just to digress for a second about the general mechanics of producing a book, I am always astonished by the sheer number of books on writing which many other novelists appear to have read. Perhaps this is because, unlike painting, music, dance or acting, writing has – until recently – not been something that you went and studied until you got good enough to practice or realised you weren’t good enough to practice. So 'how-to' books filled a niche.

I’ll be honest: I don’t read books on writing. I never have (with the one exception of Stephen King’s On Writing which is more autobiography than how to book). I have a kind of bloody-minded ‘well, I read English at university, what the hell more do you want?’ kind of mindset, I suspect. So, as far as my own writing goes, there is a horribly arrogant feeling that I’ll find it out myself, thanks, make my own mistakes, find my own way, rather than doing it somebody else’s way. Which, of course, is why it took me almost twenty years and three books in the bottom drawer before I got remotely near getting published

In my defence, there’s also the slightly more relevant fact that I find it horribly difficult to assimilate lots of ideas at once, as in a ‘how to’ manual. I have picked up bits of interesting writing lore from reading blogs and, because these are bite-sized, single-idea messages, on the whole, I find that they stick in my mind. Often they explain to me why I do what I’m doing anyway but sometimes they are useful – ‘describe the coffin not the grief’ was a great one I picked up from the wonderful The Sound of Butterflies (though I haven't been able to identify the exact post - apologies.) ‘The writer makes a contract with the reader in the book’s first page’ was, I think, gleaned from the frighteningly well-read David Isaak’s Tomorrowville. But those are the only two I can remember off-hand.

All that is a long-winded way of explaining why I didn’t consciously sit down and try and plan what my fourteenth-century voice would sound like.

As I was going along, however, I noticed a few things:
I didn’t use contractions – I always used ‘would not’ rather than ‘wouldn’t’ ‘cannot’ instead of ‘can’t’ etc, including dialogue.

I developed a tendency to avoid latinate words in favour of more Anglo Saxon-sounding ones where possible and where it didn’t do violence to the rhythm of what I was writing. I noticed that I was doing this quite early on in the writing of Testament and it became a conscious decision thereafter. And it’s not just because one of the themes of Testament is the native Englishness of what’s going on in Salster but because most latinate words were introduced into English in the eighteenth century, three or four centuries after Testament is set. Linguists and grammarians of the time – under the pan-European influence of Latin and, possibly, a more national, lingering influence of the noble Norman French vs. the peasant Anglo Saxon thing – felt that English needed beefing up if it was going to be a suitable language for serious literature and public discourse. So, I decided that, if I could keep out as many fo these later imports as possible, I could create a pared-back, pre-enlightenment effect, if only to myself.

Similarly, in terms of grammar, I always tried to use the active voice, avoiding passive constructions and gerundive verbs. Again, I was aiming for a less circumlocutory, Latinate way of constructing things.

I’m not saying that no page of fourteenth century narrative in Testament contains any words or word-roots introduced after 1400 or other than subject-verb-object sentences – that would be difficult and dull – it just became a conscious effort to limit my vocabulary and to be selective about the kind of grammar I used.

Similes and metaphors present their own challenges. I once read an otherwise excellent Young Adult historical title where a character was described as being ‘drop dead gorgeous’ – such a jarring note that I almost stopped reading at that point. It was such an anachronistic phrase. And, even if I was wrong and it was actually a phrase which had been current in Tudor England, it’s such a popular phrase these days that to have it used in that context just felt very out of place – clumsy and maladroit.

But avoiding anachronisms isn’t enough. As readers in the US might say, that’s hist fic 101. You’ve also got to use your language to strengthen the feel that you are in another time and – therefore – another place. The texture of the language has to reinforce that feeling. So, for instance, modern-day similes and metaphors feel wrong, even if they might have been current then; de facto, they’re part of our world, not of the world of the historical characters, so they need to be omitted or altered.

The challenges presented by my current book, which has a mid-nineteenth century component were quite different, but I think they are going to provide fodder for another post…

Saturday, 7 February 2009

A pick me up.

I know it probably only means that Testament has sold two copies in a few branches compared to other books’ one or none, but still, getting a phone call from a friend to tell me about this sighting of Testament on WHSmith’s bestsellers list was pretty amazing.

More on writing historical fiction tomorrow – today has been taken up with driving lessons, ironing, making lemon drizzle cakes and going to ogle my own book in town…

Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Hows and Whys of Historical Fiction

I mentioned the other day that I’d had an interesting time thinking about Testament from a technical point of view, so that I could talk about it cogently to the folks up at Waverton.
I believe I mentioned plot, character, theme and language.
So, while I’ve got a few minutes to think about the blog, while it snows outside, I thought I’d jot a few things down.

I thought I’d start with a few thoughts on research.

I do two basic kinds of research for my historical fiction – the general kind where I immerse myself in the period as much as I can so that I get a feel for how the people and places I’m writing about would have looked and sounded, felt and smelled. I need to know what my characters would have thought and believed, the likely prejudices of the age, the things so taken for granted that they’re never spelled out.
At this stage, I’m trying to find out what, at a basic level, it was like to live then.

Then there’s the more focused research – for Testement, this involved teaching myself about medieval architecture and building, medieval learning and the difference between English universities and those on the continent, the state of the English church and the heretical sect known as the Lollards. After trying to find out about everything, you suddenly narrow your focus to a very small field.
This can lead to interesting imbalances – like when I realised that I knew pretty much every tool and technique a journeyman, labourer or master mason might use during the day but I had no idea how they arranged the whole issue of going to the toilet… Fortunately, I didn’t need to know but it bothered me that I hadn’t managed to find out something so basic. (Interestingly, I know that kind of detail for the book I’m writing now, which is based in the nineteenth century. And I know because the contemporary commentators were so outraged at the primitive arrangements in the area I’m writing about. Sources are everything…)

Of course, I’m not doing all this research so I can put every last little detail in my book. Far from it. Paradoxically, you do research so that you can leave most of it out. In the same way that you know your own contemporary world intimately, but never refer to the vast majority of what you know, you need to leave most of what you’ve learned about your historical period in your notes. You still need to know it’s there, because you might want to refer to it tangentially, without going into detail, but for each fleeting reference, you’ll probably have a whole page of notes on how this fits in to the world of century/decade X.
At least, that’s how it is for me.

You see, I think the reader of historical fiction enters into a relationship of trust with the writer - he trusts that you know the period and will continue to trust you until or unless you make an obvious mistake. It’s not a matter of proving how much you know by the barrowloads of colourful period detail you put in; you prove your grasp on how your plot and your characters inhabit the period by the telling details you choose to include.

So, I’ve always taken the view that I will put no more detail into the historical strands of my fiction than I include in the contemporary scenes. If I don’t routinely describe what my twenty-first people are wearing (and I don’t), then I won’t give you a garment-by-garment description of what my fourteenth century people – or, in the work in progress, my nineteenth century characters – are wearing either. People in my contemporary worlds are rarely seen eating so I’m not going to give you much in the way of what my historical characters had for breakfast unless it’s strictly relevant.

Interestingly, though, research can often take you in unexpected directions. As part of the background research for Testament, I read a book on the economic climate of the late fourteenth century. It sounded as dull as ditchwater from the title (I’m sorry, I’m too lazy to go and unearth it so that I can tell you the proper title and author, I’ll try and do that for the next post) but it turned out to be a gem. The author had ploughed through endless manorial and court accounts – who paid what to whom and what for – and, because money makes the world go round, it was fascinating.
It told me, for instance, that an order was given, one summer, for all journeymen, whatever their trade, to down tools when the weather was fair, and help to bring in the harvest. Previous years’ harvests had been diabolical and there was a serious risk of mass starvation so the powers that be (and I had no idea how much the machinery of the state interfered in every aspect of daily life in the fourteenth century) decided that the harvest was the thing and everyone would have to do their bit to make sure it was successfully brought in.
Well, once I knew this, I had to include it, it was just too fascinating to ignore. And, fortunately for me, it provided a useful way of moving the plot on and providing conflict. Because, if the weather’s been dreadful and the harvesters have been waiting for a few nice days to get the grain in to the barns, the master mason has been waiting for exactly the same weather to progress his building. Send his journeymen out to bring in corn when there’s building to be done? I don’t think so…

More next time on getting the language right in historical fiction.
Don’t go away…