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…


Tim Stretton said...

Alis, I think the "it feels right" way of doing things is the only defensible approach. If you don't have a sense of the tones and textures of language, what are you doing writing novels?

I can't imagine anyone reading Testament would have found the language anachronistic: I thought you had the balance just right. You don't call attention to the period with "I prithee, sirrah!", but equally the medieval strand has a noticeably different tang to the present-day.

"Describe the coffin not the grief" is just brilliant! Is that the best six-word writing advice ever?

Alis said...

Hi Tim - thank you for these kind words. And yes, describe the coffin not the grief is simply brilliant!

David Isaak said...

I admit that although I read a lot of books on writing, I don't tend to do so as if they are "how-to" manuals. I read through them, muttering "interesting," and "no, don't think so," and "oh, come on--you've gotta be kidding!" Except for the very best of them, I find them stimulating, but as much for the "Oh, yeah?" reactions they evoke as anything.

As to dialogue and voice, I think all writers come at them instinctively--and then sort out principles retrospectively.

I'm finding your discussion of the problem of historicals fascinating, but it's going a long way toward convincing me I never want to try one. I have enough trouble writing as it is!