Friday, 26 June 2009

The dangers of oversimplification

Sorry for the dearth of recent posts here – the promenade play, plus a couple of other work-related matters have been keeping me very busy. But, as I have now subdued the Reformation, so to speak, and am well on the way to finishing the last playlet (Dickens) I thought I’d post a few reflections on what I’ve been doing.

As John Fisher and Nicholas Ridley were both Bishops of Rochester and were on opposing sides (as it were) of the Reformation, we thought it would be interesting to have them confronting each other over an altar (which could plausibly act as a symbol of the whole Reformation argument as all altars moved from being stone, carved and ornate with beautiful hangings to being plain and wooden and bare – Rome vs. Puritanism).

But trying to distil the complex Reformation arguments of theology and religious practice into something around nine minutes long proved surprisingly (or, perhaps, unsurprisingly) difficult. Take into consideration the fact that this promenade play is not being written for an audience already well-versed in Church of England practice and history but for anybody from Rochester and the surrounding Medway Towns district who fancies a bit of casual Saturday afternoon entertainment and saying anything meaningful in such a short space of time moves into the realm of ‘distinctly tricky’.

So, I’ve slipped a bit of Why the Reformation Happened 101 into the transition from the previous scene to this one (as the characters and audience walk from the High Altar through the Quire and down into the nave, since you ask) and I’ve gone for lots of visual imagery so as not to make the whole thing too wordy. Oh and introduced two chaplains to the bishops who are basically into a whole game of ‘my bishop’s better than your bishop’. So we’ll see what everybody else involved thinks at the first production team meeting on Monday.

But one thing has struck me and that’s how easy it is to slip into saying things which are so simplified as to be scarcely recognisable as the actual truth. Strangely, my elder son came across this phenomenon when he was studying A-level biology. ‘Don’t worry about what you were taught at GCSE’ the class was told ‘because that was so over-simplified it was, basically, wrong. ‘ Actually, they were given to understand that, compared to the wonders that they would discover on a degree course should they choose to pursue the wonders of biological science, they’d discover that A-level wasn’t exactly 100% accurate either.

But then, isn’t it true that the more you look into anything, the more complex and multi-faceted it becomes? Nothing is simply cause and effect; everything is a multi-layered confection of causes, effects, spin-offs, unforeseen consequences, more effects and further causes of the next major upheaval.

When I was writing a speech for John Fisher (who fell foul of Henry VIII’s determination to divorce Catherine of Aragon in pretty much the same way as the more famous Thomas More did) on the whole sorry episode of ‘The King’s Great Matter’ I found myself making him say ‘If Catherine of Aragon had borne Henry a healthy son there would have been no break with Rome, no suggestion that the king was the ‘supreme head of the church in England’.
But is that true? If the sons Catherine gave birth to had lived to young manhood (bear in mind he was married to her for sixteen years before Anne Boleyn came on to the scene) would he really have been content to stay under the sway of the Pope? Would he have left the monasteries alone or did he have his eye on their great wealth anyway?

The problem with research is that you need to do it otherwise you’re in trouble; but the more you start asking questions, the more complicated everything becomes and you can end up in trouble anyway.

But ain’t that true of life in general?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A capital letter century

The fourteenth century. You’ve gotta love it. The Great Famine, The Black Death, The Peasants’ Revolt – it’s a century of capital-letter happenings. And it also had something we’ve got – climate change. Between 1300 and 1400 mean temperatures fell by one degree centigrade in England. The country went from having numerous vineyards to, effectively, having none.

Like us, fourteenth century people had a feeling that things were going downhill rapidly and that they might be looking at the end of the world as they knew it. Except they thought that the Biblical apocalypse was going to be responsible rather than a catastrophic rise in global temperature…

Through my research I'm getting the sense that a feeling of impending doom was very real and it’s going to be interesting to see whether our twenty-first century feeling of personal helplessness in the face of global forces has any resonances with the fourteenth century’s feeling of helplessness in the face of a God who had apparently tired of the waywardness of humanity.

I’m reading a couple of books at the moment – Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century and The Black Death, An Intimate History by John Hatcher. They’re both very modern history books in the sense that they try to give the general reader a feel for what it was like to actually live then. They’re the kind of smell in the street, dirt beneath your fingernails, terror behind the next sneeze kind of books that I love.

These books appeal to me particularly, as both authors seems to be coming from a very similar standpoint to my own when I write about the past; their books ring with the conviction that human nature doesn’t change. The circumstances may change, the diet, the clothing, the worldview but human nature with its ambition, greed, violence, love, altruism and fear will always be the same until homo sapiens becomes another species altogether.

As Ian Mortimer says in his introduction ‘..most of all, it needs to be said that the very best evidence for what it was like to be alive in the fourteenth century is an awareness of what it is to be alive in any age, and that includes today.’

I think that’s right. What I aspire to in writing historical fiction is to make my reader see that though the people they’re reading about had a very different experience of life and very different expectations of it, they were the sort of people we meet, know and love in our own lives. They are us. In historical costume.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

A secret project now secret no longer

I have to confess that the current novel is having to take a bit of a back seat to the other work that is in progress chez moi at the moment. I’ve been working on it for a month already but, until today, I couldn’t really talk about it on this blog as it wasn’t official yet. But now, the project has been approved by the powers that be (the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral) and I can tell you that I am writing a series of 10-minute playlets that come together in a species of promenade play which will be performed in the cathedral on Saturday the 26th of September.

What is a playlet? What is a promenade play?

Playlet is my term; we were going with ‘vignette’ but that sounded a bit grand.

Promenade play is not my term, it’s a proper bona fide name for a proper bona fide dramatic form. The action moves and the audience follows.

Why am I doing a promenade play?

Well, at one level, because I’ve always wanted to write something dramatic for a particular space - a play (for want of a better word) which uses the building as part of the narrative. We went to see a play in Canterbury Cathedral last year and I was very disappointed to see that a stage (albeit a rather intriguing, undulating stage) had simply been positioned at the end of the nave and we all sat looking at it, just as if we had been in a theatre. I thought it wasa missed opportunity to do something with the space.

At another level, I’m doing it because Rochester Cathedral is launching a new, Heritage Lottery Fund-backed interpretation project this year complete with swanky new guidebook, audio visual effects, state of the art audio-guides (including narration by Jools Holland) and all the reception paraphernalia needed to welcome and inform visitors. Though all this is going ‘live’ quite soon, the official launch, complete with Open Day is on September the 26th.

Now, I glibly say ‘I’m doing this’ as if I’ve been comissioned – from a throng of hundreds of other eager potential writers of promenade plays – to make this so. But, to be honest, though being picked from a throng of.. etc would have been lovely, that’s not quite how it went. This is how it actually went.

My Other Half is the Director of Operations at Rochester Cathedral. (That’s actually all you need to know isn’t it?) Ages ago (probably on the occasion of the aforementioned locationally-disappointing play) I told her that I’d like to write something for Rochester if they were up for it. As I was then, and for months afterwards, heavily into writing Not One of Us, she didn’t discuss it with anybody at the cathedral but, once NOOU was finished, she mentioned the idea to the Interpretation Manager who was very excited by the idea.

Within days I was sitting at a meeting with her and with the Education officer. It was one of the most extraordinary meetings I’ve ever been to. Now, if you’re going to have any idea why it was so extraordinary, you have to understand the background here. I’ve spent most of my working life within the NHS. Meetings occur. Decisions are made. The two are not always temporally related. At lteast not as temporally related as I would like. Usually meetings are had, ideas are discussed, sub-committees and working groups are formed, ideas are picked apart so as to be hardly recognisable, re-constituted by committee until all the originality has been removed, the original meeting is re-convened, the new, sanitised, guideline-compliant idea is resubmitted, teeth are sucked and – with luck - the idea is taken forward. A pilot occurs. Feeback is sought. After approximately two years something almost entirely unrecognisable as the original idea might actually be implemented throughout the team concerned.

As the person usually putting forward the ideas (all brilliant, natch…) I found this excruciating. I don’t do committees. My idea of joint working – actually expressed in so many words to one of my many line-managers, once – was ‘You get a committee to decide what you want, tell me and I’ll produce it for you.’ Inexplicably, they rarely went for this approach…

Anyway, after that axe-grinding digression, where was I? Oh yes, this meeting. Well, we arrived with no agenda and no real ideas of what we were going to do. I mentioned a few things I’d noticed in a swift trawl through the new guidebook in my Other Half’s office whilst waiting for the meeting’s appointed start time and, one of them following my lead, we were off on flights of ideas. At the end of an hour – yes, a mere hour – we had a plan. Six ten-minute vignettes in various, already decided-upon, locations around the cathedral would form a promenade play which would run through twice, so that visitors to the Open Day, if they wandered in and caught vignette three, for instance, could simply continue promenading until number three came around again.

Let me just say that again, for the benefit of other people who have suffered the kind of stultifying decision-making process that monolithic organisations tend to employ. At the beginning of an hour we had nothing. At the end of an hour we had a viable project which we were all very excited about. And that we were just going to go off and do. I was nearly delirious with shock at being able to have ideas, get them provisionally agreed and go away to make them happen within sixty minutes. It was probably the single most creative hour I’ve ever spent in the company of other human beings.

Fortunately, the Dean and Chapter operate on a similarly ‘can do’ basis and, with very minor and helpful suggestions, have waved the project through with smiles and thanks.

Compared to the kind of meeting process described above, it makes you want to weep, honestly.

So, thusfar, I have written an interesting encounter between a mythical Green Man (there are Green Man bosses on the cathedral’s wooden ceiling) and the cathedral’s first, seventh-century, bishop, Justus; given a young monk a close encounter with the tenth-century builder-monk Gundulf who built not only Rochester cathedral but also the White Tower of the Tower of London (amongst other things); arranged for one of Rochester’s saints – the martyr William of Perth – to be murdered all over again in the cloister garth and had a conservator given the shock of her life by being accosted by the real-live fourteenth-century bishop whose tomb she is restoring. I’ve still got a somewhat frosty dispute between the Reformation martyrs John Fisher and Nicholas Ridley to write and an encounter with Charles Dickens who had a long association with the city of Rochester and lived nearby.

The research – some of which overlaps with the research I’m doing for The Black and The White – has been fascinating. And trying to say something meaningful, educational, amusing and visually interesting in ten minutes is a great challenge for somebody who generally writes thick books. It helps that I used to have a column in a local newspaper that was limited to 500 words – I do know how to be concise… I’m just usually not.

Anyway, no doubt there will be more to say about all this in the coming weeks… you have been warned!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Characters becoming...

Today I came across this passage in the book I’m reading at the moment (Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden):

Many actors spend years doing exactly what Molly had dismissed: they pretend to be other people. They select voices and movements that might plausibly suit a particularly character, and they assume these voices and movements in the same way as they might put on a costume, a wig or a cardboard crown. It isn’t convincing.

I’ve always thought that novel writing is quite a lot like acting and this quote confirms it for me. I know that some novel writers (and those who write books about how to write novels) advocate making lists of exactly the kind of thing Molly rejects - what does your character eat for breakfast, does he have a quirky smile, is there a little catch-phrase he uses a lot? We are encouraged to know our characters inside out. But I think that this technique is actually trying to construct your characters rather than to know them, and from the outside in rather than the inside out which is the way I prefer to build characters.

For me, just as the personalities of real people are formed – at least in part – by the events and circumstances of their life, so fictional characters make themselves known through the events I make them live through. And yes, the events do come first. So does that make my novels ‘plot driven’? Yes, though I would hope that that doesn’t mean any sacrifice of psychological depth. I think – for me - the plot, the story, the narrative, whatever you want to call it arises out of a particular kind of character with a particular set of personality traits and flaws and the job of the author is to find them so as to make the plot work on a psychological level.

How do other writers out there ‘do’ characterisation. Do you make lists, think of somebody you know, consciously work out what kind of person would do the kind of thing that happens in your book or try, by tapping into the subconscious, to write ‘from the inside out’?