Tuesday, 27 October 2009

What do you want in your historical fiction?

I've recently joined the Historical Novel Society. Amongst other things, each issue of the society's journal – the Historical Novels Review - briefly reviews a great number of historical novels and, having read quite a few of the back numbers the society has kindly sent me, I am struck by something. Though the reviews talk a lot about plot, character and authenticity and, to a slightly lesser extent about structure there is very little comment on language, voice, vocabulary – how the author has used the narrative tone to convey some impression of the period they are writing about.

Now, for me, this is one of the most important – and interesting – things about writing histfic. But how important is it to readers?

If you read historical fiction, what are the criteria by which you judge a historical novel? What are the things you look for? What are essential and what optional extras? I'd be fascinated to know.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Wolf Hall - Rush out and buy it now.

I'm on record as being the sort of person who doesn't automatically rush out and buy the whole Man Booker shortlist. Or even the eventual winner. Actually, my automatic tendency is to curl a lip and think 'not for me, I think'. But I really did rush out and buy this year's winner – Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

I've read a couple of Hilary Mantel's other novels and been very impressed; also slightly at a loss to know why she isn't more widely read. But Wolf Hall knocks them into a cocked hat.

OK, I suppose it was a pretty fair bet that I'd like it – it's a historical literary novel – my absolutely favourite genre, if genre it be; but it is an absolutely cracking read.

I must admit I did groan slightly when I heard that it was about Thomas Cromwell – not another novel about the Tudors, I thought. But this is not another novel about the Tudors. This is very much a novel about Cromwell – who, as if his centrality needed emphasising, is 'he' throughout the text. I'm not sure Mantel ever refers to him as Cromwell herself after the first chapter – she lets other characters do that. And they do refer to him, a lot, though they're not always so polite as to call him Master Cromwell.

Because I'm fundamentally a medievalist and find other periods of history less compelling, I have to confess to not knowing a huge amount about Thomas Cromwell. OK, there's Hans Holbein's painting which makes him look like a toad - kind of sticks in the mind, though I can't say that he looks particularly like a murderer, an appearance several people accuse him of in the book. But then my knowledge runs out with CJ Sansom's rather machiavellian Cromwell in the Shardlake books and the nastier version in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Bolt's play portrays Cromwell as the jealous, scheming villain who is out to bring down hero of the hour and popular saint, Sir Thomas More. Mantel does it the other way around and, I have to confess, I found her version more convincing. Bolt's More was heroic – yes – but chilly, too, as fanatics are prone to be. Mantel's Cromwell is anything but chilly – he is a humane pragmatist who combines a very street-smart kind of wisdom with a deep understanding of what makes individuals tick and a vast capacity for loyalty. Portrayed as unswervingly faithful to his patron and mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, even in the latter's downfall, Wolf Hall's Cromwell is a man it is very easy to like – as even the haughty and autocratic Duke of Norfolk discovers. And it is his commoner's disarming lack of personal vanity, coupled with an uncanny ability to make things happen for Henry which sees him rising up the notoriously greasy Tudor political pole.

It's not just Cromwell himself who is humane in Mantel's Tudor court. Unlike many other fictional Tudor-fests – both on TV and film as well as in novels – there are no monsters here; though Thomas More in his unyielding fanaticism and unlikeable treatment of his family comes close. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn's uncle, is usually presented as, essentially, a ruthlessly ambitious pimp of his neices. Whilst Hilary Mantel doesn't let him off this particular hook of accusation neither does she major on it, allowing us to see Norfolk as a rather more human character, one whose initial antipathy to Cromwell is worn down by the latter's sheer, unremitting competence and utter failure to pretend to be other than he is.

On the whole, it's the women who come off worst. Whilst in Cromwell's immediate household (a wonderful place – a cross between a job centre and a refuge) the women are feisty, opinionated and generally full of the usual human foibles, those at court are an unappealing bunch. Chief amongst them, of course, is Miss Unappealing 1533 herself, Anne Boleyn. Mantel's Anne is calculating, selfish, ambitious, jealous and ruthless. It will be interesting to see whether she can – or indeed wants to – generate any sympathy for La Ana, as the French ambassador calls her, in the sequel to Wolf Hall.

Jane Seymour – whose destiny the reader knows, as the characters do not – emerges as a the only kind woman at court and as someone Thomas Cromwell has more than a passing interest in. And it is the Seymours' family seat in Wiltshire that gives the book its name. This confused me, initially, as Wolf Hall itself receives very little attention in the book beyond the recounting of a notorious and quasi-incestuous scandal which took place there. Then I realised – Wolf Hall would actually be a wonderful alter ego name for the Tudor court where, as Cromwell says on more than one occasion homo homini lupus – man is a wolf to man.

Unlike many historical political novels Wolf Hall takes zero time to get into. We are plunged in to Cromwell's abused childhood and, within a few pages, he has fled his brutal father and packed himself off to the continent to make his fortune, returning in the next chapter after a decade and a half as Cardinal Wolsey's right hand man. At first, I thought this opening chapter was simply an attention-grabbing device on Hilary Martel's part but, as the book progresses, you realise that she is making the reader privy – as nobody else in the book is except Cromwell himself and his despised family – to the truth about his origins. Wolsey, obviously delighted with his diamond in the rough protege, has told numerous scurrilous stories about Cromwell's upbringing and it's amusing to see who has been told what and who has believed what. But then, it becomes increasingly clear, as the book progresses, that it is possible to believe anything of the king's fixer.
Thomas More says of him 'Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.' He has the knack of knowing what to do, who to placate, who to threaten, who to pay off, in any given situation. And he does it with charm and wit and we love him. That's why over 600 pages in his company still feels insufficient.

The priviliged-information trick of the opening chapter is hardly Hilary Mantel's only clever device. The whole book is an object lesson in historical fiction writing. She manages to convey a flavour of the speech of the time without ever resorting to gadzookery or making it feel anything less than fresh and authentic. You can hear the characters speaking, they're then and they're now – it's the true historical writer's trick.

And how does she manage to encompass so much politicking, so much grandeur, so much intrigue in 672 pages and still write a book which feels so light of touch? Answer – she never labours a point, sometimes she barely makes a point, allowing the reader the satisfaction of grasping what she is talking about without having it spelled out. Time and place are beautifully conveyed but in the small details of recipes, lacings, books; a hanging here, a painting there. I was dribblingly grateful to be spared endless details of what everybody was wearing – Wolf Hall has no acres of velvet, seas of brocade nor bushels-full of seed pearls - only occasionally do we get an insight into what people are wearing and it's always relevant, always tells us something about the character.

So as to help the narrative and the reader along, Mantel also surrounds Cromwell with younger men (as I'm sure he would have himself) which means that he always has a reason – other than the need to explain things to the reader, I mean – to unpack what's going on, what he's thinking, why he's doing what he's doing.

I could go on but that would involve going and getting the book and prising it from the Other Half's desperate fingers, so I will stop and just urge you to go and buy Wolf Hall – now, don't wait for it to come out in paperback, it's the sort of book (and I rarely say this) that you need to own in hardback. Except, as I know to my cost, that it's ruinously heavy for reading unobtrusively in bed...

If all Man Booker prize winners were this good, I'd be waiting on the bookshop's doorstep on shortlist morning, ready to devour the lot.

Friday, 16 October 2009


The Black and the White is a quest narrative. (I don't think I'm issuing any prospective spoilers in saying that.) And, at the moment, the writing of it feels a lot like a quest, too.

My central character, Martin, has no maps - nobody did in the fourteenth century, maps were political nor topographical - and he is having to navigate from one known point to the next, never knowing what each day's journey is going to bring.

And I'm doing something similar. While I was writing Not One of Us, I used a technique I have used in writing other novels: I had a general outline, I knew where it started and ended and I had a few 'set pieces' that I was working towards. Each new chapter was plotted as I came to it - before I started writing I would map out, spider-diagram fashion - what was going to happen in the next few pages. It helped me to see the themes I was bringing out, some of the conversations I might want the characters to have, the overall flow of the chapter and how it dovetailed in to what had gone before and was going to follow.

I'm not doing that this time. I didn't actually sit down and decide not to do it like that, I just started writing one day without making a chapter plan and found that things emerged as I was writing which would not have made their way into a spider diagram; so I came to the conclusion that that kind of roughing-out might actually be inhibiting my subconscious. Since this is where I think all my best writing comes from, I decided to give the new, freer, approach a go.

It's having its ups and downs. Like Martin, I'm prone to look up every now and then and think 'where on earth am I and how am I going to get to where I want to be from here?'. But, just as often, I find I'm looking up and thinking 'blimey, didn't know we were going there but I'm glad we did!'

In other respects, my approach is similar to what it's always been. I know the book's end. I know several big things that are going to happen but what happens between them is something the book and I are finding out in our own time.

It's slightly scary. But if I can tap into some of Martin's fear about what's going to happen, that can only be good. Can't it?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Editing onscreen vs offscreen

Why does what you’ve written take on a different character when you print it out? Yesterday I printed out what I’d written of The Black and the White so far (about 18 000 words) as I wanted to get back into the book after an enforced 10 day layoff caused by the play, my Mum’s 70th birthday and attendant visits, then sorting out the Ultimate Frisbee Freak for university and taking him up on Sunday.

So, I printed out the words I’d written and proceeded to read them.

Now, you need to bear in mind that, of the (at least) two kinds of writer I am not of the ‘get it down fast and dirty but get it down’ variety. I find it impossible to move on to the next chapter until I’m pretty satisfied with the one I’ve just written. In theory this should keep later editing to a minimum. It doesn’t. I don’t know whether I’m a) a perfectionist b) inefficient c) indecisive or d) all three but, anyway, these chapters that I’d printed out had already been scrutinised, read aloud, cut, augmented and polished. Each had at least four versions of itself saved in a folder marked ‘chapter x’.

And still there was work to do.

Things which I would have expected to notice first time round – infelicities of style, repetitions, saying things twice, confusing paragraphs where I knew what I meant but the poor reader would have to be telepathic to grasp – suddenly leaped out at me.
Was it the ten days’ distance from the words?
Or just that it was printed and not in ‘first draft’ mode on the screen?
Or perhaps I’m being unduly self-critical and not allowing myself the luxury of writing myself in to the book in peace without expecting it to be instantly satsifactory.

I know that lots of longhand first drafters say that when they type up what they’ve written and see the words appearing as print onscreen, they immediately see what needs to be changed, rewritten etc. The change from scrawl to ‘clean text’ seems to be part of the editing process.

So, should I routinely print out my chapters once I’m happy with them on screen?

What does everybody else to in this context?