Emma Darwin’s workshop on historical fiction is designed to break through the terror of writing it, as a form. “Remember, you are not writing history. You are writing stories. You are writing a novel about something that never happened about people that never existed.” The thing that will make your characters seem plausible is not the facts. It’s that you inhabit their skin.
We begin with a writing exercise: Think of one of the important locations of the story. Take one minute to write down everything you can see, and hear, and smell, touch, and taste, and sense of the space, kinaesthetically. This is a really easy way to make people real. It’s important to gauge with more senses than sight. Smell and taste are rarer and they are very vivid when they’re used.
On research: “… all the research done for the novel – all the studying and reading, all the social fieldwork, all the location visiting, all the garnering of what is or what has been – must be reimagined before it can find a place in the text. It must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question… Reimaging implies some measure of forgetting. The actual or factual has to lose definition, become fluid, before the imagination can begin its task of reconstruction.” Rose Tremain
The challenge is to make things you don’t know believable. Margaret Atwood says historical fiction is any book that occurs before the writer came to consciousness. And, to your character, this isn’t historical fiction. This is just living. When you’re researching, you have to keep an eye on story. And when you’re writing, you have to keep an eye on what research you need.
A writing exercise: think of an historical object which you haven’t seen personally but that you know existed. Describe it using all senses. Next, imagine the history of the object itself. Who held it before? Who owned it? Where did it come from? How many hands has it passed through? Next, imagine your character trying to give this object to someone else – do they take it? Can this exchange, with this imbued object, become a scene?
- Things you may need to research:
Important facts that will affect the plot (the route)
Travel times, transports, communications
Mealtimes, accommodation systems
Law and order systems, religious structures and sanctions
- Reliefs, mores, manners which will affect the story (the journey)
Religion, gender/ethnic roles, prejudices, class behaviour, politics.
Allegiance and betrayal, intimacy across social boundaries
Naming conventions, job and personal titles, status signifiers
Hats, cigarettes, shaking hands, greetings across social boundaries
- Voice and language is the interface between reader and story
Use real historical sources: vocabulary, syntax, grammar, sentence and structure: (Don’t rely on historical fiction for your history. Their history has already been filtered through another writer.
Does class/gender/ethnicity make a difference?
Which historical flavours will you draw on? Which will you “go modern” with?
- Scene setting which will help us believe in the world:
Roads, buildings, ships, interiors, landscape and terrain, weather
Smells, sounds, animals, food, colours, clothes, weapons, arts, leisure.
Do you have or need a storyteller narrator? Stylistically, this already feels “right” for historical fiction, and the storyteller can see the history from another perspective, as well. Will there be diaries or letters or historical documents? Both can help the piece to feel more authentic, as if it exists in a period of time. What creates the voice? What happened? Who is telling the story?
Is it character within the story? What does that mean for their voice, attitudes, take on the events? Which parts of it they convey to the reader? What do they not, but you want the reader to “get”?
Is it a narrator who’s outside the story? How present are they going to be in the storytelling? What access do you grant them? How different is their voice from any characters’ voices?
Some things to consider: A narrator with a “historical sounding voice” will be very “showy” while they are “telling” information?
- Why are they telling the story? This too affects how they tell it.
For example, are they telling it to save their life? To get justice?
- And where are they “now”, relative to the “then” of the story?
To whom are they telling it?
- Does that make a difference to what they tell and how they tell it?
- How will they therefore tell it?
- Tone, vocabulary, syntax, sentences, figurative language, psychic distance, showing vs telling (evoking vs informing)?
- How “historically flavoured” is the voice going to be?
Examples of internal narrators (first person): We read an excerpt from Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Anglo-Saxon English, using a shadow tongue, as close as he can get to Anglo-Saxon without adding Norman grammar which would be like “giving the characters an iPad.” Examples of external narrators (third person): storyteller narrators. The narrator of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: “Some years ago there was in the city of York, a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.” A very effective, “telling” opening.
Cold Mountain: Inman waking with flies among the roosters: very American and immediate. Sensory details, but external.
Andrew Miller’s Pure: “A young man, young, but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting. He has been waiting a long time.” Very external narrator, looking at the character, not within at all.
Second Person: (You.) Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light
Ultimately it’s your book; it’s your rules. What matters is that you decide what you’re doing and you stick to it. You can do whatever you like within the first 20% of a novel, but you have to keep going with it. If you have a very historical opening, and then it goes very modern, very snappy, all of a sudden, it will feel wrong. It must be wholehearted. Understanding the decisions we make and why we make them is about doing it properly.
In the Q&A, many questions were about research: how much to do, how much is enough? Emma researches first whilst plotting and engineering, then tries to forget what she’s learned so she can write. The only thing that stops her in her tracks is if she doesn’t know the vocabulary word for something, or how an object works, if it must be destroyed, etc. She puts in a big bracket, reminding her to fill the word in, and keeps going, so that the not knowing doesn’t stop her writing.
She reminds us to take a look at the Ted talk by Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton, and the promise you make to the reader. Part of the promise is about what “kind” of book it is. What is the book offering? You’re kicking the plot off, but also showing how the book will work and how the voice works. What sort of story it is, what is the tone? Are you trying to convince the reader that this is “authentic”?
Emma Darwin has a new book coming out soon from Hodder: Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. If it’s anywhere near as clear, helpful, and supportive as her workshops, I’ll be picking up a copy, right away! And do remember Emma’s wonderful resource blog for writers: This Itch of Writing.