Versions Of History

cross blogIt’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. This month we talk about the power of historical fiction.

JENNY
Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ Standard history books don’t tell the truth. Absolute truth is beyond reach. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga states that, ‘the historian is a wrestler with the angel of death.’ What so often emerges is a collection of stories, written by those in power, designed to influence future generations with whatever they wanted us to believe. And too many voices are left out.

History blog 1Some fabulous Australian writers have tried to redress this. Take historian Clare Wright, for example. Her marvellous book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka won the 2014 Stella Prize. Wright reinstated women to their rightful place in the history books. Conventional accounts of the Eureka Stockade – as a founding legend for Australian democracy – were blind to the high proportion of women living and working on the Ballarat goldfields. They neglected the crucial contributions women made as agitators, petitioners, fund raisers and all-round rabble-rousers. ‘Women were there,’ Wright states in her introduction. ‘They mined for gold and much else of economic value besides. They paid taxes. They fought for their rights. And they were killed in the crossfire.’ Other non-fiction books like Australian Tragic by Jack Marx and Forgotten War by Henry Reynold place forgotten stories back on the historical record.

But what about historical novels? Fiction gives writers freedom to fill in gaps and explore new explanations and theories. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang are prime examples of this. Novelists can tell a fresh version of history, tales of the vanquished, the outsiders and in my case – the animals.

SYDNEY –
history 2The novelist is supremely well-equipped to present a different historical agenda. Tolstoy did this in War and Peace, his brick-sized pot-boiler, which argues his ideas about the vicious futility of power, territorial ambition and war. He includes women as central players – because novels have to be about little people if they are to speak to their readers. Natasha Rostova, his main heroine, comes to stand not only for the soul and spirit of Russia but for all that is life-giving and life-sustaining.

The novel can also criticise history’s opinions. In The Child of Time, Josephine Tey has her detective hero turn his attention to Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England. In his play, Richard III, Shakespeare presents the king as a villain, a child-murderer and a coward. Through her hero, Miss Tey offers an alternative view of Richard, traces the origins of Richard the villain to Sir Thomas More, he who was sacrificed to Henry VIII’s light-fingered attitude to marriage, and to Holinshed, whose Chronicles provided many stories for Shakespeare. Miss Tey notes that both men lived and worked in the service of Tudors. You will recall that Henry Tudor usurped the throne of England by defeating Richard on Bosworth field.

The novel is a polemic. Miss Tey is bent on reversing the historical view of Richard as a bad man. You only have to check out the Wikipedia entry on Richard III to see how her polemic caused consternation amongst historians, some of whom busily rejected her take on the king. For the sake of this blog, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, though Miss Tey’s argument is persuasive. What matters is that her novel, a classic of detective fiction, put a hissing, clawing cat amongst the fluttering pigeons of academic history.

JENNY-
It’s interesting how you say ‘novels have to be about little people if they are to speak to their readers.’ That of course is the beauty and strength of fiction. Most academic history does the opposite, and is filled with stories of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and various kings and queens.

history 3I glanced through the historical novels on Booktopia. Many titles point to their strength: The War Bride, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Maid, The Ship of Brides, The Tea Planter’s Wife, Girl of Shadows, Orphan Train, The Potato Factory, The Tailor’s Girl – the list goes on and on. Readers of these novels are drawn to tales of ordinary people.

Tim O’Brien, who wrote novels about the Vietnam War once said: ‘A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.’ Before I began writing my historical novel I asked myself – Is it a great story? Will it reveal some new aspect about the people and wildlife of the period? And lastly, does it deal with issues relevant today? The answers to all three questions was yes.

CoorinnaI’m writing a fresh version of history, giving a voice to the outsiders, the hunted and the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. It’s a unique story. Apart from a little gem, Coorinna, written in 1957, there is no historical fiction concerning the Thylacine. It’s time to fill the gap. My new novel will explore the forces behind the extinction of the greatest marsupial predators since Thylacoleo Carnifex, the mighty marsupial lion, vanished forty-five thousand years ago. What if those responsible weren’t the men who shot and snared them? What part did xenophobia play in their demise? And could the heroic actions of one, young fugitive alter the fate of an entire species?

Anachronisms

cross blogIt’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. We’re both making a foray into historical fiction, a genre we haven’t written before. Here we share some thoughts on anachronisms – those pesky out-of-time errors, and how to avoid them.

 

JENNY –
The word anachronism is derived from the Greek word anachronous which means against time. The term refers to a person, thing or idea that exists outside its time in history, especially one that happened or existed later than the period being written about. If readers stumble over details they know to be incorrect, it distracts from the story, breaking the contract between writer and reader. Avoiding this trap can be a minefield for historical authors. Fiction set in an imagined past is bound to be anachronistic to some extent, no matter how hard a writer tries to avoid it. The trick is not to let it show.

Anachronisms 1Shakespeare is famous for his anachronisms. He wrote of a clock in Julius Caesar, when clocks would not have existed. In the same play he talks of a man wearing a doublet, a garment unknown in ancient Rome, but fashionable in Shakespeare’s time. In Macbeth he talks about dollars, the wrong unit of currency. Then there is Cleopatra wanting to play billiards. Billiards was invented almost 2000 years after her reign, but was a game of luxury and masculine entertainment in Shakespeare’s era. The audience would have understood that it was an allusion to Cleopatra’s enormous political power. Such anachronisms were probably intentional, designed to help a contemporary audience engage more easily with a historical period.

SYDNEY –
As I read your list of Shakespeare’s anachronisms, Jenny, I wondered if it was also a way of letting the audience know that under the thin disguise of historical fiction, he was actually writing about modern times, modern conflicts, and commenting on modern political tensions without risking imprisonment by a touchy monarch.

Anachronisms 2The same cannot be said of the anachronisms in the manuscripts I’ve assessed over the years. In some cases, these errors are there because the writer hasn’t done their research. But more often, it’s a failure of imagination. When a writer sets a story in the early 1980s and describes a character texting messages on her phone, I’m quite sure the writer hasn’t exerted themselves enough to imagine themselves into the time of their story. They can’t imagine life without mobiles.

That’s an obvious instance. A subtler example is when the writer can’t imagine life without mobiles, but knows mobiles didn’t exist in the period her story is set, the 1960s, and so she hands her characters pagers. This particular writer told me with complete confidence, ‘Pagers existed then. They were used to summon doctors to emergency cases.’ That might be true. That’s not the issue, though. The issue is that the writer has been unable to imagine life without instant contact, and so has given all her characters, none of whom are doctors, pagers to fill a gap left by a lack of imagination.

Anachronisms 3I think this points to one of the nagging problems of writing historical fiction. The writer doesn’t simply have to do their research and get the fashions, architecture, language and political scene correct. The writer has to think themselves into the world they have created. People in the past thought differently, had a different outlook, a different worldview to people of today. Many behaviours remain recognisably the same. But the way people understand the world and how it operates, what they expect, is different. Those who are old enough, have seen how quickly worldviews can change. People who were adults in the 1980s know what it’s like to set out for a date or an appointment or to meet a friend on the understanding that something might happen to derail them. They can’t phone to say something’s come up – they missed their train, they witnessed a mugging and stopped to help the victim, they tripped and sprained their ankle. I postponed for years getting a mobile, hating the idea of being in constant reach of other people. Then one day I set out to meet a friend for lunch. I missed the train. I was only ten minutes late, but she was furious because I hadn’t been able to let her know I was delayed. My attitude was the old one – it didn’t matter if I was ten minutes late. Things happen. Her attitude was the new one – no matter what, you phone to let the other person know something’s come up. The next day, I bought a mobile. Now I’m bumping up against another new assumption about the world – that everyone’s got a smart phone. I still have my old steam-powered phone, which can’t receive emails. People send images to my phone and can’t understand why I don’t respond. But that’s another story!

JENNY –
Anachronisms 4It sounds like you’d fit perfectly into a historical novel, Sydney! As you say, an anachronistic worldview can be just as disconcerting to readers as obvious lapses like mobile phones that hadn’t been invented yet. This is particularly important when writing about fairly recent periods. I intend writing a book roughly covering the years 1929 – 1960. Some people will remember these times from first-hand experience. My mother once complained about a novel set in World War 2. ‘There weren’t nylon stockings during the war,’ she said. ‘Nylon was reserved for military use, like making parachutes.

Anachronisms can crop up in a hundred ways – a change in the geography of a town, forgetting to check when introduced animals or plants arrived (for example, trout were only introduced to Tasmania in 1864) or simply using out of context word choices. Historical writers need to be constantly on the alert. People often say, ‘I really liked the story, but then such-and-such happened and I couldn’t get past it.’ It would be a shame to lose readers for want of a little research.

One Character, Two Conflicting Goals

by Peacewolf Creations

by PeaceWolfCreations

Stories need conflict, we all know that. Usually this comes about via a protagonist and antagonist with opposing goals. One man wants to win the battle and another man wants to stop him. This is the simplest version. But what about when opposing goals are contained within the same person? This happens when a character desperately wants two things that are mutually exclusive. It echoes life, and allows for rich characterisation when the choice is finally made. Readers really feel for a hero in the throes of this kind of tortured inner turmoil. If done well, the readers themselves become torn in two directions. They take sides, change their minds, feel the frustration. It’s an unbeatable recipe for a page-turning read, and the engine room of many popular novels.

Anna KareninaConflicting goals lie at the heart of Anna Karenina. Anna wants both her adulterous lover Vronsky and her child. In nineteenth century Russia she can’t have both. Will she follow her burning passion whatever the cost? Or will she return to a safe, suffocating marriage for the sake of her child? She chooses Vronsky. Her choice destroys their love and leads to ultimate disaster. Tolstoy uses action, thoughts, dialogue and backstory to emphasise the pull of these conflicting goals. They seem equally matched, until the fatal choice is made.

  • Other well-known examples are Twilight by Stephanie Meyer – Bella wants to be with Edward, but she also wants to live.
  • Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen – Jacob wants to keep his job at the circus, but he also wants to protect the elephants
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Hamlet wants to avenge his father by killing the king, but he also wants to fulfil his duty as a prince by protecting the king and the stability of the kingdom
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Katniss wants to win the games so she can live, but if she wins, her friend Peeta will die. She wants him to live too.

internal conflictThe greater the war within, the more compelling your story will be. Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, sets out a good way to create conflicting goals. ‘Ask what does your hero most want in the novel – his story goal. Then ask what’s the opposite of that, or mutually exclusive to it? Give your hero an equally compelling reason to not pursue his goal. He wants both at once, but can’t have them both. The story will play out in how the hero pursues these opposing desires until the conflict is resolved, one way or another.’

Women Writers and Aussie Rural Fiction

International womens dayNext Tuesday is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is gender parity. Worldwide, women contribute more than their fair share to social, economic, cultural and political life. Yet progress towards gender parity is slow, including in the literary world. Australia’s Stella Prize and Britain’s  Baileys Prize are attempts to redress this inbalance. In one literary field however, I can proudly say the achievements of women authors far outstrip men – the hugely popular genre of Australian Rural Fiction

All The Rivers RunThe books in this genre are overwhelmingly written by women, most of us living and working on the land. (Head over to the Australian Rural Fiction website and see for yourself. You’ll find many current and upcoming releases) Publishers point to this as a new phenomenon, but of course, Australian rural literature written by women is not new. Quite the contrary, it’s steeped in tradition. From Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes Of Richard Mahoney, Nancy Cato’s All The Rivers Run through to Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds, the drama, difficulties and romance of the Australian bush has long been the stuff of great narrative tales.

JourneysEnd_coverFrom the earliest days of white settlement and before, the bush was central to how we became Australian, how we identified ourselves as Australian. Yet during the second half of the twentieth century, it fell out of literary favour. We weren’t a bush people any more. We lived around the urban coastal fringe, and saw ourselves as urbane, cosmopolitan and civilised. But thanks to a talented cohort of women authors, the bush once more looms large in the literary landscape.

Why the massive popularity of this genre, that regularly outsells all others? I believe readers are craving a relationship to country. They’re asking the age-old question – what is it that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is, that we come from this place. Our identity comes from the continent itself. And especially that aspect of Australia that is different to other places. That doesn’t mean our cities. That means regional Australia. That means the bush. That means the climate, landscape and geology that has shaped our culture.

JE Proofs 1I’m so very proud to be part of this immensely supportive group of Australian women writers. I’ve just finished proofreading the pages for my new book, Journey’s End, out with Penguin at the end of May. It’s set on the Great Eastern Escarpment, and pays homage to the men and women who strive to conserve and restore our natural environment. Thanks to the hard work of so many talented women, the story has a ready audience. So let’s hear it for the Aussie rural writers – a shining example of achievement on International Women’s Day!

Australian Rural Romance

A Foray Into Historical Fiction

cross blogIt’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. We’re both making a foray into historical fiction, a genre we haven’t written before. Here are some thoughts on the challenges we might face.

JENNY –
I love historical fiction. Take Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, for example. I learned so much about the Tudors from these richly detailed stories. I love the way novels bring a period to life, in a way most academic scholars do not. (I also enjoyed The Tudors television series, but mainly because I had a crush on Henry Cavill)

I asked some friends to name their favourite historical novelist. Surprisingly, two out of the three said Jane Austen. But she wrote about the people and society of her own contemporary world. That’s not historical fiction. To qualify in this category, according to the Historical Novel Society, novels must be set in a time at least fifty years before they are written.

Wolf HallI see two main categories in this genre. There are the period pieces, frequently romances, such as the books of Georgette Heyer. These novels are set in a specific period, but are not impacted by specific historical events. I sometimes find these tedious, wishing they contained the odd true-life signpost to ground me in their times. Then there are what I call the genuine historicals, where both people and events from the past play a role. When well-written, these are the stories that fascinate me.

Now I’m writing my own historical novel, (make that novels, for I have a trilogy in mind.) Of course all history is fiction to some extent – it’s just written by the winners. I want to write a fresh version of Tasmanian history, giving a voice to the outsiders and to the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. I want to follow the lives and loves of two families from 1880, through two world wars, to the present day. Through the lens of this family saga, I want to explore why the tiny, far-flung outpost of Tasmania became a cradle for the first global environment movement. It’s a change from the contemporary rural fiction that I also write. What a lot I’ll have to learn!

An Infamous ArmySYDNEY-
Now that you point out the two different forms of historical fiction, Jenny, I realise I prefer the other kind, what you call a period piece, and I call a costume drama. Actually, Georgette Heyer did write the sort you like. For example, An Infamous Army is about the Battle of Waterloo and is highly regarded in military circles as one of the best accounts of the battle ever written. The Spanish Bride concerns the Peninsula War, seen through the eyes of John Smith and his Spanish wife, Juana, and based on his memoirs. She wrote about William the Conqueror and John of Bedford as well. But, apart from The Conqueror, I didn’t care for those historical novels. I preferred the comedy of manners she came to specialise in, set in Regency England.

I’ve been turning over in my mind the historical fiction form. I have a novel I’d like to set in the Brooklyn and New York of the 1950s. Once I start, I’m sure I’ll think of other novels. This period interests me first of all because of the fashion. Dior introduced the New Look in 1947, feminine and frivolous after the austerity of the war years. It created a new trend in fashion that rolled on to the early 1960s.

The Feminine MystiqueAlso, women had been sent back into the home after the end of World War II, when men returned from the battlefields. The United States went through a period of growth in a materialistic sense, but also underwent torments of another kind. The 1950s is the era of McCarthyism. It’s also the era that gave rise to The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book about the suburban malaise gripping women as their lives narrowed to cramped confinement, all domesticity with no outlet for their intellectual energies and wider aspirations. Hollywood depictions of women changed too. The dumb blonde was born in the 1950s. All of which is great for me and the kind of women’s fiction I write, about psychological confinement and the urge toward liberty.

New York 1950's

New York 1950’s

But for me, voice is a problem. Whenever I think about writing fiction set in the past, I come up against the issue of voice. First there’s the voice of the story. Then there’s the voice of the characters. How do they speak? I don’t feel the need to restrict myself to the speech rhythms and manners of the period. But I do need to capture the tang of it. I also want to capture something of the era, rather than transplant a 21st century story to the 1950s. But I don’t want to be confined by 1950s insularity or values. Maybe these problems will be solved once I connect with my main characters. But somehow, whenever I think of my own historical fiction, I feel close to my characters’ personal dramas and psychology, yet distant from them. They remain elusive in my mind.

And there’s something indefinable about the world of another country. It isn’t so much the past that bothers me as the mysterious otherness of a country I haven’t visited and don’t know except through books and movies. If I write anything set in 1950s New York, I first have to visit New York. I have to know what the weather is like, the feel of the sun on my skin, the hustle and bustle of people, the smell of public transport systems. Even if I never use this kind of detail, I feel I need to give myself the choice of using or not using it.

I suppose I need to create authenticity on my own terms. All fiction poses problems of authenticity. Historical fiction is no different.

JENNY –
I didn’t know that about Georgette Heyer, Sydney, having only read a few of her Regency romances. Perhaps I should revisit her work.

Creating an authentic, historical voice is obviously a challenge. I hate it when an author becomes bogged down in antiquated language. Yet I am trying to give a credible impression of late 19th century phrasing. Avoiding a heavy-handed result takes some care.

I know what you mean about experiencing a place before writing about it. I’ve made research trips to the locations of all my novels so far. With outback fiction, the land becomes a character, and is a major part of the genre’s appeal. It’s essential to get it right. No amount of research beats spending time on the ground. Reference books can’t buy you drinks at the bar and tell you stories. Photos can’t replicate the beauty of a red The Go-Betweengum framed by pink sunrise. When you go to the heart of your setting, maps become landscapes. Statistics turn into people. Mountains and rivers become metaphors.

Yet as L P Hartley so famously put it in the first line of The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Nobody can go back in time. Reading widely, teamed with a vivid imagination, are the most important tools an author has. Part of my new novel will be set in South Africa during the Boer War. I wasn’t there, and I’ve never been to Africa, but that won’t stop me!

 

An Ancient Mimic

stick insectI’m deep in edits for my upcoming novel, Journey’s End, which will be out with Penguin Random House at the end of May. Taking regular walks is a must, to clear my head, and it’s always a treat for me to find an insect like this one during my wanderings – Ctenomorphodes chronus.

Phasmids (or stick insects) are remarkable animals. Even the name, Phasmid, has an evocative, romantic ring to it. They have been disguising themselves as walking leaves and twigs for 126 million years, even before the evolution of flowering plants. C. chronus has an uncanny resemblance to a gum tree twig and can grow up to 18 cm in length. The males are long and slender, have full wings and can fly. The females are larger but their small wings are not functional, except to flash at predators. Phasmids are harmless herbivores, eating gum and wattle leaves. They also eat blackberry leaves, and I sometimes find them doing a good job feeding on clumps of this invasive weed. They often rock back and forth, as if swaying in the breeze.

Stick Insect fossilFossil discoveries from modern-day Mongolia mark some of the earliest examples of twig-mimicking insects. Evolution quickly produced disguises for bugs, with the arrival of the earliest birds and mammals, which visually preyed upon insects during the age of dinosaurs. This is more tantalizing evidence of early insect-plant co evolution. These ancient phasmids were about 7 cm long from tail to antenna tip. They had parallel black lines running along their wings, which at rest would have resembled a ginkgo tree leaf, also preserved as fossils in China and Mongolia where the insects lived.

Spiny Leaf Insect

Spiny Leaf Insect

One especially interesting Australian phasmid is the Spiny Leaf Insect. Females lay eggs resembling seeds, flicking them onto the ground below their tree. The eggs have a knob, called a capitulum, which is tasty to ants. Ants carry the eggs underground, eat only the knob, and leave the rest of the egg in the nest, protected from other animals that might eat it. The young phasmids (or nymphs) hatch after 1-3 years underground They look and behave like ants. When they emerge from the nest they climb into the trees, where they moult into slow-moving leaf mimics.

Phasmids are parthenogenic, which means the females can lay fertile eggs without mating, but the babies will all be girls. Males can even mate with species other than their own, which can create new species. What fascinating creatures! No wonder they’re becoming popular as pets. Museum Victoria is currently breeding rare giant stick insects, that can grow more than 50 cm in length. Next time I’m in Melbourne, I plan to meet these miracle babies!

Congratulations to Womblywoo for winning the prize draw book giveaway! I shall email you soon for your postal address. 

2016 Australia Day Book Giveaway

 

I’m delighted to be part of the Book’d Out Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop celebrating Australian writers and stories. I’m giving away a copy of my latest novel Turtle Reef, and a copy of Jilted by the fabulous Rachael Johns. The giveaway is only open to Australian residents. Stop by the other blogs on the tour to win more great prizes.

My Australia Day blog post is about a little Australian native orchid, that connects my memories of a lost brother with my upcoming novel, Journey’s End.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAThere is little more poignant in life, than helping to pack up the house of a loved one who has died too young. This has been my sad task recently, since the untimely death of my brother, Rod Scoullar. He was a learned man, a man who loved Australia’s fauna and flora – a naturalist of the first order. His study was a gold-mine of nature books, stored on impressive floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered an entire wall. It was here that I found the holy grail for Aussie orchid lovers – Australian Indigenous Orchids Vol 1 & 2 by A W Dockrill. These are hard to find volumes, and sell on-line Ravine orchid 4.ashxfor up to $200 a set. But aside from being the definitive treatises on native orchids, they also provided me with a wonderful link to my new book, Journey’s End, which will be out in late May.

Journey’s End is concerned in part with a woman’s journey through grief. I’m deep in the edits at the moment. Little did I know when I was writing this book that it would take such a personal turn. It’s set in the wild, mountainous, subtropical rainforests of the Great Eastern Escarpment, and the rare Ravine Orchid (Sarchochilus fitzgeraldii) plays a significant role in the story. So I looked it up in my brother’s books, and found a glorious, full-colour plate of this beautiful and delicate flower.

Ravine orchid 4The Ravine Orchid is found in wet, humid rainforests of the Great Dividing Range, where waterfalls cascade from the tablelands. It is lithophytic, which means its roots cling to rocks or creep into humus-filled crevices. Old colonies form mats many meters wide, and relish the constant play of cool air through the deep, damp ravines. Plants also occasionally grow on the moss-covered buttresses of ancient trees. The fragile flowers appear in October and November, and are up to forty millimeters wide. Colours vary from pure white, white with a red heart, to a rare all-crimson form. They are borne on graceful, pendulous stems which may measure more than a meter long. Quite a sight, when draped in full bloom on the rocks above a mountain stream.

Ravine orchid 3I was fortunate enough to buy a tiny specimen from the Tinonee Orchid Nursery when on a research trip for the book last year, pictured right. According to the wonderful Ray Clement, it should do well in the climate of the southern Victorian ranges where I live. So far so good. One day it may flower, and I’ll think of my brother, and his passion for Australia’s marvellous native plants.

To go into the prize draw leave a comment on this blog post. Don’t forget to check out the other blogs at Book’d Out to be in the running for more great prizes!! (Entries will close at midnight on Wednesday January 27th)

Emotion And Stories

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith. This month, we discuss the importance of emotion in narrative.

SYDNEY

As a writing mentor and manuscript assessor, I can often tell who has been to creative writing class. Apart from other telltale signs, these writers leave out emotion. They think they have to show it, not tell it.

Mr DarcyThis is a tricky area. In some instances, an action will indeed reveal how a character feels. But the writer has to make sure that it does, and that it shows it strongly enough. For example, if a character is responding to an insult, they might redden and glare. But what if the character is having a reflective moment, thinking over some revelation that overturns their assumptions? In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen writes such a moment for Elizabeth Bennet, after Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter explaining his relationship with Wickham and his actions concerning Jane and Bingley. Miss Austen knows an action won’t cover it. Not even a series of actions. The reader needs analysis of how Elizabeth feels, and how her feelings evolve from angry rejection of Darcy’s version to confused acceptance. That means emotions have to be named and thoughts described. If they aren’t named, the reader won’t know what she feels, and won’t be able to feel with her.

JENNY

Yes, I agree. Readers need to understand how the character feels, and many writers leave it out, in pursuit of showing, not telling. I used to fall into this trap.

EmotionsFor example, maybe our character Peter is in an unhappy marriage, or hates his job. So the writer quite rightly puts Peter in difficult and provoking situations – perhaps he fights with his boss or his wife walks out on him. With something this crucial, it’s important to indicate Peter’s internal thoughts and emotions. There are a variety of ways for Peter to respond to his spouse leaving. He might be angry, resentful, relieved, scared, liberated, or a mix of these. It’s risky to let readers fill in the blanks until Peter’s character is well established. My editor once said you run another risk too. If the writer doesn’t emphasise Peter’s feelings, readers might think he doesn’t care – might think the event washed over him, leaving him cold. So it’s important to show reactions. Otherwise characters might be misunderstood. But don’t overdo it!

There are various ways to indicate how characters are feeling. Internal physical sensations are the classic ‘show’.

Emotion.jpg‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry couldn’t breathe. A cold stone settled in the pit of his stomach. This child had meant everything.

Then there’s body language – physical gestures, facial expressions, actions etc.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry’s fingers trembled. The glass lurched alarmingly, spilling wine down the front of his trousers. He cried out. This child had meant everything.

And sometimes it helps to flat out state the emotion, for clarity.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry raised his hand, as if he might ward off the terrible news. Disappointment fell like a physical weight upon his heart, crushing it. His marriage, his kingdom – his very honour as a man – depended on the arrival of an heir. This child had meant everything.

emotion 2As readers, we are on a search for feeling – for a quickened pulse and a brighter pallet of colours than we find in everyday life. To feel, we need an emotional connection with the characters. I believe it’s the place where all good stories start.

SYDNEY

Aren’t you clever! There I was thinking Anne and Henry were two everyday Australian people – and they were THAT Anne and Henry!

Yes, reading is meant to be an emotional experience. It gives us access to other ways of living life. We’re meant to identify with the characters, especially the principal POV – although we’re free to identify with any character we choose to. I often think about the smaller characters in a novel, like Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and her foolish insistence on threadbare wisdom. Poor Mary is the daughter who came after Elizabeth, their father’s favourite. Mary is also the one who signals Mr Bennet’s disillusionment with his marriage. He loves the daughters he had when he still loved his wife, and keeps his distance from the daughters of his disillusionment. Of the younger three, Mary is the one who feels it most strongly, and competes with Elizabeth in the only way she can – through her efforts to be “wise” or intelligent. Poor Mary, I’ve always had a place in my heart for her.

Emotion 3.jpgAnyway, describing your character’s emotions closes the gap between reader and character. Without that emotional content, the reader is forced to stand at a distance from the story, is forced to think the story, not feel the story. Thinking it is a lesser experience and lets the reader off the hook before they’ve got anywhere near it. Emotional investment is a vital ingredient in that much-desired quality we call unputdownable.

BB14

Thoughts On Dialogue

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith.

This month, we analyse a passage of dialogue from The Red King, by Victor Kelleher, to see what makes effective dialogue. Here is the passage itself:

‘Petie was sitting on a low wooden stool in the centre of the clearing, the mist and the smoke from the camp fire curling about him. There was no sign of the animals. His thin body was hunched over a flat piece of rock which he was using as a table; and his long fingers, heavy with rings, were busily drawing gold coins from a leather pouch which she had often seen hanging at her Master’s belt.
         

‘So!’ she hissed at him. ‘You’re nothing but a common thief!’
         

He swung towards her, gold coins spilling from his cupped hands, a mischievous smile forming on his lips. ‘Do I deserve no payment for saving you from the fever?’ he asked. ‘Not even a few paltry coins?’
         

‘It’s not just the coins!’ she shouted, and pointed to the collar encircling her neck. ‘This didn’t belong to you! It wasn’t yours to use like this!’

‘But it was also part of your master’s property,’ he countered. ‘The collar and the gold together. Why should I keep one and give up the other?’

‘I’ve already told you,’ she protested. ‘He made me free. Free! You had no right … no right …!’

‘No right?’ he interrupted. ‘Without me you would be dead. And there’s little freedom in the grave, Timkin, I assure you of that.’

‘I’d rather be in the grave than wearing this again!’ she replied hotly.

‘That too can be arranged,’ he answered, and all at once there was a sinister undertone to his words that matched the chill of the morning.’

 

 

SYDNEY:-
DialogueOne of the first things I noticed about this passage of dialogue is the power transfer. At the start, the power balance is fairly equal between the two characters, with a slight leaning toward Timkin, who has taken the moral high ground.

‘So!’ she hissed at him. ‘You’re nothing but a common thief!’

By the end of the piece, Petie has taken power by adopting a menacing tone of voice.

‘That too can be arranged,’ he answered, and all at once there was a sinister undertone to his words that matched the chill of the morning.

The Red KingKelleher underlines the menace in Petie’s tone by describing it. This has at least two functions. The first is to emphasise the power transfer. Emphasis is a vital part of good narrative. The second function is to draw a line under the dialogue sequence. The scene goes on but this bit of power transfer has been framed and divided from the next bit of the story by the description of Petie’s sinister tone of voice.

JENNY:-
This is an excellent passage to show how dialogue should convey an underlying tension. The conflict here is obvious – one character has the other captive. Timkin is moving in the direction of her desire – freedom. Petie is maintaining his desire – to hold her prisoner – and upping the ante by making veiled threats. Readers expect dialogue to have this kind of purpose and direction. They expect to be led somewhere and Kelleher does this.

tom-chiarella-011aa

Tom Chiarella

But is tension always  necessary? Yes. Good dialogue is a combination of desire on the part of one character weighed against the tension inherent in the scene. You may think there isn’t always tension when people speak. A family conversation, for example, where people love each other. Does that sort of dialogue need tension? Of course! (For many of us, family causes more conflict than anything else.) It doesn’t have to be grand conflict. In his wonderful essay on writing dialogue Tom Chiarella puts it this way.

‘Tension is more like the energy between charged particles. It’s always there, even when two people agree. Think of two cars traveling a reasonable distance apart from one another along an interstate at sixty-five miles an hour. Safe distance.Same direction. Same speed. No tension, right? Wrong. We all know it only takes one little bump in the road, one touch of the brakes, a deer in the headlights for everything to be completely and suddenly redefined.’

 

SYDNEY:-
Yes, dialogue always has to have tension. I would only qualify what you said, Jenny, by saying that BOTH characters have desire. They are clashing desires. This is what causes the tension. In Kelleher’s excerpt, you can see that each character states their position clearly and so they fight it out through dialogue. Other pertinent information is shown through the narrative bits that frame the dialogue. What you get is a layered piece of storytelling through dialogue.

JENNY:-
Each line of dialogue simply responding to the previous one, bloated dialogue, is one of the most common mistakes of new writers. Speech in novels should be stylised. It should sidestep the obvious with off-centre responses, questions, silence or body language.

So ‘This is wonderful fruit cake. Sue.’
     ‘Thanks Jill.’
     ‘Can I have the recipe?’
     ‘Of course.’

Could become …

      ‘This is wonderful fruit cake, Sue.’
       Her sister never handed out compliments. What was going on?
      ‘Can I have the recipe?’
Sue shoved her chair back from the table. ‘I need a drink.’

Much more interesting!

SYDNEY:-
Indeed! I switched off at the first passage between Sue and Jill, but at the second passage, I sat up straight and paid attention! Dialogue is meant to have that effect. Readers know they’re meant to sit up and pay attention when dialogue comes into it.

JENNY:-
I do have one problem with the Kelleher excerpt, and that’s his use of dialogue tags. I strongly believe that said becomes invisible and is all that’s needed. The occasional whispered or shouted is okay, but not protested, countered or replied hotly. It just distracts me.

I’m not a fan of loads of dialogue in fiction. No response is often the best response, so sometimes it’s good to simply shut your characters up. Silence can show confusion, pain, determination, anger – any number of emotions. It allows the rest of the scene to carry the weight via action, sensory description, physical details, thoughts or even the rhythm of words themselves.

SYDNEY:-
Dialogue 3Yes, dialogue gains in texture if the writer uses other ways of conveying what’s going on with the characters, or if they’re inventive with their character responses. It takes practice and confidence to know when to use words and when an action will do the job just as well or better.

Also, dialogue does not replace action. As a manuscript assessor, I read many, many manuscripts by writers who thought dialogue was always showing, not telling. So they wrote reams of dialogue in which this kind of thing happened:

Joe said, ‘Look who is coming down the street. It is Leonard, carrying a bazooka. He is talking to a woman. A police car is following them.’

Sam said, ‘I am filling the kettle and putting it on the stove. Do you want coffee? I have a bad feeling about that bazooka. I was in Nam as a kid of eighteen and weapons make me think of those days. That is why I became a Federal police officer.’

The purpose of this sort of dialogue is to inform the reader. It isn’t about an exchange between two characters with clashing goals. But dialogue shouldn’t be merely an info dump. Dialogue has a dramatic function that must be fulfilled at all times.

When a reader starts reading a story, they enter into a contract. This contract involves trust – the reader gives the story their trust that it will do its job properly and carry them away on a wave of enchantment. If a story breaks that contract, it loses the reader, who stops reading or switches off or gets distracted. Dialogue that lacks dramatic tension breaks that contract.

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Australian Tragic by Jack Marx

Australian tragic‘Here are stories from Australia’s dark heart: Of catastrophe and misfortune, intrigue and passion, betrayal and tragedy. Some you may think you know – others, you have never heard of – but will capture your imagination.’

This is a little gem of a book. Jack Marx, a Walkley Award winning journalist, has collected together true tales that reflect a fresh, un-sanitised version of Australian history. He says, ‘My original purpose … was to unearth stories that had not been widely distributed…and present them in the somewhat sensational style of the old penny dreadfuls …’

Jack Marx

Jack Marx

The result is a wonderfully dark, gripping and uncompromising read. Marx writes with an incisive wit and a larrikin charm. These are strange, sad and shocking stories, though beautifully told. Fresh versions of our past.

‘Anyone who has ever snored through lessons at an Australian school knows that the official history of our nation is boring as milk,’ says Marx. ‘Where American kids get to thrill to tales from the War of Independence, the Civil War, the various bloody encounters of the Wild West and enough assassinations to keep conspiracy theorists busy for a century yet, our poor little bastards are forced to dream up ingenious ways to stay awake during lectures on the Gold Rush, Federation and the ‘adventures’ of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth.’

No such problems here! I defy anybody to snore through the tempestuous tale of Jim Hall, the Sydney-born boxer who knocked out more opponents than Les Darcy ever would, but who never made the record books. Or to remain unmoved by the tale of Moloch, ‘ … a fiery Prince of Hell who takes pleasure in the sorrow of mothers.’ Then there’s the heart-wrenching tale of Bob Bungey, a talented Battle of Britain fly-boy, who ‘learned to cope with dreadful things – alone in the air, watching death come to friends, and enemies too, who never were machines, never would be less than human beings in the minds of those who killed them.‘ The twist at the end of this story left me staggered.

Australian Tragic 3Marx also gives us cryptic and unfamiliar spins on well-known figures such as Merle Oberon, Steve Irwin, Martin Bryant and Michael Hutchence. He leaves us variously intrigued, angry, shocked and saddened. In my case, I was even a little ashamed of my fascination with these stories; stories that had slipped through the cracks of Australia’s official history. Thank you Jack Marx, for giving me a wealth of material for future fiction. Now I want to read another of your books – Sorry, The Wretched Tale Of Little Stevie Wright. ‘Mind-blowingly good,’ says one Goodreads reviewer. I look forward to finding out for myself.
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