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!

 

The Moral Universe In fiction.

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat about the craft of fiction.

Today, writing guru Sydney Smith and I talk about the moral universe in stories. (Fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson will be back on board sometime in the New Year)

 

SYDNEY –
Every writer creates their own moral universe in their fiction, even when they don’t realise they’re doing it. When the goodies win and the baddies are sent to prison, or killed, or otherwise defeated, that is evidence of a moral universe at work, one The Husband's Secretcreated by the writer. I recently read The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty, in which a man has kept a dark secret for twenty-eight years. When his wife discovers it, she decides to keep it, too. Because of this moral transgression, a terrible accident occurs in which their daughter, Polly, only six years old, loses her arm. The reader is meant to understand that this is the couple’s punishment for keeping that harmful secret. The accident wouldn’t have happened if the husband had confessed to the police many years ago. Liane chose to punish this couple in this way. The characters are Catholics; the husband has been in permanent Lent ever since he did the deed that had to be kept a secret. And so the punishment has a whiff of the church about it. Liane wants the reader to understand that. This is her moral universe, and though it does carry the odour of myrrh and brimstone, it is one she has created.

Jane Austen created a more original moral universe in her fiction. The greatest sin is doing harm to others through selfishness. Again and again we see destructive Mansfield Parkselfishness being punished in social ways. For example, in Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram marries Mr Rushworth for money and commits adultery with Henry Crawford. Her sin is exposed and she is ostracised. Henry Crawford is also punished by losing Fanny Price, the moral agent in the novel who could have saved him. In Jane Austen, a good life is first and foremost one that does no harm.

I have to admit that I find this business of the moral universe interesting yet problematic. I’m not all that interested in the straightforward universe where the goodies win and the baddies lose in spades, although of course I read fiction that displays this kind of moral equation all the time. But when it comes to creating my own moral universe, the one that operates in my fiction, I find myself hogtied by a superabundance of sympathy for my characters, even those who do bad things.

JENNY –
I also have a great deal of sympathy for villains. Fifteen years as a foster-parent and working in legal aid has convinced me that nobody is evil. Psychopaths and sociopaths are made, not born―their generally tragic back-stories make them who they are. But however they ended up that way, some people are bad, and we all know how to spot them. Lack of empathy and remorse; irresponsibility, selfishness, greed and cruelty. Cheaters, liars, fraudsters, abusers―I’m happy to label these character traits as bad. Of course good people can also display these traits. It’s a matter of degree. Writers rely on their readers sharing this common understanding.

Writing the breakout novelSuper literary agent and author Donald Maas emphasises the significance of a moral universe in his book, Writing The Breakout Novel.

‘Novels are moral. In fact, all stories convey society’s underlying values, whether they are danced around a campfire or packaged in sleek trade paperbacks. Stories are the glue that holds together our fragile human enterprise.’

He believes that readers want their values validated, but not in a simplistic, moralising way.

‘They may not want to be converted, but they do want to be stretched. They want to feel that at the end of the book their views were right, but they were arrived at after a struggle. A skilful breakout novelist can spin a tale so persuasive that at the end, the reader feels the underlying point was one with which they always have agreed, even though they may have never before  considered it.’

I love this, and always keep it in mind when I’m writing. Donald Maas taught me not to be afraid of my own moral compass. Instead, I let it fuel the narrative. Hopefully, that passion will come through the pages and grip my readers. They’ll care about the characters, suffer with them, hate them and love them. So my advice to all budding storytellers is to honour your convictions, whatever they may be. Let them power your story, challenge your readers, and make your story worth the telling. Care, a lot, about the subject of your writing and it will show.

SYDNEY –
Heavens above, I feel like a wimp after those bracing comments, Jenny!

I guess this points to the difference between a good writer and one who doesn’t quite make it. A good writer loves their villains, their antagonists, their baddies, while also understanding that, in order to make the moral point, they have to punish them in some way. What that punishment is depends on the kind of novel being written. The way Liane Moriarty punished her husband and wife was appropriate to the kind of novel she wrote, commercial women’s fiction. I really understood why the wife decided to keep her husband’s secret―if she didn’t, she feared her family would fall apart. She believed her family’s integrity, its ability to retain its emotional and psychological shape, depended on the presence of her husband. Liane implied that there is a higher need than keeping a family together, and that is the moral duty owed to those who suffered because of his dark deed. She got us to this point by creating enormous empathy for the wife, whose POV was privileged over that of her husband. That empathy made the punishment seem all the more devastating.

Anna KareninaStories try to teach us about right and wrong, good and bad. Many of them do this in a straightforward way. I personally prefer fiction that delineates the moral problem in more subtle ways. Is Anna Karenina wrong for placing her personal need for sexual love ahead of her child’s need for his mother and her duty to her husband? Or is society wrong for creating customs that allow a woman to pursue her personal desires, so long as she does it discreetly, under the auspices of hypocrisy? I read in an introduction to that great novel that Tolstoy first created a coarse and unlikeable Anna. Over time he modulated her into the sympathetic woman we know. He did this because he understood that a coarse Anna won’t carry the moral point as effectively as a charming, likeable Anna. When she throws herself under the train, we feel the horror of her despair because we loved her, not because she did a selfish thing. At the same time we understand that she had to pay in some way for what she did. Yet there is no sense of resolution in her death―at least, there isn’t for me. The love between Levin and Kitty balances out the story by showing us what is right by confirming our own feeling that love survives best when it does no harm.

Which gets me no nearer understanding how to create and enact my own moral universe!

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She will soon be releasing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at Set Your Book Free.

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