Thursday, 22 March 2012

What do you teach in a workshop on historical fiction? - Emma Darwin

This time last year I was asked to give a workshop on writing historical fiction at Guildford Book Festival, and although as ever I was amazed by how much you can do in two hours with twenty keen writers, as ever I also came away with my head buzzing with all the other things we could have done if we'd had more time. So when the good folk running the York Festival of Writing asked what I'd like to teach for one of their four-hour mini-courses, I said immediately, "Please may I do Historical Fiction?", and they kindly said, "Yes, of course". The consequence is that at two o'clock on Friday 7th September, an as-yet-unknown number of aspiring writers will sit down, and I will stand up, and we'll be off. And with any luck, by the time the bar opens at six... well, I'd love to think that all the writers would skip the bar to go straight back to their rooms and get scribbling, but I know I'll be badly in need of a drink by then, so I should think they will too.

But now, of course, I've got to work out what to do in that four hours. The only qualification for attending a workshop like this is that you want to, so that's all that I'll know about them. What exercises, what ideas, what discussion, are most likely to lead each of them to what they need of greater confidence, understanding, excitement and knowledge about writing historical fiction? It's not just that there will be a wide range of writerly experience in the room (let alone a wide range of talent, which is the elephant in the room on all writing courses). Is that experience/talent in writing historical fiction, or simply fiction, or even just writing?

And although I've no easy answer for people who ask me what period of history I write in, you do have to have one, for the current project at least. I've had writers for whom their history is a period I remember; I've had others determined to set their novel in 12th Century China when they've never been further east than Vienna. Then there may be one or two, as at Guildford, who are writing historical non-fiction, but who feel that thinking like a novelist will make their history-writing better. That doesn't make a huge difference... or does it? What if your characters don't talk English - is that easier or harder than when they talk English, but it's Chaucer's? What if you can find very little material to draw on? What if you find too much? It can be even more paralysing: like trying to catch a waterfall in a cup.

I don't actually believe that, at bottom, writing historical fiction is any different from writing any other kind of fiction: characterisation, structure, prose, plot, process... We're writing for readers now, and so all those things must work for witers and readers Now. But the usual challenges come in different proportions, because of the fundamental definition of historical fiction - at least that of Margaret Atwood, which is the only definition which is useful for a writer.: "fiction set in a time before the writer came to consciousness."

It's useful for us because it's centred on the writer's relationship to what they're writing: a time, a place, voices, manners, mores, spirits and innumerable practical details that we can't know directly. Even if you're fifty and your historical novel is set in in 1946, your ninety-year-old neighbour who would love to help is not, quite, the same person now as he was when he was a bright young sergeant under Monty, or a file-clerk at the Nuremberg trials, so you can't quite borrow his knowing either. And his wife is - sadly - no longer with us.

So the first challenge is to learn to imagine - to inhabit - places you've never been (Victorian London, pre-Colombian Chile); to get inside faiths or morals you've never held (original sin, sun-worship); to hear voices that you've never heard (what would a tape recorder have picked up in Tudor Old St Paul's, or in St Paul's own study?)...

Places - from the hanging gardens of Babylon to a Jarrow privy (whether used by the Venerable Bede, or by Ellen Wilkinson) - aren't so hard: research helps - and we'd talk about how to do it. Google Earth helps too, along with old maps and contemporary accounts... and yet, would you only include what the people of the time would see or think of? Are we not 21st century visitors to that time and place? But still, if you add a substantial helping of common sense, you then just need a willingness to dream in all six senses.

Faith and morals are harder, perhaps. An unquestioning knowledge that God exists and has his eye on you is hard for some modern writers to truly live inside, so they find it hard to make their readers live inside it too. And if you're to write convincingly historical worlds you can't just export our manners and ethics - our understanding of sexuality or asceticism, say - backwards in time, unchanged. But it's difficult to strike the balance between your need for your sixteenth-century pickpocket or duke to be believably honourable and upright in his way, while giving him the views about Jews or dogs or Catholics or Protestants which are at least verisimilar to the real thing: convincing, if not (strictly) authentic. Many good decent, honourable men, and plenty of their wives, thought that errant wives should be beaten, for example. But if you want your reader to actually like your good, decent honourable man, and still more understand why his wife regards being beaten as no more than an occupational hazard (as their children also do) then you've got even more of a problem of balance. And yes, there was another split infinitive in that last sentence. It's only the late Georgians and Victorians who decided that splitting infinitives was a crime... and that's another thing that we'll need to touch on in my workshop: how do you deal with things you know are right, but which run counter to everyone's perceptions of history. All the research in the world won't make your novel come alive if your reader's trust in you is shaken, because you've failed to keep them willing to believe you.

The last thing, voice, is perhaps the hardest. It's partly because we don't know how people talked - Shakespeare's mechanicals are as stylised in their dialogue as his kings are, even if to a different end. For anyone whose novel is set before the novel itself came along, with its intention to be naturalistic, we have no models of how people actually talked, in conversation. And if we did, would it help? Voice in historical fiction is both message - part of the reader's sense of the historical world and its inhabitants - and also medium: it has the job of conveying the story, as well as being part of the story.

So a workshop on historical fiction has the dual focus of Now, and Then, because, as I argued a few months ago, the historical novel is in some ways the ultimate novel: it embodies all the opportunities - and so difficulties - of writing fiction, but in peculiarly acute form. Between now and September I've got to sharpen my pencil (or my keyboard) and plan exercises to tackle these things: how you research... and let go of the research; how you find the voices of history... and make them come alive to the modern reader; how you make us care so passionately about your characters that we'll stay up late reading about this strange and long-ago world... and yet be all wobbly by the end because these people we've lived with aren't Now, they're Then.
 
It's just as well that I've got several months in which to work it out but this is, sadly, my last post as a member of The History Girls. Before I take up a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Goldsmiths, next October, I've got a novel to finish, not to mention the workshop, and lots of other commitments of writing and teaching. I've loved being a History Girl, and I've been so delighted to see the blog going from strength to strength - I'll be reading everyone's future posts with pleasure and interest.

11 comments:

catdownunder said...

Oh, wish I could be there and join in. I suppose I do write historical fiction of a sort. I am not sure why but, so far, what I have written tends to be set in the 1950's to 1970's - perhaps because computers and 'cell/mobile phones etc make it too easy for my young heroes and heroines? I lived that but there are all sorts of things I still need to check - spent the morning trying to find out about house prices back then!

The Virtual Victorian said...

As thoughtful and informative a post as ever. You will be missed Emma but how lucky are those who book to come along to your workshops. Good luck with every aspect of your own writing future.

H.M. Castor said...

And I second that, in its entirety! Best wishes for it all, and thank you for your fantastic blogs.

Penny Dolan said...

Lovely, thoughtful post! Enjoy your time with the novel and the RLF - and we'll miss you.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you for another of your thoughtful posts, Emma. I do hope you won't be giving up on your own blog as well, as much as I understand why you might have to.

I wish I could be there again in York but this year I have decided to attend the Historical Novel Society's UK conference which so happens to be in the same month. (An embarrassment of riches, indeed.)

adele said...

I second all of that, too! We will miss you Emma but will read you on your Itch of Writing blog. York workshop sounds splendid. Wish I could come and learn!

Emma Darwin said...

Ahhh, thanks for all the good wishes.

Sally, no, my own blog is still going - and may be slightly less neglected, now. I'm doing something at the Historical Novel Society Conference - not sure what as I don't think the programme is finalised yet - so I'll see you there! Yes - September is always a madhouse...

The Virtual Victorian said...

I MUST try to get to the Historical Novel Society Conference...off to check the diary!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Lovely post, Emma. Sorry you're moving on but it's been wonderful to have your posts. Thank you and good luck with all you do in the future. Life is so splendidly varied.

Emma Darwin said...

Thanks, Barbara.

VV - do come. Should be really good!

Linda B-A said...

I wish I could join you in York. Your workshoppers will, I'm sure, leave stimulated and inspired. Thank you for all your fascinating posts in this neck of the cyber-woods, and I'm relieved to hear that you will be continuing with your own splendid solo blogspot. I wish you the best of luck with your future literary ventures.