As I am travelling without my family (a research trip to Versailles) I have bagged myself a window seat. For once I don’t have to peer over two people’s laps when the plane takes off. As the earth drops away the dismal landscape around Heathrow merges into a bigger picture. The outsize car parks, acres of concrete and scrubby fields dotted with ponies quickly shrink into something that resembles a circuit board. Now I see West London, now the whole of the sprawling city, and now, as it snakes through the capital towards the sea, a living map of itself, I see the Thames. I live close to the river not far from Hampton Court Palace where the Thames cradles Bushy Park in a tight curve. As the plane banks, I strain, before it is too late, to locate my suburban neighbourhood.
In life, as in fiction, perspective and point of view are key, and an abrupt shift can be unsettling. I am finding this rare, aerial view unsettling. Up here I catch a glimpse of myself down there, in my terraced house, hunched over a keyboard, struggling with a new fictional character, defining his world view, refining his dramatic predicament. And a bit of writerly doubt creeps up on me, like the cold white cloud that presently envelops the plane: what am I doing writing this book? In searching for solutions to my seventeenth-century protagonist’s problems have I not actually been looking for solutions to my own all along? And if this is the case, shouldn’t I just keep a diary instead – which would involve a lot less heartache. And then (and this is a real can of worms), questions that have come up over the years start rising to the surface, as they do at moments when you could happily do without them. So why are you writing for children? And why choose foreign, historical contexts for your fiction when you’re here not there, when you’re now not then? For that matter, why all this fictional obliqueness - why write metaphorically when you could write about the thing itself? Indeed, why write children’s historical fantasy at all when you could write adult, contemporary, realist fiction? And so on and so forth. Anyway, at 40,000 feet, or however high I am at the time, I feel compelled to justify: Why I Want to Write this Novel.
The clouds break and, from this elevated perspective, I watch the crisp green outline of the coast as the Channel looms into view. All at once it hits me that this sudden bout of soul searching is probably less a crisis of confidence than a psychologically devious way of putting off writing the novel. This is more familiar territory. I hope I’m not alone in suffering this kind of commitment crisis when embarking on a new project. If I am, perhaps I should seek help urgently. There should be a term for this kind of symptom, and may be there is – writer’s ‘flu or P.N.T. (pre-novel tension).
The plane starts its descent towards Paris. As the past versus the present is currently uppermost in my mind, this aerial view reminds me that you can ‘look down’ on the past in a way that it is not possible to do with the present, in a way that you certainly can’t do with your own life. When you’re in the thick of things it is rarely possible to get enough distance for an unobstructed viewpoint – and sometimes you need a visual aid. Sarah Bakewell recently described Montaigne’s essays in terms of “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity.” The motives for writing and reading historical fiction are varied and numerous but I wonder how central (and conscious) is its function of mirroring our present. Even if we accept that the coherent ‘mapping out’ of the past is a mirage (history’s cartographers all have their own agenda: the closer you get the less the lines appear to join up), isn’t it nevertheless true that the aerial view history affords is our best bet for picking our way through the muddle of the present before it, too, becomes the past?
In any case, flying over northern France I begin to feel more cheerful about my project. I start to think about the Sun King’s genius for public relations, of the art of social survival at the court of Versailles, and look forward to the magnificence of the Hall of Mirrors on a sunny afternoon.
The trip goes well; the spirit of the place works its magic and my enthusiasm is reignited. Le Nôtre’s fabulous gardens are, once again, a particular inspiration. I fly back at night and am allotted an aisle seat. I immerse myself in Geoff Dyer’s book on D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which makes me laugh - a lot. It is, it transpires, as much about his failure to get on with writing his book as it is about D. H. Lawrence (although no less insightful for that). Does anyone have an easy ride with their writing? Or perhaps that’s the point - if it were easy, it might not be worth starting in the first place.
Linda Buckley-Archer’s Time Quake Trilogy is published by Simon & Schuster.
What a beautifully written pos! I love the image of you peering out of the sky to see your other self, the writer self, hunched over the keyboard, while you take off into another world.
I also share your concerns about writing historical fiction for children in this most modernized of societies, where technology has taken our readers so far away from the daily experience of our protagonists. Thank goodness your writer self came home affirmed - and thank you for sharing that with us. It really helps.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment, Michelle. Technology now plays such a central role in children's lives. And we are also so much more protective as parents. I remember going to hear Julia Eccleshare speak about children's fiction. She said that one of the big advantages of historical and fantasy fiction is that we can credibly have the child protagonists venture out on their own having adventures, and I think this is true. But it is something I worry about from time to time. I wonder how many other contributors to this blog do. As for me, resisting the great feast history has to offer and restricting myself to a contemporary palate would be a hard diet to follow...
I tried to post the comment the other day but it seemed to disappear so am about to have another go!
I loved your PNT comment Linda but for me this would translate as POST Novel tension (maybe fresh in my mind as I've just completed one) I find that I become so close to the book during the intense writing period that my confidence trickles away. I'm convinced this happens via a small hole located just behind and below my right ear and ends up as a puddle lapping round my feet.
I love your image of confidence lapping away through a small hole, Theresa! Though, of course, I find this very difficult to believe. Writing a novel is such a huge undertaking - in terms of research, writing and self-belief - and I suspect it gets harder not easier, though that could be just me. I have a friend who "coaches" writers and there are times when I feel very tempted to avail myself of her services...
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