Thursday 16 February 2012

Mind the gap! By Sue Purkiss

At the moment, I'm grappling with a structural problem in the book I'm writing. My story is set in World War Two, and most of it takes place in a prisoner of war camp. My problem is that the significant events of the story  occur in the first two years and the last few months of the war. One of the worst things about POW camps was that from one month to another, very little changed; nothing much happened in the intervening two years, so I have a desert to cross.

A similar thing happened when I was writing Warrior King, about the earlier part of the life of Alfred the Great. (I was going to make a note to myself at this point to choose my subjects more carefully - but a) sometimes the subject chooses you, and b) I guess that actually, this must be a common problem for writers of historical fiction as history is decidedly inconsiderate in the way it spaces out events.)

Anyway, to return to the magnificent Alfred. (Just look at him on the cover there. Isn't he gorgeous?) The problem here was that the bits that interested me occurred when he was growing up, and then ten years or so later, when he was forced to flee to Athelney and take up baking. There was another problem too: Warrior King was a book for young people, and so it would be better to tell the story from a child's viewpoint. After trying out one or two possibilities, in the end I divided the book into two parts. At the end of the first part, Alfred has just become King. He goes into the room where his small daughter is sleeping, and he makes her a promise.

      It seemed to him that he had never seen anything as lovely as the curve of her dark eyelashes resting on the softness of her cheek, and he touched her hair very gently, letting one golden curl wind itself round his finger.
      "Up till now," he said very quietly, "everyone I've ever loved has either died or gone away. Now my last brother's gone, the best of all of us. And so I'm king. And from this day on, so help me God, I'm going to keep the people safe, and I'm going to keep you safe. I will find a way. No matter what it takes."

The second part begins with the great crisis of his reign, when his ability to fulfil that promise is tested to the utmost. And the story is told now by that same daughter, Fleda, who is determined to be part of her father's struggle.

My last post sparked off a discussion in another forum about historical fiction books we knew and loved as teenagers. Frances Thomas reminded us of Desiree, by Annemarie Selinko. Thanks to Kindle, I was able to download it in the wink of an eye, and I'm re-reading it at present. It interests me to see whether old favourites stand the harsh test of time. An earlier, huge favourite, which I borrowed from the library time after time, was The Amazing Mr Whisper by Brenda Macrow.. I was thrilled when I eventually managed to track down a copy a couple of years ago, only to find that it's been superseded by subsequent books in a similar genre (ie, real children find their way into a parallel world which owes much to myth and legend) and the magic was tarnished.

As far as I can find out, Annemarie Selinko was an Austrian journalist and political writer, married to a Danish husband. They were living in Denmark when the war broke out, but fled from the Gestapo to Sweden, where they worked with the Swedish Red Cross assisting refugees. She used aspects of her experiences in Desiree, her last novel, which tells the story of a silk merchant's daughter who  was once engaged to Napoleon and later married one of his Marshals, subsequently becoming Desideria, Queen of Sweden.

Annemarie Selinko was clearly no lightweight, but the same cannot be said of her heroine. Desiree is appealing, bright, courageous and funny, but she is poorly educated and despite the position in which she finds herself, she is uninterested in politics. She is the narrator, so everything must be filtered through her. Somehow, Selinko has to convey through her the complexities of Napoleon's career and campaigns - because the story of Napoleon is at the centre of this book: Desiree's story, beguiling as it is, is a means to an end. How does she do it?

(Interesting, to see an old cover and a recent one!)

Well, sometimes a character imparts an improbable amount of information over a gossip and a cup of hot chocolate, and it doesn't quite work. But mostly, it does. Selinko uses Desiree's political naivety to her advantage: Desiree needs to know what is going on because it will directly affect her marriage and her family - so she nails someone in the know and makes them explain everything to her in words of one syllable. Or again, a political big hitter such as Talleyrand or Fouche explains things to her because they need to use her as a conduit to her husband. Or else she explains things to someone even less clued up, such as her sister or her son.. It's all very cleverly done: so we read a story which seems to be light and frothy, but in fact a vast amount of complicated history is being imparted. I remember 'doing' Napoleon at school, and learning far, far less.

All of which, I think, is suggesting to me how I should approach my current dilemma.. So - better get on with it!


Caroline Lawrence said...

Funny but I am struggling with the same dilemma at the moment, Sue: how to get my fast-moving detective across the "desert" of two months in a dry-as-dust Territorial Legislature gleaning info about toll-roads and tax-bills. Quite a challenge! I will go have a look at Desiree and see if I can find inspiration!

Good luck with your problem and thanks for this encouraging and inspiring post. Very serendipitous!

adele said...

First of all, many thanks for highlighting a seminal book of my childhood. I read it when I was 9. I can remember it vividly because I can see just where I was when I read it: the very room and chair. I nagged my mother for YEARS about why she hadn't had the sense to call me 'Desiree' (sorry, can't do accents on here!) I must try and re-read it. But as for crossing deserts of boredom, you get that problem in any novel. I am just now having it with a boring week or two in my linear's a problem. One way of dealing with it is: draw a line as it were under one bit of the story and just take it up later. I have dates at the top of my sections ...that sometimes helps.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Adele: I like that option. I had thought of the dates. But I need to think about how much info I need to get across about what's been happening in the war... or do I? Not sure. Might just take a leap - a balloon ride across the desert! - and come back to it later.

Good luck with your detective, Caroline - am definitely rootin' for him!

Mary Hoffman said...

Very interesting, Sue. I think as historical novelists, we sometimes feel under an obligation to tell the story in a linear fashion, detailing every day, month or year of the period we are writing about.

But actually, we don't have to do it like that at all. It is part of the power of writing that you can whisk us through several years in a sentence, effectively saying "and so it went on from day to day, a seemingly unending routine of X,Y and Z and then suddenly, one day, three years after his incarceration, A was liberated/found a way out/discovered that his life was about to change at last..." or whatever.

So the "boredom" is conveyed without the reader having to live through it with the protagonist. Of course you have to do more than that but you see what I mean.

Good luck anyway!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Mary! I think I was a bit stumped when the problem came up, because initially, I wrote the story as a diary, and the protagonist was re-reading it when he was older - so it was easy to come up with reasons why he would suddenly need to riffle through a few pages (and months or years.)

H.M. Castor said...

Very interesting post and discussion - I too am grappling with a version of this same problem, in that I'm trying to wrestle a novel's structure (building pace & tension etc) from events that - while dramatic - are more one-step-forward-two-steps-back than is helpful... I think it's absolutely true that this is an inevitable challenge of writing historical fiction. And it's very heartening to know I am not alone!

Penny Dolan said...

This is such a useful problem to raise, especially for me. It is easy to follow a character so completely that you end up with dull events that are as dull to read. Maybe a hardened heart and a decisive leap to Part Two is what's needed? Thanks.

Caroline Lawrence said...

This post is so inspiring that I've been adapting Sue's brilliant summary of how Annemarie Selinko does it thru Desiree to make some handy rules about how to convey the complexities of history to our readers, especially kids!

1. Impart gossipy information over a tasty period beverage & snack
2. Make some "dry info" crucial to your hero for some reason
3. Use your hero's ignorance to advantage, they demand explanations
4. Other characters explain things to your hero to get something they want
5. Your hero has to explain things to someone even less clued up
6. Your hero gets the wrong end of the stick in a funny and/or memorable way
7. Show don't tell

Any other suggestions? Can we get my list up to 10 or even 12?

Caroline Lawrence said...

Ooh! I've got a few others

8. Your hero has to learn a new skill to get the info
9. Your hero has to spy on someone to get the info

Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant idea, Caroline!

8. Use markers like Christmas or birthdays, eg Another Christmas - his third in captivity. He lay very still, thinking...

9. Use letters between characters.

Sue Purkiss said...

Another possibility, to make it up to 12, could be to use facsimile newspare articles...? Especially in children's fiction, perhaps.

Debbie Watley said...

The way you handled the elapsed time and the POV in Warrior King sounds very effective.

I love The History Girls' blog!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Brilliant and timely post. Thank you Sue. My characters are stuck on a deserted coastline with no distraction for me to delve into... no fairs, or even affairs, subsistent food, no fancy clothing... you can't get too lyrical about shipwreck outfits can you? Why do we do it to ourselves? But some great advice on moving through the doldrums. Thanks everyone.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

PS I too adored Desiree. I must have read it with that same wonderful cover. I loved all the Angelique and the Sultan and Angelique and the King books too. But I think I was slightly older than 9 when I read them Adele!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks Debbie. At least your characters are warm, Di - mine are freezing. But things will warm up soon...

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for your additional ideas, Sue. This has been SO helpful to me! :-)

Penny Dolan said...

Not sure if this is relevant but came across an interesting take on "knowledge" in Adventures in the Screen Trade where Goldman explains that, way back then, a star lead never asked for information - though he may be told by an expert. (M in James Bond)A secondary character will always be the one to ask, to not know or be able to work it out. The star role is assumed to be alert to the situation already because of "heroic" personality & skills, ie it's weak to need to ask. (Hmmm. Who's always first to ask directions when out in the street?) Am not at all sure this helps but felt it was an interesting observation from a script writer. (Hmm 2: Kids often knowing more than adults as they are the heroes in children's books?) Enough! Back to work.