Tuesday 20 November 2012

'Finding the Words' by A L Berridge

I had one of those bad writing days yesterday. The kind when you spend an hour struggling to perfect a single paragraph, then ‘read it back at a run’ and have your eyes pop out with horror when you see how ghastly it is. The kind, in fact, that historical writers are never supposed to mention. 

Shutterstock, not me. Trust me, it's prettier.
I don’t know why we’re not. Authors of contemporary novels blog about writing all the time, but historical novelists tend to talk about only one thing – history. Even here on ‘The History Girls’ we usually discuss research, re-enactment, historical field trips, all the really labour-intensive stuff we do before sitting down at our computers and letting a novel ooze effortlessly out from our fingertips.

Well, I’m going to break ranks and admit that mine doesn’t always ooze. Sometimes it trickles. Sometimes it coagulates into a sticky clay mass that forms hideous faces to jeer at me. Sometimes I look around at the wonderful writers on this blog and think with shame that I shouldn’t be here at all.

All writers do that sometimes (don’t they?) but it's not something we discuss in historical forums. Research is what sets us apart, research and history – the writing is the same as in any other genre, so why should we bother talking about that?

But it’s not the same, it’s nothing like the same, and I'd argue the writing is even harder than in contemporary novels. It’s true we share the same concerns with storytelling, pacing, characterisation and narrative drive, it’s true we need the same ‘writing tools’ to start with – but the first thing you do when writing historical fiction is throw half of them away. Half your modern understanding of how things (and people) work, half your modern perspective, half your knowledge of the very time you’re writing about – and half of your precious, hard-won vocabulary. If this is a fight, the historical novelist starts it with one hand tied behind her back.

Historical words. Sometimes even reading is difficult...
The words are the thing. Those black squiggly creatures we need to nail to a white screen to make them tell the story we need to tell. Even if a historical writer has decided to ‘translate’ her work into modern English, half her vocabulary will still be useless because it refers to things for which there wasn’t even a concept, let alone a word. True, we don’t need words for computers or telephones or radios before such things existed – but what about those phenomena that have been around and observed long before we ever had words for them?

Here’s a tiny example from my current novel. A wounded soldier is being tended in a freezing cave, and when his friends peel off his woollen ‘Balaklava’ helmet, his wispy grey hair behaves just as we’d expect it to. A modern reader needs only one of the words ‘static’ or ‘electricity’ to know exactly what I’m talking about – but in 1855 my characters can’t use either of them. All right, that’s a good ‘writerly’ challenge, and I duly come up with a detailed description – but in doing so I’ve given a fleeting image an importance wholly disproportionate to what’s going on. There’s a risk that the reader will stop and think, and I want him to move on with the story. There’s an even worse danger that my ‘point-of-view’ hero will seem more interested in a physical peculiarity than in the fact his friend may be dying. So what do I do?

The problem’s everywhere. Even common internal sensations can be tricky when we're not allowed to know about simple chemicals like adrenaline. I try telling myself that's good, that it's better to ‘show, not tell’, but there’s a limit to the amount of ‘showing’ we can do before the action grinds to a horrible halt. My first draft of the Battle of the Alma for ‘Into the Valley of Death’ dealt with three characters facing imminent death for the first time, and there was so much sweating, heart-thumping and stomach churning in the first five minutes they looked ready for the ambulance before ever facing the guns.

Everywhere. Artistic concepts like ‘surreal’, retail terms like ‘wholesale’, technical phrases like ‘crossed wires’ – all out. Psychiatric concepts – no-one can be ‘obsessed’ or ‘fixated’ or even ‘have a thing’ about something, even if I know they damn well do. Computers alone have given us so many useful phrases it’s hard to work out how we once managed without them. I’m old enough to remember when we talked about putting on different ‘hats’ rather than working in different ‘modes’, but I still struggled for nearly ten minutes with the idea of a man trying to ‘process’ his feelings before I came up with the sentence ‘She was hitting him with so many emotions at once he could no longer fathom his own.’

Not great, perhaps, but ultimately I think it’s better. ‘Fathom’ is a lovely word, plumbing the depths, digging down through the layers – it’s much more evocative than ‘process’. Modern language may be full of useful words it’s hard to replace, but there’s a soulless quality to them I’m never sorry to lose. Many are little more than a glib shorthand to save us the effort of thinking what we really mean. Writing historical fiction forces us to look at everything with fresh eyes, as if we are seeing it for the first time. 

All well and good – until we have to communicate it. When there’s an ‘old’ word like ‘fathom’ to do it, then we’re home and dry, but when there isn’t we often have to resort to imagery. That's what I did in the end with my old man's electric hair - I let it crackle and 'float about the lined forehead like torn cobwebs’. Unchanging nature is still the best way to make the unfamiliar familiar – which is why historical fiction is often so bung full of ‘natural world’ imagery as to make Thomas Hardy look positively industrial. 

The problem comes when the natural world is silent. Human invention and behaviour are both complex, and unfortunately not everything can be explained in terms of sun, moon, stars, earth, water, fire, plants, animals and bloody birds. When that happens we have to hunt for other things that will be meaningful to the modern reader but still within the grasp of a protagonist who lived centuries ago. 

It can be done. Writers like fellow History Girl M.C. Scott deal with the Roman world, but in ‘The Eagle of the Twelfth’ we find men with ‘cheekbones jutting sharp as bridges’, blades ‘held forward like clubs’, and slaughter with the ‘dance-like elegance of a mummery made for our entertainment’. It can be done and done brilliantly.

When we’re ‘in the zone’, it can even seem easy. I haven’t had to worry much about the unfamiliar in the Crimea (mud and trenches are well enough known through WWI) but even in my 17th century Chevalier novels I didn't have to look far to find the simile for my hero being goaded by a crowd of men ‘like a bear at a fair’

When we do this we’re almost defeating the purpose of imagery, using the unfamiliar to describe the even less familiar, but when we’re behind our characters’ eyes it just somehow happens. In ‘In the Name of the King’ I had the character of Jacques confronted for the first time by a firework rocket, but I was ‘in his skin’ at the time and knew exactly what it looked like. The image that sprang into my mind was this:

Chateau at Lucheux - Wikipedia Commons
That’s the chateau at Lucheux which Jacques would have seen in the distance every day of his boyhood. The modern reader won’t necessarily know that, but he’ll know what a cone is, he knows what a firework is, and even if he’s never seen 17th century French architecture I’m hoping that ‘a pointed cap like the cones on the roof of the chateau at Lucheux’  will give him enough to join the dots.

I hope. That’s what it’s like when it works, when we’re really ‘in period’ and don’t have to ‘translate’ modern ideas into their 17th or 19th century equivalents. When it works, we’re seeing things as our characters do and conveying them as our characters would, and for me there is nothing more satisfying and exhilarating.

When it works. I’m not complaining at what we have to do – I think both our perception and our writing are better for it. I'm only saying that I sometimes find it hard, and really hope I'm not the only one.

And I think it’s going to get harder for the next generation. It’s only when we start to write historical fiction that we realize how fast our language has changed in the last sixty years. William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1954) hardly uses a word that couldn’t have been spoken in my Crimean world of exactly a hundred years before – but how many books written in 2012 could have been easily understood by a passenger on the Titanic? 

And the gap is growing. My own childhood was filled with books written long before I was born: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1865); Beatrix Potter (1902); ‘The Just So Stories’ (1902); ‘The Railway Children’ (1906); ‘The Secret Garden’ (1910). Like most children I knew, I was familiar with Victorian and Edwardian English long before I picked up ‘Jane Eyre’ at the age of nine. Is this still true of children now? How long before even ‘Great Expectations’ has to be taught with footnotes, as Shakespeare is today?

Inkwell dug up near British HQ in the Crimea
The past is slipping away from us. I’m now old enough to see it, to watch as experiences from my youth crystallize and freeze into history. I’m not ancient, but I remember those first writing lessons with pen and ink when we dipped the scratchy nib into an ink-well in the desk that was usually half-full of pencil shavings. A few weeks ago I was writing a scene when a Crimean officer was writing a report, and had to consciously remind myself to describe those things I remember so well: the clink-clink-clink of pen against ink well, the shaking to remove the drops, the careful application of blotting paper afterwards. Time’s whirligig has brought in its revenges rather quicker than it used, and my childhood is now history.

So be it then. That is sometimes our job, to write about the strange as if it is familiar, and the familiar as if it is strange. We must be the translators, the guides who hold the door open to the past and allow the reader to re-enter a lost world - and the only tools we have to do it are our words.

That’s why writing historical fiction is hard. Definitely not because I’m rubbish. Not at all.

Or then again, maybe I’ve just had a bad day.

A.L. Berridge's website


Sue Bursztynski said...

What a wonderful post about the care you have to take with language in writing history. I have so often read historical fiction by writers whose language makes me wince, even in the use of slang from the wrong time and place, like characters in a mediaeval context saying, "Okay" and "He's a jerk", neither of which was around much before 1839, in the US. And that's before you even get to descriptions of things in words someone from that time would understand. As for TV and movies, don't even get me started! I still remember my jaw dropping at a scene in A Robin Hood TV show where two Arab Assassins fight a duel in mediaeval Sherwood Forest with Japanese katanas! But that was obvious. As you say, the very language of description has to be right.

And that's why your writing is so very good, Louise! :-)

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you - and may every bad writing day be followed by an excellent one!

JO said...

Phew - someone else who struggles with this! Thank you.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

When I was writing my Viking novels I had to constantly catch myself and not write 'in a second', for seconds didn't exist as a concept, of course. I couldn't describe the sea as 'still as glass either', nor could someone be 'as white as a sheet'. I substituted a newly shorn lamb, but for all I know, they had black sheep! It is a minefield.
Lovely post!

Theresa Breslin said...

'Can you get a chip for a Game Boy?' I was asked recently by a ten year old boy. 'Possibly,' I replied ( my stock answer in such a situation) Then I went on to ponder how, when I was his age, my understanding of the words 'chip' 'game' and 'boy' were completely different. Very insightful post! Wishing you good writing days ahead.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, yes, absolutely! I just kept saying 'yes, yes, yes,' to everything you wrote. I am currently writing a novel with two voices, one from the Regency, the other from the present day, which makes it even doubly difficult to get the voice right. Especially since I don't want the Regency voice to sound either like Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer..

alberridge said...

Sue, Jo, and Joan, you guys are wonderful. Or rather, 'Ladies, your kindness overwhelms me.' I'm now feeling much better, and hope to rip into the writing tonight with more vigour.

Marie-Louise, yes, yes, yes, especially to the 'seconds' thing! I hadn't realized how much I relied on that phrase until I wasn't allowed to use it. So in comes all the 'in a blink', 'in a heartbeat' etc etc which I'm sure you find very familiar!

Theresa, that's a great line. Three significantly altered words in a single sentence...

And Leslie - a huge YES. It's the 'writing in period' without sounding like other authors that's the killer. We can't solve it by imitating others - that's like using a crib for translation. We have to learn the language ourselves and develop our own voice. Mine's just a bit creaky at the moment...

Thank you all so much for commenting.

Mark Burgess said...

Great post, Louise, and you are so right about the difficulties (but worry not, you're writing is terrific...). Perhaps you've been a little too cautious over 'electricity' though. According to the OED, the word has been used at least since the 17th century to refer to static electricity. This from 1646: "Crystal will calefy into electricity; that is, a power to attract strawes or light bodies, and convert the needle freely placed".

Mark Burgess said...

Urgh, why can't I edit my comments? 'YOUR writing', of course.

bnachison said...

So true. And there are so many metaphors built into current language that are so commonplace & transparent to us, we're not even aware of them as metaphors anymore. (Frex, it's astonishing once you start to pay attention how thoroughly baseball pervades American English in completely non-sports-related contexts.)

Katherine Langrish said...

Brilliant post, Louise - and I was so grateful for it. For the last year my writing has been snail-like, and your images of sticky clay make me want to hug you.

I'm impressed by Marie-Louise, too - I think I did use 'seconds' occasionally in my Viking books, though tried to stick to 'moment', which seems less clock-based. I sometimes also made decisions to use words if I thought they would be more or less invisible to my 20th century readers - a tunnel 'corkscrewed down' because I didn't think children would 'see' a real corkscrew in their mind's eyes. I did think hard about it, first, though! And would never use 'OK' or modern slang...

Beth said...

This was so refreshing to read, especially the bit about choosing the right word and keeping the pacing. (I've found it a particular problem in comic scenes, where not only do you need to be punchy, but sometimes the modern word is just funnier than its older counterpart.) I liked the way you handled the example you gave.
The sticky clay mass situation is rotten; here's hoping it stops pulling faces at you and starts co-operating as soon as possible!

Susan Price said...

Absolutely brilliant post, and right on the nail! I faced a lot of this when writing Sterkarm Handshake, which has time travel and a mix of 21st century and 16th century characters. The 16th C hero, in a 21st c hospital, sees a tiger on a television, and wants to know where he can find one. The 21st c heroine tries to explain that tigers are extinct and that he's watching 'a recording' - but to him, this means something written down. So she tries saying, 'it's a film' - but to him, a film is a very fine, thin layer of something... I came up against the 'minutes and seconds' problem too, and got round it by saying, 'in an eye blink' and 'in a breath.'
Congratulations on being the first to see that this is something that should be blogged about!

alberridge said...

These are brilliant comments - thank you all so much.

Mark - yes, absolutely, you're right about electricity, but for me that was where the trouble started. Technically the concept was known, but it's most unlikely an ordinary soldier would have thought of it in such a context - and if he did, he'd have had to spell it 'electrick', which just screams the kind of historically alien quality I try to avoid. This is exactly the kind of issue that leaves me totally floundering.

Beth N - yes, that's it exactly. Sport is a perfect example, and I am only relieved that in 1855 I can at least use frequent cricket imagery. We just don't realize how much we use these things until we actually stop to look.

Kath - thank you. Your comment meant a lot, and I really felt that hug. I so hope your own writing is now speeding out of snaildom, and send a big hug back.

Beth - Spot on about the pacing - and that's a cracking point about comedy too. There's a whole blog post in there somewhere, about changing perceptions of humour - and how some words are simply funny for no obvious reason at all. You've really set me thinking now...

Susan - thank you so much. I have so got to read 'Sterkarm Handshake' now, as that's such a brilliant concept. And I think writing just ONE period is difficult! You put us all to shame.