Wednesday 2 November 2016

How to read as a writer, by Gillian Polack

There are so many articles these days – on the web and off- that give a guide to how life was lived or how something was experienced in times other than our own. We can fly through London in the seventeenth century, or boat down the Thames. We can hear about the theatre or read how someone cuddled up by the fire to a good book. What all these articles have in common is that they’re articles about something: they’re modern thoughts. 

For many writers, these articles are entertaining and fun, but not where we get the grit for our fiction. We delve into scholarly studies and we check primary sources. Primary sources are the best. Books, articles, pamphlets, ephemera, pictures, objets d’art, everyday items – any primary source. I use them so much that I keep forgetting to explain that the way I read them in order to write fiction isn’t at all the way I read them as a historian.

Today, then, I’m going to address two issues with the same example. I’m going to show you how I (as a writer) read a single primary source for my fiction. At the same time, I’m going to say honestly that this is not even close to the technique I use as a historian. 

History and fiction serve different functions. We research both, but the research can be quite different in style and always leads to different outcomes. This is one of the many reasons there is a difference between historically based fiction and scholarly monographs, after all. I look into this in detail in History and Fiction, but I don’t actually pull apart a primary source to use in a novel. If you want more of the theoretical stuff, and to know what other writers do, History and Fiction is the place to go. Here I’m going to take a source that I think might be of use for the novel I’m writing (slowly at the moment, for the universe keeps intervening) that’s set in the seventeenth century.

Samuel Pepys is very well known for his diary. He wrote it for himself, which makes it even more interesting, for he writes about his place and time in a very personal way. We’re often looking through his eyes when we see the Great Fire of London, for so many modern novels that tell of the Great Fire or that have it as an incident, use his account as their basis. 

As a historian, I regard him as a tremendous primary source for his place and time. I also have to balance his very articulate views with those of others, because Pepys’ importance (both at the time and in our eyes) means that it’s all too easy to use him alone. To get an understanding of how people actually lived, therefore, Pepys only provides one small story.

Novels share that with Pepys. They, too, focus on one small story. It’s what we write. Accounts of places and of times that focus quite sharply on particular people or events. So many novels, therefore, rely heavily on Pepys. This is why he’s not one of my major sources for my novel, in fact. Pepys is the wrong gender for me, in an England where the life experiences of men and women were wildly different. I’ve read him through and taken the information I think I need from him, and then moved on to other sources that more closely meet the way my own characters would have seen their place and time.

When I read Pepys, I always remember that London was different before to after the fire. I took this picture in 2014 to remind me - this is definitely an 'after the fire' view.

This makes him a very good source to use as an example, for you can see how he’s useful and how he isn’t useful for my novel. 

Let’s start with what I’m looking for. I’m depicting the world of women. I’m looking, therefore, for experiences they might have had, for places they might have seen, for anything that’s shared between men and women, for hints of how my characters might see the streets of London when they visit. Unlike Pepys, they were not Londoners, so what he sees as an insider, my women would see as outsiders.

Let me use an online edition (although I used a print edition for the most part). I’ll paste it here and annotate it, with notes on how I would use it to help shape my novel. You might want to check the annotations of others, as well. They help show how modern readers look at Pepys and what they think need explaining for the wider public. You can find the diary entry and its reader-annotations here

Again, London in 2014. Even if the buildings change, the streets may be the same. Pepys may well have walked this.

Up, and to White Hall to the Committee of Tangier (1), but it did not meet. But here I do hear first that my Lady Paulina Montagu did die yesterday; at which I went to my Lord’s lodgings (2), but he is shut up with sorrow, and so not to be spoken with: and therefore I returned, and to Westminster Hall, where I have not been, I think, in some months. And here the Hall was very full, the King having, by Commission to some Lords this day, prorogued the Parliament till the 19th of October next (3): at which I am glad, hoping to have time to go over to France this year. But I was most of all surprised this morning by my Lord Bellassis, who, by appointment, met me at Auditor Wood’s, at the Temple, and tells me of a duell designed between the Duke of Buckingham and my Lord Halifax, or Sir W. Coventry; the challenge being carried by Harry Saville, but prevented by my Lord Arlington, and the King told of it; and this was all the discourse at Court this day (4). But I, meeting Sir W. Coventry in the Duke of York’s chamber, he would not own it to me, but told me that he was a man of too much peace to meddle with fighting, and so it rested: but the talk is full in the town of the business. Thence, having walked some turns with my cozen Pepys, and most people, by their discourse, believing that this Parliament will never sit more, I away to several places to look after things against to-morrow’s feast (5), and so home to dinner; and thence, after noon, my wife and I out by hackneycoach 6), and spent the afternoon in several places, doing several things at the ‘Change and elsewhere against to-morrow; and, among others, I did also bring home a piece of my face cast in plaister, for to make a vizard upon, for my eyes (7). And so home, where W. Batelier come, and sat with us; and there, after many doubts, did resolve to go on with our feast and dancing to- morrow; and so, after supper, left the maids to make clean the house, and to lay the cloth, and other things against to-morrow, and we to bed (8).

1. Places are handy. I can locate them on a map and decide if my characters need to pass them or visit them.

2. Individuals are less handy. Unless they’re likely to appear in the novel, their main use for me is to decide if my characters belong to their class or circle and how any reference will be made to them. In this case, I can’t see any reason for mentioning the death of Paulina Montagu, so I just keep on reading.

3. Pepys was a public servant and his life was ruled by Parliamentary sittings. My characters are anything but. I need to know when Parliament is sitting, however, for it will influence the visit to London. Also, it would be a great matter of interest to my characters. Politics in the late seventeenth century were an obsession and a matter of great import and terribly emotional. I will need a timeline of all the Great Events (including who betrayed whom and when) and I will need to know my characters’ views on these things. This mention by Pepys helps remind me that I need to do this. The wonderful thing about doing this as a novelist is that I’m allowed to be far more partisan than I can be as a historian. My characters will have Opinions. This means I develop quite a different timeline and overview to the one that I would develop as a historian, where I’d look more into causes and outcomes of events than into the feelings of women from a given region. To simplify, I can decide who someone would like to throw mud at and why.

4. Duels are terrific fodder. If there’s a duel in London when my characters visit and if there’s a reasonable likelihood that they’d hear about it, then it will be of interest. No more than that for me for this novel, however, for it’s not the stuff of my women’s lives. Pepys is much closer to the aristocracy and the doings of government than my women are. 

Place in society matters at least as much as place in time. The story Pepys tells would be a good one. A duel! How it happened! was stopped! But it can’t happen in that way in a novel with women from a country town as the main characters. The most they could do is gossip about it, or maybe know someone who knows someone. 

The drama has to come from something other than duelling, then, which is a shame, given how much we associate the seventeenth century with duels. I could force a duel in (as many authors do) but forcing the historically unlikely is not my style. In my notes I’ll probably write that I have to find something of equal interest, but that I can’t use a duel. It’s OK, though, for there’s at least one duel in a novel of mine that will be out next year – it’s entirely appropriate in that novel.

5. Food! I know what Pepys was likely to have eaten. Better, I know what my characters would enjoy. I’ve still got to test a bunch of recipes, but I have the tastes of the time and place all sorted. This means that Pepys isn’t giving me anything new, but he does remind me I still have to test recipes. This is one of the reasons the novel’s been put off for a bit – the one I’m writing currently has no recipes to test, so I can do it immediately.

6. Another thing I can check off. I have my transport to London sorted and my transport within London. I know how long it takes to get to a place and even how long it takes to get letters to and fro, in order to plan a trip. These were easy to research as there are books of timetables in the later seventeenth century. Some eras are much easier to research than others!

7. I do not want to know this. I really, really hate the thought of having a plaster cast of my face. It’s a suffocating scary squicky thought. I do know how it was done, however, should I ever need to write about it. 

Oddly, I was interested in this when I was a child and collected gypsum to make plaster of Paris. My mother forbade me to use the oven and my plaster of Paris remained unmade. This is the sort of information that helps with fiction. It’s much easier to check up the specifics of a technique than it is to find out about something of which one has no knowledge at all. I think this is why so many fiction writers are magpies in the way we collect an understanding of this or of that. Which reminds me that I’d make a note at this point about the ‘Change. This is something that will have to appear in my novel, in one way or another.

8. This sentence is the most important in the whole extract for my novel. It tells the normal order of life. This is something that men and women shared. It tells me the role of a maid (and that it’s a single maid and not three maids and a footman) and how she fits in with the house as a whole. I’ve done my homework on this – I know the shape of London households of this level of prosperity. This means I can safely use this sentence to help bring a household to life.


Penny Dolan said...

Thank you so much for sharing this analysis and reading, Gillian.

Gillian Polack said...

It was my pleasure. I became tired of seeing the "These six pieces of writing advice will change your life" and I realised it was because writers don't always tend to work like each other. I thought it'd be fun to show how I work.

Becca McCallum said...

Great! it's nice to see it broken down like that.