Tuesday 2 October 2018

Waking up in a French cave, by Gillian Polack

This morning I’m dreaming of France. 

I suspect this is a problem that writers who use history in their fiction tend to have. Not specifically to dream about France, but to wake up mentally in the place and time of a novel. This morning I was certain that I would step out of bed into a cave system and that, just outside the main entrance, I’d find the Languedoc I used for Langue[dot]doc 1305.

I can tell you exactly how this strange moment came about, and the story of how it came about is actually more interesting than the moment itself.

My favourite research time was when I walked in the countryside, on the pilgrim’s route. I saw the flowers and felt the air. That gave me a mental toolkit for walking from the channelled air and warm streets of St-Guilhem-le-Désert to a flowing path of the pilgrimage to what I already knew about the stillness and chill of limestone caves. To be honest, caves are seldom entirely still if they are alive, but compared with the different feel of the air in different parts of the hillside outside the caves, they felt so still that they became contemplative.

Leaving town to go on pilgrimage. Photograph: Gillian Polack

The caves became my hallmark moment for the novel, the one I used as a bridge to get into it. This isn’t because that’s how the time travellers got there. It’s because I’ve loved cave systems since I was a child. The feel of my caves was from Australia, married with research into how the caves in that part of France were different to those I knew.

I still have a scribbled diagram somewhere of how I drew the caves and built them. My town is real and my countryside is something I could walk on today if I didn’t live so very far away. This whole blogpost is being written by someone in Canberra who woke up in Languedoc then got out of bed and thought, “Bother. Still Canberra.”

There be caves in these rocks! Photograph: Gillian Polack

But my caves are a place that cross time and space and I can wake up in them from time to time. Today a group of triggers tricked me into waking up to a cool and still world. Another blanket and I’d’ve stayed in bed an hour longer and dreamed dreams of France. 

The first of the events that triggered this morning’s moment of strangeness was my return to France this July. I was in the north. A different type of warmth. Amiens is clammier in summer, with marshes rather than hot hillside. Cooler, but it felt warmer. I found respite in a boat rather than in stone houses and in dreams of caves. Still, each time I’m in France, I remember other times and Languedoc was lurking.

The pilgrim route. Photograph: Gillian Polack

Then someone read my novel and didn’t like it. We all have our audiences and this reader wasn’t one of mine. He gave a neutral review, which was very fair, and I nodded to myself and hoped that he’d find a book to his taste in the next one he picked up.  The reviewer not enjoying it was not a problem.

One thing he said, though, niggled me.

When I built up that very careful Middle Ages, I put in a lot of history that people were living. It wasn’t explained. 

The way my Medieval people behave is based on research concerning lives, economy, religion and a range of other things. I already had The Middle Ages Unlocked to play with and all the notes on the French Middle Ages that went with earlier research (for I am a Medieval historian, when all’s said and done), and I also had all the material that didn’t go into that volume. This was my starting point for Langue[dot]doc 1305. I then spent several weeks building up the commerce of the region and understanding it and working out where each character fitted and how it affected their lives. I knew the flow of trade and what made that trade. I knew the seasons and the hierarchies and the odd little opportunities that came up.

There were no explanations of these commerce systems because my characters were living them. Bona’s apprenticeship was derived from some comments made in a teaching document from Montpellier. The document challenged existing assumptions about the opportunities for girls in medieval Montpellier. I measured its challenge against what we knew about local trades and crafts. from a commercial history of Montpellier and its region to see how to give her that path out of small town living that would have been so very desirable.

Modern Montpellier. Photograph: Gillian Polack

I researched how the sale of cloth took the sales part of a weaving team to fairs outside the town and why a particular type of horse should neither be kept in a small hilly town without the social infrastructure that would enable it to be used and why it was unlikely to simply be sold locally. I showed where people bought different items and how a noble would move from being in the world of his peers to being in the Mediterranean trade world and what it would cost him. I only showed these things as the story and its characters required it. 

I didn’t explain any of this. Anyone wanting a primer on Medieval commerce or politics or… most things… needs to go to non-fiction. My characters were living the world and didn’t tell each other the obvious. If I were to tell you I was typing this article on my trusty computer, it would be very tactful of you to stifle a laugh because, right now, it’s only if I get the article together in another way (by dictating as I swim in the local streams, especially given I cannot swim) that really is worth of comment. 

It’s a difficult decision that each writer makes. Worlds don’t come magically to life. We work at them and think them through and decide which bit works for us and how it will work and, today, why one particular approach worked for me for one particular novel and why this one approach is not a universal one and doesn’t work for all readers. 

The bottom line is which parts of daily life need explaining and which don’t. Some writers would give a description of that commerce and their book would be perfect for that reader. I did not and my book was not. Thinking about it and working out why I did not and just how important it was to me to have my townsfolk live and my scientists talk about things led me into the cultural differences between my time travellers and the Languedocian townsfolk. 

That was why I made the choices I made. I wanted readers to see my Middle Ages from the inside, since I already had The Middle Ages Unlocked to show them from the outside. And that was the thought I went to bed on last night.

I may be a Medieval historian, but bringing the Medieval world to life in my novel meant I had to make it so believable that I myself can step into it and it’s there when I wake up in the morning. This morning I did just that.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I suspect there would have been complaints if you did stop to explain everything. And there are some writers, including some big names, who do that, and feel to me, at least, as if they’re showing off - “Look at all the research I’ve done!”

Ruan Peat said...

I would rather bathe in the history than watch how you made it so, occasionally I think was this right? is this how it would have been? then I remember I am reading a book and it has been written and sometimes it has to be written with a change to fit the story and more often you have done the research and I am only seeing the edges and know much less about the time.
Mind you I do not want 'History' to catch up with my childhood!

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