Last Saturday, I joined Dr Tom Brooking from the University of Otago to present a workshop about writing history and writing historical fiction. The workshop was part of the annual AGM and conference of the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN). Tom was up first (I’d cleverly organised that) and he spoke to us about what he sees are the four key elements needed to write history:
One: Pursue truth. There will be bits missing so be honest about the gaps; there will be a bias both conscious and unconscious so be prepared to challenge orthodoxy; be aware of knowing the difference between what happened and what people think happened. He gave examples also of where the people he was writing about often misremembered things about when and where they did things.; and, finally, face ‘presentism’ – the idea that the current beliefs and understanding will be different to the time period you are writing about.
Two: Get the details right: history, like law, is an evidential subject so details about furniture, architecture and clothes etc need to be accurate and must be drawn from the evidence of research.
Three: Clarity: any good history should never be dull. (he said you need to write in the active voice)
Four: Telling stories well: a good story makes us care about the subject.
Dr Tom read from his current WIP (which is almost ready to go to print) about the life of Richard (King Dick) Seddon which he has been working on for the past seven years as well as other publications to illustrate his points
Then I took the ‘stage’ and spoke about my ‘history’ of reading and reading history:
I grew up in a home without books; no one read to me when I was a baby or when I was a child. I did not have a bookshelf in my room filled with titles by Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens or Dr Seuss. In the living room, the bookshelf housed only an old bible, a hundred year old text on veterinary science and horses, and volume one of Readers Digests Classic Adventure Stories. But we children grew up in a world of story-tellers, surrounded by the voices of our elders who, often in front of a roaring fire, with bottles of DB or glasses of rum and coke and someone strumming a guitar, would swap tales: of people, places and things that happened this afternoon or the other day or once upon a time.
My mother also filled our heads with stories: we would listen to her as she spoke on the phone, over the smoko in the shearing shed or in the car on our trips into town. She would paint us pictures with her words and, when I was old enough, I began to do the same. She was responsible for my discovering that I could read outside the structure of my primary classroom: Mum needed a rest and, because I was a fidgety and unpredictable child, she settled me beside her, and my newborn sister, in the double bed and shoved the Readers Digest volume into my hands.
Bored with trying to sit still and quiet so as not to wake the baby, I turned to the first chapter of Call of the Wild. With a stubby finger, I picked out the individual letters and was surprised to see them swim together into recognisable words. The words joined the others on the page and, within moments, I had dived deep into the Alaskan wilderness: my mother, my sister and the hot afternoon gone.
I outlined what history I studied at school and university (racial problems of South Africa and American and the origins of world war one and two, The Age of Revolution and Capitalism in Europe; early New Zealand history including race relations (here and in Australia) and account (or lack thereof) of women’s lives in our two countries.
As a child and teen, I devoured all sorts of books – some of them ‘historical’ and, as an adult read prescribed classics including Les Miserables (of which I am still moved to tears) and the wonderful Diana Gabaldine. In fact, as a template goes, she and George RR Martin are about it in terms of my literary historical influences.
As to the trilogy, it did not start as a result of an interest in 11th Century Scotland, or even Scotland or even things medieval. It was not an area I knew anything about at all. It started with Shakespeare and, like all of my stories, it started with a question: How did Banquo’s son become king?
There is no historical allusion to that question. It could be talking about a lad from a South American drug cartel; it could be talking about the grandfather of Elvis.
Like all of my stories, the focus is on the character and the quest – the desire, the problem, what needed to be done to over-come the problem to get back to what he desired. Then I placed him in his setting and that’s when I went researching. I started with a large canvas and sketched an outline [this is where I did some show and tell with my large roll out paper plan like a map], then I began to fill and colour in the details – adding even more as it came (through the research) but the focus was still on character and action.
Using a quote from Sir James McNeish (non-fiction is about the facts and fiction is about truth), I discussed this a bit and said that I constantly asked myself the question: If I were so-and-so, what would I believe about my world? For example, Rachel’s attitude to God compared with Fleance’s attitude. Then I read this extract from Birthright:
‘The gospels say that any man who puts his hand upon the plough but looks back is not fit. Not fit for the kingdom of God and not fit for the kingdom. I put my hand to this plough, with no one forcing me to, and this is the field I am responsible for.’
‘So you believe God has had a hand in all of this?’
If not God, then some unseen force greater than men and kings was at work. Fleance thought of Harold and his confidence in the witches’ prophecy. He looked at the sky – feeble, thin clouds stretched across the horizon, offering no comfort. He looked at the trees, the rocks, the shrubs, and thought of those dark times in his dreams or on the road or in battle. Too much loyalty, too much passion, too much will to not be spurred by a greater force. ‘Well, Him or his lieutenant.’
Blair laughed. ‘Or the Devil.’
‘Or all three.’ He lay his cloak on the ground and fell upon it. ‘I cannot say that any one is on my side.’
When writing 'truth' in historical fiction, I said, the author needs to balance the knowledge of the natural/scientific world of the reader with the understandings/beliefs of the people of the era (which often leads to dramatic irony i.e. the reader knows what is going to happen in history so the writer can be quite ‘gleeful’ in these moments ‘Ooh, we know how that’s gonna end!’
I said that Dr Brooking’s four elements were true for writers of historical fiction as well and that the elements that I am also mindful of are: vocabulary, dialogue, geography (getting around) and politics and key dates. Writing and researching 11th Century Scotland is problematic so I read out the author’s note to be included in the front of the novel:
In the first book of this trilogy, I said, ‘I have tried as much as possible to draw upon the vocabulary that was in use during Shakespeare’s time rather than from 11th-century Scotland, as I imagined myself sitting at Shakespeare’s desk writing.’ As an English teacher who adores all things to do with the writings of William Shakespeare and the use of the English language, I take seriously words and their meanings.
I have been, as much as possible, diligent in my efforts to source the origins of words, beliefs, practices and anything else of the time I am writing about, because I want things to be authentic.
However, as the Bard himself played around with history when he wrote his plays so that the needs of the story were met – as have countless authors over the years – I make no apology for twisting the facts of 11th century to fit my narrative. One of my rules in the writing of this series is this: if something existed before Shakespeare’s death in 1614, then it is allowed to be used in my writing. These are my rules. While this is fiction, I have spent endless hours talking to experts, and in reading articles and books devoted to medieval medicine, to Scotland, England, Norway, Normandy, religion, costume, weaponry, crops, food . . .
If there is an historical change, consider it author’s licence. And, if you recognise a word or phrase from the man himself, that is deliberate – it’s me having fun and giving a nod to his absolute genius. Thumbs up to you for spotting the references.
Somewhere in there, I listed the sources I used and did some more show and tell: books from my brother-in-law – the maps; books tracing Scottish royalties, medieval customs and concerns. Meeting with the experts in this field: doctors, orthopaedic surgeons, priests, friends who come from Scotland, google maps, Wikipedia – linked to things I didn’t know I didn’t know so that a world began to be populated. If I didn’t know or wasn’t sure I asked. Sometimes time and place impacted on action and sometimes it was the other way around.
My husband has just told me that what I’ve written here is very dry compared with what I presented which was so interesting and entertaining because of all the ad-libbing. Ain’t he sweet?