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Friday, 30 October 2009

The riddle of making history real.

I was looking on Alis Hawkins' blog last night and there is a fascinating discussion on there about what we might want in a historical novel.

When I first submitted my novel to various publishers the responses were divided between those who thought there was not enough period detail and those that thought the book was overwhelmed with it. Fortunately I have now found a publisher who thinks it is just right! I think as a writer we often forget that the reader of a "historical" novel might have picked it up not because they like the look of the story, but because they are an expert in that period and want to read everything about it. Someone once told me a story about someone on a writing course who was busy researching for her Roman novel. A few years down the line he asked her how her novel was progressing, and she confessed that she was still researching - it was the research she loved, not the writing.

The earlier the period, the less stable our view of it. Our view of history is shaped by our own preconceptions. A world view where the Earth was flat was cutting edge in medieval times. Western Christendom conveniently bent Ptolemy's view of the fixed stars and left space for a Heaven and Hell behind them. This view persisted for well over a thousand years and to someone living then - it was real. (or rather constructed by their own imaginations.)

When writing about the 18th century Philippa Gregory says
“Any metaphor about science or medicine or technology, you can’t use – so you have to remember not to say that someone’s look is electric or that his or her touch is magnetic, or talk about the gravity of your feelings.”

So yes, anachronistic language will jump the reader out of the story, but on the other hand the Cadfael novels would have probably sunk without trace if the dialogue was in Chaucer's english.

But for me the story and the history are intrinsically linked - that story could not have happened at any other time.
Or to be more precise, that story could not have been imagined by me in any other imaginary version of that period.

For none of us were there. Even seeming experts who have researched every last utensil and garment. So the expert's mental construction of the period is just different, not necessarily more complete than a more imaginative rendition of the past. But then perhaps my view is not shared by the majority of readers.

Rose Tremain, in her atmospheric book Music and Silence, changed the dates of real events to fit her dramatic purpose, and said “almost anything can be changed, but with the caveat that the work alchemised out of the real history must feel as real as it.”
So that says it for me - I want to “alchemise” history, and give people a real experience, not necessarily a history lesson.
Philippa Gregory, Interview at
Rose Tremain

Monday, 26 October 2009

Reading Out Loud

Is there anyone else out there that reads whole books out loud? Is it really an activity for grown-ups?

Well, my partner and I have taken to doing this, and it is a great way to share a story. The tricky part is finding something you will both enjoy and are both willing to invest the time in, as reading aloud to someone else is slower than solo reading. But the rewards for a writer are that you develop a sense of hearing how the story flows, finding out what sort of language really triggers the imagination. You become more aware of the sound and texture of the language, and less concerned with writerly devices.

Reading it yourself is much more active than listening to a "talking book" as you have to make your own decisions on tone of voice, pauses, and dramatic interpretation.

We have had one disaster - we read Ben Okri's Starbook, which had rave reviews and started out with us both loving the language. But unfortunately it seemed to be all writing and no substance, and very repetitive and dull when it was read aloud, and we had to force ourselves through gritted teeth to read to the end.

Much more enjoyable were Lindsay Clarke's two books about Troy, The War at Troy and Return from Troy which despite their weight were gripping, readable, and balanced when read out loud. Once we had read the first, then we had to have the second one, and it did not disappoint - a cast of Gods, heroes and ordinary mortals against the seething background of the ancient world. Excellent. Historical novels where the history does not outweigh the plot. (Though we did have varying pronunciations of all the names ...)We followed this up with his Celtic Romance, "Parzival and the Stone from Heaven" - much shorter, more like a snack than a meal.

Anxious to avoid disappointment, and hooked on the ancient world of Greece and Rome, we then plumped for "The Bull from the Sea" by Mary Renault. This was superb, and had us both in emotional knots by the end of the book. So much so that we were both really sad to see the last page. The prequel to that, "The King must Die" is also a great read.

We have another Mary Renault lined up, but that seems a little bit safe. And wouldn't it be nice to live dangerously sitting on our sofa at home.

So - if there is anyone out there who can recommend suitable reading aloud books, it would be great to have some suggestions. Although we seem to have been lodged in the classical world, we are ready to try new horizons. Any suggestions?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Myth and Memory

Last night I was privileged to see a live storytelling event called "Hunting the Giant's Daughter" at Lancaster Litfest.
The story is a re-telling of an old myth from the Mabinogion. It is a tale that hides its wisdom beneath heroes and villains, blood and thunder, the living landscape of seed and tree.
At about two hours in length and told by one teller, with the help of a musical accompaniment, we were asked to conjure a whole world from the words of the storyteller. Today most of our stories are given to us visually on television or computer and very few are conjured in our own imaginations, spurred on by the poetry and rhetoric of a live voice. The experience was a potent one, not least because it was shared with the rest of the audience, who had the same, but also their own unique, rendition of the story in their imagination. Each person had made what was real for them.It led me to think about how we as writers create these "pictures in the head."

Memory or Imagination
So, are these pictures from our imagination - i.e are they something new, or are they a compilation of our memories? And if so, how much of the archetypal memory do we have access to? As a writer this topic interests me because part of the mystery of writing is that often I am the teller, but the story - the story, is not mine. It exists somewhere else already, and I need to remove myself somehow for the story to come to life. Anyone who has read Christopher Booker's "The Seven Basic Plots" will be familiar with the idea that stories perhaps follow archetypal patterns - an idea which can be ignored, or used to the writer's advantage. So here is an idea - perhaps next time approach your story as if it is a memory - a hidden memory. That you were there, but have just forgotten.

A Real Quest
If there is anyone out there who is interested in how Story and Myth meet, and wants to go on a real Quest, right now, this moment, a writer friend of mine has set up a website for just this purpose. You can find it at

Riddle of the Day
Name me and I cease to exist.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


Thought I would kick off with a riddle.

My first is in blue, but not in glue;
My second is in old, but not in new;
My third in look but not in see;

My last in ask but not in plea;
My whole has leaves but not a flower -
T'will help you pass an idle hour.

I'll post the answer in a few days, although I expect most of you will have it already!
The beauty of riddles in that they make you think in metaphors and as a writer I find this fascinating. I am reading a whole book of riddles at the moment, and they certainly encourage "outside the box" thinking - particularly if the riddle is from a different culture. Riddles supply more questions than answers, and this to me is their value.