|The audience at Novel Nights in Bristol|
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to read at Novel Nights, a regular event in
where local writers get the chance to air their work in progress. I’ve been a fan of these evenings for quite
some time and have followed them over two changes of venue. Since guest speakers have been added to the
programme, there’s the bonus of picking
the brains of a writing or publishing expert. And the cosy vibe encourages
serious questions rather than the celebrity worship of high profile
literary events. In January, the guest was Celia Brayfield and the theme
historical fiction, the module Celia leads on the Bath Spa M.A. As the guest is last to take the floor on these occasions, it gives writers (if they're anything like me!) the chance to recover from the anxietyof
reading to an audience and take in the words of wisdom. So
here are Celia's edicts for writing Historical Fiction, at least as I recall them.
|'Minor' character centre stage|
Well, this is advice I have ignored more than once, which is probably why I have so far failed to write a historical novel. But being a slave to history rarely leads to anything satisfyingly novel-shaped, no matter how compelling the original story. I can also think of a number of historical novels by respectable and respected writers who have fallen in to the trap of not putting fiction first and, probably out of respect to their historical heroes/heroines, left me distinctly underwhelmed by the whole undertaking. I think this is particularly the case where the main character is a well-known historical figure. The use of a fictional or little-known minor character can be a useful alternative. (e.g. Tracy Chevalier's Girl with Pearl Earring works much better for me than Burning Bright or Remarkable Creatures). At the moment I'm finding in my own work that increasing the fictional material really does free up the narrative without requiring me to give up on what I know to be true.
Get the dialogue right
In my short career at Bath Spa I wrote an essay (remember those?) on dialogue in historical fiction, based on a reading of The Help (yes, this is history, folks) and Ulverton (if there is such a thing as extreme historical fiction I think this might be it). Sadly I can’t remember my exact conclusions but I think Celia was right to point out there is no one right way to make historical dialogue work, but somehow you have to find your own way of doing it. Of course now that we all follow in the footsteps of Wolf Hall, the challenge is even greater.
All I can say on my own behalf is that I know how I hear mid-Victorian Scottish voices and will just have to hope for the best it works for other people!
Exposition is the enemy
Here I have no argument whatsoever. The difficult thing for me, having immersed myself in this particular time and place, is to notice when I am indulging in it! Which is of course where my writing group and all other sources of feedback, including Novel Nights, are an absolute godsend – only fresh eyes/ears can spot where I have been unable not to tell the reader something I think is fascinating and germane to the plot when it is actually just a distraction.
|*But how did they talk?|
I’m not sure that Novel Nights changed my views of historical fiction, but it was a very valuable reminder of the things that matter. With hindsight, I also think my current approach of switching to short stories rather than a novel, does help with the main difficulties. Somehow in a short story it’s easier to let go of the historical events and create fictional scenarios. In the narrower focus of a short story it’s also easier to spot and excise unnecessary exposition. That just leaves us with the dialogue. I think I’ve already written about using indirect speech as a way of compressing dialogue, but that has limited application. So I’m falling back on my gut feel - seems as good a place to start as any!
Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction. At the moment she's working on a collection of themed short stories inspired by the life of a Scottish artist and photographer.
Read more at http://alibacon.com
*Image of D. O. Hill and George Bell courtesy of St Andrews University Library (ALB-24-15)