The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (with chapters by lots of well-known writers) has been on my shelf for a while. I’ve taken it down from time to time and consulted odd sections but never read it from cover to cover. Well you wouldn’t would you? But when I was looking for another topic, a chapter caught my eye that I hadn’t noticed before. ‘Why true-life stories often don’t make good fiction,’ by Alyce Miller
Aagh! If I had seen this before I might not have spent several years of my life attempting something that’s if not impossible certainly very difficult, viz. a fictional version of a life-story that for some reason reached out and spoke to me several years ago and is still (just) a work in progress.
Alyce Miller suggests that the writer who 'finds' a powerful or moving real life story is often too close to it to do it justice. Because he/she already has emotional investment in it, she fails to create this for the reader. Restricting the plot to ‘the way it happened’ (because it’s true!)) rather than exploring alternatives is another problem and the fact that writing becomes constrained if what’s going to happen is already mapped out. Fiction, she reminds us, should be an act of discovery for the writer as well as for the reader.
My experience of historical fiction is that the problems are similar and in some cases harder to overcome. Of course there are hundreds of great books that centre on real people and events (last year i loved Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy and Naomi Woods' Mrs Hemingway ), but I have come across quite a few that really don’t work, not for me anyway. Tracy Chevalier for instance used to be one of my favourite historical novelists. I devoured Girl with a Pearl Earring, Falling Angels and The Lady and The Unicorn.
But what happened in Burning Bright, her novel about William Blake? Most people, including me, came away disappointed. Remarkable Creatures had a better reception but to me there was still something missing. I never felt I was as close to the characters as I should have been. I can't remember now what the problem seemed to be, but in my own work I've encountered a certain reluctance to delve into the imagined consciousness of someone who is a real life hero as well as the character in my book. Or maybe it’s just that thing about the author being too close to the characters to actually convey them in writing. The other problem I think, particularly if there are primary sources available, is that it can be hard for an author who has done mountains of research to write something that conflicts with the ‘known facts’. I didn’t read much of David Lodge’s A Man of Parts about HG Wells (biography buffs loved it) but the level of detail stopped me from being in the ‘dream of fiction.’
Going back to my own project, I can see my first draft had all of the problems listed in the Handbook with a few more besides. Character development was definitely ‘restricted’ (non-existent?) and I recall some plot possibilities being rejected because they were at odds with ‘the facts’. So was it all a terrible mistake? Well, I haven’t given up – yet - but I know have to see my ‘found story’ as an inspiration rather than a constraint. The story I set out to tell does not need ‘re-engineering’ as I said on Jane Davis’ blog recently, so much as re-imagining. So far I haven’t ditched the characters, but their story is starting in a different place and I feel it may not end up where I expect. Not the same book written differently, but actually a different book, a new voyage of discovery.
As for Alyce Miller, I suspect even if I had read her warnings I still would have had a bash at this story. Some things you have to learn for yourself!