Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Historical fiction: words from the wise, by Ali Bacon

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 Bristol 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.

Fiction first
'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

Eccentric masterpiece
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. 

*Image of D. O. Hill and George Bell  courtesy of St Andrews University Library (ALB-24-15)



Bill Kirton said...

Wise words, Ali. I love the whole process and, usually, the characters help me to avoid the worst pitfalls. On the other hand, the need to monitor their vocabulary is constant. Your remarks on dialogue are spot on but the search for the date at which specific words or expressions came into being can take ages. Worth it, though, to get it right(ish).

Katherine Roberts said...

I agree with 'fiction first' - sticking too closely to historical fact rarely gives a good plot or satisfying ending. I find it easier to create fictional characters whose stories interweave with those of my historical characters - in children's fiction this is often necessary, anyway, since history usually overlooks younger characters.

Sometimes, though, what we know as historical 'fact' is actually fiction written by the victors to make themselves look good. Looking at the other side of the story - the less documented side - can be the basis of a good story, as I discovered when I wrote my novel about Alexander the Great... Alexander took a writer along on his campaigns and paid him to make him look like a hero!

AliB said...

Hi Katharine - excellent point about the victors - and that PR man for Alex G did a damned fine job!

Elizabeth Kay said...

I think Susan Price does an admirable job in the Sterkarm books - you're always aware that this isn't contemporary dialogue, but you never lose the sense or have to backtrack to understand what's been said. If you haven't read them, be so kind as to start now!

AliB said...

Excellent suggestion - just how dialogue should be :) Catherine Czerkawska also has the knack.