Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How Historical Does Fiction Need to Be?

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Researching and Writing Historical Fiction This seems to be my year for writing a lot of historical fiction, mainly the Our Australian Girl series, but also a big revision of my pirate novel, Pirate X. I have one book about writing historical fiction on my shelves but it's old and pretty useless, so I was interested to see a new one out - The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Researching and Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom.

I've only just started reading it, but already he's saying some interesting things about what historical fiction is, and what history is. A few years ago, there was a bit of a stoush about Kate Grenville's book, The Secret River, with historians complaining that she'd taken liberties with "the facts". Thom makes some good points about this, such as:
To be blunt about it, much of the history of many countries and states is based on delusion, propaganda, misinformation, and omission.

Certainly, I think people now realise that, for example, in war that the history is written usually by the victors. And that the history of women and the poor is almost non-existent because scholars and historians of the time believed it wasn't relevant or important. Thom also says:
A good historical novelist has the same obligations as a good historian: to convey a truthful history, not perpetuate pretty myths.

He seems to be the kind of historical novelist who prides himself on deep research and accuracy, and perhaps that's a choice you make when you write historical fiction - whether you are going to stick to the facts you discover, or make history fit your story/plot.

I'm sure you've heard the saying, "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story". With some historical fiction, it can be more a case of truth hampering a well-constructed plot. There's nothing worse than a plot that ambles along in a series of small episodes that don't ultimately go anywhere, and sometimes history is like that. Life does just trot along. Perhaps the key is in choosing a period in history where there is some cataclysmic event that you can lead up to, that will be your natural climax. From there, you have to make sure your characters also have the same rising arc in their personal journey through the story.

In revising Pirate X, I used, as extra research, two new books that hadn't been published when I wrote earlier drafts. I decided to take the new (different) material into account and change my story, but ultimately what I really focused on was the characters and how events affected and changed them. I think there is a spectrum in this genre - at the one end you have HISTORICAL fiction, where the author sticks absolutely to the facts and can cite a bibliography.

At the other end is historical FICTION, where history is a background but the author adapts if necessary. Pirate X is much nearer the first than the second, but I have quite a few imaginary characters in among the "real" ones. The key for me is to try to imagine what it was like back then, to imagine myself into my characters, and see through their eyes. That's the real challenge for a novelist.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Novels for Research

The other day, someone asked me if I ever read novels as part of my research, and my answer was, "Yes." I know some writers would throw up their hands in horror, because there's always the spectre of accidental plagiarism, or the suspicion that you'd possibly end up writing more like the novelist than yourself. But I read lots of books all the time, of all kinds - it's when you stick to one author that problems like that can arise.

So why would I research by reading fiction? The same reason I watch movies. The atmosphere. The setting. A good writer takes me into their imaginary world (even if it's based on fact - which most historical fiction is) and helps me to imagine my characters in a similar world. For me, it's another version of actually going to that place. I was lucky to be able to go to South and North Carolina this year to do more research for my novel, Pirate X (due out in 2011).The trouble was that much of the coastline is now filled with houses and tourist developments, but it still helped when I found an isolated area to imagine it all looked like that once.

However, I wasn't able to go to Nassau, and I'm sure it looks nothing like it did in 1717 when it was a pirate hangout, filled with tatty tents, garbage and empty bottles! However, I did get hold of an old copy of James A. Michener's Caribbean, and skimmed parts of that for a sense of place. I did the same with sailing ships by reading some of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, and watching the Hornblower series and Master and Commander. I also crawled all over the Endeavour replica ship in Darling Harbour, Sydney.

Some time ago, as part of my research for a completely different story, I tracked down a copy of The Scourge of God by William Dietrich, which is about the Romans and Attilla the Hun. The level of detail and description in this book is astounding, and when I later visited Toulouse, it gave a whole new resonance to what I saw in the museums there. Historical fiction for me began (as it did for many readers my age) with Georgette Heyer, Mary Renault and Anya Seton, among others, but books like Dietrich's go far beyond these in terms of historical detail. I often read something that leads me into new research, and books with good bibliographies are even better.

Authors like Dietrich and O'Brian also remind me that surface research never works - that there's always more to discover, if you persevere. Occasionally Wikipedia has led me to something useful (usually if the entry has a good bibliography), but more and more I'm going back to books as my best source of the kind of in-depth information I need. What I'm finding the internet useful for now is images! I use old photos and images and maps a lot, and these can be both easier to find (thanks to library collections) and more valuable for things such as finding an image of a character.

Currently I'm working on the Australian Girl series, and I now have a collection of old photos I've printed out of children around 1900. In those, I have at least three characters - when you know your character really well, you can look at photos and think, Yes, that's Abigail. She doesn't usually look that tidy, but I think her mother made her dress up for this! It's a lot of fun to do it this way.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SCBWI conference - Sydney

It certainly was a great conference, with lots and lots of authors talking (dinner each night was incredibly noisy!), meeting each other for the first time after being FB friends for ages, meeting publishers and editors who turned out to be completely human and nice (!), and plenty of information to send you home with your brain reeling. In Australia we tend to cross paths with each other in all sorts of places - above are two fellow authors that I've met in Canberra, in Sydney and online - Mo Johnson (L) and Tracey Hawkins.

This is Nette Hilton, whose latest book, The Innocents, was launched at the conference. Everyone who's read it says it's creepy (in an excellent way!).

And this is the line-up of publishers who shared with us all sorts of information about the process from submission to bookshop. I think the part that had most authors feeling a bit stunned (the "pre-published" ones anyway) was the list of things, in their own words below, that you must not do:
* do not ring/call me
* do not tell me everyone loves the manuscript
* do not tell me it will win awards
* do not send it to me if I don't publish that kind of book
* do not send me gifts of any kind!
* do not put stuff in your envelopes, like glitter, fairy stars or sand!
* read the submission guidelines and follow them
* your research so you know what I publish (one publisher said 95% of what she is sent is not what she publishes - that is astounding)
* send your best writing
* only send when the manuscript is REALLY ready - many people submit too soon (often sending what is really a first draft)

And the quote of the conference? From the lovely Susanne Gervay who had everyone in stitches: Plaigiarism is good because it guarantees good writing. (She really was joking!)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Barbara Trapido and non-plotting

Having listened to a number of authors talk about their writing over the past few weeks, I thought I'd heard every variation of "to plot or not" - until I listened to Barbara Trapido talk about her process. Her descriptions of how she writes a novel started with "a habit of talking to made-up people" and then writing down their conversations. No plot. No idea of a plot. Just lots of pieces of characters and conversations that gradually fall into patterns, and then into a story. She says they are puzzles that fit together rather than plotting.

For her, the characters are the plot. The story is there "under the water somewhere" and if the characters are well-realised enough, it will come together. She also said "your brain is grinding away and making this intricate spider's web in which everything connects". But she admitted that she finds chronology the biggest headache - where characters go and when, the plans of houses, moving people around. I think this involves a huge amount of trust in your subconscious, believing (or perhaps knowing after doing it for a long time) that it will all work out. She did originally throw out bags full of pages before things started to work with her first novels.

I also went along to a library event this week with crime writers, Michael Robotham and Malla Nunn. Often crime writers are the ones who will talk about plans and plots and clues and red herrings, but both of these writers said they have no idea what will happen next - they just keep writing. Michael said often he'll be about 10,000 words from the end of the novel before he starts to see what the ending might be. He also said he's written 30,000 words of something and had to throw it out.

The seminar I went to with RJ Ellory and Peter James was like an extended conversation rather than a class. Ellory keeps a notebook of what he has written so far - events, characters, etc - but he also doesn't plan ahead. Several authors mentioned Jeffrey Deaver who apparently writes 150 page outlines for his novels! I have to say that I need to know where I'm going in order to write. I might change my mind, because all kinds of things can happen as you write, including characters who take unexpected turns and detours or reveal new information. But I diagram what I think will happen, and keep it as a safety net.
What do you do?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Louise Welsh - crime fiction writer

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 4

Before this session, I'd read one of Welsh's books about a guy who performs as a magician-come-illusionist. It was one of those unsettling books, in which the main character is not very likeable and you end up feeling sorry for him more than anything. So I wondered what the author would have to say. Firstly she talked about the issue of being sensationalist as a crime writer - how far do you go with the blood and gore? And what ethics should we have as writers? She didn't really answer it for herself, but crime does has a broad range of subgenres, so it's up to the reader.

She said that she thinks all crime novels are quests, both internal and external, for the main character, and she likes the idea of a character going off into the wilds (probably mentally as well as physically). All of her main characters so far have been male, but her comment on that was that putting yourself inside another 'person' is a huge leap, so changing gender is not that much further. She was asked whether there was a continual challenge to be innovative, and she said most writers don't think about that - but I had to disagree with her!

She likes to use historical objects, and touch them, as a way of reaching back into the past. In the same way, her characters are reaching for the truth but it's not always possible. A book takes her three years to write, but the level of intensity changes. The last 6 months are intensive, but the first year involves a lot of thinking. She's become more of a planner, and spends a lot of time laying the foundations of the novel, using mind maps and taking lots of photos.

She did a Masters of Creative Writing and then joined several writers' groups early on. She had two short stories published quite quickly, then nothing for ages, and finally her first novel. The degree gave her the confidence to keep writing and sending out, and helped her to take her writing more seriously. This was a fairly interesting session, and her new book, Naming the Bones, sounds interesting, so I might give it a go!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Bryce Courtenay in conversation

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 3

I had a gap between two sessions and decided to go and listen to Bryce Courtenay. I haven't read one of his books for years, but I admire his hard work and tenacity, and he usually has something entertaining or thought-provoking to say. This session was certainly both, and included Bryce lying and crouching on the floor, and acting out some of his stories. He is a great storyteller, and believes that without stories we have nothing - stories of the past are what we're all about.

But he also feels we have become self-indulgent - that too many authors turn inward and write about themselves instead of going out and writing about the world around them. He believes there are many stories still to be told about Australia and who we are. When asked about the children of today, he said "everything I was taught at school has proven to be wrong". Yes, there is too much information around - for adults. Kids are the new generation and are able to take it all in. This generation is the brightest there's ever been. A further question on reading, and he said he thought kids shouldn't be given reading lists, but needed to be guided to lost treasures and special books they might otherwise miss.

He takes research for his books very seriously, and spends $100,000 a year on it (last I heard, he had four researchers working for him). He believes in writing stories that stick to the facts, and never changes history to suit his story. There is always someone who knows, and will tell you if you have even the smallest fact wrong. He loves language, and had read all of Dickens by the age of eleven, and loved the words he used.

He feels descriptive narrative is dead because of the visual world we live in. You don't need to spend pages on description because readers now imagine so much. You should only describe the things in your setting or story that are unique. The writer writes two thirds of the book, the other third is written by the reader when they pick it up and read it. He has never written for money (after being in advertising, he didn't need to) - he writes because he wants to know for himself. He likes to write chapters of about 28-30 pages, just long enough for someone to read one in half an hour before they go to sleep!

Two pieces of advice he had to offer:
1. Never leave the spoon in the sink when you're going to turn on the tap (in other words, think ahead).
2. Listen with your eyes.
I didn't leave this session wanting to read any more of Bryce's books, but I did take away a strong sense of a man who is passionate still about his writing, and cares very much about stories and language and readers.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Nicholas Shakespeare

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 2

Usually I choose sessions at the festival with writers whose books I have read. This year, I went for a few writers I didn't know, and tried to read at least one of their books beforehand. With Nicholas Shakespeare, I read Secrets of the Sea and around 60 pages of In Tasmania. At first I thought Tasmania was all he wrote about! But he began by talking about his latest book, Inheritance, and how the story was given to him by Murray Bail who read about it in a lawyer's office. In a nutshell, a young man accidentally attends the wrong funeral and, by signing the condolence book, ends up inheriting a large amount of money from the dead man.

Inheritance I can imagine any writer leaping on an idea like that - it appealed to me, too. (Yes, I bought the book!) He said that he thought that this gift of a story meant it would be fast and easy to write, but it took him three years. Whatever the idea is, you have to find your own story in it, and that is what takes the time and effort.

He said he thought this book was about a man trying to learn how to be authentic, and that just to learn how to be yourself is a big enough job for any life. Celebrity can create a crack in a person so that the devil or other people can get in and contaminate you. An interesting viewpoint. He also said any novel is an exercise in failure - you know it's not going to be as good as you want it to be, but you put your best into it and acknowledge its flaws, just like you do for your children.

His father was a diplomat so they lived in some pretty dangerous places when he was growing up, including Cambodia and various countries in South America. Inheritance is his first novel set in England, where he was born. He moved to Tasmania to get away from Bruce Chatwin, as he'd spent 7 years writing his life story and wanted to go somewhere Chatwin had never been. And then found a village of Chatwins in Northern Tasmania. He said another reason he moved there was so he'd have time and headspace to read all the books he'd always wanted to. He tries hard not to let his writing time be eroded by technology and all its distractions.

Secrets of the Sea has many beautiful and arresting images in it, but the one that stuck with me (whether I wanted it to or not) was of the child, Zac, "who had been discovered by Tildy at the age of eighteen months with a large spider sticking out of his mouth." The spider was a huntsman. In question time, I just had to ask if that had actually happened, and he said yes! At his local childcare centre, a boy had eaten a huntsman. A later metaphorical reference to legs dangling from the child's mouth only served to make the image stay even more firmly in my head. Such is the power of words.