You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good. That’s just how it is. It’s like learning an instrument. You’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. That’s just part of the learning process.
And read a lot. Reading a lot really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.
A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.
– Ursula LeGuin
People often tell me that they don’t read historical fiction. Ask them if they’ve read Possession or Oscar and Lucinda, though, and they’ll say, “Oh yes, but that’s different.”
Are they right? And if so, how?
I recently attended the London conference of the Historical Novel Society where, it must be said, almost all the authors who spoke identified themselves as writers of the genre.
But not all. Emma Darwin and Suzannah Dunn both said they didn’t define themselves as historical novelists, and Lindsey Davis, creator of the Roman detective Falco, said: “I don’t write historical fiction. I write literary fiction.”
I’m trying to get my head around something here, so bear with me. Please.
Historical fiction is (arguably) a genre, and as such it has common tropes, familiar forms and styles; guidelines, perhaps, rather than rules. It’s a broad church, of course, and encompasses many eras as well as approaches to technique such as point of view. It contains many sub-genres and genre overlaps, too, such as historical romance, crime, thrillers, and fantasy, and has some particular obsessions (Romans, Vikings, Tudors … and Jane Austen). It can also include time travel or alternative history, and those many stories that move back and forth between eras. Some of it is classed as commercial fiction, while some is categorised as literary fiction. One of its less discussed features, on which I’ll write more soon, is that it is quite often overtly gendered – warriors for blokes, remarkable noblewomen battling the odds for female readers.
The Historical Novel Society defines it broadly as:
To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).
Does it have a recognisable form? Its origins are debated, but in The Historical Novel, György Lukács (1962) identified Sir Walter Scott as the originator of the historical novel. It’s absolutely true that other people, including women such as Madame de Lafayette, wrote novels set in the past much earlier than Scott’s 1814 blockbuster Waverley. But I think it’s fair to say that, for better or worse, Scott was instrumental in setting down (at least for readers of English) expectations of what a historical novel might be, how it might sound, what it might include – setting, plotting, character; even that it might fool around a bit with historical accuracy. It created, above all, an expectation of voice, a concept of ‘authenticity’ that is, perversely, completely false and based largely on Scott’s own style. Lukács called it ‘historical realism’, and it’s that form that you read in Tolstoy, say, and the early historical novelists.
It has evolved into new and various forms. But when normal people – readers – talk about historical fiction, often what they mean is a costume drama with epic twists and Gothic plotlines, set against a rich and detailed backdrop. Think of those addictive Georgette Heyer or Jean Plaidy books and later Bernard Cornwell or Diana Gabaldon. It is often seen and marketed as commercial fiction, too – like Heyer’s.
(One hopes for accuracy in characters’ contemporary world views, too, and these can be found in many of the best historical novels. But it’s not, apparently, required. There are a great many New Age Georgian guys and feminist princesses reflecting modern ideas and not their own. I’ll come back to this.)
Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, I think, are something else entirely, something closer to War and Peace. They are works of literary fiction which are immensely popular, perhaps because of the obsession with the Tudors generally and Anne Boleyn in particular, and also because they happen to be brilliant. Compare them to the Tudor books of Philippa Gregory, for example, which are more obviously written in the traditional historical fiction mode, and it’s clear that they are a different form. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are works of twenty-first century realist fiction set in the past.
Let me be clear. I’m not making any value judgements or setting one form above the other/s. I am a proud reader and writer of genre fiction. I’m not interested in creating a binary of a canon versus commercial genre. I’m just trying to understand and refine our definitions, and perhaps our expectations.
People shy away from the label ‘literary fiction’, partly because it’s not easily defined and also, particularly in Australia, because it has been branded as elitist and inaccessible (though it isn’t, at least not essentially). Perceptions of it are bound up with certain 20th century styles of writing which began as modernist innovation and became canon – literary fiction isn’t limited to any one form or style, but sometimes perceptions of it are.
Which is a pity. We really ought to get around to reclaiming it one of these days.
Literary fiction is definitely not a genre – it is an even broader church, but let’s agree that it is often concerned with form and experimentation with form, with ideas – including ideas about fiction and writing and narrative. It’s an invitation to explore language and meaning, the way we use words and construct ideas with them; to question and satirise and experiment.
So. Can we agree that literary fiction which happens to be set in the past is different in intent to historical fiction that fits easily into the expectations of the genre? When Peter Carey or Margaret Atwood set a story in the historical past, they are not called ‘historical novelists’. But Alias Grace and True History of the Kelly Gang are among the finest novels of recent years that are set in the past.
And then there is fiction that operates at the intersection of these two forms: the most obvious example is The Name of the Rose, which is one of the best-selling historical novels of the modern era, but operates on many different levels, including a complex metafictional and semiotic framework based on Eco’s years of study in the area. Think too of AS Byatt’s Possession. The Luminaries. The Passion. The Secret River. Atonement. The English Patient. Ragtime. Beloved. Love in the Time of Cholera.
I can see a Venn diagram in my mind. It’s too hard to draw, but in the overlap of the historical and literary circles are also titles which veer more towards the traditional. The recent success of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a good example: literary in style, but happily recognisable to fans of the genre. Year of Wonders. Birdsong. Angels and Insects. The Song of Achilles. The Regeneration trilogy.
Sarah Waters’ entire publishing history works at this intersection, as does Nicola Griffiths’ Hild – transgressing not just genre but also publishing expectations about what’s permissible and popular in writing about gender and sexuality.
And there’s the rub.
Sometimes it works.
Sometimes it works against the success of a book.
People who love reading ‘traditional’ historical fiction may dislike literary novels set in the past if they don’t meet their expectations of the genre or sub-genre. Or vice versa.
On the other hand, readers, reviewers and book page editors may not pick up a title classified as historical fiction, but would if it was seen as literary. A panel at the HNS conference suggested historical fiction suffers from a certain snobbery, and especially if it’s historical fantasy.
‘Historical novels have often been sidelined or derided for not being serious enough, or taking liberties with facts,’ writes academic Jerome de Groot, ‘[…] as a mode that encourages a sense of the past as frippery and merely full of romance and intrigue.’
A recent feature on Sarah Waters’ new novel The Paying Guests, noted:
Don’t let the words “historical fiction” dissuade you. Waters’ writing transcends genre: her plots are sinuous and suspenseful; her language is saucy, sexy and direct; all of her characters, especially her lesbian protagonists, are complex and superbly drawn.
It seems ‘historical fiction’ is something that might turn off some readers, as if it doesn’t contain suspenseful plots, terrific language and characters. As if it’s just not good enough, or not everyone’s cup of tea. As if to be classified as such will alienate potential readers. (Of course, the same might be said of literary fiction.) As if millions and millions of people don’t read it and love it.
What are they getting at here? Waters’ great strength is her ventriloquism. She manages to capture, in voice, style and in character world view, the literature and the detail of the era in which her books are set. She manages to put it into words that sound both of the era in which the book is set and of our own time; thoughts and preoccupations that feel real and contemporary to us, even though they are not of our time – the spiritualism in Affinity, for example, or the bleak post-war desolation of The Night Watch. It never feels like costume drama (except in Tipping the Velvet).
You see? These definitions matter – to readers and to reviewers and commentators, if not to the writers.
The ventriloquism we hear in Byatt or Waters is not the only alternative approach to Scott’s version of historical voice – I’ve written about this before, so I won’t bang on.
It’s different to the voices and characterisations you’ll find in more traditional historical fiction and, importantly, Waters is willing to focus on characters who are complex, perhaps annoying and unreliable, not necessarily heroic, sometimes downright unlikeable (Maud, in Fingersmith – and yet somehow we fall in love with her … or was that just me?).
So perhaps it’s not that Waters “transcends genre”, nor that there’s anything wrong with the genre – it’s just that her work’s not the same kind of project as some other novels you might read that more clearly fit into the genre of historical fiction.
The same can be said of Mantel, of Catton, of Grenville, of Eco. Perhaps they are simply not trying to do the same thing as Cornwell or Gregory?
Perhaps it’s a spectrum, rather than a Venn diagram.
So what does that mean?
I don’t know that it’s realistic to broaden popular ideas of what historical fiction is. Let it be.
Perhaps instead we can try to define a new form (not a genre) that includes what Linda Hutcheon called ‘historiographic metafiction’ and/or embraces experiments with voice and style, with structure and form, even with history and the way people move through time.
We have enough examples of it from the last few decades. I can see it clearly enough to consciously write Goddess in that framework, although it has few rules and very soft edges.
It doesn’t need to be defined or have boundaries placed around it – in fact that would defeat the purpose. But it could include writing that:
- May run contrary to expectations of ‘historical authenticity’ in voice
- Is willing to experiment with form, language, point of view, and structure
- Consciously operates on the edges of historicity
- Interrogates concepts of time, memory, story-telling, and history-making
- May subvert the rules of historical fiction and/or any other genre
- May be interested in questions of gender or subvert expectations of gender.
It might be realist or fantastical, test the boundaries of point of view (just how close can Mantel take third person?) and play with notions of historical voice (Winterson’s postmodern Sappho), layer structure and framework and metaphor and time. In fact, I wonder if perhaps subversion is one of its key features?
And what to call the literary form, if indeed it is a thing? The word ‘literary’ isn’t useful, loaded as it is. But what might it be?
Are the two forms genuinely distinct, or are they two sides of the same coin? Or is it dangerous, or unnecessary, to separate the two?
I dunno. Do you?
This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the death of CS Lewis, one of the most influential and thoughtful writers for children among a golden generation.
A few days ago, I listened to George R R Martin tell a sold-out event in Melbourne that he can’t remember much of his real life at the age of twelve or thirteen, but he will never forget the feeling of reading Tolkien for the first time.
I feel the same about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Can you remember the first time you read it? Remember the shock of falling into another world, the fear for your new best friends (even Edmund) in the face of such evil, the wonder at the world within the wardrobe and the miraculous creatures and especially Aslan.
Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
There was no adventure quite like it. Not then. The language may have dated, and even in my childhood I got grumpy about the gender roles, but I am still delighted by the that sustained flight of fancy, the tiny details of world-building, the compassion and the humour.
“I – I got in through the wardrobe in the spare room,” said Lucy.
“Ah,” said Mr Tumnus in a rather melancholy voice, “if only I had worked harder at geography when I was a little Faun…”
We all read it. And you see middle-aged faces light up at the thought of it even now. There are few books so universally loved by so many generations of children.
Lewis, like his friend and colleague Tolkien, was a careful, intelligent author who thought a great deal about how and why to write fantasy, and especially for young readers. Lewis wrote once that he knew of three ways to write stories for children: two good and one bad. The best way, he argued, “consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say … A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”*
Indeed they do.
* “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, Only Connect, 1980, Egoff et al (eds), Oxford University Press, Toronto.
Once upon a time, I blogged about George W. Bush. That shows you how long ago it was: he was President at the time.
One of the responses was from a charming right-wing fellow from the US, who no doubt spends his days trolling the web looking for just such a post and responding forcefully. But this chap had a good college education, so not only did he threaten me with an apocalypse and eternal flames, he also found an extract of my writing and rewrote it, removing all the adjectives and adverbs, and posted it as a comment to show the world what an incompetent fool I was.
He’d made the sing-song voice of a twelve year-old pirate narrator sound like Jake Barnes or Sam Spade, but he was only acting out, in troll form, the instructions of endless numbers of writing teachers and “coaches”, editors, authors, manuals and half a million writing advice (join today! first month free!) websites.
Eliminate all those mealy-mouthed adverbs, they say. Cross out adjectives and delete them from your dictionary.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
— Stephen King
Adverbs have an especially bad name because they are often used as qualifiers: possibly, probably, very, totally, utterly, mostly. We see them a lot in government or consultants’ reports where they work hard to undermine any firm verbs, adjectives and nouns: potentially viable. They are used as weasel words, but they are blameless. There’s nothing wrong with an adverb or two. A plague of adverbs is a different matter, but that’s true of any plague.
I’ve long had a theory that it’s all Hemingway’s fault – not his, exactly, because he knew better than anyone how to place every word so it counts – but the generations after him who wanted to be Hemingway. There’s a rule book of writing which endeavours to turn every work into Hemingway, or perhaps Elmore Leonard.
But here’s the thing: it’s just one set of rules, designed for a certain style, or a range of styles, of writing. It’s also a particularly twentieth-century US style. If you want to deliver punchy realism, then descriptive words are used sparingly, as are all words.
Before there was Hemingway, there was Twain:
I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
— Mark Twain
Adjectives have a bad name in some quarters: perhaps a reaction to high Victorian prose and all those long descriptive passages people were forced to read in high school. I’m sorry for your suffering, but take another look:
In an old house, dismal dark and dusty, which seemed to have withered, like himself, and to have grown yellow and shrivelled in hoarding him from the light of day, as he had, in hoarding his money, lived Arthur Grid. Meagre old chairs and tables, of spare and bony make, and hard and cold as misers’ hearts, were ranged in grim array against the gloomy walls; attenuated presses, grown lank and lantern—awed in guarding the treasures they inclosed, and tottering, as though from constant fear and dread of thieves, shrunk up in dark corners, whence they cast no shadows on the ground, and seemed to hide and cower from observation. A tall grim clock upon the stairs, with long lean hands and famished face, ticked in cautious whispers; and when it struck the time, in thin and piping sounds like an old man’s voice, it rattled, as if it were pinched with hunger.
— Charles Dickens, from Nicholas Nickelby
It may seem wordy compared to Leonard, and plenty of people would scoff at the idea of Twain or Dickens using plain English and short sentences, but they did in comparison to their contemporaries. Their descriptions include some of the most gorgeous writing you’ll ever read. Spare and bony chairs. Grim. You can see it, can’t you? Feel it?
Twain could wax as lyrical as the next author, but it depended entirely on the voice he created. Here’s Huck Finn:
It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next.
Every night we passed towns, some of them away up on black hillsides, nothing but just a shiny bed of lights; not a house could you see. The fifth night we passed St. Louis, and it was like the whole world lit up.
Twain or Hemingway would ignore the didactic websites and coaches: they knew that their story, their own styles, and the voices of their characters were what mattered. Some narrators describe things, some don’t. Some sketch an outline, some paint in oils, some wave neon lights around. Most writers use too many words or thoughtless construction when we’re drafting: editing is about taking out the gratuitous adverbs or nouns or entire passages.
I won’t tell you how to write, but I will tell you to read. Read Hemingway (especially The Sun Always Rises) but read Emma Donoghue’s Room, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall too. Not a wasted word in any of them, but very different styles, intent and voices. Read Twain and Dickens and Austen and Tolstoy.
There are many ways to tell a story. And some involve adverbs.
I’m not much of an extrovert. Far from it. I’d happily stay home and never go anywhere, but that’s not how the world works. You adapt. Leave the house. Talk to other people. Real people.
So it fascinates me how networked and interactive the writing community is, online and in real life, considering how many writers are introverts. There are those huge web communities where people pitch ideas, get draft feedback, agonise over rejections, beg agents for advice, just like the Writers’ Centres and events we have in so many places now. There are courses and workshops and a whole lot of people (the extroverts, probably) creating careers out of connecting writers with one another and – of course – with publishers and agents. They scare me a little, but never mind.
The amazing thing to me is how communities develop organically, or when given a gentle boost. The Young Adult authors on Twitter, for example, many of whom have also met in real life at conferences or events, have proved with campaigns such as #YAsaves to be a force for goodness and niceness, able to be mobilised in minutes.
So this week and next I am in writing paradise: Varuna Writers’ House in Katoomba, in the gorgeous Blue Mountains in New South Wales. *
It’s autumn here, and some days it rains softly. There are five writers in the house, all working on different kinds of projects and at different stages of our careers. We each have a bedroom and a writing room, in a house filled with books and light. We wake up early most mornings. We may or may not see one another during the day. We slouch about, sit at our desks, proofread in the sunshine, go for walks, refuse to go for walks (in my case), browse the bookshelves, and write.
Mostly write. When we assembled on the first evening we all agreed there was some kind of magic going on. I’d written 5000 words that day – twice the usual rate. We start early (though it’s entirely up to the individual) and most of us are at our desks for 11 or 12 hours. But it’s not just that – somehow the mind becomes more focused, more productive. If there’s a writing zone, we are deep inside it. It’s quiet, respectful, peaceful, dedicated, and we are all conscious of the extraordinary privilege of being here – of being supported, as writers.
We help ourselves to the plentiful food supplies – in some cases every two hours – and then around 6pm we slowly assemble in front of the fire in the dining room, talk about our days, our work, the world and wait for the legendary Sheila to arrive and prepare a fabulous meal. It’s a little writing community, of sorts: a temporary one, although I know plenty of people who’ve made lasting friendships here.
It’s quite different from my select and extremely rowdy writing circle back home. There are three of us. Most weeks we meet for lunch, for coffee and then go write. Together. We sit about with our laptops somewhere soundproof (for the safety of those around us) and we write in 25 minute sprints, and then for ten minutes we gossip, drink cups of tea, and laugh until we weep. Then another writing sprint. I haven’t been part of that kind of writing community for years, and it’s lovely. (Thank you, Paddy O’Reilly and Fran Cusworth.) It developed naturally, in a way, but we are also all PhD students in a faculty of supportive people.
Online, I’m part of a community of writers and readers, many of whom I’ve never met. We share resources, articles, reading suggestions, outrage, shameless plugs, despair, jokes, favourite videos, support and encouragement. It’s called Twitter and it’s as much a part of my own professional development as – in fact more than, because it’s daily – my membership of any professional organisations.
So you see – even an introvert gets out sometimes.
*Varuna was the home of author Eleanor Dark (The Timeless Land) and Dr Eric Dark, who served with the Medical Corps on the Somme and was awarded a Military Cross following Passchendaele. The MC citation, dated 15th August 1917, reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in leading his bearers. He displayed great gallantry and disregard of danger in moving about in the open under the heaviest shell fire, collecting and evacuating the wounded. He worked continuously for thirty-six hours, by his energy and determination contributing largely to the rapid clearing of the battlefield.”
Their house must have been an oasis in their busy lives: both were at the forefront of contemporary politics; Eleanor was a feminist and social justice advocate, Eric a socialist and committed member of the Labour Left during those turbulent decades around the Second World War. Varuna was donated “to literature” by their son Mick and is now a year-round haven for writers of all persuasions. It has a range of fellowships and programs: I was lucky enough to be awarded a Retreat Fellowship.
A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.
– Eugene Ionesco
Her lecture ‘Craftsmanship’, part of a BBC radio broadcast from April 29, 1937.
‘Words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.’ – Virginia Woolf
Reading passages from The Land, recorded by Columbia in 1931 for the International Education Society.
I find these sorts of thing enormously moving: hearing the voices of long-gone people I’ve heard in my head for years.
Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “A writer should always try for something that has never been done, or that others have tried and failed”.