Sunday, 4 October 2009

Truth and writing

There's very little scope for danger in the world these days ! If you click to enlarge the pic you'll see people are fobidden to abseil from the disused railway bridge and neither may they jump into the river below. Not that I'd want to do either, you understand. It makes me wonder though - if people have been warned off, does that mean someone has tried to abseil? Doesn't seem the right place for it somehow.

In the middle of last night I woke up thinking I knew what needed to happen in my wip. (I was worried I didn't have enough story to get to the end of 100k) I am guilty of narrowing my interest down to two people - wouldn't you guess it's the Hero and Heroine? and "reporting" what other character are doing. That comes of trying to write for Mills & Boon. What I need to do is widen out my scope and write the missing scenes. Problem solved. I hope!

I'm reading Alison Weir's The Lady Elizabeth at the moment. The author is a historian turned to fiction. I read her Innocent Traitor about Lady Jane Grey and liked it because I didn't know much about the girl. She turned out to be another prodigy, like Elizabeth, though I have to say this portrait shows Elizabeth as precocious, certainly, but interested in parties and lovely clothes as well. A more human kind of personality.

However, I'm not sure I really enjoy this kind of fiction, which sticks so closely to known and reported fact that it reads like non-fiction-with-dialogue. I persevere more as a learning experience than an enjoyable pastime. Would you believe a child not yet three years of age would, or could, ask "Why, govenor, how hath it, yesterday Lady Princess, and today but Lady Elizabeth?" I'm not sure I do.

The author says she makes no apology for the fact that, "for dramatic purposes, I have woven into my story a tale that goes against all my instincts as a historian...I am not, as a historian, saying that it could have happened; but as a novelist I enjoy the heady freedom to ask: what if it had?"
There goes that blurring of the lines again. Even historians are now citing dramatic licence as an excuse for writing untruths and half facts and runours as if they are truth. It seems there is more and more of it about these days. I feel the excuse "its a spoof, its for kids" is even worse; things aimed at kids should tell the truth about the history of this country. Once they've learned the truth, then they can enjoy the spoofs; but I am afraid we have a generation or more growing up thinking the spoofs are the truth.
Surely we can make a novel interesting without introducing rumours and untruths? If the story is not interesting enough to hold the interest, why are we trying to tell it? I'd prefer it if the Sub plots, featuring fictional characters, have all the (untrue) drama thrown at them.

Last night I watched Merlin, which I like. But even there, irritation strikes now and then as I see mountain ranges that are certainly not in the UK, wonder how Morgana flits around in silk dresses (without freezing to death) styled by methods far from Arthur's sixth century setting, and a Druid chieftain who appears to have been born somewhere far to the south of Britain. I've grown acclimatised to Gwen being a servant, and looking vaguely Spanish, and wonder how she and Arthur are ever going to marry. Oh, it is all getting so out of history is being twisted out of recognition!
And I know that someone is going to tell me that Arthur never existed, so
anything can and will happen...and come to think of it, Morgana's dresses are probably polyester...


Carolin said...

A lot of times we don't know the truth - the further back we go in history, the less we know. There are huge gaps in our knowledge about even prominent people, whether male or female. That allows writers to 'fill in the gaps,' so to speak.

My main character in my WIP is a perfect example. Nothing is known about him except external details about his actions during the last year of his life. That gives me enormous leeway to come up with a plausible narrative how he got to that point. It's not a matter of truth so much as of plausibility. We don't KNOW what is true - we don't even know what he looks like, whether he was married, etc.

I personally enjoy reading historical novels that are well-researched and have a basis in historical truth as we know it. I think one can tell quickly whether they are. Sloppy, sensationalist stuff written in anachronistic language (i.e. ultra-modern) turns me off. Also, if the characters are purely fictional, I don't see the point of a historical novel. At least some of the main characters should be real people that anchor the novel in the times. Historical romances are a different ballgame - there I expect fictional characters throughout - even though in some of them you will encounter historical (royal) persons.

Now what you describe about that Merlin series (which I don't know) sounds more like sloppy research/execution - anachronisms seem to abound. Which is not unusual in TV/movies....

Victoria Dixon said...

Your comments on Merlin made me chuckle. I'm sure Vicky English will tell you all about her theories on Arthur if she drops by. Thanks for the drop in at my blog and for the very sweet comment!

Jen Black said...

Your comment on fictional characters not making a historical novel is an interesting one, Carolin. That rules out such a lot like the Cadfael stories, for example, or any story set among the peasantry. Even something like Gone with the Wind - I'm not sure I should make this claim since my knowledge of American history is minimal, but was there a real character in that book?

Jen Black said...

Hi Victoria - yes, I'm reading Vicky's story and trying to keep my balance with it! A twelfth century Arthur is hard to accept!

Carolin said...

You have a point, Jen. I suppose if the argument is that a historical novel is set in a certain time and is supposed to depict that time, place, customs, politics, etc., I concede that fictional characters can do the trick.
I think I have this visceral reaction against the shoddily researched novels set in some past where maybe the authors thought/hoped that the readers wouldn't be educated enough to know the difference. In a way like your Merlin series with the polyester gowns in which women would freeze their a$$ off.... Or movies like 'Troy' (or what was the one about Marie Antoinette? totally despicable) that can make no claim to historical accuracy.

Can't call that historical anything much....

I suppose for me - personally - historical novels don't just function as entertainment, they also educate me (or arouse my curiosity) about a time period. I want to learn something when I read them.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I'm afraid I dropped The Lady Elizabeth on chapter 1 because I couldn't believe in the utter precociousness of the child - some of the content was beyond the natural capability of an infant of that age whatever the historical era. It was a case of too many books and not enough time, so I went on to something else.
Other than that, I think that historical fiction should be plausible and have integrity, and that goes whether the characters are fictional or not.