Sunday, 5 June 2011

Danger Zone

Danger Zone for writers: what is a chav? I’ve asked this question myself, and never got a definitive answer. The Guardian article proves the point – a chav is many things to many people. The fact that the answers are so widely different is worrying if you are a writer trying to pin down a facet of modern UK culture. Take a stance, depict your version in writing, and few will agree with you.

Writing historical novels is much the same. Try looking for the facts in primary sources, and you’ll discover that often they don’t agree in day or date, sometimes not even in year. (Aways tricky when the change over date from one year to the next used to be in the Spring rather than 1st January.) Names are spelled as the owner chose to write it that particular day. Mary Stewart, or Marie Stuart? If you’re an English speaker, you’ll probably go for the former. If you lean towards French, and her signature, you’ll go for the latter. Was her mother Mary of Guise or Marie de Guise? Was the birth on the 8th December, as most reports claim, or on 7th December as Leslie, who had special access to official records, states? Whatever the true record, and there may have only been minutes involved in a time when clocks were not as numerous as today, Mary always believed her birth date was the 8th. Even the date of her father’s death was in doubt for years until they found his coffin in seventeenth century with the death date inscribed on the coffin lid.

Reports came from military men in a hurry, who could be forgiven for mistaking the date of their letter, or the date of an engagement. I doubt they carried diaries or calendars in their doublets. They reported what other men told them, which may have been inaccurate or given a spin in the hope of impressing a master or commander. It is likely, and understandable, that even commanders put things in the best light when they wrote to King Henry VIII. Secretaries wrote what their masters dictated, even if they knew it to be a blatant untruth. Monks wrote pieces that would please their patrons. Private diaries can be wonderful, but it needs to be remembered that Chinese Whispers distort the most accurate report when it is handed on verbally until it reaches the diarist.

So, read widely, pick and choose, use your imagination and interpret the facts as best you can. There’ll always be someone who disagrees with you!

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