Friday, 17 August 2012

Writing historicals

There's an interesting piece on writing historicals here for those who practice the art and those who enjoy reading them. Hilary Mantel has been speaking at the Edinburgh Writers' Conference recently about her trilogy on the life and death of Thomas Cromwell. She aims to have a turning point in every scene, she says. Lots of turning points. That's a good strategy, but difficult to achieve.

She also thinks it is difficult to give the reader historical information (ie background info) plus foreground information and character information as well.  I can see what she means. Add historical information for background, ie to set the scene in context of what is happening around the character, and critique groups start jumping up and down screaming Info Dump!

I exaggerate, of course, but there is a grain of truth here. The historical information must, it is claimed, be relevant to the character and their actions, and not inserted just because it is interesting in it's own right. But what of the claim that without a background setting, the character is meaningless? If he wanders through the story, swashbuckling left and right, but without reference to the happenings of the time, doesn't the story become a meaningless fantasy?

It's all in the balance, they claim. But my balance may want more historical detail than you do, and the person who lives next door might want no real history at all, but simply wants to skim through the story and wildly excited by the buckle and swash. I'm slowly learning to make more turning points, and to add my background information in an interesting, even lyrical way.
It's just a pity I didn't start all this thirty years earlier.


Sandra Mackness said...

Enjoying your blog, Jen. I'm enjoying writing historicals and have arguably had more success with Orchid Pink than any other book or novella. You (and Hilary) make a good point about how much information to include about the period.

Ursula said...

And here my insecurities kick in again, because I have way more swash and buckle in my story than history.

Jen Black said...

Butyou could squeeze some in without too much trouble, Ursula - and you don't need much. A telling detail here and there...