Thursday, 11 July 2013

Historical Headaches or The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction 1 by Clare Hawkins

      I am still wrestling with techniques for creating an authentic period flavour in my novels without producing phony or unintentionally humorous effects. The development of a confident voice is fundamental. In this instance I am referring to the narrative voice, although the notion is applied equally to the individual voices of characters conveyed through their speech and dialogue. I find it useful to refer to successful writers as I continue to try to work on my style. Julian Rathbone, in his notes to The Last English King refers to his anachronistic use of modern prose in the narrative and in the dialogue, though I think in fact this is what most successful writers of historical fiction do. This would appear to be the safest approach to avoid the following effect.    Dick Turpin espied the fair serving wench who had oftentimes evaded him and swore upon his rapier that he would bed her that very eventide.     Avoiding an inappropriately modern idiom is another danger as in:        Rubens just didn’t feel up to it that morning, all that standing at his easel. Plus his model was hardly going to make it on the cat walk, not with doughnuts that size.     Period atmosphere can be very effectively achieved by using appropriate contextual references and some elements of vocabulary suggestive of a period in the past. Here are some examples.
Lady Mary gathered her rosary beads in her short workmanlike fingers, tucked them into the pocket of her gown and strode towards the door of the great hall where her armies of gentlemen and soldiers were breaking their fast. She entered the head of the hall and mounted the dais. ‘Today we move out,’ she announced, loud and clear enough for the least man at the back of the hall to hear her. ‘We go to Framlingham, a day’s ride, no more than that. I shall raise my standard there. If we can get there before Lord Robert we can hold him off in a siege.
The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory.
    Apart from the obvious references to the physical and social context (rosary beads, gown, gentlemen and soldiers, hall, Lady Mary etc, some of the verbs (gathered, strode, entered) are more formal and suggestive of Lady Mary’s manner and status perhaps. There are two notably archaic expressions: breaking their fast and  the least man, this latter reflecting the ranks in society.
    Ronan Bennett in Havoc in its Third Year uses a number of subtle grammatical variations to indicate the period of the early 17th century as well as the contextual references and some rich Shakespearean metaphor, nourish the prating mouths as well as archaic vocabulary.
The alehouse-keeper brought small beer to drink and halfpenny loaves of buckwheat and barley. The man would have loitered so that his fat lips might carry gossip to nourish the prating mouths outside, where it seemed the whole township had gathered, but Brigge bade him be gone with angry hard words and so he went, very quick his step and dismayed his look. The bread was stale and coarse and the butter near rancid. Brigge ordered the door of the parlour left open for air, but all that entered was the fuddled gaze of the drinkers, their pots in their fists, their clay pipes in their stained lips.
   Hilary Mantel’s creation of the period in Wolf Hall is achieved by a complex and skilfully integrated mix of vigorous modern language, embedded indirect speech, the occasional archaic phrase as well as rich and detailed contextual references.
The stake was on top of a pile of stones, and some gentlemen came, and priests, bishops perhaps, he did not know. They called out to the Loller to put off her heresies. He was close enough to see her lips moving but he could not hear what she said. What if she changes her mind now, will they let her go? Not they, the woman chuckled. Look, she is calling on Satan to help her. The gentlemen withdrew. The officers banked up wood and bales of straw around the Loller. The woman tapped him on the shoulder; let’s hope it’s damp eh? This is a good view, last time I was at the back. The rain had stopped, the sun broken through. When the executioner came with a torch it was pale in the sunshine, barely more than a slick movement, like the movement of eels in a bag. The monks were chanting and holding up a cross to the Loller, and it was only when they skipped backwards, at the first billow of smoke, that the crowd knew the fire was set.
   Integration of a range of elements would seem to be the key: restrained and limited use of archaic expressions, references to context and figurative language, which are integral to the character’s (or characters’) actions and experiences. Easier said than done!
    Where the first person is used in narrative, the issues of voice become more complex, because of the need to slip into indirect speech and more deeply inside the head of the narrator. (Quite a challenge when trying to imagine the thoughts and experiences of a 17th century soldier or a medieval Maltese peasant.) Other technical difficulties occur in trying to move smoothly from the inside of a character’s consciousness to a more distant view. And then there is the question of direct speech and dialogue, another tricky area for the writer of historical fiction. These topics are best left for another time!
    In the meantime, if anyone has a glossary of 16th and 17th swear words, I would be very grateful to hear about it!

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