Monday, 16 September 2013

Historical Headaches (2) – The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction


Creating the voice of your character – Using the First Person

Using a first person narrator can create an immediate impact on the reader by establishing a clear and identifiable voice and creating empathy and/or interest.  For example, Rose Tremain in very few words, wittily conveys the essence of the character of Kirsten Munk, Consort of 17th century King Christian IV of Denmark, via her private papers.

Well, for my thirtieth birthday, I have been given a new Looking-glass which I thought I would adore. I thought I would dote upon this new Glass of mine. But there is an error in it, an undoubted fault in its silvering, so that the wicked object makes me look fat. I have sent for a hammer

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain

   The limitations of first person narrative are well documented, the principal ones being problems of plotting, requiring imaginative ways of providing information which the narrator does not directly experience but needs to know. However, there are many examples of highly successful first person narrators in the works of accomplished writers of historical fiction. 

A first person narrator can vividly convey his/her personality, social status and attitudes. Even in the narrative sections, such as the character’s reflections, as well as in direct speech and dialogue, the writer can include a range of linguistic features such as the cadence of the speech, dialect and accent. Jane Harris in The Observations, set in 19th century Scotland, creates an immediately striking voice for Bessy, a young fugitive prostitute. Her early encounters quickly establish her as a gutsy, worldly, hardened but sympathetic character.

I have to admit there was one added factor in my desire to leave the Great Road and that was the pair of polis that was coming towards us on horseback. Big buckers by the look of them. I had spotted them in the distance five minutes back, their top hats and big buttons, and ever since I had been looking for a way off the road, one that didn’t involve me running across a field and getting mucked up to the oxters.

So I stopped walking and turned to the Jocky. ‘This is where I go off,’ I says, pointing as the sign to the castle.

‘I fwill be coming with you,’ he says. ‘Hand you can be making me dinner. Hand hafterwards fwhee can be making a baby.’

‘What a good idea,’ says I and when he stepped forward as if to kiss me I grabbed his danglers and give them a twist. ‘Make you own babies,’ I says. ‘Now away and flip yourself.’

Off I went up the lane and when he followed me I gave him a shove and a few more flips offs and stamped on his bare foot and that was the last I seen of him, for a while, anyway.

The style successfully combines standard English narrative with some dialect expressions oxters and slang mucked up; danglers; flip as well as the non-standard spelling polis to indicate Bessy’s pronunciation. In addition, the phonetic spelling of the Highland boy’s accent represents Bessy’s contempt for him. Non-standard grammar is used in give them a twist and that was the last I seen of him and the conversational he says and I says which creates a sense of her speech style and social class. Her courage and skills of self-preservation are clear in her response to the potential threats to her safety and freedom as a vagrant.

First person narratives also seem to allow smoother transitions into back story, as the main character, who is often telling the story of his/her life at a later date, can include past events. In Witch Light, Susan Fletcher captures the personality of Corrag, a wild young girl awaiting trial for witchcraft in 17th century Scotland, as in her cell she reflects on her life.

I say it – look. Witch.....And my breath clouds so the word is white, rolls out.

I have tried to not mind it. I’ve tried so hard.

I have tried to say it does not hurt, and smile. And I can reason that witch has been a gift, in its way – for look at my life.... Look at the beauty that witch has brought me to. Such pink-sky dawns, and waterfalls, and long, grey beaches with a thundering sea, and look what people I met – what people! I’ve met some sovereign lives. I’ve met wise, giving, spirited lives which I would not have done, without witch. What love it showed me, too. No witch, and I would not have met the man who made me think him, him, him - all the time. Him, who tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear. Him who said you....

The narrative intersperses the present, her breath as she speaks, clouding in the cold air of her prison cell, then moves to her inner reflections and the life of a woman shunned as a witch. Corrag’s recollections of her wild and isolated life reveal her suffering but also her resilience and the pleasures she has derived. The prose has poetic qualities: repetition of words and phrase patterns, images of colour, simple language, which create a sense of otherwordliness about her character.

Another advantage of using the first person, is the way that it enables the writer and then the reader to enter the inner world of the character, to share in his/her emotional life, to see and judge other people and events from his/her perspective. It can also convey a ‘confessional’ relationship with the reader and some writers do this explicitly when the narrator addresses the reader directly in the second person ‘you’. In some cases the use of a naive or unreliable first person narrator can create humour or tragic dramatic irony. 

I had always shied away from using the first person, but decided to try it in my third novel The Conjuror’s Truth, as a way of responding to feedback on my heroines in earlier novels, which suggested that they were not characterised strongly enough, nor were they engaging the readers’ interest sufficiently. I also, perhaps unwisely, experimented with the present tense, to increase the tension and immediacy of my heroine’s situation.  

The Conjuror’s Truth

Chapter 1 Welstead, Essex, August 1698

We are three weeks wed and still he has not touched me. Mary has told me what a woman must endure to do her duty to God and to her husband, but though there is a good bedchamber upstairs and I have taken care about my person, he does not come to me. Instead he sleeps upon a couch in his study next to the parlour. I hear him sometimes at night, pacing below, his feet shuffling upon the flagstones. A light flickers at the foot of the stairs where he pauses awhile and then there is darkness again.

I do not know how I should speak to him, we being so little in each other’s company and so poorly acquainted. How can I discover my husband’s humours, his likes and dislikes or share in his thoughts and opinions? My husband? How can I even claim him as such? He is not mine in any way, save by a bond of law, which has not tied our hearts or minds nor our bodies together. God has ordained that the holy union of marriage is for the procreation of children and my husband is a godly man who does not shirk his duties. Why therefore does he deny this one? I have no one to turn to, to confide in or from whom I might seek counsel. Mary is now so far away and my husband and I are strangers in this new town. I can do nothing but bear this shameful puzzlement with patience and try what is in my power to please him.

I was faced with the challenge of sustaining interest in the character and her traumas and adventures, which I think I managed through a fairly action-packed plot. The plot is a little extreme and one reader’s feedback indicated less satisfaction with the romantic hero, though as always the responses of readers were pretty variable and sometimes contradictory.

Now, as I prepare to start my next novel, I am in a quandary and although I have plenty of ideas about the setting and some events, I have not settled on a strong or interesting enough main character and wonder whether to try first or third person. I suppose that there is no way of knowing other than by launching forth and then re-writing if the chosen approach does not work!

Writing does not become easier. The more I do it, the more I am aware of potential pitfalls and the gulf between what I aspire to achieve and the reality of what I produce! 


1 comment:

  1. With regard to your last sentence, Clare, I couldn't agree more. The more one practices as a writer, the more one becomes aware of one's shortcomings. But is that necessarily a bad thng? Is it not a natural development of one's critical faculties? An important step on the way to improving one's writing. I surely hope so, anyway!