Questions and answers

Why do I write historical fiction?  Well, somewhere along the line we’ve got the idea that history itself is dry and academic, that it’s about battles and names and dates, and curiously, very few people.   But history without the people isn’t really history at all, it’s geography.

And I want to put the people back.

Recently, I read this line by journalist, Charles Moore:  “In studying history, you must imagine yourself into the truly difficult choices people had to make in the past…”

And I thought, Whoa!  That is exactly it.  Nothing can say it better.

And that is the whole job of the historical fiction writer.  For us, it is not enough to live in another person’s skin within the contemporary world, but (possibly we have a strain of masochism?) we have to complicate matters still further by adding the past senses of smells, sights and sounds that are long gone or diminishing.  And then add to that, imagining ourselves into those unequivocally awful decisions and their aftermaths.

But when we get it right, how great is the result.  How much it deepens the experience of the reader.  And how it transforms our view of our current world by understanding our birth, the nascency of the ideas with which we live, the consequences of actions long since taken.

Historical fiction is one of the greatest communicators, if you’ll pardon the hackneyed expression.  When I was studying at St. Andrews and skiving, I frequently wandered into Innes’ Stationers and Books, climbed the stairs to the panelled haven where the book department was and sat down on the stool they had there to read.  And it was there that I started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond sequence.

And for the first time, someone was talking about the Renaissance and Europe as interconnected–artistically, economically, militarily–and doing it through a set of characters with whom I became wholly engaged.  It may have been history made easy, but it was also history made embracing.

Look at how many people were engaged by Patrick O’Brian’s novels about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin.  Probably more than half the bearded blokes at the conferences leading up to the bicentennial of Trafalgar in 2005 were O’Brian devotees. And that’s how many of them had come to it.  O’Brian had been their window to the past.

And the fact of the matter is I want to see our history, our past, alive and available to all.  Not just to academics in our linen-fold panelled libraries.

Not saying I don’t like faculty libraries or their reading rooms.

But I want more than anything to see people today realise that the past isn’t names and dates, it’s people–good people, bad people, all of whom loved, lived, fought, triumphed, had families, contributed, didn’t contribute, died or survived to fight another day…

And historical fiction can do that.  And do it most effectively.

It can, if skillfully written and well-researched, bridge the gap between our modern-day lives and views and theirs, however many centuries ago they lived.  It can throw open the shutters of our minds, show us their lives–their strengths, their courage, their fears, their failures–and in the process, teach us not only about the challenges of the past, but about answers for the present.

And how cool is that?

Finally–someone told me I had to do this next bit of Q&A.  And since she’s one of the few people I actually listen to–at least on the subject of blogs–I’m doing it.   So here goes:

What’s your writing routine?

Are you having me on?  Routine implies a degree of organisation that I used to have but it went missing–along with my favourite crop–about five years ago.

But if you’re asking how do I write or when, the answer is, I never really stop.  There’s always this side of my mind which is not quite in the room, but is elsewhere, turning over words, sifting through ideas, recording images, listening to characters.  Which may be why I tend to be a bit of a solitary soul.  The quiet makes it easier–or at least there’s less risk of causing offense by not paying attention to what’s being said to me.

So, that process is always going on.  And when it’s ready, it bubbles to the surface.

Often, this occurs when I’m listening to music, or driving with the stereo on.  Which means I always have a notebook of some kind with me.  And as soon as I can, if I’m driving, I stop and write it down.  Or if I’m just about the house, this means, ah, that whatever paper is to hand–generally a used envelope or a scrap of paper with phone numbers on it gets hijacked.

Then, as soon as possible, I’ll hie myself to my bookroom a.k.a. the Growlery and sling it into the dinoMac.  And print it out.  Then take it off, and edit it, think about it, see what I’ve left out, think about it all, rewrite over the typed stuff in red pen, cross out, and do it again.

And this process will be repeated until I have a chapter just as I want it.

I might, if I were being up-myself, liken the process to working on an oil painting.  Oil paint stays wet and workable for some time after it’s first been applied to the canvas and artists often work their paint for hours or days afterwards.  And then there’s the application of glazes, etc.

So my work tends to be more like that–I rarely write ‘stream of consciousness’ and let that go straight into a book. If I were to write ‘stream’ I would undoubtedly read it over, pick out the salient points and use those, reword and rework them…

I should also add that there are many scenes that I’ve ‘got’ well before their appearance in a book.  So those also get written down as they come in and just bide their time then until it’s the moment in the book for them to be introduced.

And I do work every day.

Do you get writers’ block and how do you deal with it?

Yes.  And, not well.

How did you conceive of May 1812? 

It undoubtedly had to do with being bored and not being able to find anything I wanted to read.  I’d always woven stories in my head.  (Yes, I was one of those children with invisible friends when young…)  That, and skiving.

But I must also say I was hugely influenced by Dorothy Dunnett and her Lymond Chronicles.  I was specialising in Renaissance history as part of my work as a mediaevalist, and so theoretically, I knew much of what she was writing about.  I knew that world of the mid-16th century.  But not as she wrote it.  Not humanly, not the grit and the grace.  Not as the interconnected Europe which we seem to think we invented in the twentieth century.  She brought it all to life.

And as I’ve said elsewhere, I was starting to wander into the field of early 19th century history and Napoleon.  While at the same time rebelling against the genre fiction which purported to be about that world.  It was bound to synthesise into something I dare say.

And Of Honest Fame?

That’s rather easier to answer.  I got the images.  And the poetry of the descriptions of the first few scenes in chapter one.  It all just came into my head, complete, and wouldn’t go.  There was Boy in Paris–though he didn’t have a name in that first instant.  But there he was and wouldn’t go.  So I wrote the whole thing down.  And then before I knew it, there was Dunphail and Georgie Shuster–characters from May 1812–and then another and another…

They hadn’t been main characters in the first book, but they made it clear this was their book.  And at the same time, I was reading a lot of Byron.  And there was the title, just sitting there.   So it all was there, synthesising or fermenting…

And then I came across a number of books about espionage in the Napoleonic Wars, because there’s such fine work being down in that field right now.  And it all just took off.

How much do you work on plot?

I don’t.  That is to say, I have an sense of the ideas I want to deal with, I know which historical events I want to include and cover, but beyond that, well, I just don’t do it.

So all I’ll know to begin with is where the book is going to start and where it will end.  But because I’ve spent a lot of time with my characters before I ever get down to writing, I just throw them into the story and let the rest unfold as a natural sequence of events.

I guess you might say I approach it as I approach a dressage competition.  I work very hard beforehand, learning the sequence of the thing, practising the transitions and the paces, and putting the horse I’m competing with through it all, element by element, so that we have everything mastered.

But on the day, well, on the day anything might happen.  The horse might be spooked by the chappie in the third row of seats who’s wearing a bright yellow shirt, and jump and skitter every time we pass; it might be a ‘Not doin’ it!’ day for him; or he might be well up for it and ready to rock and roll.

But whatever his reaction to the arena, what’s essential for me is self-knowledge and self-control, so that whatever he throws at me, I’m not fazed, but am comfortable with it and can ride him through it.  And that’s riding.

And it’s how I approach plot.  And because my work is a low mimetic form (yes, I did read my Eric Auerbach all those years ago) rather than high, that is to say realism rather than metaphoric, it all works out as a natural and credible interplay between characters and events, which is what I’m aiming for.

Or, you could just say I’m lazy and can’t be bothered.

Do you fall in love with your characters?

‘Struth, no.  I might love them like a brother or a friend… (Certainly they annoy me as much as my brothers have often done…)

Which of them do you relate to the best?

Probably Myddelton in May 1812.  I understand the idea of duty which drove those men who had every dashed horrible thing thrown at them, taking them down at the knees.  And every time, and no matter what it was, because of their devotion to their King and country, they got back up and went forward.

Do you have a favourite character?

I always enjoyed writing Pemberton in May 1812.  And I’m really came to enjoy writing Jesuadon and Barnet in Of Honest Fame–the interplay between the pair of them was just a delight.

Who are your writing influences?

John Donne, Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins and H.D.

Yes, I know, all poets.  Because they teach how to write, how to use language, how to savour the words and phrases of the language until they are the finest and most beautiful and stop a reader dead…

Byron’s rather superb for that too.  Because although I write novels, I want the language to be as beautiful as it can be, as startling in its lusciousness of image and sound.  For heaven’s sake, this is English I’m writing in–it’s the most beautiful language on earth, let’s use it!

In terms of writing novels though, influences must be Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O’Brian.

I also must add P.G. Wodehouse because he’s utterly, deliciously brilliant.  His pacing, his elastic use of the language, the flow of his writing that is as smooth as the finest mousse…

Who are my favourite writers today?

Paul House–because he makes me fall in love with his language, and because he writes of all his characters with compassion, no matter how unpleasant they are, so that one learns more about humanity from him and through his work…it’s just an art form.

I’m also completely enamoured of Dominic Lieven, the Professor of Russian History at LSE.  There is a man who really understands Napoleonic Europe.  I just wish he’d write more books.  And perhaps spread his net a little wider, because there is not a single decent history of Austria during the period in English.  And that’s just criminal.

The rest are also historians, I’m afraid:  David A. Bell, Charles Esdaile, Norman Davies, Colin White…

Though I must add a word about Charles Palliser and his brilliant novel, The Quincunx.  Because it was he who first dared to write a novel sweeping away the genre niceties of the Regency, and instead write the grit, the grime, the despair and the reality of London as it really was circa 1820.

Who are your favourite literary characters?

Sydney Carton, Pierre Buzukhov, Anne Eliot, Jane Eyre, Dr. Stephen Maturin…

Do you have any advice for young writers?

Pay attention.  Open all your senses.  Listen to the quiet, to the birdsong, to the wind in the trees.  Smell deeply.  Observe everything, especially the details.  Do what the gardener and artist Gertrude Jekyll spoke of when she talked about not seeing what you expect to see–a tree’s bark isn’t brown as we expect it to be, it’s really brown and tan and grey and black and perhaps even a bit green.  Really look.  Look at what’s there, not what you expect to be there.  And record it in your mind.  It will make your work so much richer…