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Archive for the month “June, 2013”

historical novels – how accurate are they?

I was talking to an elderly lady yesterday who complemented me on the accuracy of my wartime novels. ‘It must have been especially hard for you to get them right,’ she said. ‘As you weren’t there at the time.’ And that made me start thinking about how ‘right’ historical novels ever really are.

Clearly all historical fiction is fabricated in some way. Hilary Mantel was not present in the Tudor court (as far as we know), nor did Steven Saylor ever don a toga and wander the streets of ancient Rome. Mary Renault was never pally with Alexander the Great, and I wasn’t even a twinkle in my mother’s eye during the Second World War.

So would it have made any marked difference to my novels if I could remember cowering under a Morrison shelter as a child?morison shelter

Personal memories are clearly useful, but we also all know that memory can be faulty. People often ‘remember’ things that other people have told them, or that they have read about. Our recollections are always in some way overlaid by our own ‘world view’. My sister’s memories of our childhood often don’t correspond with my own (I’m quite sure I never pretended to be a puppy living in the wardrobe!) I have equally found in my own research that people’s retrospective view often varies wildly from letters and diaries written at the time. For example, the post war mantra of ‘We all pulled together’ sits oddly with numerous diary gripes about petty theft, looting and prejudice.

Received wisdom and the wisdom of hindsight is often a problem for historical novelists. I believe that a crucial part of the writer’s job is to re-explore the era and to re-examine what people really were feeling, thinking and doing at the time the novel is set. The most effective way to do this is to study the history, investigate different reports of specific events, read diaries, letters, magazines, newspapers, listen to old radio shows (I still giggle at the idea of the indefatigable Sandy Macpherson and his everlasting organ!), and yes, if possible, to talk to people who were there.

When you pull all this information together you get a real feel for the specific era you are writing about, but of course, even then, it is still only background material. The key skill of any successful novelist is the ability to create three dimensional, empathetic characters and to weave them into a plot which will not only transport readers to the time and place of the story but will also give them a compelling reading experience.

So, yes, when writing any type of fiction it’s clearly vital to get it as ‘right’ as is humanly possible, but I don’t believe it’s necessary to have ‘been there at the time’ in order to create a sense of authenticity. If that was the case the number of historical novels on our shelves would be very limited – and science fiction novels nonexistent!

Everyone loves editing, dont they?

Everyone loves editing, don’t they? No? I’m astonished. What could be more enjoyable than giving yourself the opportunity to reread your wonderful prose and to hone it into an even more compellingly readable piece of writing?

Well, a nice holiday obviously, or a trip to the shops perhaps, or sitting in the garden with a cup of tea, or doing the ironing, or even cleaning out the dog bowls.

Because the truth is that most people actually hate editing. I know this a) because people have told me, and b) because so many books are so badly edited.

There are two key components to successful editing. The first is the relatively easy one of correcting spelling errors, punctuation and typos. The second is the much more difficult one of deciding whether certain sentences, paragraphs, sections, even chapters, are really necessary and as good as they can be in their current form (or indeed in any form). Plus the related, opposite problem – is there something missing, a word, a sentence or an idea that would enhance the overall readability and sense of the piece if it was included?

Editing is not only about ironing out glitches in the language but about double checking the content and ideas, making sure that the article, story or novel is doing what you intend it to do, exploring the themes you want to explore, expressing the message, or telling the right story in the best possible way.

Yes, editing can feel like a chore, particularly after the creative delight of writing the piece, but surely it’s worth the effort to achieve a more readable, focussed and satisfyingly perfect result?

As well as honing your work it is useful to sharpen up your editing skills too. Practice makes perfect after all. As a light exercise, here are some examples of editing errors picked up from a selection of church newsletters (courtesy of my lovely mother-in-law). Enjoy!

Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation.

This evening at 7pm there will be hymn singing in the park opposite the church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin.

Weight watchers will meet at 8pm at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use the large double doors at the side entrance.

Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Bring your husbands.

Pot-luck supper Sunday at 5pm – prayer and medication to follow.

The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on the Water.’ The sermon tonight: ‘Searching for Jesus.’

The pastor would appreciate it if ladies in the congregation would lend him their electric girdles for the pancake breakfast next Sunday.And my favourite:

The Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 6pm. Please use the back door.

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