Taking them there – of transportation with words

ISOTS pic 4I was eleven. It was more or less midnight and I snuck out of bed and opened the door to my closet. I clambered up the fitted shelves to the little platform right at the top – my secret nest. The closet was – obviously – dark. It smelled of wood and clean clothes. I struck a match and lit the seven candle stumps I’d arranged in a rough pentagram shape. I put on my home-made tunic. As I am a disaster at sewing, it was stapled together. A belt, my Dad’s heirloom knife and I was ready to go. I swept my hands through the respective flames, set my palms flat to the wood and prayed for time to tear itself open and suck me through, land me at the feet of my great hero, Richard the Lionheart.

It didn’t happen – if it had, I’d not have had my ear chewed off by my mum for being an idiot who potentially could burn the whole house down by lighting candles in my closet. On the other hand, had it happened, I guess I would have wished it hadn’t.

The thing about the past is that we tend to romanticise it. We think life was simpler back then – good and bad more clear-cut. We ignore the fact that the vast majority of our medieval forebears were poor, hungry and generally quite scruffy. They had lice and fleas. They ate a lot of porridge or pottage. They never had lemon and meringue pie for dessert. They worked a lot. Most of them rarely went all that far beyond the village of their birth. The majority were illiterate. Not, all in all, a life to aspire to, is it?

Since my eleven-year-old self’s experimentation with the arcane, I have moved on. I still have moments when I wish I could step into another time. I tend to linger in ancient churches and ruins, and at times I imagine hearing the faint echoes of those that went before. A whispered prayer, begging God to spare his wife from the plague: a shadowy lady, kneeling as she lights a candle for her departed son. Men fleeing a battlefield for the sanctuary of a church, screaming as they are cut down just inside the door. It all happens in my head, yet it is so very vivid. Real, almost.

Writing historical fiction is about transporting the reader through time. Effectively, a historical novel should resemble a Tardis, sweeping the reader out of the securities of modern life and dumping them somewhere else entirely. You don’t achieve that by loading your book with info-dumps. Neither will the reader be transported by a re-telling of political events. No, what creates the historical settings are the details, the little things that subtly indicate the plot is unfolding in a distant time. Tallow candles burning with a sooty flame, a woman combing lice out of her hair (although that is something we rarely see in historical fiction – despite it reasonably being quite commonplace), a swaddled baby hung off a hook to quieten its cries. Linen being soaked and washed, muddy garments being cleaned with brush and sand, cows to milk, pigs to butcher – the minutiae of everyday life is the warp into which the adept historical novelist weaves the plot itself. And those who weave know that unless the warp is set up correctly, the weave itself will collapse, no matter how impressive the weft.

The trick with all these everyday details is that as a novelist you must know much more about them than you ever share with the reader. The reader does not want a detailed description of how to make lye soap – but wants enough for the reader to think; “aha, he/she knows her stuff”. Of course, if you’ve spent hours investigating lye, if you’ve collected birch ashes and mixed with rain water, if you’ve set it to drip, if you’ve even gone to the trouble of boiling the resulting lye with lard to make some sort of rudimentary soap, then you really, really want to share. Don’t. Just add the occasional detail, like your character checking on the lye barrel, or someone hollering at a child who gets too close to the (very) caustic lye.

So to get the warp right I’ve made lye, I’ve made soap, I’ve done laundry the old-fashioned way. I’ve also castrated piglets, milked cows, helped foals into the world, butchered a pig, used a flail and scythed a hayfield. And no, that is not as easy or picturesque as when Aidan Turner walks about bare-chested against a gorgeous backdrop of sunny skies. To start with, it is hard work which causes you to sweat, and when you sweat, the flies descend upon you.

Very little of all of the above ever shows up in much detail in my books. But I know – and I am very, very glad I live in a day and age where everyday life comes with washing machines and dishwashers. And showers. And chocolate. I do feel we could do with some more knights in shining armour, though. And seriously, how about a gilded swan for dinner? No? No, maybe not.

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A light in the dark

IMG_0323Wandering through the past has similarities to walking through the forest on a summer night. There is enough light to make out the general shape of things, the odd boulder, the stand of rustling oaks. The water of the distant lake shimmers in the ambient light, and a streak of orange hovers to the west – enough to illuminate the general contours that surround you.

The details, however, hide in the shadows. Something crunches benath your foot, and in the dark you have no idea whether it was a twig or the fragile shell of a bird’s egg. All you know is that something broke.

Writing historical fiction requires dragging those hidden details out into the light. In some cases, the author will fill in the gaps with plausible events – at least according to that author. But what is plausible for one author, is impossible for another, and so we can have two equally competent writers writing about the same historical person and depicting that person very differently. The classic example is Richard III, elevated to the heroic victim of whispered calumnies by some, presented as a ruthless murderer of innocents by others.

Some writers allow themselves the pleasure of presenting the same historical character differently in different books. One such example is Tony Riches, who in his book about Eleanor Cobham presents her husband, Humphrey of Gloucester, in a far more favourable light than he does in his book Owen, which features Owen Tudor and his secret marriage to Catherine Valois, Henry V’s widow (and Humphrey’s sister-in-law). Of course, neither of these depictions is correct – should Humphrey materialise before us, he’d probably be quite surprised by how he has been represented, as would Richard III. And Henry VII. Maybe not so much Henry VIII – although I suspect he would loudly claim he was the victim of a character assassination. From Henry VIII’s perspective, it is unfortunate that so much documentation from his reign has survived. Richard III, however, can give us a toothy grin and ask us just what sources we would base our assertion that he murdered his nephews on.

Things become even more diffuse if you choose to write about people who did not figure on the central stage – maybe who did not exist at all. Obviously, in this latter case you can ignore all need to research the individual’s timeline – you make it up as you go – but for the sake of plausibility, there is no getting away from the need to shed some light on the historical darkness. You need context. You need details. You need a setting that comes to life, whether through the draught that filters through the slats in the shutters or the endless sequence of meals that consist of pottage.

Actually, an author ALWAYS has to illuminate the setting. Whether contemporary or historical, sci-fi or dystopian, a writer aspires to anchor the reader in his/her world, with his/her characters. Readers can forgive a sloppy setting if the characters live and breathe. (The other way around doesn’t work – ever). But readers remember the books that transport them to whatever corner of the universe, in whatever time the writer has chosen to set the story in.

All of the above influenced me as I considered what to name my imprint. Yup. MY imprint.  Allow me to introduce Timelight Press – a little light in the endless oceans of time – and space 🙂

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