Category Archives: Historical fiction

Ask an author – FAQ #2: Why imagine stories about the past?

IMG_5227Inevitably, writers of serious historical novels give this question plenty of thought. For me the answer is fairly simple: imaginary time travel can bring a distinctive kind of satisfaction to both author and reader, providing insights that are not cramped within the here-and-now.

Too often, literature that focuses on contemporary experience tends to reinforce our habitual attitudes and assumptions. The best historical fiction is still relevant to the world we live in, but in a potentially more illuminating way. Far from being an escapist retreat from the present into earlier periods, it can show aspects of our own everyday world in a new perspective. That, anyhow, is what I’m trying to do when I invent characters and episodes set within the factual framework of times past.

For instance most people today are infatuated with technology and its globalising potential. My novel That Untravelled World links the growth of early radio technology to the hopes and setbacks of Australia as a young nation grappling with the tyranny of distance. Perhaps this may illuminate our own precarious dependence today on the power of wifi and other wireless innovations that had their tentative beginnings a century ago.

Here’s another example. Almost daily the plight of refugees pervades the mass media, and so insistent is the pressure of images and stories about the current transnational deracination crisis that it’s hard for us to situate it within a longer timespan, and to think about perennial patterns of large-scale mobility. How, over the centuries, have traumatic movements of myriads of people been intertwined with social, economic and political changes? What enables some migrants to surmount hardship while others are crushed by what they suffer? Historical perspectives help us to understand these fundamental processes, and if shaped into the form of literary fiction (as in my novel The Mind’s Own Place, which follows several 19th-century migrants to the Swan River Colony) they allow us to imagine the corresponding tensions within and between people, as individual motives are linked to family dynamics and the cultural contours of a period that differs from ours but has contributed to the way we live now.

Having also written ‘pure’ history myself, I’m duly respectful of a disciplined fidelity to fact. On the other hand its constraints can sometimes leave a reader (and author) dissatisfied. Although historical fiction won’t be successful unless, on the basis of meticulous research, it explores themes that resonate beyond the circumstances in which the events are situated, ultimately it needs more than that. It should offer gripping stories with strong momentum and complex characters, related in memorable language.

In the parallel universe imagined by a writer of historical fiction, characters are revealed more intimately than is possible in a purely factual study. A novel can give us magical access to the inward experience of the figures who move through its pages, and episodes can be freely constructed to give meaningful shape to what happens. In contrast, the historian remains limited to verifiable evidence, which is often inconsequential and inconclusive. Fiction has more scope for resuscitating people from times past, bringing their minds and hearts back to life.

Above all, historical fiction depends for its impact on the quality of its language. For the author of a historical novel, reviving an earlier period and those who belonged to it means much more than marshalling facts and interpretations. It also means painstakingly yet creatively constructing an idiom, a texture of language, that will achieve two things: it will convey with a compelling illusion of authenticity the way people in that particular time and place used to feel and think and speak, and at the same time it will communicate powerfully to the modern reader. No easy task!

What would those convicts have thought?

 

town-hall-1I wonder what would they have thought, those convicts who built Perth’s Town Hall, if they had known that this feat of construction, along with their other work during the city’s early years, would be appreciatively discussed in a heritage forum held in that same venue a century and a half later?

I think they’d have felt some pride in their efforts, tinged perhaps with a sense of irony at the fact that the struggling Swan River Colony as they knew it back then did eventually turn into a prosperous economy – thanks in large measure to the labour they supplied.

This coming Sunday, 16 October at 12.30, as part of the weekend’s ‘Perth Heritage Days’ celebration, I’ll be on stage in the Perth Town Hall for a conversation about ‘Victorian Perth in Fact and Fiction,’ with particular reference to the colonial world represented in my novel The Mind’s Own Place. My interviewer/interlocutor will be the energetic Richard Offen, Executive Director of Heritage Perth.

If you’re in Perth this weekend, I’d be glad to see you at the event! Attendance is free but registration is requested for catering purposes. Copies of my novels will be available there for signing and sale at special cash discount prices.

The theme of this year’s Perth Heritage Days, ‘The Way We Worked’, is perfectly apt as a context for discussing The Mind’s Own Place. My novel traces the interlinked tales of a group of people, based on actual historical figures, who came separately to the coastal rim of Western Australia in the mid-19th century and contributed in different ways to the growth of settlement. Two are what we would now call ‘white-collar convicts’, bringing considerable skills to this corner of the world. One was trained as an architect and engineer; the other had a merchant background. Their experiences in and around Perth after their ticket-of-leave release into the workforce provide an illuminating insight into the world of colonial employment and commercial development.

Like death at the door

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In his book Untimely Interventions, the venerable Australian-born and USA-based literary theorist Ross Chambers (one of my mentors) discusses what he calls testimonial writing. He defines this as an edgy form of literature that bears witness to historical traumas, calling the dead to life and calling on the living not to forget them. Its subject matter can be any painful episode in modern social history that’s hard to confront, ‘haunting the periphery of our safe and protected world like death at the door.’ Testimonial writing insists on remembering what it would be easier for us to repress. Chambers observes:

‘National cultures, these days, seem increasingly aware of the sense in which they are haunted, both by past atrocities and by the continuing injustices those atrocities have spawned.’

The examples he lists include Germany struggling to deal with its guilt over the Holocaust and with resurgent neo-fascism; France trying to lay the ghosts of its Vichy past; the USA living with the long aftermath of slavery and the Civil War; South Africa facing the legacy of apartheid; Israel confronting the realities of co-existence with displaced Palestinians; Australia and many other countries still dogged by the consequences of colonialism.

1624165Remarking that ‘as the “original” witnesses and survivors age and die, new means of regenerating their witness will have to be found,’ Chambers discusses the instance of Pat Barker’s 1991 novel Regeneration, part of a trilogy set in England during the last year of World War 1. Its storyline testifies not only to the slaughter of huge numbers of soldiers on both sides, especially in trenches of the western front, but also to the difficulty of reporting back truthfully from the war zone to those in England. By incorporating episodes from the real-life wartime experiences of writers Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and depicting their attempts to devise a new poetic idiom that would express without lyrical evasion the horror of this brutal conflict and its lingering aftermath, this novel evokes the condition of ‘perpetually surviving a trauma that is never over.’ Much of the action takes place in a hospital for shell-shocked officers, which becomes symbolic of Britain itself, physically isolated from the battlefront but haunted by its pain despite strenuous efforts to forget.

Chambers sees Pat Barker’s Regeneration as exemplifying the increasingly important role of historical fiction in ensuring we retain the kind of cultural memory that testifies to what humanity has suffered. This insight helps me to understand why in recent years I’ve devoted most of my energies as a writer to novels set in times past, especially to experiences of bitter hardship.

Debut novelists – but hardly novices

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A literary lion guards the NY Public Library
(source: Carol Highsmith – public domain)

As in previous years, this month’s Perth Writers Festival (PWF) will bring together assorted literary lions from several corners of the world and put them on platforms for three days of intensive talking. No doubt some will exceed expectations and some will disappoint. Not all authors turn out to be accomplished speakers, deep thinkers or charming personalities. Nevertheless this annual event continues to attract large audiences. What are they looking for?

Most people who scan the PWF program booklet with a view to attending at least a few sessions will hope to find not only a mixture of lively topics but also a good number of newcomers along with well-established writers. If the planners do their job well the big names will be balanced by relatively unfamiliar names. Although a festival such as this would seem incomplete without some literary lions, it’s also an occasion for emerging talents to join the parade.

The session I’ve been invited to chair (‘Reimagining’: Sun 21 Feb at 10am) will feature three writers whose first novels (all historical, based on real people and events) have recently appeared – yet none could be considered a novice storyteller.

Two of them are Australians. Remarkably, both had already won significant national and international recognition before these books were published. Lucy Treloar, whose debut book is Salt Creek, was previously the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region. Shirley Barrett, author of Rush Oh!, has an enviable reputation as a screenwriter and director whose films have won awards not only in Australia but also at Cannes.

Their fine novels share some features. Both are family stories told by first-person narrators who are young (teenage) independent-minded women with wilful fathers. Both novels reimagine periods of Australia’s past: the first decade of the 20th century in Rush Oh! and the mid-19th century in Salt Creek. Both evoke a strong sense of place through coastal settings: the Coorong (Sth Aust.) in Salt Creek and Eden (NSW) in Rush Oh! Yet in tone, plot and theme they differ substantially.

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The location named in the title of Salt Creek is remote and lonely, an area newly opened to pioneers willing to develop the harsh land.

For the Finch family, which has recently come down in the world, it’s a hard-scrabble existence. Financial difficulties are compounded by rash decisions and troubled relationships.

As a local Aboriginal boy from the dispossessed Ngarrindjeri people becomes drawn into their lives,  values are sorely tested, secrets emerge, and young Hester Finch begins to question the assumptions held by her family about the very nature of civilisation.

 

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One of the surprising qualities of Rush Oh! is that much of it is humorous in tone, despite the often painful and sometimes gory subject matter. It’s told by Mary Donaldson, eldest daughter of a family whose father dominates the small-scale whaling operations on which their town depends. Men in little boats work in deadly yet affectionate partnership with pods of orcas to bring large migrating whales within harpoon range. Magnificent animals are slaughtered, brave men perish, but there are also moments of whimsy and hilarity, adolescent romance and disappointment,  bafflement and insight.

Mary’s portrayal of her family and community members is always lively, producing many memorably individualised characters, but it is her own equable temperament that holds the story together.

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The other writer participating in this PWF session on ‘Reimagining’ is from England. Guinevere Glasfurd, like Lucy Treloar and Shirley Barrett, already has an aura of success to enhance her debut as a novelist. On the basis of her short fiction she has won awards from the Arts Council of England and the British Council. What’s more, although her novel The Words in My Hand has just been released in English, a German translation of it was published six months ago to great acclaim. In one notable respect, The Words in My Hand resembles Rush Oh! and Salt Creek: it is in large part the story of a teenage girl’s yearning for love, seen through her own eyes. Set in the 17th century and based on fact, it explores the relationship between a Dutch maid, Helena Jans, and the renowned French philosopher, René Descartes.

While all three novels are first-person narratives, the storytelling method in The Words in my Hand takes on an additional challenge: through the medium of English it tries to create the idiom of someone whose own language is actually Dutch, whose lover’s language is French, and whose rudimentary literacy is hard-earned.

In our festival conversation I’m hoping to hear what each writer thinks about the pros and cons of her chosen voice and point of view. There will be no shortage of other topics, too, and these are all fascinating novels, so if you’re in Perth on Sunday 21st February do come along to this session. It’s a free event.

By the way, I’ll also be appearing in one of the Human Library sessions devised for PWF by the UK’s Empathy Museum. The “books” in this library are individuals with stories to share: visitors will hear from and talk with three living books over an hour-long session. My session is on Sunday 21st at 2.30 in the Sunken Garden (UWA campus), one of a series on the theme of “age.” This is a free but ticketed event – bookings can be made here.

 

“Polluting the well of history”? Writing fiction about times past

In a preface to his historical novel Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott wondered whether purists might have misgivings about this kind of writing. Would it raise a concern that by “intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age which I describe”?

Scott wasn’t seriously anxious about this, but two centuries later the genre of historical fiction still troubles some historians. Paul Lay, editor of the magazine History Today, declares sternly that it’s “no substitute for the real thing.” He adds this dismissive harrumph:

There’s no great harm in reading historical novels, nor writing them, but if anyone wishes to understand history, in all its complexity, they should read ‘real’ history and then they should write it.

I’d like to think – but of course I would, wouldn’t I? – that my own fiction does reveal some of the complexity of ‘real’ history. However, I recognise that certain questions shouldn’t be brushed aside. Do novelists have a right to modify facts drawn from times past? If real people and events are involved, shouldn’t there be constraints on the freedom to invent? What is a writer of historical fiction trying to achieve anyway? Is there a presumptuous intention to surpass the work of scholars and offer a superior kind of truth about the past?

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The Old Mill c. 1890, showing Satan Browne’s renovations

Exploring issues such as those was one aim of the research project on “History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill”, for which the State Library appointed me the 2015 J.S. Battye Memorial Fellow.

During my tenure of the Fellowship I’ve dug around in various archival materials (including sources for some works-in-progress), read various Western Australian publications, and reflected on the processes of writing historical fiction – my own (The Mind’s Own Place in particular) as well as that of several other authors.

One outcome of the project has been an illustrated public lecture, now available on the website of the literary magazine Westerly. This version doesn’t include the lively panel discussion with Amanda Curtin, Jenny Gregory and Davis Whish-Wilson, which followed my presentation; but you can access the text of the talk, with a selection of accompanying images, here.

History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill

Libraries are a valuable resource for any writer – and research libraries are vital for a writer of historical fiction. So imagine my delight at the news that I’ve been awarded the J.S. Battye Memorial Fellowship for 2015.

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James Sykes Battye, Chief Librarian, State Library of Western Australia,1894-1954

The Battye Library, as many readers of this blog will know, comprises a wonderful assortment of archival riches within the State Library of Western Australia (SLWA). The purpose of the Battye Fellowship is to support projects that will enhance understanding of this State through research based on the Battye collections.

Over the next few months I’ll spend a lot of time happily immersed in those collections with the aim of producing a substantial piece of work on the process of writing historical fiction. I’ll present a public lecture on this topic, and the finished outcome – an illustrated essay – will eventually be published on the SLWA website and/or in print.

Fiction-writers who incorporate imaginary characters and episodes within a factual framework from times past are often asked what they are trying to achieve. This recurrent question incorporates others. What constraints, challenges and opportunities should such a writer recognise? Why include invented content anyway? Why not stick to facts? If a narrative goes beyond the discipline of pure history, what research protocols are necessary to convey a credible sense of authenticity?

In exploring such questions through this generous Fellowship, I hope to increase public awareness of how diverse and deep the Battye resources are, and how relevant they can be not just to history specialists but to a broader range of writers and readers as well. Many who use historical resources, or might be encouraged to use them, are not professional historians. I want to show how the Battye’s documentary and pictorial collections serve a wider literary community.

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Various Battye collections are well known to me. As a writer specialising in stories about Western Australia’s past, I’ve made grateful use of the Library’s holdings of early photographs, newspapers, private archives, ephemera, maps and various official records. Some of these were especially useful in the groundwork for my forthcoming novel The Mind’s Own Place, which incorporates a range of events, places and personages from the colonial period in Western Australia.

My project’s title is ‘History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill: researching and amplifying stories of Western Australia.’ This alludes to a paradigm case of blending archival research with creative writing: the Old Mill in South Perth, which figures substantially in The Mind’s Own Place. Using as a point of departure the Battye Library’s treasure trove of material on the Old Mill, I’ll develop an illustrated essay on the process of writing serious historical fiction. I’ll draw not only on my own experience but also on the work of several other novelists to discuss a range of examples of research-based historical fiction set in Western Australia, clarifying similarities and differences between pure and fictionalised history.

I can hardly wait to get on with it. And perhaps I’ll glimpse in some shadowy corner of the library a ghostly trace of its venerable namesake, James Sykes Battye, inaugural Chief Librarian, who began shepherding the State Library in the 19th century and continued in that role until the second half of the 20th. Now that’s a career of substance!

Authentic language in historical fiction

Any list of contenders for a major literary prize makes me pause to think about what makes some books exceptionally convincing. If the list includes fiction set partly or wholly in the past, it piques my particular interest in the means by which successful historical novels produce an impression of linguistic authenticity.

Here I’ll comment on three examples: Amanda Curtin’s Elemental (shortlisted for the forthcoming WA Premier’s Literary Award), Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (on the Booker’s current long list), and Jim Crace’s Harvest (shortlisted last year for the Booker, unlucky not to win it).

There’s usually a good deal of historical research behind any novel set in bygone times. Some of this may involve painstaking work on various circumstantial matters, though the writer should beware of clogging the story with intrusive references to ‘a surfeit of period detail’. That phrase is from an essay by Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books, which goes on to say that readers don’t want to be ‘distracted by expository passages that emit the dusty aura of the research library as we encounter an accumulation of costumes and customs.’

In any case, preparatory research undertaken by the best writers of historical fiction goes well beyond any checking of facts and fossicking for bits of local colour. Especially important is the challenge of creating a language that achieves verisimilitude – the semblance of reality. It’s no easy matter to persuade your readers that your narrative medium is rendering accurately how people spoke and wrote in your chosen period and place. The writing must seem to embody their characteristic turns of phrase, their conversational habits, the structure of their sentences – not only to avoid anachronism but also to gain an insight into the way they thought and felt, which would sometimes have been different from what we’re used to today. So meticulous attention to language isn’t pedantic in novels of this kind – it’s vital for credibility. But it needs to be done in a manner that avoids weighing down the story and slowing down the reader. 

Elemental_cover_bf19043a-46da-48fe-aa31-e0bd8a12c601_largeIn a previous blog post on highlights of my reading from last year, I commented that Amanda Curtin’s Elemental gains much of its enduring power from the skilful way in which it uses language to bring patterns of history and geography alive, especially ‘from the sustained and marvellously individualised narrating voice of its main character, Meggie Tulloch.’ This novel follows the ups and downs of Meggie’s life from her childhood years in the early 20th century, when she learns to work as a ‘gutting girl’ in small harsh communities of fisherfolk, first in northern Scotland and then in the Shetlands. This setting poses technical problems for the novelist because the idiom of those communities was full of words unfamiliar to most modern readers, but Amanda Curtin’s achievement is to carry the reader along without needing to depend unduly on the dialect glossary at the end of the book. She does this partly through clever use of contextual clues, judicious repetition and a knack of incorporating nuances of meaning into the sentence rhythms themselves.

wake cover_illustrationI haven’t yet read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake except for a brief excerpt available online as part of the extensive publicity engendered by this innovative novel. You can look at the sample and the author’s accompanying comments here. If you do so, it’s immediately obvious that what Kingsnorth does is to devise a modified form of Anglo-Saxon speech as a vehicle for his narrator – an invented idiom that sits somewhere between our own modern English and the actual language of eleventh-century England. ‘The result’, he says, ‘is a book which is written in a tongue that no one has ever spoken, but which is intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land: a place at once alien and familiar.’

It’s an admirably bold experiment, though it carries two risks. Some readers may reject its homemade language as too opaque to be worth the effort of deciphering, while others (especially purist Anglo-Saxon scholars) may regard it as just a travesty of genuine Old English.

Jim-Crace-HarvestIn Harvest Jim Crace has devised something different from historical fiction of the usual kind. Factual precision is plainly not his purpose; rather, the authenticity lies in a truthful adherence to timeless human feelings. Nowhere does the novel specify the period or location in which its action occurs. Some features suggest the midlands in the Elizabethan (Shakespearean) era, but one could imagine it taking place any time during the centuries-long process of enclosing the English countryside, when peasants were forced to relinquish their traditional crop fields and small-scale village life so that sheep farmers could acquire expanses of profitable pasture land. In one sense the historical aspects of the story are as applicable to our own time as to any era, because ‘small farmers all over the world are still being forced from their lands’, as Crace remarks in an interview.

In another sense his story reaches towards elegiac myth, evoking the values of a lost community. It creates an almost hypnotic effect of nostalgia by selectively embedding archaic turns of phrase within highly stylised language that often develops a strong metrical beat. Occasionally this gives passages the regular rhythm of iambic pentameter (te-tum te-tum te-tum te-tum te-tum). In fact Crace’s prose can typically sound like the blank verse of Shakespeare or Milton or Wordsworth. Here are a few examples, mainly of sentence-length ‘lines’:

‘The village is aflame, but not with fire.’  ‘We’re drinking ale from last year’s barley crop.’  ‘We ought to be content. The harvest’s in.’  ‘Tonight there is no moon in view, of course.’  ‘As yet, there’s not the slightest trace of wind / to take the rain away and irrigate / our distant neighbours’ lands instead of ours.’  ‘Already it is bright and hot enough / for us to shelter under rye-straw hats. / We all feel harvest-worn to some degree…’  ‘The village has been freckled by the chaff.’

To my mind the patterning of this novel’s language suggests metaphorically the slow, steady pulse of peasant life – its diurnal and seasonal rhythms, the ploughing of even furrows, the regular recurrence of seeding and harvesting.

I’m particularly conscious of the challenges of creating seemingly authentic language in historical fiction because my own next novel, scheduled for release next year, tries to incorporate into its passages of dialogue and interior monologue a credible impression of mid-19th century phrasing. In its early chapters, before the action moves to Australia, it also draws on some regional English dialects, inflected by working-class usage. Doing this in a way that avoids a heavy-handed display of linguistic markers takes a fair bit of care, so I hope the outcome will carry conviction for readers.