There are two approaches to plotting or structure. I think of them as ‘male’ and ‘female’ although not all men go the male route, or women the female route. But it is a useful distinction. The male way is to ‘think things through’ before beginning. It is an architectural approach, involving plans, elevations, knowledge of materials and then building brick by brick. The female way is to find out what your book is about by writing it. This involves cutting away extraneous material. It’s the archaeological approach: a bit of geo-phiz followed by a lot of digging and dusting. There’s a story down there somewhere!

I’ve always gone the second route. Yes, of course, you need to know what your book is about in rough outline – you may even know the theme; you may even know the ending. But you have not thought things through at the outset in detail, and you have no plans to work by.

I’m now in deep revision on my fourth novel, A Gift for the Magus. I have been painstakingly excavating it for about three years now, but what I have is not satisfactory. It is failing in the area of structure. Starting work on this particularly savage edit, I discovered a revulsion for lists in my notebook, lists of things to include and delete. I couldn’t even read them. And yet, as I heard in a recent lecture on Luca della Robbia, ‘you can’t feel your way in marble’. You have to know where you are going, and I realised that I could get no further, ‘feeling my way’. Then I remembered mind-mapping.

I checked the web and there are several programmes for mind-mapping. The one I tried didn’t do the job. It just produced lists with fancy clouds round them. I went back to how I always used to do it, on paper with pencils and felt-tips. Bingo! Now I draw each chapter, putting the central theme in the middle and then organising things around the edge, in fancy clouds, boxes, whatever I wish. I do great sweeping arrows linking one thought to another. And once the chapter is done, I go back and make sure I’ve mentioned everything relevant on the map.

This technique has a great benefit. Structure and plotting are, of course, classic examples of left-hand brain activities. Mind-mapping does the job using the right-hand side. It is an artistic activity, with the shapes and colours employed to highlight each thought. The very act of using a pencil, feeling the resistance and acceptance of the paper, is creative.

So if you are an archaeologist rather than an architect, try mind-mapping by hand and have great childish fun. Draw your villains. Add little details such as ‘dinner menu: stuffed quail and anchovies – mmm delicious!’ When you come to write your chapter, there will be little or no need to pause and chew your fingernails. Believe it or not, you will have ‘thought it all through’ just like a man, but in a very female way.

Diction – 1

So much in writing depends on making choices, and one of the main choices we must make in writing historical fiction is what level of language to use. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction defines this as ‘diction’ – our choice of words. The basic choice is coarse (which I shall call ‘churlish’) or fine (‘noble’). One of the great attractions of writing historical fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to use noble language that our own age no longer gives us, unless we want to sound very affected. Because of this impoverishment of modern language, in ‘flashback’ novels – novels which are set in our times but flash back to the past – the modern story can seem very thin and dull compared to the historical story. See Peter Ackroyd’s otherwise wonderful The House of Dr Dee.

There are two areas to consider. One is dialogue: how our characters speak to each other, and with what level of language. The other is the narration: how does the author speak about the characters and events? Both require a choice to be made on diction. Let’s deal with the second first, as it is easiest. Here are some examples:

1. He hath writ much
2. He’s written a lot
3. He has written much

The first is a parody of period language. The second is modern colloquial. The third is an authorial contrivance to suggest the first – let’s call it ‘blended diction’. You can guess which I’m going to recommend, can’t you? The third is usually the safest and most successful route.

Play time! Write three versions of each of the following statements in the periods of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries. Try and think of what people of the time really would have said, judge whether it is appropriate and use your own words if necessary:

He arrived this morning
She is pregnant
She combed her hair
He put on his trousers

Example for the day (what of I leave to you to determine):

His tightly woven mantle kept off rain most nimbly, for I could see that it was greasy and the drops that fell from the branches were disperpled by it. Adam Thorpe, Hodd.

In the next posting we’ll look more at ‘blended’ diction.

Hello world!

Two things happened yesterday which inspired starting this blog. I was listening to the Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4, ‘Plantagenet’. When John discovered he was to inherit the crown from his brother, Richard, he shouted ‘I’m King!’ in a hysterical fashion worthy of Monty Python. Over and over he shouted it. A little while later, in a flurry of modern colloquialisms, he described someone as a ‘stream of piss’.

I’m currently reading Adam Thorpe’s Hodd which purports to be the translation of a twelfth century manuscript since lost. It even has footnotes and other devices to maintain the fiction. For example, names of people and places vary. Hodd is literary historical fiction, where the writing can give as much delight as the story. Yesterday I came across the word ‘unneth’ in the text and have no way of knowing what it means, other than the context.

So here we have two extremes of ‘diction’ – what we could call the unabashed modern and the contrived period – and that will be the topic of my first proper post.

The aim of this site is to provide a forum for anyone interested in historical fiction and learning how to write it. Its success will depend on contributions from others, so please do feel free to add whatever you wish in the comments. Reviews of current publications and requests for future topics would be very welcome.