War and Peace

On dovegreyreader’s blog a group is getting together to read W&P a chapter a day. It should take a year. As this is one of the greatest historical novels ever, I highly recommend you join in, since future posts, at least for a year, are likely to be citing W&P ad nauseam for examples.
See August 27th on dovegreyreader.


Fact and Fiction

Paula, a reader who lives in California, has recently been in touch. She teaches art history in high school and wants to know how much of my novels is factual, how much fictional, and whether they can be used as teaching aids.

From the outset, perhaps because I was so young, so nervous, so amateur, I decided to stick to the facts as much as I could. That decision led me into a depth of research beyond that required even for a PhD! Eleven years later, I surfaced…

It became obsessional to find the truth, especially as I soon discovered that ‘facts’ are too often just fossilised fictions: someone’s interpretation where, over time, the disclaiming ‘perhaps’ or ‘may be’ has disappeared. I had to learn to distinguish truth from lie with a diviner’s intuition: an invisible antenna which lit up when something seemed true. This was particularly the case with Poliziano, who was not only murdered but suffered a character assassination which still infects our histories. I even saw some of this nonsense repeated in an otherwise highly scholarly work on Pico published just a couple of years ago. Sixteenth century lies repeated in the twenty-first, by a scholar who really should know better!  It’s very easy to get myopic-on-your-topic.  Unlike scholars, novelists have to be as broad in their reading as possible. My bibliography covers over 700 titles. One day I’ll put it on the website (but not today).

Many historical novelists have gone another way and put the story first, and I was certainly advised to do this, but given the choice I will always choose to do something the hard way. I had to burrow – deeper and deeper – into the material to find the real story. Some do not believe that lives adhere to story structure. In my experience – both in my own life and that of my characters – they do. If you can find that story-shape in your characters’ lives, it is my contention that you have found the truth.

Using fiction as a teaching aid is absolutely fine (I mean, it works in literature classes!). I didn’t connect with history at all until one enlightened teacher gave us a list of historical novels to read. Through that I discovered Mary Renault and Mary Stewart, and through them I fell in love with history big time. After all, using fiction gives the opportunity to challenge the students to discover for themselves what is true or made up – a great introduction to the art of research!

I always use ‘historical notes’ to warn readers where I have followed imagination rather than documentation, because I wouldn’t want anyone thinking something happened because it said so in the story. Generally speaking, imagination took the lead with the protagonist (who is fictional) and the female characters (about whom pitiful little information is available). Otherwise I stuck rigorously to the facts – with my moon phases and dates and times of events. Sometimes this really screwed my story line but whenever I made the necessary sacrifice and rewrote the scene, the story improved like kneaded dough – swelling under my hands with its own life.

Coincidentally Helen Horlick has written on this topic this week – and at much greater length. She has a lovely section on howlers where other authors didn’t do enough research. See Helen Hollick’s Muse and Views on http://helenhollick.blogspot.com.

Phases of the Moon

I’m currently reading an excellent novel set in the Boer War by Joyce Koetze which I’m trying to help her get published. It’s an epic story but her structural planning is so good it even includes phases of the moon. Such things give a work a lustrous twinkle of authority. In Joyce’s story, her spies travel in the new moon (will they evade capture?) and her heroine uses the moon to avoid pregnancy (will it work…?).

To find out the phases of the moon for the period you are working on, get ‘QuickPhase’ – a downloadable programme from moonconnector.com. It claims to cover all history. (I’ve yet to get a copy as we’re changing computers soon).

Putting Writing First

So, we’re in the middle of August and by now I’ve forgotten I’m a writer. There is the harvest to bring in from the allotment, the house to spring clean (in late summer), numerous projects both indoors and out. Even my reading has petered out. So there I was in the bathroom this morning – confession time – wearing nothing but my dressing gown and a stupid hood with holes in it, hooking some hair through to do some highlighting as if I were wiring myself up for a brain scan. Enter husband. I throw towel over my head. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Please don’t ask.’ So while I stand there, about as humiliated and embarrassed as it is possible to be, he starts to tell me why he was late to bed last night, because my typescript had kept him until 3am, and that this novel is my best yet, and he’s married to a great writer, and I stand there thinking, ‘Please go away and let me dye my hair in peace.’ But as I wash the foul and loathsome stuff off – I promise I will never do it again – I’m thinking, perhaps I should go some way to justifying all this praise by doing some work. And then I remembered my golden rule: Put Writing First. Let all the projects, the chores, the social joys, let them all be breaks, pauses, refreshments from the daily work, which is writing. So stop reading this blog and get back to it…!

Lammas Day

In our urban lives where food is available all year round, we have become detached from the traditional calendar, which was a mixture of agricultural and Christian. To get authentic feel for our chosen period – if it comes before WWII, say – it’s a good idea to get or make a diary which marks the year in the traditional way. If we begin to think – if not live – like our characters, it will help enormously to get authentic period detail.

I’ll do my best here to mark the days, although I have to say it was sheer luck that I turned on the radio this morning to hear Lammas Day being celebrated in the chapel of Eton College. Well I never…

So… Lammas Day is loaf-mass day. It is when the wheat is harvested and the first bread baked with the new grain. How wonderful that must have been if your grain had run out or rotted or been eaten by rats. So,  it’s Bread Day.


Make a loaf by hand – no bread machine. You could get properly historical and research whether the bread of your characters had yeast or not, and what kind of grain was used. But to make it easy, try it with fresh yeast and spelt flour, which are both readily available. Rest the attention on the sense of touch. Feel the dough rise as you knead it; get into the rhythm. When the dough takes on a life of its own, pushes back at you and is smooth as a baby’s bottom, you’ve kneaded enough.

Lammas Day is also known as ‘First Fruits Day’. After a late start this year, harvest has come early. We’ve picked our first pumpkin, courgettes have been in glut for the past two weeks, we’re feasting on cherry tomatoes and new potatoes. But our nod to Lammas Day is the onions. David discovered a new way to dry them. So after I’ve baked some bread today, I must go looking for somewhere else to hang the washing…

What a coincidence!

Thanks to swapaskill.com, I’ve made a couple of new friends: a solicitor and her husband. I was at their place yesterday, and he was explaining the finer points of Facebook to me, and I saw on his screen the name of an old friend. That we have this friend in common seemed impossible to both of us.

We all know it. It seems to happen to writers more than to most. Call it coincidence, or synergy, or serendipity – each of these a word inadequate to the task of describing things that happen which are downright spooky. How come you travel half way across the world only to bump into your neighbour coming out of an exotic temple? Why do friends phone you a minute after you start thinking about them? How come the one book you need to answer your research questions is the first you pick up? Open it at random, and there’s the answer you seek. I started to keep a book on these weird occurrences, only they stopped as soon as I did.

A pox upon those who resort to such cheap tricks in their fiction. Vital clues to the mystery should not fall at your hero’s feet. He should not happen upon his long lost cousin – who turns out to be the murderer – at the bus stop. Never, never can  any quest be solved in any other fashion than blood, sweat and tears (mostly the author’s). For all this adds up to the reviewer’s most poisonous word of damnation: ‘contrived’.

Strange, huh? But as Mark Twain neatly observed, ‘The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction must be credible.’

I sometimes think that the Great Novelist in the Sky never did a course in creative writing.

So now I’m off to meet a new day which is, potentially, incredible. Adieu.