Transcription of Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast episode 016 (Dec 2010) – historical

The sixteenth episode of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast was released on 6th December 2010 and the content has never been released other than website links (on my website http://www.morgenbailey.com) so I hope you find this information useful. In the first fifteenth episodes (see https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/bwt-podcast for earlier blog posts), I covered ‘show not tell’, the five senses, repetition, points of view, tenses, dialogue, characters, crime, poetry, short stories, novels, writing for children, scriptwriting, comedy, romance and chick lit, erotica and ‘writing rules’. This episode had a focus on historical fiction and the classics.

Overview

Wikipedia’s section on historical novels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_novel) explains that the historical novel “a novel that has as its setting a period of history and that attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity (which is in some cases only apparent fidelity) to historical fact. The work may deal with actual historical personages…or it may contain a mixture of fictional and historical characters”. Historical fiction may centre on historical or on fictional characters, but usually represents an honest attempt based on considerable research (or at least serious reading) to tell a story set in the historical past as understood by the author’s contemporaries. Those historical settings may not stand up to the enhanced knowledge of later historians.

Wikipedia also has sections on historical whodunnit (Ellis Peters’ Cadfael and Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ are prime examples), historical romance (Georgette Heyer’s regency-set books are usually in this category…Mills & Boon also have a ‘regency’ series), alternative history (‘alternate history literature asks the question, “What if history had developed differently?” Most works in this genre are based in real historical events, yet feature social, geopolitical, or industrial circumstances that developed differently than our own. While to some extent all fiction can be described as “alternate history,” the subgenre proper comprises fiction in which a change or point of divergence occurs in the past that causes human society to develop in a way that is distinct from our own’) and historical fantasy (many of which are set overseas, Guy Gavriel’s books are set in Renaissance Italy, Byzantine Greece, Moorish Spain, Medieval Occitania and Viking England).

Examples of historical novels are Kate Mosse’s ‘Labyrinth’ which was written in 2005 but set in both the middle ages and present-day France. Likewise, Philippa Gregory’s 2002 novel ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ (made into a film in 2008) was about 16th Century Henry VIII’s complicated love life. Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel ‘The Remains of the Day’ was set in 1956 with 1930s flashbacks and many of crime writer Sally Spedding’s books are set in present day and in historically darker times. Closer to home, Judith Allnatt’s first novel ‘A mile of river’ was set in 1970s England. So, the bottom line is that a historical novel doesn’t have to be set centuries ago but just not in the present day. Be careful though…things change so quickly (especially products) that you have to be careful about getting your facts right.

Classics are historical to us but they were written about the, then, present times. These include works by Jane Austen, who in just four years wrote Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were both published after her death in 1817, and she died before completing her last, eventually titled Sanditon.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Eyre is packed with adaptations, list of characters, plot etc. Many classic novels are made into television series or films and often many times over – Jane Eyre was made into 8 silent movies, 6 musicals and nearly 20 TV/movie versions!
  • And who can forget (if they’ve seen the film) Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy (which, coincidentally, the Daily Mail gave away on DVD recently…as part of a series of 12 classic films)?
  • Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella ‘Christmas Carol’ has been made into over 70 stage, radio and tv adaptations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_A_Christmas_Carol_adaptations).
  • Going back a bit is Shakespeare (1564-1616). Regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and he was certainly prolific…38 plays and many poems including 154 sonnets.
  • Going back even further are classic classics! Typing in ‘classical fiction’ in Wikipedia’s search and you get http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classics…Greek fiction! There’s a link on this page which takes you to ancient literature (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_literature) which goes back to 24thc B.C.!

Modern day classics…. how recent can a classic be? I know I harp on about Wikipedia but it’s a fantastic site. Their ‘modernist literature’ page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernist_literature) lists Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, Andrei Bely, W. B. Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Luigi Pirandello, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Jaroslav Hašek, Samuel Beckett, Menno ter Braak, Marcel Proust, Mikhail Bulgakov, Robert Frost and Boris Pasternak as modern classic authors. Postmodern literature is used to describe certain tendencies in post-World War II literature and details are found on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_literature.

Hints & tips

The book ‘Writing historical fiction’ by Rhona Martin explains that “there are many different kinds of historical novel – the family saga, the romance, the nostalgia novel, the adventure story, the ‘straight’ historical and many different ways of approaching them. But however you may choose to handle your theme it is essential that the novel is well-constructed and believable, with a strong sense of period and a storyline which keeps the reader turning the pages.” Rhona’s book includes the:

  • process of researching…my copy of Rhona’s book is dated 1988 so there is no mention of the internet. However there are other tips. Rhona said that research is like an iceberg…only the tip must show but the rest of it lurks invisibly under water has to be there to support it. If it isn’t, the whole thing sinks and your effort will be wasted. Don’t worry about over researching. If you don’t use a piece of research in one book or story, it could be used in another piece. How do you decide what is or isn’t relevant? Ask yourself if it carries the story further; if it doesn’t it is better left out. Research can include anything for instance clothing – what colours were available to the man in the street? Historically, dyes were extremely expensive to make and were the traditional colours of royalty. Pre-internet, Rhona suggests going to the library or museums or buying books on the era that you writing about. She also mentions that many universities and other educational bodies offer weekend seminars on history. You can also, of course, watch films of the period which comes in handy with…
  • effective use of dialogue and language…no-one in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is going to say “yeah, innit” and in the 16th/17th centuries, land-owners were likely to use a language different to their farmhands and men to women. Whilst only men could legally own money, the girl of independent spirit could only let off steam behind the scenes and had get her own way by underhand methods.
  • the ‘structuring and crafting of your work’ section includes ‘the opening’, ‘keeping the pages turning’, ‘structure and working methods’, ‘bringing it to life’ and ‘getting it right’.

There are hints and tips in Rhona’s book from leading historical novelists including Rosemary Sutcliff (Wikipedia’s page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemary_Sutcliff is a very interesting article/biography about this English author), Winston Graham OBE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Graham) most famous for his Poldark series and Jean Plaidy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Plaidy – born Eleanor Alice Burford) who had sold 14 million books by the time of her death (1993 – at sea, somewhere between Greece and Egypt!). Eleanor chose to use various names because of the differences in subject matter between her book – under the pen name ‘Victoria Holt’, she sold 56 million books(!) and 3 million as ‘Philippa Carr’. Rhona also touches on the categories within the genre, namely: romance, hot historical/bodice ripper, blockbuster (250,000 words), big adventure, family saga, straight historical and the nostalgia novel. She also goes through the whole getting published route. Thereafter is what to do if you get rejected but more positively, follows the subjects of sequels and writing full time.

Publications

  • ‘Writing historical fiction’ by Rhona Martin (mentioned above) by A&C Black is part of a series. Other titles include ‘Writing Crime Fiction’ by HRF Keating, ‘Writing a Thriller’ by Andre Jute, ‘Writing Science Fiction’ by Christopher Evans, ‘Writing for radio’ by Rosemary Horstmann, ‘Research for Writers’ by Ann Hoffman and ‘Word power – a guide to creative writing’ by Julian Birkett.
  • ‘Bernard Cornwell’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Cornwell) has written nearly 50 novels, most of them about his character Richard Sharpe (played by on TV by British actor Sean Bean). He says, and Rhona agrees, when writing historical fiction, one main thing to be careful of is to write in the manner of the time, especially with dialogue. This is where research comes in. Unless you read a lot of historical fiction, you need to ensure that everything you write fits into the era. I remember one of my school play competitions, Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ (which is set in the late 1800s), where we came second because the judge said that one of our actors was wearing a digital watch! I know it’s not the same as writing but you still need to check and double-check for inaccuracies. Again, this is where an Editor or Agent would come into play but you still want to get it as accurate as you can before getting to the submission stage.
  • Needless to say there are hundreds of history reference books on the market, these include ‘The strange laws of Old England’ by Nigel Cawthorne, Hutchinson’s Pocket ‘Chronology of World Events’, Faber’s ‘Book of London’ and Philip’s and Brockhampton’s books of ‘World History’ and then there’s ‘The English Family 1450-1700’ by Ralph A Houlbrooke (published by Longman).

Websites

  • http://www.historydirect.co.uk sells books, audiobooks and DVDs from many eras including topics of general history, pre & ancient history, AD-1100AD, Medieval, 16thc, 17thc, 18thc, 19thc, 20thc, World War 1, WW2, military history, genealogy, natural history and even crime & investigation!
  • http://www.historical-fiction.org.uk also sells historical books by author and title.
  • The Historical Novel Society (http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org) claims to be ‘the best place to find out about new historical fiction’. The Society, formed in 1997, promotes all aspects of historical fiction and provides support and opportunities for new writers, information for students, booksellers and librarians and is a community for authors*, readers, agents and publishers. *Clicking on the website’s ‘authors’ link takes you to a list of over 150 authors registered with the site – including the Jacqui Bennett Writers Bureau (mentioned in handout 7) and ‘Historical Romance UK’ which is a blog (http://historicalromanceuk.blogspot.com) for lovers of historical romance and written by HR authors. In case you’re wondering what a ‘blog’ is exactly (and that included me at the time!) Wikipedia explains…” A blog (an abridgment of the term web log) is a website, usually maintained by an individual, with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse chronological order. “Blog” can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog. Many blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject; others function as more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, web pages, and other media related to its topic. The ability for readers to leave comments in an interactive format is an important part of many blogs. Most blogs are primarily textual, although some focus on art (artlog), photographs (photoblog), sketchblog, videos (vlog), music (MP3 blog), audio (podcasting) are part of a wider network of social media. Micro-blogging is another type of blogging which consists of blogs with very short posts. As of December 2007, blog search engine Technorati was tracking more than 112 million blogs. With the advent of video blogging, the word ‘blog’ has taken on an even looser meaning of media where the subject expresses opinions or simply about something.”
  • http://www.histfiction.net contains a comprehensive list of historical fiction authors including Colleen McCulloch (of the Thorn Birds fame), Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Patrick O’Brien and more. The home page is rather messy but probably only because it’s packed with so much information!
  • http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1359 details a guide to the best historical novels and tales and many are downloadable from this site free of charge. Project Gutenberg is a collection of spoken books which have been compiled by voluntary narrators. Their site is http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page.
  • BBC’s history section (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history) which “is dedicated to bringing history to life, for the casual browser and the total enthusiast. Experience history through animations, games, movies and virtual tours, or delve into more than 450 feature articles by leading writers.” It includes topics on ancient history (Anglo Saxons, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Ancient India, British Prehistory etc.), British History (Normans, Tudors, Abolition, Victorians etc), World Wars (one and two) and Recent History (Sept 11, Falklands, Northern Ireland and Iraq). It also has an ‘on this day’ section where you revisit historical events on the current day or select particular days/months. Their ‘Resources’ section includes listings on history TV and radio programmes, interactive content, British timeline (chronological summaries of key events) as well as an A-Z on historic figures (selected short biographies) and history for kids pages. Finally, their ‘Practical History’ area has details on archaeology, family history and history trails. That should keep you going for a while!
  • http://www.bartleby.com is another book selling site and claims to be “the preeminent internet publisher of literature, reference and verse providing students, researchers and intellectually curious with unlimited access to books and information on the web, free of charge”.

IDEAS

Here I give you a couple of story ideas or ways to get new ideas then list seven sentence starts picked from my http://twitter.com/sentencestarts Twitter page; each one, if you’d like to use them, for a daily writing project.

  • Take a modern story, one you’ve written or know well, but set the characters in a certain time in history – how would they cope? Would they know about the era? How would the people around them react to them?
  • Do the same for a classical or historical story and set the characters in present day – how would they react; to modern technology, for instance?

And today’s sentence starts…

1. The stretch limo pulled into the gravel drive…

2. “Safety is our number one priority, Mr Houdini.”

3. George had been waiting for an opportunity like this for years…

4. Clark’s hand quivered as he touched her skin…

5. “Please don’t leave,” Rhoda begged her…

6. “Could you be any colder?” Ryan growled…

7. Andy pulled at his ear lobe…

The podcast concluded with News & Feedback, On This Day in History and two Fibonacci poems.  I first heard about Fibonacci in one of Judith Allnatt’s (http://judithallnatt.co.uk) tutorials and, whilst I don’’t write much poetry, it’s one that even I don’t find too taxing. As good old Wikipedia’s page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci_number) explains it’s based on a mathematical sequence where the first two Fibonacci numbers are 0 and 1, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two, i.e. the sequence starts 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on. The poems are based on the numbers as syllables, but obviously you can’t have a word with zero syllables so it would start at 1. Here are two examples…

  • Slug / snail / spider / inch by inch / they crawl over me / until I scream “please let me out!”
  • Pete / the / dragon / had a cold / As he sneezed the flames / faltered at the back of his throat

That’s it. Thanks for getting this far – a list of the other transcripts and summaries can be found at https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/bwt-podcast

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