Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Guest blogger: author Anne Whitfield

I'm delighted that author Anne Whitfield is guest blogging today on the release of her new novel, The House of Women.  Anne writes women's fiction and is a great storyteller.  I'll get right out of the way and let Anne introduce her work to you!

The House of Women

    Leeds. 1870. Lonely and brokenhearted, Grace Woodruff fights for her sisters’ rights to happiness while sacrificing any chance for her own.

The eldest of seven daughters, Grace is the core of strength around which the unhappy members of the Woodruff family revolve. As her disenchanted mother withdraws to her rooms, Grace must act as a buffer between her violent, ambitious father and the sisters who depend upon her. Rejected by her first love and facing a spinster’s future, she struggles to hold the broken family together through her father’s infidelity, one sister’s alcoholism, and another’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy by an unsuitable match.

Caring for an illegitimate half-brother affords Grace an escape, though short-lived. Forced home by illness and burdened with dwindling finances, Grace faces fresh anguish –and murder– when her first love returns to wreck havoc in her life.  All is not lost, however. In the midst of tragedy, the fires of her heart are rekindled by another. Will the possibility of true love lead Grace to relinquish her responsibilities in the house of women and embrace her own right to happiness?

Grace blinked to clear her frozen mind as her mother and Verity climbed the staircase. If Verity was here then was William here too? Movement at the door caused Grace to close her eyes. She couldn’t bring herself to open them and see the one man she’d longed for since she was sixteen.
‘Miss Woodruff?’ Doyle inquired at her shoulder.
Startled, she spun to face him, but she was blind to him, blind to everything but the sensation of having William here. Crazily, she wondered if she would swoon like a maiden aunt.
Doyle’s hand reached out, but he quickly tucked it behind his back. ‘What is it, Miss Woodruff?’
Grace swallowed, feeling the fine hairs on her arms and nape prickle. He is here.
‘Good evening, Grace.’
At the sound of William’s deep velvety voice, her heart stopped beating, only to start again at a rapid pace. Her stomach clenched and her legs felt unable to support her anymore. Slowly, she swivelled to gaze into William’s blue-green eyes and knew she was lost again. William smiled his captivating smile. He had aged, no, matured since their last meeting. He looked leaner, but broader in the shoulders. There was an aura about him, something that females of any age wanted. He made all other men around him seem insignificant. A magnetism, a mystical air surrounded him, catching Grace in its clutches once more.

Pre-order The House of Women from Amazon.com, or The Book Depository, which has free postage and currently on discount.
For more information about Anne Whitfield, please visit her website.

Friday, 27 May 2011

More historical lessons on how (not) to write a novel

Here is the second of my attempts to use Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy as a guide to writing historical novels.  See my previous post for an introduction to the book itself.

History: a digression?
Modern editors tell us that diversions are a ‘killer’ to the novel; many declare you should have no backstory at all in the first few chapters.  Tristram Shandy, on the other hand, declares, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them” (I.xxii).  He is quite unable to plot out a linear storyline, a fact he illustrates in his summary in Volume VI, Chapter xl:


These were the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third, and fourth volumes.—in the fifth volume I have been very good,—the precise line I have described in it being thus:

 I thought I’d try to avoid a similar Shandyism and concentrate on a type of digression historical authors have to wrestle with: the backstory of history in novels.

From: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
How and when should an author best inform the reader of the historical background to his/her novel, especially when the main characters are not the makers of textbook history?  When you’ve waded your way through a four-feet-high pile of research books and logged up several weeks online to ‘get into’ your historical world, it’s tempting to offer all your wisdom up to the reader, if only to make them realise what you went through.  But as I know from writing and critiquing, it’s pretty obvious when you begin to sound like a history book.  A few techniques authors have used to avoid their novel looking like the plot line of Tristram Shandy are:

In the beginning -   Occasionally an author will fill in the background with a foreword.  This avoids having to insert necessary facts in an unnatural way, and eases the reader from history to historical fiction.  I favour a brief sub-heading to the opening chapter e.g. “Florence, 1293,” which gives the author at least a baseline of expectation to work from. 

The neophyte POV – have your POV character undergo a new experience or travel to a new place, and show the reader the information through his eyes.  In Carrie Vaughn’s YA time-travel novel, Steel, her teenage protagonist ends up on an eighteenth century pirate ship where, as a new member of the crew and a landlubber, she gets to explain the workings of a ship without sounding like a sailing manual.

It’s all French to me – use a few words from the original period/culture/language in context so that the reader can easily figure out the meaning.  For example, “The roll cost only a few denarii,” immediately conveys the sense this is a coin of low value (and has the bonus of giving the reader the beginnings of a price guide to the period). 

On the other hand, it’s best to avoid giving the reader minute details your character wouldn’t notice or draw attention to.  “’I’ll be downstairs as soon as I put on my green baize hat with three pheasant feathers’,” sticks out far more than, “The green baize hat would set off her dress to full advantage, and the pheasant feathers she’d sewn on it last week made it look almost good as new.”

What to do with all that other knowledge you gained?  This is where the afterword shines.  A recent article in the Historical Novel Society's magazine, Solander, revealed that the majority of readers of historical fiction enjoy the afterword, both for contextualizing the story and for a chance to learn about nonfiction sources for further reading; after all, people read historical fiction because they love history.  But the bottom line is that details should add to the story, plunging the reader into a world that can know and care about, so that the author can say with Tristram Shandy, “my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time” (I.xxii).

Author news

On May 31st, I'll be hosting author Ann Whitfield who is about to release her new book, House of Women.  In the meantime, since you may be thinking of summer and holidays, check out the new romantic release from Jen Black, set in France.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Historical lessons in how (not) to write a novel

I’ve just finished rereading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy  by Laurence Sterne, a definite ‘desert island’ book for me.  It struck me that if I were to give a course on novel writing, I would designate this novel as my textbook.  And, since I can’t label it a neglected classic, I thought that a good excuse to write about it was to use it as a starting point for reflections on writing historical novels.

Tristram Shandy is indisputably part of the canon of eighteenth century English literature, though admittedly few non-English students probably read it nowadays.  For those who have not availed themselves of its insane delights, I would have to follow the initial reaction of the London Critical Review that states, “This is a humorous performance, of which we are unable to convey any distinct ideas to our readers.”  Impossible to condense into a sentence, one might say that Tristram Shandy is the perfect novel that teaches how not to write a novel.  the eponymous narrator sets out with two main aims: to tell his life from the very beginning, and to describe everything exactly as it occurs.  He soon discovers the hopelessness and artificiality of the novel/ memoir form, but insists on proceeding doggedly, to hilarious effect (OK, hilarious for English students, writers, and assorted nerds).

Through his hapless narrator’s very failures, Lawrence Sterne demonstrates just how well he understands both the limitations and possibilities of the novel form, quite mind boggling when one considers he was writing at the very dawn of the age of the novel.  Here, then is the first in my series of reflections I suggest writers of historical fiction can take from Tristram Shandy:

As I mentioned above, Tristram Shandy undertakes to record every moment of his life, and I mean every moment: the book begins with his conception, and it takes two whole volumes before he is even born; in Volume IV, it takes five chapters to describe his father and Uncle Toby coming downstairs.  Yet, despite this resolution for strict chronology, time itself overlaps and twists in the novel.  In Volume VII, Tristram describes a trip to France that takes place in ‘real time’ as he frantically attempts to escape the clutches of death and continue his memoir (referencing Sterne’s real-life consumption), yet somehow the journey becomes that of an earlier Grand Tour with his father and beloved Uncle Toby:

…In this last chapter, as far at least as it has helped me through Auxerre, I have been getting forward in two journies together, and with the same dash of the pen… I am at this moment walking across the market-place of Auxerrre with my father and my Uncle Toby, in our way back to dinner—and I am at this moment also entering Lyons with my post-chaise broke into a thousand pieces—and I am moreover this moment in a handsome pavilion built by Pringello, upon the banks of the Garonne, which Mons. Sligniac has lent me, and where I now sit rhapsodizing all these affairs.  (VII. xxviii)

This comically begs the question: how faithfully chronological can we be as historical writers?  However we try to reproduce it, time in novels is an artificial concept. With visions of popularity and endless sequels in mind, along with the temptation to freeze the character at an ideal age, we throw out a succession of adventures that occur in unlikely rapidity; a huge novel such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose can take place over a matter of days; one as short as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando several centuries.  This artificiality can be our friend: we skip over week, or even years of a character’s life to suggest growth or a realistic pace of events, yet we invite the reader to linger in the extended moments of a first kiss or life-changing revelation.

And what about literal faithfulness to history?  I recall Sharon Penman noting of her earlier books, for example The Sunne in Splendour, that she trawled the historical record and made sure her characters were always in the right place on the right day.  This is not always as easy as it seems; in researching medieval Florence, I soon discovered the discrepancies caused by contemporary and later historians referring to more than one calendar system, or the less than perfect chronicling of events, even by those who lived through them.  I had to decide that, in the end, I would be as faithful as I could in reference to wider events, but when in doubt I’d freely use the dates most in my favour.  When we throw a known date/event to the winds, do we ’fess up and invoke the name of art?  What about when we go further and write alternative history, like Diane Scott Lewis’s Elysium, that reimagines events during Napoleon’s imprisonment?  Is the blending of real and imagined events still historical fiction—or can we argue that all historical novels, and even history books, are to some extent fictional anyway?

All this leaves us with a tangle of questions, which is precisely the point Sterne is making in the quote above.  It is all artificial.  If we try to approach time in fiction literally, as Tristram does, we are lost; if we approach it as an artist, picking and choosing – and yes, even embellishing and inventing -  for effect, then we fulfill the needs of our story.  Only then do we keep history and fiction in balance.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson: the English Little House on the Prairie

I mentioned this in passing in an earlier post as an example of a neglected classic that can help your writing.  People may be familiar with the spin-off TV series, but the original series of books has much more to offer.  These are really pseudo novels, thinly-disguised autobiography much in the vein of the Little House on the Prairie books.  Flora relates her life growing up in an English village at the end of the nineteenth century.  Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Flora began to write of her experiences later in life, realizing, again like her American counterpart, that the first few decades of the twentieth century had ushered in such rapid change that the way of life they grew up with was in danger of being forgotten.

Flora Thompson
Although she was thankfully wrong that all idea of this life would disappear, still, she throws light on the subtler attitudes and mores of village life that escape most modern depictions of the period.  For example, the essential isolation of village life, both between and among settlements, is underscored in the idea that a ‘good’ wife kept to her home and didn’t go gossiping among her neighbours.  We see the type of attitude that can cheerfully send very young children to walk several miles to visit relatives in another village, yet at the same time forbids the teenage Flora, when employed with her cousin, from being allowed to do the very same.  Yet new views also rub up against old: Flora’s mother accepts her role as housewife and mother of multiple children, while Flora is surprised to discover that younger, middle class young couples are quite open about intentions to take advantage of newly available family planning advice to limit families.  As I’d like to reiterate from my previous post, this trilogy challenged what I thought was a solid understanding of English country life.

If you enjoy the village life depicted in Lark Rise to Candleford, you might peruse The Peverel Papers, some of Flora’s collected essays for The Catholic Fireside magazine, or Still Glides the Stream, posthumously published reminiscences of Oxfordshire.