History Repeating Itself

April 17th, 2013 · No Comments »

I came across a great article by author David Mitchell regarding the writing of historical fiction.

I’m currently reading his excellent ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ which is set in the late 1700s at the Dutch East India Trading Company’s factory port in Nagasaki Harbour, Japan. David Mitchell is fast becoming one of my favourite authors.

Writing historical fiction has always been something that has both intrigued and frightened me. History I find fascinating but the idea of being able to recreate a period authentically is the terrifying bit. While I am not currently writing in this genre, I do have one of two period pieces locked away in my head and this article I found to be a really helpful starting point. The article was first published by The Telegraph in London and you can read the entire article here.

One excellent point he writes is that when approaching historical fiction, the author obviously has to do a lot of research into the chosen era BUT when actually writing the book, all of this detail needs to be hidden and not made obvious (ie don’t leave it hanging around as a way of showing off just how learned you now are).

The historical novelist must learn how the vast gamut of human needs was met in the “destination period”: how were rooms lit and heated? How were meals prepared, clothes made, bodies bathed (or not), feet shod, distances covered, transgressions punished, illnesses explained, courtships conducted, contraception considered, divinities worshipped and corpses disposed of? The more Moleskines you fill with the fruits of research, however, the more determinedly it must be hidden: lines such as “Shall I bid Jenkins ready the Phaeton coach, or might Madam prefer the two-wheeled barouche landau?” will kill.

Another really interesting point David Mitchell makes is about language, including dialogue. The correct language of the time you are writing might reek of phoniness if you use it now, and it won’t resonate as much with readers. David Mitchell talks about ‘Bygonese’, a dialect which gives the authentic speak of the time a modern flavour.

And then you have to worry about language. Unless you have an entire historical novel made out of reported speech (easier to digest bubble pack) the characters must open their mouths at some point, and when they do, how are they going to speak? This is the “lest” versus “in case” dilemma: the sentence-joint “in case” (as in “eat now in case we don’t have time later”) smells of modern English, but a “correct” translation into Smollett’s English (“Eat on the nonce, My Boy, lest no later opportunity presents itself”) smacks of phoniness and pastiche if written in 2010. It smacks, in fact, of Blackadder, and only a masochist could stomach 500 pages. To a degree, the historical novelist must create a sort of dialect – I call it “Bygonese” – which is inaccurate but plausible. Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a pine new dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.

So there you go. Some food for thought from someone who has been there and done that, and done it remarkably well, I might add.

Categories: Writing

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