I wrote this piece at the request of Jess Wells, who published it first on Jun 19 2014 on her page at Red Room, http://redroom.com/member/jess-wells
Elmore Leonard’s 9th rule of writing is, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” This may work if you want to imitate Get Shorty, but for the historical novelist, his advice is rubbish. Historical novels thrive on the details of places and things.
Obviously, characters are crucial. We have to believe in Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubry, Richard Sharpe and all those those plucky heroines whose names we forget because they blend into one, adorable Hayer Lady (Lady Hayer?). However, all our imaginary people need a stage on which to tread, without it being obvious to the reader that it is the product of a 21st century author’s mind.
To achieve this alchemy, we have to do our research into the details of costumes, customs, weapons and so on, that were as commonplace as handguns, taxis and elevators are to Elmore Leonard’s characters. He doesn’t have to describe what is all around us. We do, if our readers are to comprehend the past about which we write.
To write about places a few centuries ago, we need to understand the past like a time traveller. Now, if we’re honest, we all know perfectly well that if transported to, say, England in the Eighteenth Century, we would hate it. We would immediately be horrified by draughty houses and unspeakable toilets that empty onto streets where we might trip on a corpse. Probably not too long after our arrival, we would be asking ourselves why we hadn’t brought antibiotics, inoculations and a good dentist.
However, the people we meet when we time travel, like the characters within a historical novel, don’t know they’re living in the squalid, smelly, diseased past. Consequently, our readers must suspend their knowledge that the people we laboriously bring to life are centuries dead. Thus we have to go beyond the book-learning that lets us correctly use recondite terms such as futtock shrouds, postern gate and poignard.
I believe that to imagine the past, we need to go to where it happened, particularly if that’s not where we live. Europeans in American, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have only a scant four centuries of history. If we are to experience the castles, churches, crypts and convents that we would like to transmute into literature, we have to travel.
Even if we have done our homework before going to Europe, we can be sideswiped by the immediacy, almost the banality of the past. While I was being shown around Winchester Cathedral, I was horrified to notice that my feet were on Jane Austen’s tombstone. “My God, I’m standing on Jane!” I said, much too loud. As I leaped onto the stone of some lesser known dead English person, my guide gave me a condescending glance that seemed to say, “Oh, a Canadian.”
If your story took place in Europe, you don’t have to invent the setting, indeed, you are both constrained and energised by it. England is so filled with ancient human structures and thick with ghosts that if you are Hilary Mantel, you can walk with Thomas Cromwell around The Tower, boat with him up the Thames to Hampton Court and return steeped in the ambiance of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. If you are Nicola Griffith, you can walk the coastline where Hild lived, so that when you conjure up her life story from what few facts there are about St. Hilda of Whitby, the ground is firm under her feet.
Of course, the authorial experiences that I am imagining do not account for these writers’ mastery of the written word. Mantel’s “wonderful turns of phrase and colourful imagery” and Griffith’s “gorgeously supple prose” leave me in envious wonderment.
Good writing is not dependent upon where you live or what passport you carry. When Jess Wells, an American, travelled to France she experienced where her story would be set. If you go to SoundCloud.com* you can hear her telling how she resonated with the places where she set her novel, A Slender Tether. When you read her book, you will see her characters in your mind’s eye, up to their armpits in water and rags at the 14th Century paper-maker’s atelier she visited, and you will marvel at how well she writes.
Similarly, Joan Druett, a New Zealander, gives us real, historic women who have been largely ignored by male writers. Her success is primarily because she writes well, and she has done her historical research. Moreover, she also knows sailing. She is able to give us these women’s seagoing experience because she knows the sea first hand.
Setting cannot be plucked from other novelists’ pages or culled from films. We need our own experience of where our stories take place if we are to realise the imaginative world of our novels. It is not necessary to have been flogged, keel-hauled, shot by a Brown Bess musket, scarred by a sabre or run down by a coach and four. However, we need to have stood in the rain at a battlefield, heard footsteps echo in a cloister, or looked down a mast to the heaving deck below if these are places where we want our characters to go. We need to be anchored in the reality of places as they were then, which we can only imagine if we experience them as they are today.
In the end, only the writing matters. However, whether what we write is a best seller, a critical success or just a quiet entertainment for a few close friends, we will always have the selfish pleasure of revisiting that moment when we said to ourselves, “This place has got to go into my book!”