Thursday, March 21, 2013

The qualities of a great historical novel

From: Pat

Surely you've read Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, yes? Although a male protagonist, they are a corking good read. I've hand-sold and recommended them for years...

If not, you are in for an addictive treat: six volumes of seat-of-the-pants stuff, and language to die for...
I loved the first one, Game of Kings, but as the series progressed I felt less enamoured. All the books seemed to all rely on the same device: Lymond isn't who he plays on the public stage—or is he?

But that first one is very, very good. I reread it periodically. Dunnett has a great ear and a gimlet eye for human particularity. I love her descriptions of the natural world, and the seamless integration of sixteenth-century mores and systems into a thundering adventure. Here and there she made me work rather hard to understand what was going on—but in a way a native of that time and place who was a stranger to the particular situation might. Great stuff. In this way, she's very like Mantel (Wolf Hall is set a generation or so earlier than Dunnett's novel) and O'Brian (the Aubrey/Maturin novels, beginning with Master and Commander, are set in the early nineteenth century). All three authors assume the intelligence of the reader.

Assume the intelligence of the reader is one of my (many) writing mantras. But assuming intelligence is not the same as assuming knowledge.

I've been thinking idly about the seventh century since the 1980s. I've been researching seriously for nearly fifteen years. I've been living there, in work and dream, for the last five. I know a lot. Not nearly as much as professional historians of the period, of course, but a lot—certainly more than the majority of my readers. What is perfectly obvious and usual to me will be entirely new to my audience.1

My editor for Hild, Sean McDonald, pointed out that readers new to the seventh century might, on first encounter, confuse, say, an ætheling and an Æthelfrithing. Here's a paraphrased phone conversation:
"And what exactly is an ætheling anyway? A prince?" he said.
"Well, yes."
"Then why not just call them princes?"
"Because they're not princes in the way we think of princes now. They don't have Prince Valiant haircuts or wear ridiculous crushed velvet tunics and pointy shoes. Words matter! They're like icebergs. Most of their meaning is invisible, but it has mass, it has—"
"—momentum, I know, I know.2 So just make it clear in the text."
So, being an obedient author3, I did—though even my subtlest explanations felt to me like being hit over the head with giant blobs of info-dump or "As you know, Bob" dialogue. I began to worry. One evening I talked to Kelley about it:
"I'm treating my readers like morons!" I said. "Readers like to do a little work!"4
"Yes, but I've been listening to you talk about the seventh century for a decade, and I don't always know what something means."
"But you can figure it out! Hilary Mantel doesn't have to bring the narrative to a screeching halt to explain—"
"Honey," (hint of exasperation) "anyone who's even heard of England will have an idea who Henry VIII and Cromwell are. But the seventh century is new. They won't know an Iding from an Iffing or a seax from a sword."
Well, huh. I hate it when I'm being an idiot.

Another of my mantras is: Never, ever confuse the reader. Fool them? Yes. Misinform? Of course. Deliberately puzzle with mystery? Well, hey, a whole genre is built on that. But confuse them? Only at your peril. And by them I mean, of course, us. I am first and foremost a reader.

Reader discomfort and uncertainty can be cumulative. We're perfectly happy to glide over one unknown thing in the first chapter and trust that we'll figure it out as we go along. We're willing to deal with a second if we're enjoying the writing hugely.5 But by the third we're furrowing our brow. At the fourth, we're squirming like puppies. At the fifth, we toss the book on the sofa and wander off into the kitchen. We might or might not return to it.

I've known this consciously for twenty years.6 But with this book I needed reminding: as I've said, I know a fair bit about the seventh century, and I'm a good writer who trusts the intelligence of her readers. If I write about bronze-stringed harps on one page and gut-stringed lyres in the next I assume a reader will know I'm not being inconsistent but am sending a signal: we're not in the land of the culturally British (Brythonic) anymore, we're with the Anglo-Saxons (Anglisc).7 I had to explain this to the copy-editor (who turned out to be utterly marvellous, the best I've ever had)—I also explained the change from gods to god to God and the metamorphosis of the mene wood to her mene wood to Menewood...

I'm talking about a time almost a thousand years before Dunnett's and Mantel's milieux. There are few reliable written sources about this time. (Or none. Or one. Depending on your notion of reliable.) In the early seventh century the pace of change was bewildering (some examples: belief in multiple gods becomes belief in one God; a barter and gift-exchange economy turns to coin-based trade; a few priests knowing a few runes becomes many priests, and women religious, being able to read in more than one language. (And, oh, if after finishing Hild you think access to extra-somatic information was not an exceptional change then I have not done my job.) Add in delineating the development of a singular child into an extraordinary woman—complete with acquisition of a variety of languages, sense of self and sexuality—and, well, things get...dense.

But density can be an obstacle to reader enjoyment. If the reader has no space to play, mentally and emotionally, no room to add their own personal touches, they can feel stifled or shut out. Trying to read an overly dense novel is like trying to live in a house furnished and decorated by someone else in an overpoweringly fussy style. It just doesn't work.

What does work, in addition to intelligence, is texture: specificity, particularity, generosity. Also emotional energy: Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O'Brian have dash and brio, they're laugh-out-loud funny, and O'Brian can exalt me and cast me down in the space of a chapter; Mantel has sly wit. The former are light and whippy in places, rapier fast, whereas Mantel is more like an orrery: her plots and people follow what feels like an inevitable locking together of orbits. Both styles, of course, have their place. All three authors not only entertain me but also teach me something of the human heart, the human mind, human history.

Hild has—I hope—these qualities and more. I hope the novel has some of the qualities of Hild herself; something unique. As the author, of course, I'll never know. You'll have to judge for yourself.

1. This is one of the reasons each draught was longer than the last.
2. He's been my editor for three books now.
3. Oh, ha! Ha ha!
4. This was one of those conversations that began with lots of exclamation marks...and ended with lots of beer.
5. My aim with every piece I write: for readers to enjoy themselves and be immensely satisfied—in more ways than one.
6. Ammonite is 20 years old this month.
7. Or, more specifically, the Loid and the Elmetsætne. Who, bafflingly, live in exactly the same place, Yorkshire. It's just that the Loides were culturally Brythonic and the Elmetsætne culturally Anglisc. Confusing if not laid out with terrifying clarity. This is why every writer needs a team, to point this shit out. But editorial teamwork will have to be the subject of another post.
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