Monthly Archives: June 2006

I spy: Secrets of the Rue St Roche, Janet Morgan (2004)

I don’t know that this is necessarily a book that I would have bought, but I was given it as a present, and it proved an extremely interesting read. We don’t tend to think of spies and the Great War as going together, they are something that belong far more to WW2 in the popular imagination. And yet the British security services, MI5 and MI6 had their origins during the Great War. In this book, Janet Morgan documents an intelligence operation based in Paris during the latter part of the Great War, geared towards gaining advance knowledge of German troop movements, and thus of any potential planned advances.

The operation began with the serendipitous meeting of a middle aged Luxemburger with the head of the Paris operation in the spring of 1917. This lady lived near the massive rail junction in Luxemburg city, and the intelligence officer realised that if they could find a way for the information to get out of occupied Luxemburg, they would have vital intelligence that could help them win the war. It certainly stopped them losing it. After many false starts the operation finally got going in early 1918, just before the German March offensive.

It’s not so much a history, as I suppose, narrative non-fiction. It’s written as a story, which seems somehow less authoritative. Or perhaps I’m just used to my history in dull, dusty tomes. I enjoyed the insight into a largely forgotten area of the war, and it was well written, so I can’t complain on that front.

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The devil’s in the detail 2: overdoing it

I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I’ve been reading a book recently that is one of those set partially in the modern day and partially in a historical period and it was the historical bit that got me reading it in the first place. I often can’t see what the modern sections of such books add – Birdsong is a case in point, I felt it would have worked equally well without the sections set in 1978. This is perhaps less true of the book I’ve been reading, but what I’ve found irritates me about it is that it’s so damn referential. It’s set in 2004, which is presumably when the author was writing it, and it’s full of references to celebrities, to television programmes, what was going on in Iraq at the time, the US presidential election etc etc, and in ten years time no one’s going to get half of it, and will probably skip through most of it. It almost seems as if the author has been desperately trying to squeeze as much detail about modern life into it as possible, and I can’t help but feel that we’re supposed to sit there in admiration thinking, gosh how clever.

But you can have too much detail; it can get in the way of the story. And if, in ten years time a reader is going to need to google (or equivalent) several times a paragraph to understand what all the references mean, or who the people are, the book’s in trouble. But it’ll be a stalwart of English lit classes.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to use detail as a metaphor for something else – If I were saying that I’d be a bit of hypocrite, and when it comes to writing, I’m a great believer that nothing is wrong. But if the detail becomes the point, then where’s the plot?

A not so creepy crawly:Daddy Long Legs, Jean Webster (1912)

Despite the recommendations of both my mother and my sister, I had put off reading this one for a while. It’s an epistolary novel, and I’m not particularly enamoured of them. However, having read the book, I think it was excellently done, and the use of the letters has given the author the opportunity for some marvellous characterisation. We only ever see the hero through the heroine’s eyes, and reported in a letter at that, but we have a very clear picture both of the sort of person she is, and also how she changes during the course of the book, and of how she perceives him.

The heroine of the piece is an orphan in an American orphanage who is given the opportunity to go to college on leaving the orphanage by patronage of one of the orphanage’s trustees. The heroine is informed that this individual has been in the habit of assisting boys and doesn’t think much of girls, but was so impressed by a short story she had written that he wants to give her a decent education. However this is on the condition that he remain completely anonymous. The only other condition is that the heroine must write him regular letters informing him of her progress, hence the letters. She is never to expect a reply to these letters. She has no idea who he is, apart from thinking that she saw him once, silhouetted against the hall wall, as he was leaving after a trustees meeting. This silhouette showed a very tall, thin man, almost insectile, so she called him Daddy long legs.
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A Test of Wills, Charles Todd (1996)

I do hate it when writers are sloppy. This post relates to my recent post about writing historical fiction. A Test of Wills is a crime novel set in 1919, with the detective a Scotland Yard police inspector who is also a shell-shocked veteran, desperate to keep the shell shocked bit a secret from his superiors. With a set up like this, it should be good, and it is, mostly. But Todd is an American and I can tell from the spelling and vocabulary that looks so wrong in a British context, and there are several very sloppy mistakes that really ruin it for me because they are key to the plot. To be fair, one is something that probably only a person with some knowledge of the Great War would pick up on, but the other… Oh boy. The chief suspect makes a remark that indicates he is operating under the delusion that the Scottish verdict of Not Proven (except he calls it ‘not proved’ (wince)) is available to juries in England. That just about prompted me to fling the book at the wall, but I was nearly finished so I didn’t. This is almost as bad as a book that did hit the wall just after a coroner’s court was convened on Skye.

The other issue relates to the cause of the detective’s shell shock, which apparently dates from his involvement in a shot at dawn case. What is described is so wrong it’s laughable, but I only know that because I’ve had the 1916 version of the Manual of Military Law for bedtime reading for when one of my characters is court martialed. It’s great for insomnia.

Furthermore, it annoys me intensely when a sloppy piece of research is key to the plot. Ben Elton brought out a WW1 novel last year, the title of which escapes me, but the key to the plot on the last page or thereabouts was wrong. I know because I thought it might be and checked. It took me ten seconds on Google. The historical/geographical/cultural background of a novel is part of the creation of an illusion, an illusion that I’m reading something that might have happened. Every time I pick up something I know is wrong, it chips away at that illusion, until I can no longer sustain it. But even the smallest thing can start the process, because if that one thing is wrong, what about all the other things that I don’t know enough about the period to pick up on? Might they not be wrong too?

And yet the author can completely redeem themselves in my eyes, by putting a historical note at the end, by acknowledging xyz didn’t happen quite like that, but that the reality would have caused unnecessary complications, or whatever the reason was. Nobody is perfect, of course, and there are always things that escape the eagle-eyed researcher that somebody knows, but that little historical note can really clear things up.

ETA. And yes I know I am setting myself up as a hostage to fortune.

Shiver me timbers: Ships in the Bay, DK Broster (1931)

When she is read at all these days DK Broster is read for her much better known Jacobite Trilogy, consisting of The Flight of the Heron, The Gleam in the North, and The Dark Mile, and also for a collection of horror shorts Couching at the Door. With Ships in the Bay she returns to her earlier favourite period, the French Revolution.

It is 1796 in St Davids in Wales, and the heroine, Nest Meredith is the daughter of the Precentor of the Cathedral. (If you have never been to St Davids and get the chance, do go because the Cathedral is well worth a look) A chance encounter with a young seaman, deserted from a privateer, leads her into more adventure than she could have ever expected. The seaman is no such thing, but the son of an English country parson, thrown into a nightmare where Bow St runners are on his trail with a warrant for treason. After Nest hears his story she agrees to help him, and gains him a post with a local antiquarian. The climax of the novel is the (real) landing of the French the following spring, and Broster has carefully woven her tale in with the real history of that event.

This was another of my mother’s books and I first read it when I was about fourteen, I think. I never much cared for the Jacobite Trilogy, but I always loved this book. There is romance but it’s very much a subplot and the real story is how Martin, the hero, extricates himself from his problems.

For more discussion about Broster’s novels see this article.

The devil’s in the detail: writing historical fiction

I was reading a blog the other week where the writer was discussing the difference between what she called, ‘wallpaper historicals’ and those where the characters behave in ways consistent with the period in which the story is set. It was in the context of romantic fiction, which my great-grandmother’s collection aside is not something I have much interest in, but I think the discussion is equally relevant to any kind of historical fiction. It also relates to the broader discussion of whether or not meticulous historical accuracy is essential.

A wallpaper historical (wonderful term BTW) is apparently a novel where the characters are essentially dressed up modern characters, who behave as modern people would, and events/details are painted in the broadest of broad brushstrokes. There may be a built in assumption that the writer has done most of their research from other historical novels rather than original sources. I think the degree to which one finds this believable writing depends on the depth of one’s knowledge of the period in question. For example, there are numbers of feisty, independent minded medieval heroines getting their man in a way that would leave most medieval women gob-smacked. This sort of thing has happened to such a degree that sometimes the reality has become unacceptable. An American acquaintance of mine is having great difficulty in getting her YA medieval novel published because the heroine is thirteen when she gets married as a result of an arrangement. As she said, but that’s what happened in medieval Wales! I’ve certainly winced my way into one or two Jacobite swashbucklers or Victorian detective novels. How far I get is usually dependent on a subtle equation that balances the number of winces against the PTQ of the book.

If one’s intent in writing such a story is simply to provide an entertaining escapist fantasy then I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with writing such novels, although my personal view is that one should always take more care. And while it can often be hard to put one’s own cultural sensibilities to one side, even where one is aware of them, I do believe it is worth making the effort, however hard it might be. My own aim is to present a story that the reader with a reasonable knowledge of the period can accept might have happened, while remaining true to what my research has indicated happened. If that means going against what is culturally believed to have happened then so be it.

It can be equally hard to provide the reader with background information. I’m currently reading a crime novel set in ancient Egypt and in order to provide the reader with the necessary information about the royal family, there are constant conversations between characters of the type, “As you know, Ramose, our great Pharaoh’s father was etc.” I hate that sort of thing – it’s sloppy. But I think that’s another post.