Monthly Archives: October 2006

History Matters

Does history matter?

It matters to me. I’ve always been interested in it – knowing how people lived, the things they were interested in, the food they ate, all the little details of daily life, as well as the big picture of great events. So what, I’m a historical novelist and a geek who happens to find it interesting – not everybody does I realise that.

However I do think knowing where you’ve come from, whether as a family or a culture or a society, enables you to see more clearly where you are, and where you might want to go. We don’t talk about history repeating itself for nothing – it’s true – understanding why events happened in a particular way can make it less likely they will be repeated. So, for example, I recall being taught at school that the Allies’ insisting that Germany paid reparations at the end of the Great War was a contributing factor to the rise of fascism there over the following twenty years. Using this knowledge prevented similar reparations being imposed on Germany after the Second World War. Or look at contemporary comparisons between America and the Roman Empire and the behaviour of superpowers. Or take Iraq – look at what happened after the Great War. Or indeed look at Afghanistan – how many Afghan wars did the British fight during the 19th century? Can our leaders really be this historically challenged? Sadly I think the answer is, you betcha.

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Getting better

I was reading a recent post on The Writing Life, and I got to thinking about improving one’s writing.

I probably don’t devote as much time to writing as I could – I do have to spend time in the real world earning a crust after all. I still write a lot – it may not always be my current WIP, it may be a work-related report, a blog entry, a blog comment, a forum post etc, or it may be something related to editing what I have previously written. A long time ago, when I started writing my first novel, I fondly imagined that having completed it, that was it finished. Needless to say I’ve learnt a lot since then. At the moment it takes me about a year to complete a first draft. I need at least a further year to get the novel into an acceptable state, and even then there may be further tinkering depending on feedback. After all, I’m under no illusions that my writing is perfect, or ever will be. Thus reports of authors who have been so successful that they are able to negotiate contracts that prohibit their publisher from editing a single word of their illustrious prose fill me with amazement at the wilful self-blindness of these authors. I recall a notorious review on Amazon where a certain horror writer who shall remain nameless, demonstrated to perfection in her response to criticism of her recent bestseller just how badly she did require editing. But in her eyes, her writing was perfect.

I am more likely to suffer from the opposite problem – thinking my work is far worse than it really is. That’s the trouble with writing – so much of it is subjective and down to the reader’s perception.

A mere trifle: The Botor Chaperon, CN & AM Williamson (1907)

This was a curious book, part romance and part travelogue. I did wonder at one point if it had been financed by the 1907 equivalent of the Dutch Tourist Board.

Nell van Buren is an American of Dutch extraction living in London with her English stepsister Phyllis Rivers. An unexpected windfall in the form of an inheritance of £200 and a motorboat berthed in the Netherlands kicks off the action, and she determines to go for a cruise on the waterways in it. There she discovers the boat has been illicitly hired to an American, Ronald Lester Starr who is nevertheless keen to go with them. Providentially he is able to offer the services of his aunt, a middle aged Scottish lady of unimpeachable respectability as chaperon. The party is then joined by Nell’s Dutch cousin, Robert van Buren and his friend Rudolph Brederode, who acts as skipper. Eagle eyed readers will note that while there appear to be two heroines, there are three possible heroes, and much of the plot of the novel is taken up with working out who will end up with whom. Needless to say it all ends satisfactorily with a nice little twist that I didn’t see coming.

Each of the five principals has a narrative, written in the first person, and this enables us to see the depths of duplicity some of them will stoop to in order to achieve their ends. The novel is competently written, with fairly good characterisation, although it took me a long time to distinguish Robert van Buren and Brederode.

Sadly however, I got about half way through the book and put it to one side for several months before finishing it last week. The authors have let themselves get carried away with scenic descriptions at the expense of plot, and I did find the middle part pretty tedious. It picked up again later on and was quite funny in places, but overall I did not find it a great read.

When to research

I’m about half way through my current WIP. I’ve got to the point where I’ve exhausted much of the research I did way back before I started, or what I researched then is no longer relevant to this part of the story. I suddenly find myself in the position of wondering, is this bit right? Or I discover when I check something that it’s not as easy to find out as I had thought. Or I start digging and end up getting sidetracked with the result that I have nothing much of any relevance to show for an entire day’s work except for a couple of sentences.

I can either allow myself to get sidetracked, because after all you can discover the most amazing things that might turn out to be relevant in the end, or I can be firm and put it aside and carry on with the story.

*dithers*

There is, of course, the theory that you should’t do any research at all until you have finished, so you will then avoid researching irrelevant material, but I don’t think I could do that; the plot could depend on something that was totally wrong.