Dear Dr Darwin,
As a reader of historical fiction I want to be in a place which may resonate in my world, but is not my world. That’s not only about politics and clothes, and how the people think and feel and believe, but in how they talk and write, and what they talk and write about: I want to feel these people are Other to me, and then get to know them better. Words and specifics – machines, places, real-historical background characters, for example – are part of that Other-ing, but as a writer I find it so hard to use such things without baffling the reader, or putting in laboured, frame-breaking explanations. Any tips?
Puzzled of Perth
You’re not alone. The tension between the poles of Other and Same, of Then and Now, of invention and report, is what makes fiction fiction, but it’s often at its most tense in historical fiction as we stretch our writing to cross the bigger gap between each pair of poles.
Which is all very fine and philosophical (for what it’s worth, it’s the TL:DR version of the climactic chapter of my PhD), but what does that mean for what you actually do? You might be wrangling some or all of the following:
- things and machines that simply don’t exist now
- names for objects which there isn’t a modern or English name for
- officials, jobs and systems which have vanished
- real-historical characters whose significance or role readers won’t know
- geographical names that have melted away or, worse, are now pasted on to somewhere else (Tintagel, I’m looking at you…)
Obviously all of these have their particular challenges, but there are some general principles which are worth thinking about, and what you might call the techniques of fiction – the way you tell the story, the way your narrative works – are at the heart of this. If your project is likely to land you in this sort of trouble, it’s worth trying to set it up at the outset with a narrative strategy which will make things a bit easier.
Point of view is always question one. If we are inside the head of a character who is proudly carrying what they think of as a grabona, then a lurch outside to explain that this is a large, ceremonial platter, will clank as loudly as if Xanthe herself dropped it. On the other hand, if we’re in the head of a character who is Other to this world, as we are, because they’ve just landed from Alpha Centauri, it helps a lot. He hears someone saying that Xanthe is bringing the grabona, fears a weapon or a ravenous beast, then sees a woman carrying a large, gold platter embossed with Zeus’s head. Notice that Zeus’s head (assuming the Alpha Centaurian can see and recognise it) makes things more vivid than a non-specific ‘embossed’ alone would.
A third option, of course, is that at this point we’re not in a character’s point-of-view at all, but out in the general space of words which is the narrative. I find it easier to think of this as the narrator’s point-of-view, even if the story doesn’t have an overt personality narrating. How does this narrator work? What have you decided about how much it’s a storyteller, able and willing to tell the reader things which are beyond any character’s knowledge or willingness to tell? If your narrator’s persona is consistently of this kind, then of course they can tell us what a grabona is. I would say, though, that it will probably only work if you can find a voice for the storyteller which is genuinely engaging and individual – a pleasure to listen to – so we actively enjoy being told stuff.
A sub-set of that third, narrator-as-storyteller option is that the narrator just happens to be telling their own story; if so, as a narrator they can explain anything to the reader it seems like a good idea to explain, even if at the time, as an actor in the scene, they wouldn’t think about it that way. For more on integrating the narrator’s and the characters’ points-of-view, whoever they are in your story, click through to This Itch of Writing.
Just make sure that for none of these options do you put grabona in italics, still less in quote-marks. We are inside this world and this language: it jars us out of it if you mark out a word as foreign or in some way odd, separate, not the same as the rest, in need of translating. Only use italics for a word which the viewpoint character is conscious of as foreign.
You will also want to pick your battles, or rather your explanations, so that the story doesn’t stop every two minutes. That means you should:
- Decide which things it really matters that we understand for plot and story, and which we don’t, not really, because they’re there as props, scenery and set-dressing.
- Remember that most readers are happy to have a few things on their mental clip-board that they trust will come clear soon. Don’t feel you must – in fact, please don’t – gloss everything slightly strange the minute it first appears…
- … Or, indeed, ever. Explaining in fiction is like backpacking: don’t load the narrative with everything the reader might possibly want, just give us the things we can’t possibly do without.
- Explore and practice as many ways of getting the reader to understand by other means than straight explaining, as you can. And try to get into the habit of realising when other writers have done it well, and work out how they did it.
For example, use the physicality of your character-in-action: the weight of the steaming boar’s head and how the gold that Xanthe’s gripping is unbearably hot; the way she can’t see the floor ahead of her, and where on earth is the step up to the high table? Which physical things you choose depends on what’s likely for the viewpoint character, and what you most want or need us to know about the thing. Again, the rest of what you know is almost certainly too much.
Or might Xanthe (or Xanthe’s onlooking, anxious father) just wish that the grabona was a bit smaller? And not boiling-hot metal but an ordinary pottery dish? The trick of conveying what is, in terms of what it’s not, is a versatile one. Yousuf has no reason to explain to himself what the Chief Superintendent of the Perala River’s job is: he’s lived off the docks all his life. And though he might explain it to his mum if you can think of a reason he would, readers sense when you’re trying to sugar a lumpy pill.
But Yousuf might well wonder if old Abir Rama is too grand now to wangle him another mooring-licence (a mooring-licence, or lack-of-mooring-licence, that your plot’s going to need in a couple of chapters) with this new (still unspecified) promotion. Plonk an obsequious underling at the door of Abir’s huge new office, saying the Chief Super’s engaged with His Serene Highness, and you are home and dry.
Long-gone (or invented) geographical names can be tricky but again the key is to make it part of your storytelling. A character pondering, or asking, which of the nearest towns is most likely to have the plot-necessary thing or person is a good way to pin down what matters about the geography, which again is really about character in action: how long does it take to get here, and what are the dangers and opportunities of the journey, and the arrival?
I sometimes think that all geography in fiction is at heart psychogeography. Mind you, I love a map – but if you find yourself saying that readers ‘can always look at the map’, that’s like saying they can always look one of your words up in the dictionary: a mark of writerly failure, or laziness, or both.
Machines, systems and networks are not defined, for storytelling purposes, by what connects to what, so just because a reader doesn’t know what a parlagang does is no reason to give us the guided tour. The exception, of course, is if your character is escaping through it, in which case their need and struggle to work out how to get across the water without falling into the grindstones will give you as much narrative drive as you could possibly want.
You don’t need me, or Kafka, to see that a labyrinthine government ministry can be dealt with in the same way; these things are always defined for us not by their names and parts but by what goes in, and what comes out, what happens between in and out, and what sort of space and power they have in your characters’ lives. Assuming you can find plot and point-of-view reasons to make those clear to us by means of character-in-action, or you have an active, helpful and beautifully-written narrator to hold us fascinated, all should be well.
And it might sound odd, but this is the kind of thinking you need for real-but-obscure historical characters too. If you’re using such a character to legitimate your fiction, which lots of both writers and readers enjoy, that doesn’t mean you should handle them by different standards from your invented characters. Their realness is not the point, in other words. (If it is, switch to biography, or shift into creative non-fiction and have some fun playing with real and not-real). The point for fiction is what this person is doing in your story and why it matters – and when you know that, you can convey the specifics by means of how your characters and your narrator think of them, and speak of them.
And, finally, if you need to convey chunks of real history, click through to my first-ever column for some tips.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin, was published in February 2019, and is an account of three disastrous years trying to write a historical novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family.
Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a Doctor) and was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University; her how-to book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, was published in 2016, and she shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing.
Image: Painting of Evgeny Chirikov by Ivan Koulikov: via Wikipedia