Dear Dr Darwin,
You keep saying “make it vivid and convincing”, but how do I do that? When I put in lots of detail my writers’ circle say it slows up the story; when I cut it back they say they don’t believe in the places. When I make my characters act/think/react differently from how we would, the circle say they don’t believe in the people; when I make my characters act/think/react as moderns would my readers say they’re too modern.
It was bad enough when I was writing romances set the First World War – at least I could read novels written then, and borrow things from there. Now I’m writing pirate thrillers set in 12th Century Tyre, and I don’t seem to be able to get it right whatever I do!
That’s a big, brave question which gets to the heart of one of the most important challenges of writing historical fiction. But then, who ever met a cowardly swashbuckler?
“Vivid” means seeming full of life: not just correct, but as bright, as nasty, as colourful or as drastically monochrome. Even a very quiet or a very drab world can be vivid in the writerly sense, if you conjure it up strongly enough for the reader. The skill of writing vividly isn’t in piling on more words, it’s all about the right words: exact to the effect you want, and avoiding off-the-peg, standard-issue ways of describing things, which are tired or bland. “They met at the small tree” becomes “They fought beside the sapling willow” or “They kissed under the rotting oak”. Voice can help even more, because anything becomes more memorable when it’s combined with emotion, and it can also be part of evoking the “otherness” of the past: “Among the shadows of the dying oak they kissed” or “The scrap and stumble of the fight set the willow’s new leaves shivering”.
Making your setting convincing is partly about making it vivid, but it’s also about how the characters interact with it: you can paint the most beautiful mountain in the world and show us your character walking up in accurate perspective, but if we don’t feel their feet pressing into the wet grass, don’t see the mountain rearing up in front of them and have our own hearts sink, nor later hear them struggling for breath as they reach the top, it’s like observing a cheap computer game. It’s those kinds of details that make us believe in the journey, because they engage our own bodily experience and memory.
What makes characters convincing overall is not that they conform to our pre-existing ideas, but that each thing they do is consistent with how you have imagined their personality, and played out in every detail of their mind and body. If your sensible, conformist, trusted counting-house slave Lucius suddenly runs away to join a troupe of acrobats, we may be as surprised as his owner and his mother are, but that act needs to be consistent with the deepest aspects of his personality as we glimpsed them before he went, or come to see them afterwards: the repressed inner Clown which frightens him, and till now caused him to reduce his life to columns of figures, a perfectly ironed tunic, and being in bed alone by the twelfth hour.
Historical fiction poses an extra problem, because readers want characters to seem convincingly historical, but often have too narrow, too modern or just plain wrong an idea of what history was really like. So if your characters’ actions and motivations run counter to those expectations then you’ll have to work harder to persuade us to believe in them. That’s about being whole-hearted in imagining and evoking things fully: in not pulling your punches or fudging things.
Remember, too, that you can do almost anything with a character if you set them up in the first fifth or so of the book, while the reader’s still open to learning how this world works. If you’re in the business of making your first century Romans sound like self-serving modern politicians, then make them read like that right from the beginning, and we’ll get it and keep our disbelief happily suspended as we wait to see where they will lead us. If you want us to love your Victorian wife who honestly believes her husband is the best judge of what she should and shouldn’t do, then make sure you Show us consistently (instead of, or as well as, Telling us) how this faith makes her life fulfilling … and then when you blast it all apart we, too, will be shattered.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, will be published by John Murray Learning in Spring 2016. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.