HWA Debut Crown judge, Ben Fergusson, gives an inside view on what makes or breaks a historical debut novel.
This year I had the honour of chairing the HWA Debut Crown 2018 and, together with my wonderful fellow judges, Susan Heads and Ayo Onatade, we pulled together a longlist of 12 incredible historical novels that were in turns thrilling, evocative, fascinating, mind-bending and beautifully written.
Of course the judging process is not without its stresses. When you’re invited to join the jury you think, What a lovely idea! A summer of reading books! Then the hardbacks start thumping through your letterbox and a pile of 40 or so novels builds up on (under and around) your bedside table and you start anxiously calculating how many books per week you’re going to have to get through.
As a writer, though, the experience of reading this many historical debuts in one go is like taking a masterclass in historical fiction. Very quickly, you begin to see a pattern emerging of those literary techniques that make a book sing and the clichés that kill it. It goes without saying that for every ten hackneyed dream sequences there’s a dream sequence that works perfectly, and that’s why what follows is a list of things to think carefully about rather than things to avoid.
1. Beware the Prologue
There are many ways to start a book and of course the opening is one of the hardest parts of novel writing. One classic opener is the prologue and among our historical debuts this was often an initial punch of action with a hard cut to a completely different setting and group of characters. Usually these new characters are the book’s protagonists and the mystery in the prologue is going to be revealed as the plot unfolds.
As nail-biting as these openers often are, I sometimes wonder whether prologues are just the writer’s way of slowly lowering themselves into cold water, rather than jumping straight in. The problem with the hard-cut prologue is that, if it’s not handled properly, it can end up doing the opposite of what it’s intended to do. As a reader, you make sense of a place and a cast of characters, which are then whipped away from you and replaced with a completely new setting and group of characters. This means that you’re putting off introducing us to the people in the book that we’re actually going to care about. In the novels that we struggled with, we were often on page 50 before we’d worked out who the protagonist was.
So next time I’m lured by the prologue I’m going to think, could I also get this engagement, excitement and mystery into chapter one, using my main setting and protagonists? And I’m only going to use a prologue if it really adds something new.
2. Beware Your Research
Most debut historical novelists will know the terror of being caught out making a historical error. This is the thing I worry about most when I’m writing my first drafts. I dream up gut-wrenching scenarios of being on some festival stage with a grey-haired expert asking me why my character was using a plastic razor in the 1950s when plastic razors were invented in 1963.
In fact, you’re probably worrying about these things just about the right amount. It was almost unheard of that we spotted grave historical anachronisms in the books we were reading. Also, history and memory are slippery things and, as historians know, historical first-person accounts also often contain errors. The truth is, you probably will make a mistake somewhere (the plastic razor error was Colm Tóibín’s in Brooklyn, by the way), but if it’s minor and your book feels authentic it won’t matter.
Surprisingly, the research problem that actually did come up in the novels we read was exactly the opposite. These were novels in which the author had done a huge amount of research and it was all on the page. It jars because historical characters don’t know they’re historical. They don’t sit about thinking, ‘Of course, now that whale bone’s getting scarce I suppose I’ll need to start wearing watchspring steel in my corsets.’ It is really difficult as an author to dig up some wonderful bit of research that you later have to discard because it doesn’t naturally fit into the book, but I’m afraid you have to. And those abandoned titbits are always great fodder for readings and festivals.
3. Beware Time-Split Narratives
Where does our desire to mix modern and historical narratives come from? It can be done well, but sometimes – as with prologues – this device seems to be used by writers who can’t quite fully commit to a historical narrative. At best, these modern narratives are completely forgettable, and that’s even the case with really great writers and books. I was recently chatting with a friend about Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and they mentioned the modern narrative in that book. I remembered the pre-war and the war-time narrative perfectly; I’d completely forgotten the modern one.
You can do it right, of course. The best examples I’ve read are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but in each of those books the historical strand is integral to the modern strand. Without it, the books wouldn’t make sense. If your historical strand is thrilling and memorable and your modern strand is flagging, it might be time to cut one and focus on the other.
4. Beware Relying on Your Setting
A common refrain during our judging was, ‘Wonderful setting, very evocative. What’s the story, though?’ It is remarkable how often we got through a third of a book and still didn’t know what it was actually about. The writers had wonderfully evoked, say, ancient Mexico or war-time Italy, but hadn’t anchored the characters and the plot in that imaginative landscape.
I suspect this is an issue of editing. Again, the thing I’m most worried about during my first draft is fully evoking a period. What I’m often left with is a first draft with lots of big holes in the characterisation and the plot that need to be remedied in countless rounds of editing.
It helps me sometimes to think about the plot, the characterisation, the evocation of place etc. as the different parts of an orchestra. If the violins sound great, but everything else is out of tune, it’s going to be unbearable to listen to. At the same time, if all of the sections of the orchestra are singing, you’ll survive one or two wobbly viola players.
5. Beware Well-Meaning Advice
These are, of course, just a few personal reflections that I’m going to take away with me after having chaired the HWA Debut Crown this year. You are welcome to disagree with all of them and if you do, do get in touch; I’d love to hear your thoughts. And the truth is, what was most remarkable about reading the historical debuts for this year’s prize was how good nearly all of the books we were sent were. To end with a prize-judging cliché, which is nevertheless completely true, the quality of the entries made our job as judges very hard. I hope you enjoy this year’s longlist as much as we did.
Ben Fergusson is the author of The Other Hoffmann Sister (2017) and The Spring of Kasper Meier (2014), which won the HWA Debut Crown 2015 and the Betty Trask Prize 2015. You can read more about his work at www.benfergusson.com.