Dear Dr Darwin,
I’ve been writing short stories and contemporary-set fiction for years, but recently I fell madly in love with a real historical character: a fascinating, forceful, charming person, Jocelyn, who was deeply involved in the big dramas of the day. I know I want to write a novel, not a biography, and I’ve done tons of research. I’ve got a really vivid sense of them as an individual, but I haven’t a clue where to start with the actual writing, and the more I research the worse it gets. What do I do now?
Trembling on the edge of the Fourteenth Century
Take heart, because I can tell that your writerly instincts are already serving you well: it is incredibly difficult to make the whole-of-a-life novel work, especially when that life is long and exotic. How do you go beyond simply laying out the events and tacking on a few frocks and feelings, to create something that really lives as fiction? The likes of Hilary Mantel manage it, but Our Thos Cromwell has ten or fifteen years unaccounted for and was dead by fifty-five, and Wolf Hall still a fat trilogy.
So the first thing to decide is what section of Jocelyn’s life you want to work with. I suggest you write out a timeline, and divide it into chunks that make some kind of emotional sense: terrible childhood, happy teenage-hood, marriage and local politics, disastrous love-affair and revenge, wicked manipulative old age, etc. If the definition of a narrative is “a causally related chain of events”, which section looks like it might make a single, coherent chain?
That’s not to say that you ignore the rest, nor that there won’t be other story-strands weaving in and out. They’ll help form our sense of Jocelyn, and colour and enrich the main story. But it’s the needs of the main story which determine what gets in.
What drives Jocelyn? How do they set about getting what they want, and why do they act as they do? What gets in the way? What pressures can you put them under, so that they must try harder, or differently? What bigger obstacles will they then meet? What happens when they realise that what they want isn’t what they actually need? How does that change them? Above all, what’s at stake for them? And what for us? What do we hope for and what do we dread?
Even within a single section of the life, the fact that something happened isn’t a good enough reason to put it in the novel. Why should the reader care? You do – but then you’ve fallen in love. We haven’t, not yet. You must find the human connection and human logic that all storytelling needs, and bring it alive as completely as a writer must to make purely fictional characters alive and believable.
All these negotiations are extra-tricky when the Real History Witch is breathing down your neck. It’s up to you which facts you bend or break, and which you decide to stick to; if you must stick to something awkward, you’ll have to back-track and find the imaginative, emotional truth in it, so that we’re convinced. But it’s your book and so your rules: you can always come clean in an Historical Note at the end.
And the last decision is about the how of the narrative. Who’s telling the story? Where are they standing, relative to the events they’re narrating? What does that mean for the order in which it’s told? In Robert Nye’s Voyage of the Destiny, Walter Raleigh, crazed with fever and bereavement, tells the story of his life with Queen Elizabeth, his ‘now’ weaving in and out of different parts of his ‘then’. In Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost each of four characters tells his own story (apologia, confession, justification) pretty much in chronological order, but they add up to something which is greater than the sum of its parts. In the Wolf Hall trilogy everything is locked to Cromwell’s point of view, but that includes his understanding of all sorts of things, from what’s going on in Rome, to what’s going on inside Henry VIII’s head.
And may I suggest that you spend a few minutes printing out a large notice that says “I am writing a novel, not biography”, and stick it directly above your monitor?
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now. 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.