Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Past is a Foreign Country ...

... they do things differently there.

Or do they?

The opening line to LP Hartley's The Go-Between is so famous that people often quote it without knowing where it came from originally.

I'm going to take his meaning and mess with it. Because I've been thinking recently about how authors of historical fiction grab me with their first lines, or pages, and suck me in to that place called the past, without describing anything fantastically unfamiliar.

This isn't a tutorial, a 'how to write great historical fiction' (particularly as I wouldn't presume to suggest that I'm well placed to give such a lesson in the first place!) No, this is just me putting together some of the phrases or descriptive passages that I've read recently which have made me think "Oh yes, I like this."

This, from Prue Batten's Tobias:

"The fist pummelled into Tomas’ jaw, his head jerking sideways, his teeth splitting his bottom lip.

‘Son of an arse for a mother!’ the little man shouted. ‘Boiled arse of an excuse for a drunkard!’ He ran between his opponent’s legs, turning swiftly, balling his hands to punch up at the soft parts before the thug could turn around. As the fellow made to turn, he stumbled, fell and hit his head hard on the edge of a protruding paving stone.

‘Tomas, leave it!’ Tobias called in German as he grabbed his brother’s fist. Around them jeers and calls goaded the small man. ‘Leave it, I said.’ Toby grasped his brother’s arms, pushing him ahead, kicking his backside and shouting ‘Move it, get going and fast if you value what’s left of your face.’

Surprisingly Tomas ran as the attention transferred to the unconscious drinker, Tomas laughing and whooping all the way down the street until the two pulled into a Venetian alley of shadows, far from the ruckus."

So, why did I like this so much? It makes up the opening lines of the book, and actually, apart from the mention of Venice, we could be anywhere, anytime. And yet, it plops the reader right into the heart of the action, the heart of the story. We've read the blurb, so now we plunge right in to the world of Tobias (Toby) and his brother. We are off and running - right alongside Toby and Tomas.

A few paragraphs later, we have this:

"As he spoke, William of Gisborne could be heard in the courtyard, calling the two pups. A tick-tack of racing claws sounded on the stone cobbles as they raced after William..." 

Well, I simply loved the 'tick-tack' of the racing claws. It was so evocative, so unusual and yet so apt. And again, it dragged me into that world, where I could hear and see everything in the scene. 

Tobias (The Triptych Chronicle Book 1) by [Batten, Prue]

Sometimes, a book grabs me because it shows me what I don't expect. This, from Louise Turner's Fire and Sword - a battle scene that was refreshing in its approach. As the main character, John Sempill, rides into battle, the author gives us this:

"No way out. Nowhere to go but forwards, through the enemy lines ahead. Holy Mary, Mother of God, protect me. Holy Mary, Mother of God. . . The words circled around and around in his head. Terror brought a foul taste to his mouth. Was that really his own voice, yelling out in wordless frantic terror as the collision approached? Just audible over the sound of his own ragged breathing, and the pounding of the blood in his veins." Visceral, in a literary and literal sense.

Choreographing fight or battle scenes is difficult. A whacks B, C charges at D, E knocks F off his horse. Done well, these scenes provide a real sense of what warfare is/was like. What was arresting about this passage was that I was placed right inside John's head, and was informed, (or maybe reminded, because I must have known, surely?) that battlefields are terrible and terrifying places. 

Fire and Sword by [Turner, Louise]

Staying in Scotland, I was drawn to a sentence (in Margaret Skea's Turn of the Tide) which, although actually light on description, told me so much about Munro, about his wife whom we've not met at this point, and gave me a clear picture of what the man is wearing:

"Despite his wife's best efforts, [he] wore his clothing almost to extinction: his leather jerkin polished to a shine around the buttons and his boots heavily scarred along their length."

I don't know exactly what his leather jerkin looked like, how it was styled, nor do I know the precise shape of his boots. But not only did I still get a vivid sense of his attire, I knew that his wife wished he would present himself better, but that he thought such things unimportant. An economy of words, but a wealth of information.

Characters in action, characters' thoughts, and their clothing. Nothing here, specifically, that proves the truth of Hartley's words. Fighting, fear, and making do with old clothes - these are things not limited to any one period of history and yet each one put me right at the heart of the period in which its book was set.

And the description of scenery can add to the feeling of being in the past, even when the landscape has barely changed in the intervening years. 

In Malcolm Archibald's Shadow of the Wolf, Fergus' journey through Scotland - yes, Scotland again! - is punctuated with descriptions of the Scottish landscape which must surely have survived to be visited today, and yet add to the atmosphere of the setting of the novel:

"Hugh's widow lived in a small croft about half a mile from Dunkeld, not far from the River Braan and near a waterfall that crashed over a smooth lip to splinter in a hundred million particles of seething water far below. All around, trees dipped their heads in submission."

(Malcolm tells me that the place described above is now known as the Hermitage.)

Yes, the past is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. But sometimes the historical novelist needs to paint a world where details are familiar, in order fully to immerse the reader in that foreign country. We believe in the history because we believe in the people - we can see them, feel for them, we get a sense of the world in which they are walking.  Please do take a look at the books mentioned here.

Fire and Sword
Turn of the Tide
Shadow of the Wolf

Over the next few weeks, I shall be talking to the authors - myself included! - who collaborated on the new book 1066 Turned Upside Down. This involved looking at the past in yet another way...

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