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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Time-slip historicals - twice as hard to write?

"The huge advantage, as a novelist writing in both the present and the past, is that you can use both to shine a light on the other."' Kate Mosse.

I've recently finished Mariana by Susanna Kearsley, a novel in which a woman travels back in time to the 17th century after she buys an old manor house. The house acts as a portal to another era. Susanna Kearsley had been highly recommended to me and this is the first of her books I have read. However - a mystery - it must be a reprint as it was first published in 1994. This explained to me why it had a slightly dated feel in the modern sections with nobody owning a mobile phone or spending hours on the internet. So my first thoughts on writing a time-slip novel is that the contrasting times work well if the modern-day part is up-to-date, and that perhaps time-slip novels may date more easily than simple historicals.

However, The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin combines two periods - the 1970's and the 19th century with ease. Both parts of the story will have required research in order to create what she calls "a unique space where serious writers can explore fundamental desires and fears, while revelling in the nearness and otherness of worlds that we know were here, but can' t quite see."

Parallel narratives can allow the writer to do just that - draw parallels and make links between two periods for the enrichment of the story.

The knack with time-slip novels is to keep both stories ticking over and to persuade the reader to give equal amounts of  emotional investment to both parts of the plot. I am currently reading Kate Mosse's Sepulchre, and one of the ways she achieves this investment is simply by making the book long enough so that both aspects of the story are in effect a full-length novel. The modern story of the american, Meredith Martin, researching Claude Debussy is satisfyingly familiar with online research and all the trappings of modern life.One of the reasons I enjoy time-slip books is that after sections in our "familiar" world, the world of the past feels fresh again when we revisit it. A bit like clearing the palate between courses.The contrasting periods thus enrich the novel.

On her website, Kate Mosse says
"Timeslip novels are complicated to write, though. It’s not just a matter of remembering where characters are, what’s happening to them, how they connect together, but also keeping the ‘voices’ of the different periods separate and distinct. The way I work with the material, therefore, is to write the entire 1981 – 1897 historic story line (in the case of Sepulchre, LĂ©onie and Anatole’s story), then write the whole of Meredith’s story, to ensure that the voices, the timbre and the cadences of each section stay distinct. I then start to put the sections together, ten chapters in one time period, ten in the next and so on, until I have a second draft. Finally – and this can be heartbreaking to see all your work going into the virtual rubbish bin – I cut half of it to produce a third draft, which I then edit!" 

Wow, that sounds like a very long daunting process, doesn't it?  

On the fiction Forum, Emma Darwin, author of "The Mathematics of Love" says "you need to make an extra-compelling case for having two separate stories in the same book......

"It's also not easy to do well because you're asking the reader to do the literary equivalent of patting their head and rubbing their tummy, understanding each strand as a stand alone story, even though it's chopped into chunks, but also making the thematic and other links across between them.

There's also the risk that the reader is more compelled by one strand than the other... it's a dangerous game... Many responses to my novels are that the reader preferred one strand to the other: the risk is that they get so fed up with plodding on with the one they don't like, in order to get to the one they do, that they give up altogether. Others resent the wrench when changing, even if they like both stories, or find it disorienting. Many settle down in the end but it makes many find it slow going to start with - and no doubt some give up. I do know that some people just find it too much like hard work, and some don't ever get why they're both in there. On the other hand, others love it, and love the extra dimension it adds."

The issues when writing a time-slip novel seem to be the same as when writing any historical - not only do you need accuracy of research to build a credible world, but also the switch of points of view  between characters needs to be carefully handled when they are changing in time.The whole mood and way of talking are different in changing centuries. Dialogue in 1970 is not the same as dialogue in 1870. The flow of the narrative is especially hard to achieve I would imagine. 

I would recommend all these novels as good examples of the time-slip phenomenon.
If you would like more suggestions, then have a look at the Woman and Home top 5.

Emma Darwin's excellent writing blog 

Last word on the subject from Kate Mosse:

"I also believe, strongly, that the past casts a shadow over the present, sometimes for the good, sometimes less so. Human experience is a continuum and we are linked with those who have gone before us. What links us together is greater than what divides us – religion, context, period of history, nationality – and the human heart does not change so very much."

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Language of Flowers - Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Common in the 19th century, the idea that flowers had symbolic meanings led people to convey their emotions through the gifts of the flowers they gave one another. Known as the art of "floriography", these symbolic bouquets became popular, and the posies were known as "tussie-mussies" in Victorian times. Today you can find more about the meanings of individual flowers from The Gardener

This Image comes from Joyce Tice's website

The Language of Flowers tells the story of Victoria, a homeless eighteen year old and her passion for the meanings of flowers.

Victoria has been brought up in foster care, and the only adult with whom she had a meaningful relationship was Elizabeth, the woman who first introduced her to the language of flowers. Because of a catastrophe for which Victoria herself is to blame (I won't spoil it for you) they have become estranged, and now Victoria is living rough. Desperate for work, she ends up in a florist's shop where her gifts with ascribing meaning to flowers are appreciated at last.

But life is not that simple, and Grant, an acquaintance from the past turns up.From there, things grow more complicated, and after they begin a relationship, Victoria becomes pregnant. Through a series of flashbacks the reader begins to understand what happened during Victoria's childhood to make her so distrustful of herself and others.

This book has been available for a while and has won awards. I imagine by now it is a book club classic, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a well-written and absorbing read. You can watch Vanessa talk about writing her novel here

Here is my floral review, taken from the dictionary at the back of the novel.

 Lisianthus - appreciation
Rose, orange - fascination
Sweet Pea - delicate pleasures

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Transparency for writers - how not to point at yourself

When writing a book, I am obsessed by the quality of my own writing. I agonize over choice of words, apposite phrases, clever ways to convey what I want to say. When a reader reads a book they don't want to see any of that - they want to hear the story. They want the author to be transparent. This is why we are urged to use the word "said" for our speech attributions - a word that is neutral, invisible. As soon as we say "retorted" or "quipped" or (heaven help us) "declaimed", then we are pointing at ourselves with the "look at me I'm a writer" finger. The more the writer gets in the way of the story, the less involved in the reality of the story the reader will be.

Likewise, too many adverbs or exclamation marks make the writer suddenly appear at the reader's shoulder as convincer -
e.g  "Shut up!" he said crossly.
instead of, "Shut up," he said.
The writer is trying to force the reader to understand what they have probably already understood - thus making another unwanted appearance.

Too many similes or metaphors also point to our own cleverness, and can bring the reader up short.
eg Writer : "The water was black as treacle."
Reader: "Black as treacle? Is treacle black? What does she mean?"
Hey presto, the writer is muscling in again.

A lot of the knack of transparency is scrupulous awareness. If you are particularly proud of a phrase, view it with suspicion! It is probably a phrase where you are showing off, and therefore putting yourself between the reader and the page. Awareness for a writer is about being able to put yourself in the reader's seat and having the courage to remove your cleverness in favour of the truth of the story.

Many writers think that if they give up pointing at themselves they will lose their own unique voice. This is not so, as your voice will be there even more strongly if you get your ego out of the way of it.

This idea applies as much to life as it does to creativity.

The best book I can recommend on awareness in general is Awareness by Anthony de Mello. Eminently sane advice without any new-age nonsense.

For looking at this topic from a writer's perspective, the writer Dorothea Brande, (whose book, "Becoming a Writer" has been a classic for the inward journey since the 1930's) has another work, "Wake up and live!" available for free as a pdf here:
Although a little dated, it has some excellent ideas about how to succeed creatively.

As some people know, I am a great promoter of meditation in all its forms - here is a nice post by the writer Orna Ross on the benefits of meditation and awareness for writers:

And on a completely different topic,  for anyone interested, my post on 17th Century Garden Design for Women  is over at the English Historical Fiction Authors site. And you can win a copy of The Lady's Slipper at Brits United. (Until 5th April)