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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fiction Writing Master Class


*Disclaimer: All the answers are paraphrased and based on original answers from the authors (Philippa Gregory and Bernard Cornwell). I have a memory like a sieve at the best of times. I've put these notes together to the best (or worst) of my ability.

What methods did you use when you first started writing?

Bernard: I began by breaking down my favourite books into segments, looking at what worked. For instance, I went through highlighting the elements of action, emotion, the flashback scenes. There’s a certain intuition involved when it comes to the act of writing – regarding pace etc. You’re able to recognise what works and what doesn’t.

Philippa: I went to journalist school and applied the same basic principles to the art of fiction writing. You need to make sure you know the answers to the questions of who, what, where and when and then build each individual scene around those answers.

How do you begin to write historical fiction?

Philippa: I think of myself as a Realist writing in a different time period, rather than writing simple escapism. You have to be 100% true to the period you're writing about, yet at the same time make sure that you balance the background information with your own story. I don’t think about my readers when I write.

Bernard: I agree – my advice is to write for yourself. Don’t think of the market, just write what you want to read. When it comes to writing historical fiction, it’s important to balance the Big Story – that is, the historical background of the period, for instance, the big events and politics of the time; the atmosphere; the attention to detail – with the Little Story – the story of your characters' lives and the actions and interactions they’re involved in.

How important is history when it comes to writing historical fiction?

Bernard: Primarily, you have to remember that you’re a storyteller, you’re not a historian. If people want to read the history of the period then they’ll go to the library and get one of the hundreds of non-fiction books that exist. You don’t necessarily need to stick rigidly to the history of the period but you DO need to incorporate it into your story’s timeline. However, at all times you should be as accurate as possible.

Philippa: The historical background is extremely important to your novel – it has to be 100% rigid. I always keep my characters as close to recorded history as is physically possible (for instance, my character of Mary Boleyn in 'The Other Boleyn Girl'), but at the same time you have to remember that your character is an imaginary creation.

What’s the most difficult thing about being a historical novelist?

Philippa: The hardest part of being a writer of historical fiction is the difficulty of getting your reader into the scene. When they first come to a particular sequence, they’ll feel ‘outside’ and distanced from it. Once you have them settled into the narrative it’s fine, so the biggest challenge is drawing them into the scene. It’s definitely easier when using a first person narrator – as I did in my novel 'The Queen’s Fool'.

Bernard: Being authentic is important. But the difficulties are the same when writing in any genre. I always have a handful of techniques that I swear by. One of these is the 'door in the wall' technique. For instance, when writing my Sharpe adventures, I’ll typically have Sharpe walking down an alleyway with a dead end. Metaphorically you understand. He’ll turn round and find himself with his back to the wall in an impossible situation, with certain death facing him at the other end. Now, when you’re writing this kind of scenario, you can devise a 'door in the wall' – an unexpected escape route that allows your hero or heroine to extricate themselves from the situation. Then you can simply go back to earlier in the novel and mention this door beforehand; that way your readers won’t feel cheated because they’ll click and remember it.

How do you research your books?

Philippa: I start off with research because it’s the most important thing. My biggest piece of advice though is to write critically – don’t fall in love with your time period because you’ll be sidetracked by your emotions. You have to stand back and think about the period logically – what was the climate of your period? What motivated people to act the way they did in those days?

Bernard: 80% of my research comes from books. Either borrowing them from the library or ordering them; you need to really get to grips with your subject. The other 20% of the research comes from trips to museums and visits to the actual locations where your action is taking place, although of course the latter isn’t always possible depending on your budget.

How much research is enough?

Bernard: I usually end up throwing 95% of it out of my books. That is, I write all of the background information, then go through and ruthlessly delete all of the stuff that doesn’t drive the story forward. But I do like to envelop myself in the period – I read history all the time. I surround myself with large maps so I know where I am physically when I’m writing.

Philippa: I only research the background to get knowledge of the period in hand. Most of the foreground comes from my imagination. I use a combination of charts, a big whiteboard and lots of different timelines so I know where I am. A good tip is to use a different colour pen for each character – that makes it easier to keep track of their progress and life.

How can a first-timer go about getting published?

Bernard: Get an agent. I thoroughly recommend it.

Philippa: The best thing is to split yourself into two mindsets. The first one is yourself as an artist in the study where you are the centre of your universe. The second is the outside view where you’re nothing more than one of a pile of manuscripts on the publisher’s desk. You have to balance between the two different mindsets. I really recommend joining the Society of Authors.

Any final tips for somebody writing their first historical novel?

Bernard: It’s important to accept that your first draft is usually going to be utter rubbish. It’s there simply for you to get the story told. After the first draft, you can chuck most of the research out and put all your details in on the rewrite. I always remember a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut, the science fiction writer. He said that “Every book starts with a question”. Make sure yours does.

Philippa: Just focus on getting to the end of the story; as soon as you arrive there, the hardest part is over. Treat history as the texture of your story and try to breathe life into it. Write as if you are there – picture the particular scenes in your mind’s eye and imagine taking part yourself. Focus on your five senses. Remember to feel it, don’t just say it or tell it. You’ll only be successful if you can convince your reader that you’re in it 100%.

*Many thanks to my DH (who was also at the Master Class and has a good memory). He helped me correlate the notes so that they made sense!


Stacy Dawn said...

I think she was one of the first I ever read too. Mom had hers up on the shelf.

Tempest Knight said...

Very interesting interview. *g*

Eva said...

Thanks, Sue! Very informative, not to mention useful and inspiring.