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Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Importance of Setting in Historical Romance

Previously, I explored a couple of the ways in which setting is crucially important when writing fiction in general. For this blog post, I’m going to be looking at its uses in the historical romance genre in particular.

The Regency period has been an ever-popular staple – particularly among American readers – of the historical romance genre since its first inception, no doubt because of the Jane Austen effect and more recently the books of Georgette Heyer. Such stories utilise bustling ballrooms, expansive country piles, landscaped parks, promenades along beachfronts, run-down slums and rattling stagecoaches to grand effect.

I’ve deliberately chosen to avoid writing stories set during the Regency era. That’s not because I don’t like it, but because I feel like I can add little that hasn’t already been done in an over-populated genre. I’ve gone out of my way to research an era we still know relatively little about – the Dark Ages of Britain, aka the Anglo-Saxon period – to allow me extra freedom in creating my own worldscapes.

Other consistently favourite eras include medieval Scotland – the Braveheart effect, perhaps – and Ireland, along with the Norman era of jousting knights and hulking stone castles, of whom Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the hardest-working authors. I also find stories set during siege warfare to be particularly intriguing; one I once read took place during the English Civil War and was very inventive.

For the latest historical romance we’re working on, Sue and I are concocting a wild and bleak landscape in which the story will play out. I’m talking wide, desolate marshland and storm-wracked coastal landscapes. The idea is that the harsher the elements, the warmer the love and the more heated the passion.

Time will only tell if it works out that way…

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Setting in Fiction: Why it’s Important

In this two-part blog series, I’m going to be talking about how the actual setting of a historical romance story is a crucial element of the narrative and one which can be used to enhance the writing no end. Part 1 will look at the importance of setting in general, while Part 2 will examine its uses in historical romance.

Setting is one of the most important things to me when I read a book. I can’t imagine Jane Austen’s stories without scenes taking place in busy ballrooms, gossips a-chatter in every corner. Try imagining the work of the Bronte sisters without their backdrops of windswept moors. It just doesn’t happen.

Scenery is important for a number of reasons. It adds atmosphere to the story, for one thing; there’s no better way to give your reader’s imagination a workout than by placing your story in remote or exotic wilds, or in a place where danger lurks in every corner. In this sense, scenery enhances and adds flavour to any story.

It’s also possible to enhance characterisation via setting. You can portray an accurate reflection of your character’s mindset in their surroundings; placing them in a field of summery wild flowers is the perfect romantic idyll, and will set them up for a romantic encounter accordingly, while depicting a character alone and adrift in a grey, featureless world will create a depressive state in an effective way.

Personally, I love stories that are well-grounded in a landscape; I’m a very visual reader, and I like to ‘see’ what’s going on in my mind as I explore a book. I suspect many other readers are the same. The good news is that scenery-building is great fun, too…

Monday, May 14, 2012

The future of historical drama on TV

Although I’ve now come to the end of this blog series charting the highlights of the current crop of TV historical drama, there’s still more to come. Fans of well-written shows like those listed over the past week have an exciting future ahead.

One show conspicuous here by its absence is The Borgias, the story of the notorious Spanish crime family who rose to the highest ranks of the Catholic church. Jeremy Irons headlines this show, which has just been greenlit for a third season, and by all accounts it’s very much like a European spin on The Tudors. We’re definitely looking forward to catching up with it in due course.

Meanwhile, forthcoming shows are constantly being announced. A TV miniseries adaptation of the excellent Robert Harris novel Pompeii has been on the cards for many years, and will hopefully achieve fruition soon.

Later this year, Channel 4 will be broadcasting the new miniseries based on the Ken Follett novel World Without End, which is a kind of sequel to his Pillars of the Earth. With the story set a couple of hundred years after the original, there’s a whole new cast and storyline to enjoy. Channel 4 will also be showing a miniseries version of the Kate Mosse book Labyrinth at some point.

Finally, American studios recently announced plans for a big-budget TV series based on the Vikings. I for one am over the moon about this; films over the years on the subject have invariably been lacking, and I look forward to seeing a show that gets into the real nitty-gritty of the subject. The future’s bright!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Tudors: how historical drama on TV became so much fun

The final stop on our odyssey of historical drama entertainment on TV is The Tudors, one of the most successful of all series. It enjoyed huge viewing figures and lasted for four seasons, allowing full time to cover the story of Henry VIII and his six wives.

I think one of the reasons that The Tudors did so well is that it has the factors that keep soap operas high in the ratings: the drama takes place on a small scale, involving the machinations of those in the Tudor court; the same reliable faces appear week after week, and the dominant personalities on display make for plenty of conflict.

There’s lightness, and love, but also moments of unbelievable cruelty that serve as a stark reminder of the ruthless behaviour of those at the top.

Sue and I are currently working our way through a box set and have reached season three. We’re loving the show: not only does it look fantastic (the costume design deserves particular mention) but the scripts are strong, too. Every episode features plenty of incident and that much-loved intrigue.

In the end, The Tudors proved that history could be sexy instead of dry and dust-bound. A young, attractive cast ably step up to the table (I find James Frain and Natalie Dormer to be particularly watchable) and, as Henry, Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a performance that’s become my favourite depiction of the king: as actor, he internalises everything, so gone is the necessity for bushy red beard and fat suit.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Game of Thrones: recognisable history in a fantasy setting

Game of Thrones is, without a doubt, the best written of the TV dramas covered in this blog series, sitting comfortably at the top alongside Rome. Before the disgruntled outcries of ‘it’s fantasy, not historical drama!’ here are a few reasons why it deserves inclusion on this list:

a) Game of Thrones is an example of low, rather than high, fantasy. If you go in expecting singing dwarves and ethereal elves, you’ll be disappointed. Yes, there are brief glimpses of supernatural creatures and references to dragons, but for the most part this show is grounded in the context of a realistic world.

b) There are many references to history, both British and international. The story is set within seven rival kingdoms, akin to the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. There’s a great wall in the North, similar to Hadrian’s but on a grander scale, devoted to keeping out hostiles. Medieval jousting takes place, along with the hunting of wild boars by kings. The author, George R. R. Martin, was inspired by the Wars of the Roses for his depictions of power struggles between various houses. And one character is clearly influenced by Genghis Khan.

c) The show is brilliantly written, full of drama and plot twists, and just as intriguing during the moments of quietness as it is during the spectacle. One of my favourite scenes in the first season involves Charles Dance discussing the merits of political manoeuvering with his son, a conversation which takes place while he skins a deer. It’s just two men chatting, but I was hooked on every word.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Spartacus, a Roman gladiator TV show for mature audiences

While previous historical dramas covered in this blog series have been geared towards female viewers (or at least mixed audiences), Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a show that goes all-out for the male demographic.

It’s a grisly business, charting the slave revolt in ancient Rome made famous by the 1960 Kirk Douglas film in which a number of gladiators rose up against their masters and formed an army. The producers of Spartacus fill every episode with sex, explicit violence, and the kind of slow-motion action that we saw in 300.

Only strong stomachs need apply: a plot point in one episode involves a man having his penis removed. Rarely an episode passes without blood awash the screen. Yet, despite the unpalatable subject matter, something about this show’s writing really hits home.

There’s a strong mix of male camaraderie and political scheming, with John Hannah playing a particularly entertaining villain. The characters and their relationships grow on you as the show goes on, so that by the final episode both Sue and I were completely hooked.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, a six-part prequel miniseries, came next, followed by season two proper, Spartacus: Vengeance.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Camelot, a fantastic soap opera in need of stronger writing

The short-lived TV series Camelot, which lasted for just one series before being cancelled, was an attempt to retell the King Arthur legend for audiences weaned on the sex-and-blood drama of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. It didn’t work very well, with audiences switching off in their droves after the first couple of episodes.

One of the problems was the weak, diluted writing. Much of the show’s storylines resembled those of a long-running soap opera, with much promised and little resolved (despite copious amounts of running time devoted to the subject). There were hints at greatness – Eva Green and Joseph Fiennes bagged a pair of excellent roles – but many were put off by the sickly, skinny-looking male model cast as the once and future king.  

The fantastic elements were kept to a minimum – there was a little shape-shifting here and there – and one of the biggest drawbacks was the lack of budget, which resulted in poor effects and numerous other problems, like a pitched battle between two armies reduced to half a dozen extras milling around a field.

Some gratuitous nudity added to the mix failed to work, key character actors were underused (a delightfully lusty James Purefoy has far too small a role) and we were left with glimpses of might have been. Thankfully, a fellow fantasy show, based on a certain series of books by one George R. R. Martin, turned out a lot better…

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

TV’s Rome, possibly the best historical drama ever made

Coming next in our journey of exploration was the HBO series Rome, which ran for two seasons from 2005 to 2007 before it was cancelled. If Pillars of the Earth is good, then Rome’s even better: a truly faultless show, exemplarily written. It’s hard finding anyone willing to fault it.

On the face of it, the story is about the political manoeuvrings of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but these strands merely serve as backdrop for an even more gripping foreground story, charting the misadventures of two Roman soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, and a household belonging to a scheming woman named Atia of the Julii.

Rome is the show that gave audiences a taste for adult-themed historical drama; themes explored over the course of the series include murder, incest, assassination, sex and, of course, intrigue, which turns out to be the lifeblood of such productions. It’s a series that covers Roman society in great depth, from the pomp and splendour of the Imperial displays to ruthless scrabbles for survival on the mean streets.

And you’ll be hooked from the very beginning.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

What writers can learn watching The Pillars of the Earth

When Sue and I watched The Pillars of the Earth, the eight-part TV miniseries based on the novel by Ken Follett, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing: here was historical drama, done on a television budget of all things, putting similar Hollywood fare to shame.

The beauty of Pillars is that it paints a complex story of lives and loves in a way that’s at once both engaging and easy to follow. The 12th-century backdrop is turbulent, charting the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, but the central, smaller story is even more interesting. On the face of it, it’s about the building of a cathedral, which sounds rather dry, but this device is used as a microcosm to portray the dramatic doings of a large cast.

The sumptuous production values are one thing, but the quality of the character work is even better. It’s hard to pick a favourite: Ian McShane’s delightfully sinister villain is an obvious choice, but if anything the protagonists are even more layered and arresting.

Pillars is also notable for collecting together a number of fine actors who’d be at home as the protagonists of romance novels, historical or otherwise: Rufus Sewell, Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Eddie Redmayne, Natalie Worner and Sam Claflin are all on top form and the series is well worth a watch for any of their fans.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Catherine Cookson on TV: gutsy, grounded storytelling

We’ve been steadily working our way through a box set of Catherine Cookson TV movie adaptations made between 1989 and 2001 by producer Ray Marshall. All of these are splendid entertainment: hard-hitting stories in which realistic characters are wrung through the mill in various ways.

One reason the Cookson adaptations work so well is that they’re invariably gutsy and down to earth. Cookson’s heroines typically rise from the gutter, fighting against sometimes overwhelming odds to make successes of their lives. As such, these tales are hugely inspirational and despite their period settings they never feel dated.

A second reason for the success of these TV movies is that they’re well grounded in reality. The working class Tyneside settings are a character all of themselves and viewed together they create a kind of uniform backdrop on which a varied tapestry of stories is played out. If you want examples of how to make setting and era come alive, then I’d wholeheartedly recommend giving these a go.

For an interview with the producer, check the BBC Tyne website.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Historical Drama on TV: A boon for writers

Over the past couple of years, Sue and I have been getting into television in a big way: we've discovered the delights of the contemporary historical television series. Ever since we switched off the soaps - goodbye, Eastenders, I haven't missed you yet! - and started exploring some of the great shows out there, we've found our writing improving in leaps and bounds.

This cultural renaissance started when we caught up with the Channel 4 broadcast of Pillars of the Earth, an 8-part miniseries adapted from the Ken Follett novel. Following on from this, we never looked back: we fell in love with HBO's Rome, were scandalised by Spartacus and got hooked on The Tudors.

Each of these shows occupies its own niche: some of them portray the highs and lows of the royal court, while others come across as grubby soap operas with lashings of sex and violence. Each of them have two things in common: great writing and intriguing characters you inevitably love or hate.

During the course of this week, I'm going to be taking you on a journey of some of our favourite historical drama shows, looking at what makes them a boon, not just for readers, but for writers as well...