Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction : 10 Editing tools. No.4 – Themes & Threads

Silk weaving Tamil NaduOne of the most useful things I can do when I have finished a first draft is to examine the themes and the characters and follow their threads. Sometimes a character and a thread can be the same – at the moment I am looking at ‘ambition’, which is both part of Bess Bagwell’s character and a theme.

But generally I can make a list of characters and a list of themes. The themes tend to be more abstract – corruption, love, infidelity, glamour. I then take coloured ‘post its’ and work my way through the draft finding the scenes that embody those themes. A green post-it for jealousy, a blue one for insecurity.

How does this help? Well, what I’m looking for is a sense of escalation towards the climax of the novel, at which point some of the themes might disappear, but the ones that are carrying the whole book will remain.  It also helps me to check the balance of themes, and to make sure the major theme appears strongly near the climax of the book, and also makes an appearance somehow in the last scene. The themes themselves need to increase in intensity, so it is also a way to check I am not repeating myself – that each scene expands the theme as well as moves the character forward.

In historical fiction, often the real historical events are one thread that form the backbone of the novel. For me, Pepys’s Diary, and his infidelity to his wife, forms the one thread I can’t tamper with, though of course I can structure my other themes around it. One obvious theme in the book I am working on right now is the Plague – which has its own timescale and escalation; from miasma to contagion, from fever to delirium, and finally death or release.

I usually have about ten themes, and six major characters. That might seem like a lot, but often the themes can be paired very nicely into opposites, like, for example, truth and lies. In my current novel there are several scenes showing someone’s untruthfulness, balanced against one shorter thread in which a minor character only ever tells the truth.

What I have discovered is that by controlling the threads I can also get more control over my material, and understand parts of my story in a new way. By heightening some themes and controlling their pace I’m able to make them more effective for the reader. I also see where there are gaps, or opportunities for expansion.

The advantage of the threads is that they carry the emotion. The abstract threads – greed, ambition, love, fidelity – are the ones that are universal and key into the reader’s psyche. Link these threads effectively with a character’s journey and there is suddenly more propulsion – the scenes have a bigger meaning.

Gerard Dou – Old Woman Unreeling Threads

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light

No 2 Truth

No 3 Sound

Pictures from Wiki Commons

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – 10 Editing Tools. No 3 – The Sound of Time

Street Cries of 1754

In most of my novels the passing of time is something that is hard to convey in an era when nobody wore a watch, nobody had a mobile phone, and ways of telling the time were by sundial, candle calendar, or by listening out for church bells. Something that is really helpful to do is to make a daily hour calendar, with the hours described in a different way – a way I’ll call the ‘sound of time’.

Here’s my imaginary example of ideas for an average day in autumn in seventeenth century London, when most people gauged the time with ears rather than eyes. Of course every novel is different and every day is different, but it is helpful as a novelist to get a general picture of what might impact the daily routine of your characters. When you have a specific environment in mind, it is even more helpful. For my novel, I know the surrounding streets and trades; where the churches are, where the river is, how far it is to the cock-pit, and so forth, so I know what sounds my characters are  likely to hear to help them (and the reader) be aware of the passage of time.

When I’m editing, I’ll make a pass through the book looking for moments when I can make the passing of time feel more natural by incorporating these ideas.

5am Cock crow hour, hungry horses neighing, candlelight, cats yowling.

6am Fading dawn chorus, clanking of milkmaids bringing pails of milk, scraping of grates being cleaned, chopping of wood, squeal of pigs being fed

7am Smell of smoke from fires being kindled for cooking, rasp of scrubbing brushes and besoms on front steps and thresholds

8am Bells calling people to morning church, boots and iron-tipped shoes hurrying by, sound of well-water being drawn at pumps, street cries of the bread men

9am Intensified rattle and rumble of city traffic, horses, carriages, and hoots of barges on the Thames. Clatter and lowing of livestock arriving for slaughter.

10am Shouts of ferrymen touting for trade on the Thames, whump of rugs being beaten outside, thump of bread kneaded on a kitchen table. Clang of iron-rimmed cartwheels on cobbles.

11am Cries of the rag and bone collectors, the knocking as knife-grinders and button sellers go door to door, causing the barking of dogs.

12 noon Cacophany of clanging bells all over the city. Closing of shutters as shops close for dinner, bolting of doors, smell of cooking, queues at the bakehouse

1pm Shutters bang back against walls, trade resumes, including hammering on anvils, chink of bricks being laid, livestock being slaughtered.

2pm Newsmen shouting the days news, and the programme of the afternoon entertainment at the playhouses, shouts of ‘horses for hire’

3pm Swish of the sweeping out and replacement of old rushes, applause from the playhouses and raucous yelling from the cock-pits

4pm Light grows dimmer, candles appear at windows, noisy crowds of apprentices gather at the taverns, beggars rattle pans at them on street corners

5pm Traffic decreases, darkness descends, clop of hooves in back alleys as hired horses are returned to stables, bells for evening service at church

6pm Clatter of knives on pewter plates as supper is prepared and laid out, then eaten, the smell of smoke intensifies

7pm  Thick fug of smoke as people settle around firesides, spit and pop of burning wood, convivial chatter from behind shutters

8pm Sound and smell of the night-soil men doing their rounds

9pm Strains of someone playing the viol drifting from a window, cries of the link-men as they light people home

10pm Clang of the curfew bell, grating of the city gates closing.

Rag and bone man, Paris 1895  (Wikipedia)

Writers – do feel free to share some of your sounds from your novel with my readers.

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