Blog Featured Writing Craft writing life

On the Record – The Permanence of History through Fiction #amwriting


“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” – Desmond Tutu

Mr Swiftstory and I have been watching The Secret History of Writing on TV. If you live in England you can watch this programme on ‘catch up’ and it’s well worth a look. One of the things that surprised me was how places like Turkey changed their written language from Arabic letters to Latinate letters overnight, and how this affected their society. Writing meant the unstoppable spread of ideas, and to me as a writer, this is its first appeal.

The Permanence of Speech

But it’s not only the printed word that is permanent. Yesterday I gave a zoom chat along with some other authors and discovered afterwards that it had been posted on Youtube here. It made me realize that now, even the words you speak – far from being transient, are now indelible on the internet for everyone to see/hear. So they have gained a kind of longevity. (But no-one knows for exactly how long). Making a gaffe could be painful, and worse, it could be around for very long time. So now, instead of the written word being recorded, the spoken word is also being made less ephemeral through podcasts, youtube and other types of recording equipment.

Tape Recorder Permanence of Words
Pic from Encyclopedia Britannica

The Urge for Permanence

When we write books, often we are looking to give our words some weight and permanence, and this is why authors love to be published in a paperback or hardback edition. Digital words are only on loan to us, and so the kindle versions of books might be lost to us if no physical copy ever exists. So why do we want our words to be permanent? One obvious answer is, as a salve to the ego. A sort of proof that you were here on Earth and had made a big enough impression to leave a physical object behind.

The Inside Story

Yet its more than that, because books actually come from INSIDE us. They are a form of direct transmission experienced like an intravenous drug from one vein to another. And the fact you have experienced that journey is evidenced by the physical object, the book. This is why we can’t bear to part with books that have meant something to us, even if we never read them again. A novel transports us from the surface to the interior of who we are, and helps us understand why others behave the way they do.

It isn’t just the words but the story they carry. The novel can be a record of lived experience. In fiction the experience is an imagined one. This often makes it more of a reality for the reader than a non-imagined history. When writing A Plague on Mr Pepys, I turned to Daniel Defoe’s book Journal of the Plague Years, even though it was written years after the event and he must have had to re-imagine it all. The re-imagined history was stronger than the bare facts.

Historical fiction seeks to render realities of the past into present lived experience. But will historical fiction be permanent?

Pic by Guillaume Henrotte

Archivists will probably not save historical fiction from the fire or flood. They have to decide which documents contain intrinsic value for future generations and so deserve permanence, and often this decision is based on whether the documents are ‘true’ or ‘first-hand’ accounts, and so there becomes a hierarchy of sources:

“One word in the archival lexicon used repeatedly without reflection is the word permanent. Archivists speak almost instinctively of their collections as being the permanent records of an individual or entity. The materials in archives are separated from the great mass of all the records ever created and are marked for special attention and treatment because they possess what is frequently identified as permanent value. Whether by accident or design—and the distinction is at the heart of the modem idea of appraisal—certain materials are selected by archives for preservation into the indefinite future. They are in that sense permanent.’’

On the Idea of Permanence  – James M O’Toole American Archivist 1989


Our interpretation of the past shifts with every generation, so historical fiction needs to tap the archives anew for new fresh ways of re-presenting the same stories from history and then by making sure those interpretations are as widely available as possible.

In the programme The Secret History of Writing, much was made of the impact of printing on the permanence of ideas.

The Massachusetts Historical Society declared in 1806:

“There is no sure way of preserving historical records and materials, but by multiplying the copies. The art of printing affords a mode of preservation more effectual than Corinthian brass or Egyptian marble.”

So by printing multiple copies, we ensure that our re-presentations of history are never lost, even if archivists don’t save it, and despite any dystopia where there is no wifi, electricity, or wind-up radio.



Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue – The Life of the Earl of Rochester #Stuart

Hat & Flower smallI’m delighted to welcome Susan Cooper-Bridgewater to my blog today to talk about her novel about John Wilmot the second Earl of Rochester – one of the rakes and rogues of Restoration London that I am fascinated by, and wrote about here. Welcome Sue!

 John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester is known for his satirical verses and his wit, how did you get that across in your narrative?

Rochester was certainly famous for his infamous wit, verbal, poetical and satirical, even calling himself ‘The Wildest and Most Fantastical Odd Man Alive’. So writing in the first person so as to represent Rochester’s persona was, in essence, either a brave act or a moment of madness on my part, not to say a risky undertaking for any author to attempt, but scripting the story in this way seemed natural to me from page one. Nevertheless, I had to remind myself frequently to adhere to the era of the 17th century, and hopefully not let slip any 21st century terms which would irk a reader.

After researching the man for many years and with my Notes and Queries article on him back in 2011, three years prior to the writing of ‘Ink’, I felt that I had come to know his character to a certain degree. However, Rochester was, and I believe always will be, a mystifying individual. Many a scholar has tried to fathom him, and although at times you think you know him well; at others he quickly challenges your perceptions.

So, with imagination, I trust that I have given the reader a fair comprehension of this charismatic character, whether he be good or bad and more often than not he was the latter. I intermittently portray him in a more realistic role, as a loving husband, father, and ardent lover, and not just as ‘Rochester the celebrated reprobate’.

Ink wit IntrigueI included certain of his poems to show his prowess as the most brilliant, witty wordsmith. And throughout the story I adopted my own imagined Rochester retorts such as; in the rat incident – ‘Yes my dearest, it’s dead. It has a large gap between its arse and its head.’; in the fantastical Dr. Alexander Bendo affair – ‘As she and her companion entered the crowded street, I smirked. If Loveall could not oblige his wife, then I could all too readily offer my services.’; in his arguments with his mistress, Mrs. Elizabeth Barry – ‘Well there speaks a lady of breeding.’ I said to Beth, ‘If you wish for the finer things in life, then I suggest you whore yourself to His Majesty.’; after a bout of illness he replies to the King – ‘As long as the frailty of my body is surpassed by the sharpness of my wit, so as to divert you and your Court, what more could a man in the throes of death wish but to thus entertain His Gracious Majesty?’ Bowing gracefully, I then added, ‘To be the bringer of pleasure and jollity to the most deserving of enthroned Monarchs is all I could desire.’; To George Etheredge – ‘Best, George? I have long been the best, but now my feeble body is resorting to the worst. Let us not dwell on that damnation,…’ ; after a wager to covertly sleep with a Landlord’s two young daughters – ‘I shall be down shortly, gentlemen.’ I said quietly, and whispered to the one, ‘So have ready the fruits of our wager that you owe, only doubled if you please, sir.’

Apart from taking on the language of the century, you made this a diary. What attracted you to writing this book in diary format?

Well, someone once remarked that ‘Ink ‘seemed to them a cross between The Diary of Samuel Pepys and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I wasn’t sure whether I should take that as a compliment or not! Strangely, that was quite perceptive as I did read Pepys many years ago. Whether or not that influenced me to write the book in that way, I honestly could not say. As a researcher your head is full of dates, with mine usually beginning with 16. I expect with the book being a cradle to the grave story, and beyond, supposedly written by Rochester himself, it was inevitable that it would take the guise partly as a journal.

What were your favourite research books and did you use any real objects or artefacts in your research?

For my research on Rochester, which commenced in 2006, I read many books then in print; ‘Lord Rochester’s Monkey’ by Graham Greene; ‘So Idle a Rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester’ by Jeremy Lamb; ‘The Works of John Earl of Rochester: Containing Poems, on Several Occasions’ printed for Jacob Tonson, 1714;  ‘Enthusiast in Wit’ by Vivian de Sola Pinto and ‘John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Selected Works’, Penguin Classics, and various online out of print material. But my main source of study came from reading the brilliant, and in my opinion the definitive biography of Lord Rochester, ‘A Profane Wit’ by James William Johnson, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Rochester, NY. To compete with such an expert as Johnson in non-fiction would be a tough call, hence my decision to write a historical faction on the subject, as comprehensive novels on Rochester are a rarity.

As for real objects or artefacts, these took the form of visiting many places in the Cotswolds, where Rochester was born and lived a great deal of his life. These included; Ditchley, the place of his birth; the Old Grammar School at Burford, the scene of his early education; Adderbury House and village, where he lived with his wife and family, when not cavorting elsewhere; and High Lodge, in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, where he held the office of Ranger for many years, and where sadly was the place of his demise aged 33, which historic event was famously recorded in Gilbert Burnet’s ‘Some passages of the life and death of the right honourable John, Earl of Rochester who died the 26th of July, 1680’. And last but not least the idyllic Cotswold village of Spelsbury, and its wonderful church, the scene of Rochester’s poignant burial.

Spelsbury Church
Spelsbury Church

It’s a massive undertaking. Does Rochester change through your narrative, which spans most of his life, and if so, how?

I am pleased you asked this question. The book does in fact span all of his life, beginning with his birth and ending with his death. With this in mind, I was able to portray the innocent young boy developing into a perceptive youth with a growing awareness of the changes that surrounded him as a boy, such as; his days at Burford when, at the age of 11, he inherited the title of Earl of Rochester in 1658 following his father’s death; His time at Oxford and then on The Grand Tour as a young, impressionable teenager. The narrative for these times is written as a light hearted, happy and courteous Rochester, with hints of a loveable, mischievous rogue showing their signs. But as the shackles of domesticity, illicit liaisons, love of the God Bacchus and the Earl’s insufferable declining health, cast a shadow upon this once promising youth, the narrative grows ever more disturbing to those closest to him and this is reflected in his insincere, capricious comments and amusing but disturbing poems.

But for the reader’s sake, so as not to end in utter despair, there is an Epilogue where one enters a chapter full of twists and turns and mystification.

Thanks for this insight into what was obviously a labour of love. Your obvious enthusiasm for his life and works really shines through, Sue.

Of Ink Wit and Intrigue is published by Troubadour. 17th century fans who want to know more can find out more here



Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction: Ten Editing Tools. No 5 – Foreshadowing

Peter Graham – Wandering Shadows

As a historical fiction writer, I often want to include major events in history, and usually these are the ‘real’ history that inspired the book. By ‘major’, I don’t necessarily mean big battles, (though the Battle of Worcester forms at least one set piece for me) but they are usually pivotal points of changes in history or changes in character, or preferably both. One of the main pivots in my book Pleasing Mr Pepys is when Mrs Pepys discovers her husband in flagrante with her own lady’s maid, Deb Willet, on his knee. The foreshadowing in this case took the form of Mrs Pepys’s suspicions – her careful examining of her husband’s clothes for Deb’s hairs, and her bribing of the kitchenmaid to spy on Deb’s chamber.

So when editing, one of the things I do is to look for the big scenes, particularly the real events of history, and see if I can foreshadow them more. What I’m aiming for is a build of tension that will lead the reader, as if up a mountain slope, to the pinnacle of tension – by which time, the scene istelf arrives and is all the more satisfying for its release. I usually have about eight pivotal scenes in my books, but only the later few will be deeply foreshadowed, because the early ones are at the beginning of the character’s transformation and so don’t need as much development.

If you have a character that needs to show particular bravery in a late scene in your novel, you can foreshadow by making your character cowardly earlier on. This sets up tension, as the reader wonders whether the character will crumble under pressure. Opposites are a great way of stretching the character arc. For example it is much better to start with an overbearing character and make them humble by the end, than to start with a self-effacing person and make them humble by the end. The bigger the psychological distance travelled by your protagonist, the more impact it will have. Fear in the reader is a good thing, but you must then have at least one scene where the change is foreshadowed – where the character steels him/herself to be more courageous. Often this can be done with an object – ‘he looked at his father’s medals, glinting in the drawer, and knew he could not let him down’. (More on this in my next post).

Avoiding Blatant Premonitions

Every now and then I read books with sentences like, ‘Little did she know, all that was about to change,’ or ‘What I didn’t know then, was that it was the biggest mistake of my life’. These sentences always make me wince.  Especially the ‘little did she know’. They are so blatantly manipulative and only really work well in books which are supposed to be funny, or tongue-in-cheek.

Premonitions and dreams are another obvious form of foreshadowing. Actually, I have used both, but with extreme caution! (in Pepys’s Diary he reports that Mrs Pepys and Deb go to a fortune teller, so I couldn’t resist using it.) But – bear in mind the character’s intelligence and personality. Would they really take notice of the premonition, or would they dismiss it? Deb and Mrs Pepys have really different reactions to what they are told. Describe the premonition in an interesting way – hairs standing up at the back of the neck, tingling spine and clenching of stomachs are all clichés.

Foreshadowing is often a question of mood. This is something else I look for as I’m editing. A sense of instability can be conveyed through setting, rickety houses, a blur of rain, slippery cobbles that make it hard to stand upright. Weather has long been used for this purpose, but beware of making it stormy in angry scenes, rainy at funerals etc. The still millpond could be a better backdrop for an angry scene and reflect back the deeper things unsaid.

Do let me know books you think use foreshadowing really well, so I can pass them on as recommendations to my students.

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads

More on foreshadowing? Read this great post from NowNovel here

Picture from Wiki Commons

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: Virtue no 5 – The Absence of Media


Depending on wtulip papers_posthich era you are writing in, you will find that less media existed, than does now. First there was the voice, then writing, then printing, then the telephone, then computing and finally – Lord help us – the internet. Instant messaging means writers of contemporary fiction simply cannot escape the ever-present difficulty of characters in peril with their mobile phones still hot in their hands, and the non-stop flurry of communication and instant messaging via social media means news travels instantaneously.

But this is an obvious advantage. Time delays in communication do, of course, add to plot and suspense. The letter that fails to arrive, the deserted isolated spot with nobody to hear you scream, the cut wires of the telephone. But a more subtle aspect of the lack of media in times past, is the sheer newness of information. In the century I am writing in right now, (1660’s), news sheets were in their infancy, pictures were crude woodcuts, and nothing was in colour. Portraits of people were not always a good likeness, as painting was stylised, and most ordinary people never sat for portraits.  If you heard about something – a  new invention, a new fashion, a newly discovered species from another land, you had to see it with your own eyes. The instant you first saw something – or someone, it was a special moment, because you had not examined them as an avatar for weeks, or googled them.

The particutwo-tulipslar freshness of seeing something for the first time is something we should all bear in mind when writing historical fiction. This is what we want for our readers as well as for the characters, so this mind-set works well when writing stories set in the past. We must also bear in mind that comparisons we might use, such as ‘wide as the ocean’ might not be appropriate when a person in all probability might never have travelled far enough to see the sea. Their world was a narrow one, filled with local particulars. This is why different varieties of tulip became a sensation, why people queued for hours for a glimpse of the King’s mistresses. Their world was also one where people described events and people in detail. There were no photographs to pass round, but gossip was eagerly shared in taverns and coffee-shops, and below and above stairs.

‘Is it not strange, this madness that has gripped us?’ asks Cornelius.

‘What madness?’ asks the painter.

‘Have you surrendered to the passion yet?’

The painter pauses. ‘It depends what passion you are talking about.’

‘This speculation on tulip bulbs! Great fortunes have been made and lost. These new hybrids that they have been growing – they fetch the most astonishing prices.  Thousands of florins, if you know when to buy and sell..’ Cornelius’s voice rises with excitement; he too has greatly profited from this tulipomania.

‘Why, the Semper Augustus bulb – they are the most beautiful and the most valuable – one bulb sold last week for six fine horses, three oxheads of wine, a dozen sheep, two dozen silver goblets and a seascape by Esaias van de Velde!’  Tulip Fever – Deborah Moggach

I find it interesting to try to strike a balance – it is tempting to describe things that would have been obvious and unremarkable to our characters – ‘she picked up the leather bag and placed it on the wooden table under the mullioned windows’, which is a kind of generic ‘pseudo-historical’ big brush-stroke description, and forget to give full description to something the person might never have seen before.

  The weather is cold but the sea is flat. Kat has given him a holy medal to wear. He has slung it around his neck with a cord. It makes a chill against the skin of his throat. He unloops it. He touches it with his lips, for luck. He drops it; it whispers into the water. He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.   Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

You might like this The Book Women of Westminster  about 17thC female booksellers

My previous posts on the Virtues of Historical Fiction, the Sins are here.

Virtue no 1 – Bravery

Virtue no 2 – The Non-fiction Novel

Virtue No 3 – Past Does Not Exist

Virtue No 4 – Old Crafts and Writing


#LuckySeven – lines from my new novel

I was tagged by Barbara Kyle in a game where you have to reveal the seventh line of the seventh chapter of the book you are working on. So here’s mine – from my current work in progress which is based around Pepys’s Diary.  According to the Diary, John Unthank was Elizabeth Pepys’ tailor, and he had a large shop at Charing Cross which served as a meeting place for ladies to gossip.

‘Despite her protestations that she did not need new clothes, a carriage was called, and they put up their hoods and set off to Unthank’s. Unthank’s Tailors was a small cramped shop that smelt of wool and velvet and the sweat of Mr Unthank’s underarms. Once out of her wet cloak, Deb fidgeted and held her breath as the tailor lifted his arms to measure brusquely around her chest and waist.

She showed no enthusiasm when a bolt of lilac twill was thrown onto the table. Elisabeth exclaimed over its shade and texture, and asked its price, but Deb was silent. To think, a letter about her mother was waiting for her at this very minute and she had to be here fussing over cloth and trimmings.’

Perhaps they were about to have something like this made? This dress, influenced by fashions from France, dates from approx. 1695. I would like to tag authors Gabrielle Kimm, Carol Cram, Carol McGrath, Judith Starkston, Debra Brown, Judith Arnopp and Philippa Keyworth.


cameoo asked: have you found any 17th century fashion? all the nice pieces i can find are 18th century and foward and im looking to see what the time period around the Salem withc trials were like. brsis mentioned this to me yesterday and it slipped my mind (sorry!) Janet Arnold’s The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, C.1560-1620 and the C.1660-1860 is the best source for extant examples from these periods. I’ve never actually looked into Puritan fashion, I’m more of a Cavalier! Around this period I’m still hanging out across the pond at the French court and chillin with Charles II! The Stuart’s are in Power and they brought with them the loveliest style of dress.  The above dress is from 1695-1700 and is called the Valdemar Slot Gown. The fabric is moss green silk brocade with real gold threads, and the museum that owns it claims that it is amongst the eldest whole surviving civile female outfits in Europe. This is the closest I could find to 1692 (Salem Witch Trials) but I’ll keep looking around for you!


No Quick Fix – The Inherent Complexity of a Good Novel

Recently I have noticed that there has been a tsunami of  ‘How to’ writing guides published, and that these are selling extremely well. In fact it is probably more profitable, and perhaps easier, to write a book about writing a novel than it is to write a successful novel.

In fact that must be so – because so many people are buying them. If writing a novel was easy they wouldn’t be turning to these books for help.

The titles are designed to make it sound easy:  Fix your Plot in Five Seconds Flat! Be a Billionaire Bestseller in 30 Days! Secrets of Fail-safe Story Structures!

wedding speech helpOf course these books are designed to make it sound easy, because that’s what every novelist wants – an easy way to do this thing called writing a novel.

But the reality is that good novels are complex, intricate, difficult things, and just like life, a formula is not necessarily what creates a great novel, particularly for historical novelists who have to juggle the reality of real historical events alongside any story structure. It is a slightly more thorny task  to suddenly ‘create’ a worthy antagonist if the real history does not provide one. We cannot turn real characters into easily categorized roles in our novels, so have to work hard to fit our stories easily into conventional models, turning instead to internal motivations to create opposing forces.

It is not true, however, to say that good story structure has to be thrown out of the window, and that none of these books on writing have anything to offer. On the contrary, I’m a big fan of books on writing. But reading the book is often not the same as editing something with multiple timelines, events that must take place on certain days, or characters who are known to be a certain way because of genuine evidence. Such a journey is more like negotiating a maze of corridors with light somewhere at the end of the tunnel, but not necessarily where you thought the exit was.

I would argue that good novels are complex, that they weave a number of interlocking themes, ideas and plots. When working on a novel the urge to get it finished by an easy solution can be overwhelming, but rather than looking for a ‘quick fix’ it is often better to sit with the complexities, let them simmer and brew, making your novel that much richer and subtler in the process. Anyone will find it easy to apply story structure to a novel after it is finished – to point out the mid-point, the hook etc etc. But the simple structures may have been a lot less easy to spot whilst the novel was in progress, and too often in desperation to see our novels finished, we want to fix them too early, before they have had a chance to breathe.

In order to sell books, it is argued, we must be more productive, to build our readership more quickly. This can induce a panic (and a vague sense of being bullied) to produce more and more books, but does not necessarily mean that the books are better. A readership is not built on bad books. I would argue that like wine, a good novel needs to be matured. A book like Shantaram or The Far Pavilions both at nearly 1000 pages long, (yes, 1000 pages!) surely cannot be produced quickly. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, a historical novel about the time of the building of cathedrals in England, took about 10 years to write, but has stayed popular with readers ever since.

For those of you who still would like a quick fix (I can’t convince you, can I?) then I heartily recommend ‘How not to write a novel’ by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark, which not only avoids telling you what to do, but shows you what NOT to do through a series of hilarious but cleverly-constructed ‘bad writing’ examples. When you are feeling like you need a quick fix, pick this up instead and sift through your novel for similar cringeworthy examples. Total gold.