Could I have chosen a different setting for Highwaypersons?
I have written about the reasons for setting a novel in a particular century. As promised, I am going to consider a few other factors. The important question is, ‘What happens in the story?’
How does the revolution in IT affect the setting for a novel?
Instant communication is a modern phenomenon. In the past, people had to make decisions for themselves. They could not ask for instructions, unless their superiors were present. Likewise, people had to acquire knowledge from libraries or from experience, as they could not look things up on the internet. News travelled at the speed of a horse. You will see instances where my characters have to work within the limitations of their time. If you updated the story, you would have to justify their apparent deficiencies, or make considerable changes to the plot.
How do social changes affect the setting?
In Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, the main characters encounter the slave trade. A similar encounter could have occurred in a book set in the present, perhaps about people-trafficking or debt-slavery, but it would need some careful adapting.
Career opportunities for women are better now, although there’s room for improvement. Bethan and Megan would not have had so few options and therefore their decisions would have taken more explaining, had the story been set in the present. (Pride and Prejudice would not update well for the same reason: Miss Bennett would not need to find a man to keep her.)
In many novels, a lot of comedy depends on efforts at protecting a woman’s reputation. (Bertie Wooster comes to mind.) In the modern World, this does not seem to be so important. Being a virgin, after a certain age, is more of an embarrassment today than the opposite.
In the modern World, debt can be dealt with in various ways. Billy and Bethan would have found it harder to justify turning to crime.
If none of these issues apply, can a novelist pick any setting?
There is at least on more issue to be considered. I will consider it in my next blog.
Is the century in which a novel is to be set not obvious? You might think I am asking a silly question. However, many stories have been updated into different periods. I have just seen a BBC production of King Lear (and a little while ago Hamlet) set in the present. Opinions vary as to how well each adaptation worked. You have probably heard Bible stories retold in modern settings. Some people say a good story is independent of its time.
Why adapt a story to the present century?
Some writers believe that modern readers prefer books with present day settings. They think people can’t relate to the culture of another century. Others say they find it difficult to avoid anachronisms, which can distract readers. It is especially difficult to write in a style which does not seem old-fashioned, yet also not too gratingly modern. I agree these are challenges, but I find they make the writing process enjoyable.
How to choose your century?
Some writers choose the period they are most familiar with, or where they feel most comfortable. Sometimes you have to keep the story in the original setting because it includes actual historical events. The Jacobite Rebellions of the early eighteenth century provide the background for the Highwaypersons trilogy. The stories would not transfer easily to any other time. I like weaving my fictitious stories into real history, but some stories appear to be independent of any period.
How does the content affect the century for the setting?
Apart from major events, stories often contain features which limit your choice of setting. Swordfights, chases on horseback and voyages on sailing ships all occur in Highwaypersons. They could happen in the 21st century, but would tend to seem out of place. Perhaps I could have rewritten them as gunfights, car chases and airline travel. Or left them out? Some writers say they have successfully made such adaptations to old stories. Readers may have their opinions as to the extent of the success.
What else affects the century in which to set a novel?
The important question is ‘What happens’ in the story. I will explain this in a future blog.
Some time ago, I wrote about the destruction of statues by people who didn’t like the opinions or actions of the historical figures they commemorated. Both sides in that controversy accepted the basic facts of history. They just looked at them from different points of view.
I have recently tried to refute Kanye West’s suggestion that slavery was in some way a choice on the part of the slaves. On thinking about it, I realise that you could say all us historical novelists change the past to suit ourselves. We change history by inserting fiction into it to varying degrees. So is the kettle calling the pot black? Are we guilty of denial?
In what way am I in denial about historical facts?
I try to be true to the known facts of history most of the time. I usually take known facts as my framework and insert fictitious characters and events into them. Sometimes, I make minor changes to the facts in order to make a good story or to make one simpler. When I do that, I mention it in historical notes in the book, unless it is too trivial to mention. I try to avoid denial of known facts.
Disagreement is not denial.
There are many things historians disagree about. Mostly, these are interpretations rather than facts, but sometimes there are historical documents or pieces of archaeological evidence that contract each other. I claim the right to choose which ones to believe, like anyone else. However, I do not deny known facts and am not aware of any historical novelist who does. We don’t need to. The facts are interesting enough, and there’s plenty of scope for being creative without changing them.
Who is in denial about what?
It is amazing how many well documented facts people have chosen to deny in recent times. I cannot know the reasons. Perhaps some people find denial an easy way to deal with things they find inconvenient. Perhaps others are too lazy to go in for proper debate about the past. Here are a few things that some people have denied.
That the Twin Towers were destroyed by an Islamist group.
The Manchester Arena bomb.
The murder of Jo Cox MP.
In the Bible, it says the authorities paid some soldiers to say that Jesus’s disciples stole his body, so people could deny that he had come back to life.
Perhaps you know of a few more?
Denial is the opposite of fiction. It doesn’t involve creativity and it prevents debate rather than stimulating it.
I was amazed to hear that anyone thought slavery was a choice, at least on the part of the slaves. That it went on for four hundred years seems irrelevant. It went on so long because a small number of people with wealth and power found it profitable. (By the way, I don’t accept the idea that most British people benefited from it). You might as well say that prison is a choice. In that case, you might be more nearly correct. You have the choice to do or not to do the crime.
How does slavery come into Highwaypersons?
In Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, the main characters begin by knowing nothing about the slave trade. During the course of the book, (where they are looking for a missing person, solving a murder and uncovering a plot) they learn about the slave trade from a sailor and from a former slave. They encounter a slave owner and a few of his favourite slaves. They also go on board a slave ship that makes an unscheduled visit to a British port.
I assure you that I have not exaggerated or distorted the facts about slavery in that book.
Slavery was in the past: why drag it up?
I have written before about statues and other symbols that some people find offensive. It is obvious that slavery is an issue that does bother a lot of people today. We can’t sweep it under the carpet. I want us all to hear the truth, even the bits we find uncomfortable. Let’s examine the facts and listen to various opinions.
What about the present?
I do not want us to devote too much time to blaming people now long dead, or to arguing about apologies. If you have the energy and inclination to get involved in any campaigns, I suggest trying to eradicate modern slavery: people trafficking, parts of the sex industry and debt-slavery (mainly in the Indian subcontinent).
You could also work on defeating racism today. If educating people about the past helps, then let’s do it. But it’s the present that needs liberating.
Some people, who like my writing generally, have said they think my main characters should have less similar names. Billy and Bethan both begin with B, whilst Bethan rhymes with Megan. Some say they find this confusing, others just find it irritating. I am surprised at this criticism. Billy and Bethan are brother and sister. Megan is their cousin. Many people give their children the same initials: James and John, Jack and Jill, Bill and Ben, Ronnie and Reggie. Rhymes are also quite popular: Diane and Suzanne, Amy and Jamie, Jenny and Penny.
What do people like about these names?
At least some people like the names I have chosen. They are authentically Welsh. I know Billy is the English form, but in the book he says he was Gwilym before he went away. A few people have commented that they were glad I avoided choosing anything that non-Welsh-speaking people would find hard to pronounce.
I can’t change the names now!
You may wonder why I am asking now. Surely, it’s too late. I have published the book. For details, go to this link. The same main characters will be in the sequels, won’t they? Yes. I am publishing the first sequel, The King’s Justice, on Createspace and Kindle soon. Most of the characters are the same as in Book I. But I might choose more carefully for the other characters in the third book in the trilogy. A lot of new characters will appear in that as well as several from the first and second books. And then, I intend to write more books. I will have to think what to call my new characters. Therefore, I will value your opinions. It would be a shame to spoil a good story by choosing the wrong names for the characters.
What do people mean by ‘cultural misappropriation’?
I have heard of cultural misappropriation only recently and have tried to understand it. It seems to occur when someone uses objects or images with a cultural or religious significance, if the user is not from that ethnic or religious group. I expect a lot of people will say I have defined it badly. Iam still struggling to understand it.
Where did cultural misappropriation begin?
I think it began when people used objects with cultural significance as objects of art or fashion. The first people to object seem to have been native Americans, whose art and icons were appropriated by white Americans, especially football or other sports teams. In Britain, items of Asian dress have often been used or copied in fashion with no thought for cultural significance.
How have writers been guilty of cultural misappropriation?
Nowadays, some people object to white British writers setting their novels in other cultures, or including principal characters of other ethnic or religious backgrounds.
Why do I have a problem with this?
We now live in a multicultural society. We have done for a long time. It would be unrealistic and undesirable to write only about white Englishmen. I need to include black and Asian characters in my novels. Obviously, I need to avoid stereotypes. I also need to avoid making the minority characters the villains. I said always. Some criminals are black. Culture is not only about race and religion. I am basically middle-class. I need to be careful writing about working-class or upper-class people. Careful. I should not have to avoid them completely.
Does cultural misappropriation apply to historical novels?
You will see black people in Highwaypersons Book II, The King’s Justice. Anyway, what about Scottish and Irish people? Even the Welsh? I think my years in Wales gave me a good understanding of the people, but I am not Welsh. I also want to write a western. How do I deal with native Americans? If I am out of order, I am in good company. I have just watched Hamlet. None of the cast was Danish. Nor was the writer. What do you think?
A lot of people have been talking and writing about the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr, on or around the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. It was certainly an event that shook America – and beyond. His life and his death affected the history of his country and inspired a lot of people elsewhere. People are rightly asking how far America has changed in the intervening years and what should they do to complete what he started.
How does hindsight affect our image of King?
I am amazed at the almost universally positive words used about this man, particularly from people who otherwise would seem to be unsympathetic to all he stood for. People who were ‘even-handed’ in their response to the Charlottesville incident not long ago. Those who are outraged at sportsmen refusing to stand for the national anthem. People who are hostile to trades unions. Rich people who think the poor are scroungers.
What was King’s image before his death?
Many people considered him an irresponsible troublemaker. Even some black Americans accused him of turning local disputes into national issues, allegedly for his own purposes. Others said his condemnation of violence was naive, when his other words and actions incited it, if only indirectly. On the other hand, some have pointed out that the Establishment begins to take notice only when violence occurs. Gerry Adams would probably agree. Dr King’s image changed very quickly following his death. All his critics either kept quiet or remembered only good things about him.
What was special about Martin Luther King?
Many people could say a lot about him and how special he was without lying or exaggerating. There is one sense in which he is not so special: the remarkable effects of hindsight do not apply uniquely to him. Think of Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. People revere them as saints almost everywhere. It was not always so. If you think there is something racial going on, think again! Think about Winston Churchill. Immediately before World War II, many thought of him as a has-been and a troublemaker. Then what about that American revolutionary, George Washington? Not all Americans supported the War of Independence and even among those who did, he had plenty of critics.
What’s Dr King’s got to do with historical novelists?
It is not that I intend to write a novel about him. However, I do need to remind myself to look beyond the popular images of historical characters and try to see them as human beings. If I acknowledge their faults, I do not deny their goodness or greatness. I certainly should not forget their achievements or stop cheering for those who have taken up the baton.
What are your reasons for reading historical fiction?
Of course, there are lots of reasons. If you enjoy historical fiction, or anything else, you can’t always say why. If you try to do so, it can spoil your fun. You can overanalyse things. One reason could be just a love of history. Another could be a fascination with a particular character. Then you might enjoy trying to separate the facts from the fiction. But I would like to suggest another pleasure might be that it’s a way to get away from cliches.
Why do you find cliches less prevalent in historical fiction than elsewhere?
When writing historical fiction, I have to be careful to avoid words and phrases that are, or seem, anachronistic. Most cliches I come across have been created in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Journalism and television have contributed a lot. This could be due to laziness by the writers and presenters, or it could be because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that cliches make things easier for the public to relate to. Their very familiarity has earned them a certain acceptability. People like what they know.
How do I cope with creating cliche-free historical fiction?
I enjoy the challenge of finding ways to express myself that do not sound too modern. (On the other hand, I also try to avoid sounding too old-fashioned. I want the narrative to flow easily.) This means I have to think what it is that I am trying to say and either use plain words or find metaphors and similies that have not been overworked. Some could even be original. Whether I succeed or not is for you to judge. I would welcome your feedback. Start with Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties, or wait for the sequel, The King’s Justice.
Over the last couple of months, I have seen a lot of programmes about history on TV, especially BBC4. Some were disappointing, but I found many worth watching. You may have seen my comments on the one about the Armada, but I wish they would give the Tudors a rest.
A series I found fascinating was Fit to Rule which Lucy Worsley presented. It looked at the health issues of most of our monarchs from Henry VIII to the Twentieth Century.
Did I not know many monarchs had health issues?
Henry’s problems of obtaining a male heir are well-known, but I did not know Charles I wore surgical boots. Perhaps that fact, along with his small stature, may have made him oversensitive to criticism and particularly precious about his divine right. Similarly, William III’s asthma may explain why he withdrew from much of the social life of the Court and why he appeared distant.
Of course, there were several occasions when the monarch’s inability to reproduce led to a succession crisis : Mary I, Elizabeth I, Charles II, Anne. I would like to think that people would have handled Queen Victoria’s inability to recover from the death of Albert differently today.
Does the monarch’s health have to matter that much?
Yes! At least, it does when the succession is hereditary and when the monarch has serious political power. You might say this was an argument for a constitutional monarchy or a republic. Or perhaps a system where fitness to rule was a factor in the succession. If Parliament could exclude Roman Catholics, could it not exclude people who showed an inability to rule for other reasons? George IV comes to mind.
We are fortunate to live in a time when such issues are less critical than they were. In any case, we have a Queen who is eminently fit to rule in every sense. (Call me a creep if you like, but compare her with any of her predecessors.)