Denial – how is it different from historical fiction?

Argument is not denial.

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 Mostly, these are interpretations rather than facts, but sometimes there are historical documents or pieces of archaeological evidence that contract each other.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.

Masks: do they hide the truth and is fiction a form of denial?
Masks: do they hide the truth and is fiction a form of denial?
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.
  • The Holocaust.

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.

Slavery was a choice? Read ‘Highwaypersons, Book II’, Kanye

Why am I blogging about slavery?

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.

Two highwaypersons from the cover of Book II
Two highwaypersons from the cover of Book II
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.

Are the names of my characters too similar? Is it bad that some have the same initials and others rhyme?

Do the names detract from the story?

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.

The front and back covers of Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties.
The front and back covers of Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties.

 

 

What is cultural misappropriation and how can I avoid committing it?

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.

A preacher preaching. Can I write about other religions?
A preacher preaching. Can I write about other religions?

 

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.

The Scottish Saltire. Can I write about Scotland and the Scots?
The Scottish Saltire. Can I write about Scotland and the Scots?
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?

The Red Dragon of Wales. Am I Welsh enough to write about the Principality where I used to live?
The Red Dragon of Wales. Am I Welsh enough to write about the Principality where I used to live?

 

 

Is Martin Luther King a hero only with hindsight?

Why are we talking about Martin Luther King now?

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.

 

 

Want to avoid cliches? Try reading (or writing) historical fiction!

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.

A quill pen. Did historical writers use as many cliches as present day ones?
A quill pen. Did historical writers use as many cliches as present day ones?
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.

Highwaypersons: Debts and Duties by [Monmouth, Geoffrey]

Why has the health of a few individuals affected our history?

Whose health am I meaning?

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.)

 

What should ‘Highwaypersons’ be called? Is the term mere political correctness?

Why is my book called Highwaypersons?

Someone has made a comment that the title Highwaypersons is just political correctness. Of course, nobody would have used that term in the Eighteenth Century, but I chose it deliberately. That was partly because I hoped I would arouse a little interest by using a new, but rather anachronistic, term and partly because I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the novel was about two people, one male and one female, who turned to crime.

Is the concept of Highwaypersons an anachronism?

No! There were women who took part in every sort of crime in that period. Famous pirates included Anne Bonny and Mary Reid. There were probably lots of women among the hordes of footpads, pickpockets and common thieves, but they do not seem as interesting as pirates and highwaywomen. That last word is also an anachronism.

The cover of Highwaypersons: which one is the woman?
The cover of Highwaypersons: which one is the woman?
Why did women become highwaypersons?

Some people have suggested that more women became criminals than you might expect because they did not have many other opportunities, apart from being housewives, domestic servants or prostitutes. Crime offered financial rewards and a certain kind of excitement, which most women would not have had in any other way.

Will there be more books called Highwaypersons?

Yes! I hope you found the above comments interesting, whatever your opinion of my choice of title for the book. As it is the first of a series, I do not intend to change it for the sequels. I hope you will enjoy all the books, whatever you think of the word, but I would love to hear your opinions.

Book One, Debts and Duties is available on Amazon, Createspace and Kindle.

Book Two, The King’s Justice, will be published soon. It just needs editing and proofreading.

What if Donald Trump had led the Armada?

Is there anything new to say about the Armada?

In the last 400 years or so, many people have produced books, articles, films, TV programmes and talks about the Armada. I could hardly believe that anyone could now find anything to add to our knowledge of that campaign. That is why I had misgivings when I decided last month to watch the documentary  by Dan Snow, Twelve Days to Save England. I got a pleasant surprise. Not only did Dan present the story in an interesting way, yet without too much dumbing down, but he also really did give some new information.

Where did the latest ‘news’ about the Armada come from?

Dan and his colleagues had drawn on research by some British academics who had had access to letters and diaries the Spanish Admiral and some of his captains wrote at the time. These had been in archives in Spain and nobody, even Spanish historians, had studied them until now. They gave new insights into the campaign.

A quill pen. The documents written by those involved in the Armada give new insights
A quill pen. The documents written by those involved in the Armada give new insights

 

Did these documents contradict previous accounts of the Armada?

No!  What they provided was an insight into the thinking on the Spanish side and this helped us see where the Armada campaign went wrong (for them). In particular, they revealed the personalities of the key players and the decision-making process. I could see how different it was from the English equivalent, as well as significant similarities.

How did the Spanish manage the Armada campaign? And the English?

King Philip was a micro-manager. He gave detailed written instructions covering all sorts of aspects of the project. Amazingly, there were significant gaps. In particular, he gave no instructions as to how the Armada was to link up with the Army waiting in what is now Belgium, although that was a key element in the plan. The English had plans, but Elizabeth left a lot up to the initiative of her Admiral Howard and his captains. They, of course, being defenders, had to be flexible, as they had to react to whatever the Spanish did.

How did personalities affect the conduct of the Armada campaign by the Spanish?

The Spanish Admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was a politician and administrator who had no experience of the sea. He relied on following the King’s instructions to the letter. Some of his captains, especially his second-in-command, Ricalde, were experienced and believed in the need to take the initiative where they saw an opportunity. They knew you can never plan for every eventuality in war. They had several heated arguments. It is possible that the Spanish could have won if they had not stuck so rigidly to the plan. The bad relations between the Admiral and his captains can have done nothing to help.

How differently did personalities affect the way the English fought the Armada?

Admiral Howard was another nobleman with no experience of the sea, but he listened to his captains and learnt – quickly. He did not abrogate his responsibilities, however. Howard made the big decisions, but in the light of advice. He also knew when to let individual captains exercise their initiative. He gained the respect of his subordinates.

Why did both sides have leaders who had no experience of the sea?

In 1588 people were even more obsessed with class than today. Captains, and even ordinary seamen, would have resented someone they considered their social inferior giving them orders. Had Drake been made Admiral, many of the other captains would have resented it, considering themselves at least as good as him. Howard was the Queen’s cousin. His Spanish counterpart was not royal, but was a personal friend of King Philip and a man who had held high political office. Both monarchs probably expected their admirals to get their practical knowledge from their subordinates. In Elizabeth’s case, she was right.

What relevance has the Armada to us today?

This episode of our history says a lot about management, planning and leadership. I wonder how Donald Trump would have got on? Would he have listened to his subordinates? If he had a plan, would he have stuck to it?

And you? What lessons can you take from this, if you are in charge of anything?

 

Review of ‘Invasion of Privacy’ by Ian Sutherland

Summary

Invasion of Privacy is a modern crime thriller set in and around London. The hero, Brody Taylor, is a ‘white hat’ computer hacker who, in the course of a competitive hack, comes illicitly upon information about a serial killer. He wants to help the police catch the murderer without incriminating himself, either for the murder or for his cybercrimes. On the way, a romance develops between Brody and the female detective inspector on the case. The events cause him to re-evaluate his career and lifestyle. There is a subplot about his relationship with his flatmate and another about the internal relationships and office-politics among the police.

Title: ‘Invasion of Privacy’

The title refers to several ways in which people can and do invade our privacy, online and off: the ultimate invasion being murder.

Plot

In Invasion of Privacy,  Ian Sutherland has created a well crafted story, with a good balance between the different elements. Invasions of privacy occur in several ways. The writer has also achieved a good balance between the on-line investigation and the more usual detective work. There are plenty of twists and surprises. The beginning, middle and end follow each other logically without too much digression. Tension and action build up towards the end, but with some at earlier stages.

It is interesting to find a detective hero who is not a police officer. Yet the police are not incompetent – just out of their depth with the level of sophistication of the IT issues involved.

Description and explanation

Descriptions of people and places are sufficient, without slowing the action. I am not familiar with most of the locations, but the descriptions seem authentic.

As we follow Brody’s efforts at hacking and at investigating the crimes, the writer leads us through detailed technical explanations of the process. I found this fascinating, but sometimes hard  to follow. It is also frightening. How safe is our privacy online?

Pace

The book is quite fast paced throughout, but with sufficient variation to let the reader recover his/her mental breath, except for some of the longer sections of explanation of the IT.

Character

I found the main characters well drawn, credible and likeable. The minor characters too are generally more than one-dimensional. The writer makes each character clearly differentiated.

Character development

We see both Brody and the inspector go through conflict and change as they react to events and each other.

Language

I found this book to be well written: the style appropriate for the subject matter, and the explanations of technical terms sufficient, bearing in mind this is not a textbook. Not all readers will agree, because it will depend on each one’s level of computer literacy. I think the author has struck a reasonable balance, given the subject matter.

General

I enjoyed Invasion of Privacy, but it is not for everyone. Its strength and weakness are the same: cybercrime is an unusual area for fiction, up to now. This makes the book contemporary and different, but it also makes it hard for the general reader to follow at times. If you can cope with the technical elements, it is a good crime thriller. There are also some nice touches of humour.

A cartoon detective using a magnifying glass studies a laptop for breaches of privacy
A cartoon detective using a magnifying glass studies a laptop for breaches of privacy