About Me

My photo
I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Historical Fiction Two: Family History Research as a Source of Inspiration.

I’ve written a number of plays set in the past and dramatised even more novels for radio, most of them classics such as Kidnapped and Catriona, Ben Hur, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Bride of Lammermoor. But The Amber Heart, the very first draft of which was written back in the 1990s, was my first attempt at a longer piece of historical fiction. I had been spending a lot of my free time researching my Polish family history and was becoming increasingly intrigued by it. 

Although I was born in Leeds and brought up in a working class family, my dad’s family had been the landed nobility, the szlachta. The Czerkawskis came complete with a couple of historic houses (lost in the war) and a coat of arms. From the handful of battered photographs my dad managed to bring out and the tiny silver hand mirror that had once belonged to his mother, obviously part of one of those beautiful dressing sets you sometimes see in country houses, it seemed like a world in a fairytale, something remote, long lost, as indeed it was. 

Meeting my great uncle Karol Kossak, an artist from a distinguished family of Polish artists, only served to reinforce the feeling. He was like a character from a Viennese operetta and just as charming. I started my research project back in the eighties, well before the internet could facilitate such enquiries. I think I always had it at the back of my mind that I wanted to write a novel, perhaps more than one, based on my Polish family history. 

One of Karol Kossak's watercolours.
I was suprised by how much I managed to discover. First of all, I got my dad to write down all that he could remember and I still have notebooks stuffed with memories and little sketches to illustrate them. Since dad died back in 1995, I’m very glad I have it now. The place where dad was born, in 1926, is now in the Ukraine although back then it was part of the Polish ‘wild east’. I sent a polite enquiry to the historical museum in the city of Lviv. This had been Lwow, or Lemberg under the Austro Hungarian Empire. This was the beautiful city where my grandmother was born and to which she and my father retreated when war threatened everything they knew and loved. A very kind researcher from the museum took it upon himself to head out to the village of Didyliv (the place my dad knew as Dziedzilow) and take some photographs, saying that people still remembered my grandfather and the family that had once lived in the ‘big house’. Actually the house itself wasn’t very big by that time. The old mansion had been burnt down in some uprising and the family lived in what had been the old steward’s house. The estate had once belonged to my grandfather’s great uncle Julian who had been a late nineteenth century politician, a Polish representative in the Austro Hungarian parliament. I have copies of newspaper articles about him. He was unmarried and my grandfather Wladyslaw – very much a favourite - inherited the estate from him. 

It turned out that Wladyslaw’s own father had died while still quite young and his widow, Anna, had married the Ukrainian estate manager. This had been something of a scandal at the time. It was only when I investigated dates that I realised that Wladyslaw had been only eight years old when he fell heir to Dziedzilow. This meant that his youngish widowed mother Anna, living on another family estate at Pszemyslany, had to secure the services of a manager and would probably have travelled between the two places to keep an eye on her son’s inheritance. It was hardly surprising that a relationship began, although my father, who could remember his father Wladyslaw talking about it, was aware that it wasn’t a particularly happy marriage. There was a child, a much younger half sister for Wladyslaw, and she was brought up alongside my dad, although she died in the war. Relative dates and ages are very important when researching historical topics. We often forget how much the youthfulness of the protagonists impinges on the story– especially in historical writing when people often died young and tended to leap right in and do things early. 

Dad as a (long haired) little boy, with Wladyslaw and my grandmother Lucja.
The whole Austro Hungarian milieu fascinated me. I found a Czerkawski forebear who had many wives and many children, lived a long life and died in a riding accident when he was in his eighties. There were the artists who had travelled to Lwow and Vienna and sometimes to Paris. These borderlands were extraordinarily dangerous and skirmishes were commonplace. Of my grandfather’s family, two older brothers were killed in small uprisings, my grandad died and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road, having fallen victim to Stalin and a forced march east, rather than the Nazis, and his younger sister Ludmilla died in a concentration camp. Her ‘crime’ seems to have been that her husband was an army officer. An aunt was shot. A half sister was hanged by the Nazis. Only my grandmother, my great aunt Wanda, and my dad survived. 
Grandad has one of the few cars in the district. Here's my dad at the wheel!
All of this factual background fed into the fairly hefty piece of work that eventually became The Amber Heart although that whole story is set in mid nineteenth century Poland. One of these days I may tackle a sequel. At the time, it was my third novel and my agent couldn’t sell it. The late lamented Pat Kavanagh was a good, even a great agent but the consolidation and corporatisation of the old publishing houses was well under way. We were being sold the idea that it would be good for writers. It wasn’t. For mid-listers like myself, it was disastrous. Pat told me repeatedly that she loved the book, and she did her very best for it. Somebody even called it a 'Polish Gone With The Wind'. But ultimately, nobody would touch it with the proverbial bargepole. The reason they all gave was that no matter how big, how ‘epic’, how sexy the story (and believe me, this is a very sexy story) Big Publishing simply would not touch anything that was set in Poland. Kiss of death, they all said. Nobody wants to read anything set in Eastern Europe.

I tried it again over the years, but became disillusioned, shelved it, but couldn’t leave it alone. I tinkered with it from time to time. Polished it, made it better. Then Amazon came along – thank Bezos - with Kindle Direct Publishing and gave me the wherewithall to get it out there myself. Sales go up and down, but on the whole, it sells very well. In some ways, I’m grateful for the delay. I knew a lot more, had done more research. It is, I think, a much better book than it might have been. It’s long, very long so I’ve published it as an eBook in two parts, The Sorrel Mare and Noon Ghosts. But the ‘box set’, The Amber Heart, is, I think, a better deal and that's the one I'd recommend. You can find it here in the UK, and here in the USA. This one, I'm also planning to publish to various other platforms before the end of the year. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Historical Fiction One: The Curse of Presentism

Past mysteries: the minister who went away with the fairies. Or did he?

Last month, which seems like a very long time ago now, I blogged for the Edinburgh eBook Festival, writing a series of posts about Historical Fiction. Since they've now disappeared into the ether, as festival posts will, I think it's well worthwhile giving them another airing here because I know there are a great many readers who love historical fiction - and lots of writers thinking of embarking on it as well. For myself, I write a mixture of historical and contemporary. Right now, I'm researching a new historical novel and simultaneously finishing off a novel set in the here and now, so my mind is literally all over the place. 

There are five posts, and this is the first. 

Thanks to Valerie Laws of Authors Electric for helping me out with the term presentism. I wasn’t aware of it, but it neatly encapsulates a point I want to make – and it seems like as good a beginning as any to this series of posts. Here’s a useful Wikipedia definition: Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. A quick scan online will reveal plenty of blog posts and other pieces pontificating (with some justification) about anachronisms in historical fiction as well as in film and television programmes. Sometimes they can be deliberate. The judicious use of anachronism in movies like A Knight’s Tale where the fuss and adoration surrounding participants in these Mediaeval tournaments is beautifully paralleled by that accorded to gladiatorial athletes like Ice Hockey players, manages to be both accurate and illustrative of a genuine truth about the times. We recognise the parallel and extrapolate from it. It’s also enjoyable and entertaining. There are, I’m sure, novels as well as movies where these deliberate anachronisms are used with a purpose to illuminate some kind of parallel between past and present culture and society. In many ways they involve the opposite of presentism, using present day ideas and preoccupations to illuminate the past.

Casual anachronisms do cause problems for various reasons, the main ones being that they look like mistakes, they look like inadequate research and they can pull readers right out of their willing suspension of disbelief in the world of the book. The trouble is that we come across rather a lot of pieces of historical fiction where the author has been meticulous in excluding all possible anachronisms – and we still don’t believe a word of them. We don’t believe in the world of the book. And that is always going to be a problem for readers, arguably an even bigger problem than the occasional inadvertent anachronism.

I’ve been asking myself why this happens and have come up with two possible answers. One could indeed be described as the curse of Presentism, where 21st century ideas, character traits and perspectives are deliberately made to take precedence over historical realities for what are seen as reasons of marketing to a modern audience. The other challenge seems to involve a general failure on the part of the author to seek to address and inhabit the time and place in which the novel is set. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at this in more detail and in terms of my own historical fiction, and offering a few possible solutions from a personal perspective. Feel free to chip in with your own thoughts and ideas below.

We all indulge in manipulating ideas and perspectives to some extent especially as readers but as writers too. Who doesn’t love the ‘feisty’ heroine and the ‘bad boy with the kind heart’ hero – especially if we’re writing and/or reading within a genre such as romance? But this needn’t necessarily involve presentism. Lizzie Bennett could be described as ‘feisty’ in modern patronising parlance. She’s certainly clever and opinionated. Darcy is the epitome of the unlikeable, disdainful hero who turns out to be honourable and loveable and since Jane was writing for her own contemporaries and with a pen that could occasionally drip acid, we’d better believe in the truth of these characters. But we can’t then criticise Pride and Prejudice for the way in which Charlotte marries Mr Collins because an ‘establishment’ of your own is better than none at all, in a world where unmarried daughters tended to lead very miserable lives indeed. And if we’re writing about this time and place, we’d better be well aware that although we might be allowed our feisty heroines and bad boy heroes, very few young women at that time were brave enough to challenge the status quo. An establishment, a home, a marriage, however unfortunate or ill starred, might well be better than the alternative and we should at least let that perception inform our fiction, if we want it to seem real.

There’s also a sort of reverse presentism that infects critiques of novels and that influences the way we sometimes tackle historical fiction. I’ve seen swathes of people criticising Wuthering Heights (one of my favourite novels, for which I make no apologies!) because ‘Heathcliff is nasty and Cathy is irritating.’ This attitude seems to me to involve a sort of retrospective imposition of modern romance conventions upon a great but unique novel. Ironically, many of these conventions seem to have been inspired by a misreading of WH. I’ve a feeling nobody would publish it now, or not without serious revision. The characters would be deemed unlikeable, the story incredible. This is exactly the novel Emily intended but it was very shocking back then. It certainly shocked Charlotte. We find it shocking even now and blame the writer for our own revulsion.

The Olivier movie didn’t help. It’s probably the best of a very bad bunch of evocations of the novel. They took a story that was rough hewn, thorny, prickly and uncomfortable and softened all its hard edges, turning Heathcliff into a romantic hero and Cathy into a wishy washy heroine. Few people in subsequent years seem to have been able to come to terms with the undoubted fact that Heathcliff is a damaged sadist, Cathy is mad as a box of frogs, and this is still a brilliant, troubling and upsetting book about the nature of obsessive attachment, written by a young woman who lived at a time and in a rural place where instances of casual cruelty would have been fairly commonplace. They are not unknown now, but we women are not supposed to write about them with the grim and disturbing impartiality Emily managed to achieve. We are supposed to show our disapproval where she did not. 

My own 'homage' to Wuthering Heights.
Years ago, when I was studying Mediaeval Literature, one of our lecturers pointed out to us that we were never, ever going to be able to understand the texts as somebody living at the time would have understood them. You can’t unlearn. You can’t forget what you know. But he taught us that we could at least be aware of what we knew, and how we understood things, and try hard not to impose that and its related sense of superiority or cynicism on what we were reading and how we understood what we were reading. It’s something that has stayed with me all these years and whenever I tackle a piece of historical fiction, I find myself trying hard for a kind of total immersion in a time and place. It’s what an actor does: assuming a persona, thinking like the character thinks, speaking as they speak. As a writer, you don’t ‘make’ anyone do anything, but you have to find ways of interrogating your characters, inhabiting them, finding out what makes them tick and then writing as that person, back then, even when it goes against the grain of all your contemporary insights.