Defeatedly laying down A Farewell to Arms and staring at the sky before picking up a lesser-known Primo Levi novel, making notes in my overstuffed black notebook (not even, alas, a Moleskin) I cursed myself yet again for setting my novel in wartime Italy instead of the dramatic and exciting (and conveniently familiar) milieu of suburban England. They say you should write what you know, and yet here I was trying to get to know what I was attempting to write.
Why? I suppose I wanted to get away from what was familiar, live in a distant and more exciting time, and also I crucially didn’t want to fall into the old first-novel trap of writing thinly-disguised autobiography spiced up with a few unconvincing crises. No-one needs to read that. No, I had set my heart on writing a sexy wartime drama with priests, spies and soldiers double-crossing each other in a hillside village. The story’s conflicts
- Communism versus Catholicism, Fascism versus Freedom, Sex versus Scripture, wouldn’t work in any other time or place. A plot is never separate from the ideas (and ideologies) that underlie it, and characters with strong beliefs are products of their time. The challenge is how to show this without having them become mere mouthpieces for Jesus, Marx, Rousseau, Nietzsche or any of the other great Dead White Men (Ok maybe not Jesus…) who set in motion the tidal waves of history.
Choosing and using an historical setting
Case in point: Umberto Eco’s medieval monastic murder mystery ‘The Name of the Rose’ couldn’t have been set anywhere other than Papal Italy, or at any other time than the final flowering of the Middle Ages. This is a novel which, dangerously, has its roots in the world of ideas – it takes the medieval Scholastic mindset (in which Eco, a professor of Semiotics, is well versed) and applies it to a series of apocalyptically-flavoured murders at a monastery. We can imagine this rather abstract idea being the germ of the novel, the speck around which the pearl grows. But how would the book develop from there? The story requires the monastery as its setting, and the background of heresy and inquisition as its context, and all of this has to be researched, fleshed out, and the plot developed. The characters too come intertwined with the story – Eco’s ‘detective’ Father William of Baskerville is perhaps drawn from the monastic logician William of Ockham (of Occam’s Razor fame) with a sly nod to Sherlock Holmes. The character is a good symbol for the story as a whole, in which the dry-seeming process of Biblical commentary is dramatised by being applied to a murder investigation. This is often key to writing about distant times and places – bringing the concerns and ideas of the time back to life, introducing suspense into the dry pages of history. Eco’s book does contain some passages of theological and philosophical argument, but this is rescued from being gratuitous or arduous by being skilfully woven into the suspense plot.
Getting stuck into the research
So once you have your period and characters, how does one construct a solid plot from the ruined stones of history? Research is good for this too. After the first idea, the ‘I want to write about’ moment, you face the tall order of finding out about your period – reading old books, books about books, books about people, places, events, ideas. But in this mass of information there are always more sparks, nuclei of new characters and crises, new circumstantial evidence. While reading up on the war in Italy I came across a little-known account by Iris Ortega, the English wife of an Italian aristocrat, who sheltered a menagerie of children, Jewish refugees, partisans and POWs from the invading Germans. The book was full of telling detail, useful chronology and dramatic incidents – I ended up using the sheltering of fugitives as a plot device. But more than this, it gave me, as a good book should, the sense of having lived through it. Suddenly I knew the social dynamics of an Italian village, I knew why the Carabinieri could not be trusted, but I also knew the fear of falling bombs and the breathless anticipation of listening to radio bulletins of the slow Allied advance. Yes, you should write what you know, but you can know more than you have personally seen, through the words of others.
Getting too stuck into the research
Incidentally, later in my research I discovered several passages of Ortega’s book used, almost verbatim and unacknowledged, in a historical novel set at the time (Name and Shame: Maria Doria Russell’s ‘A Thread of Grace’. This is the danger of too much research – plagiarism, and also a showoffy parading of period knowledge which does nothing to advance the story. One should take as much as one can from research, but also be careful not to take too much.
When I finished my novel, I sent it off to the usual panopoly of agents, and received the usual standard-form rejections. The plot was tightly-constructed and suspenseful, and I knew I had complex and compelling central characters, so what had gone wrong? I read through my three sample chapters again, and realised – I had fallen into all of the traps described above. My first page, and much of what followed, was all research-fuelled muscle-flexing, I had several minor characters who were barely more than an ideology attached to a name and a few rudimentary psychological tics, and several long long passages of unnecessary theological argument. It was full of high sentence and a bit obtuse. And had lots of grating literary allusions, a bit like that one. Re-reading it now, I wouldn’t publish it either.
Time for Faulkner’s Razor
So I left the MS alone for a couple of years. But I think I know what to do with it – I will go at it with a literary variant of Occam’s Razor (which states basically that “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.”) which I have come to call Faulkner’s Razor, as it was supposedly first coined by William Faulkner. This is a great law for writers, stating simply “Kill your Babies” (others attribute it to Twain or Fitzgerald). Go back through your work ruthlessly getting rid of those passages that you love but which add nothing to the plot or characters. This goes for literary flourishes, research anecdotes that were just too good to leave out, and all those unnecessary details like means of transport and brands of soap (See above). You read that stuff so you could get to know the world you wanted and needed to inhabit – not so you could put every last detail into your novel to bore your readers with how very much you know.
Hemingway had a great image for the much-loved but ultimately expendable bits that get cut out of a finished work – he compared them to phantom limbs, which like the lost legs of an amputee can still be sensed even after they are gone. Cutting all the factual and contextual gristle out of your novel won’t leave it poorer, because the muscle of the thing, its whole form and the way it moves, has been shaped by the research that went into it. The knowledge is still there, but it isn’t getting into the way.
In any case I’ve learned my lesson about using historical settings, and my next novel will chronicle the compelling adventures of a struggling writer stuck in a dead-end job in a small English town.
He is brave indeed depending on how much history you want to or have to use. The ‘fact’ part of the book might even force you to change the fiction and rearrange it around the truth and you’ll end up with a totally, unexpected and different book. It’s hard work but books like these stick around for much longer, think H. Rider Haggard. She, Montezuma’s Daughter and King Solomon’s Mines appeal to a lot of age groups, brain size notwithstanding.