Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Who Does the Talking? The Essense of Dialogue

Dialogue more than any other tool in a writer’s tool chest can bring a character to life. A picture, as we know, is worth a thousand words, but most readers don’t want to read a thousand-word description of a character, not nowadays anyways. Plot can tell us about people, but only in an opaque fashion. When a character does something we know what he/she has done, but – unless we are told more – we do not know why or how they felt about what they did. We can, as writers, tell the reader why a character does something or what they were thinking and feeling, but when we do the talking, we impose ourselves between the reader and the character. We become filters – inevitably distorting and refracting. Dialogue, in contrast, allows the characters to speak for themselves about their motives and emotions and this is why I like to use it as much as possible. Mature characters are much better at speaking for themselves than I am at interpreting them for the reader!

Writing good dialogue, therefore, entails the writer removing himself as far as possible from the entire process – like a stenographer in a courtroom. The way I see it, the writer is there to record what the characters say in a certain situation, not to put words into their mouths. I have always found the best dialogue develops when I simply sit back and listen to the inner voices as I move from one character to the other. I write down what I hear in my inner ear without pause or reflection and write until everything has been said.

An example of this absolutely uncommented and so “pure” dialogue is the dialogue I frequently used in my novel Chasing the Wind when recording the dialogue between fighter pilots. Wing Commander Bob Doe, an RAF fighter pilot and veteran of the Battle of Britain, wrote me that Chasing the Wind was the best book he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. He would never have given me this compliment – the highest accolade a writer of historical fiction can receive – if I had failed to get the tone of conversation right. By leaving the dialogue completely uncommented, as if one was simply hearing it, I recreated the world Wg/Cdr Doe remembered.

Here is an excerpt to illustrate what I mean:

“Dawn Patrol.”
“Isn’t that the name of a flick?”
“With David Niven, I think.”
“I don’t think it had a very good ending.”
“Not for everyone.”

Of course, just like real people, characters sometimes say things they don’t mean or get carried away with the sound of their own voices. They may regret some things they say or simply think of better ways to express themselves. So this is where the re-working and revisions come in. A conversation is not necessarily perfect the first time it is recorded, but it will be much more authentic than if the writer from the start tries to direct it.

In addition, because characters also have facial and vocal expressions and often gesture while they speak (body language), the author must provide contextual descriptions. The same phrase, even a single word, can vary in meaning depending on how it is said. Take a single word like, for example, “great!” That could express enthusiastic praise – or disgust. The same goes for almost everything a character might say. Thus whenever it adds to the understanding of situation, the character, or the exchange between two characters, the author should - sparingly - describe the tone of voice, emotions and atmospherics behind the speech.

Here’s example from The Olympic Charioteer:

“Hypathea says you are well enough for light work. Do you agree?”
The slave shrugged.
“What can you do?”
The slave stared at him with narrowed, resentful, hostile eyes.
“I asked you a question,” Antyllus reminded him in a firm but not sharp voice.
“I can cut and set stone, work a crane, lug and carry and haul.”
“I know. You were a quarry slave. But you weren’t that all your life, were you?” This was stating the obvious. A child is not strong enough to be a quarry slave.
The slave did not bother to answer a question that he evidently considered rhetorical.
Antyllus was forced to put the question another way. “What were you before you became a quarry slave, Philip?” He intentionally made use of the name the slave had been given – presumably by a master prior to the quarries – hoping to remind him a better time.
“I built roads.”
The foreman had mentioned that, Antyllus remembered now. “And before that?”
Silence.
“Before that, Philip?” Antyllus insisted.
“I’m not going to tell you.”
“I could have you flogged.”
“You can kill me, if you like.”
They stared at one another, and Antyllus knew he had been trumped.

Finally, early on in a novel or with secondary and peripheral characters, it may be necessary to provide additional information about the speakers themselves. Here’s another example from Chasing the Wind:

“Excuse me, sir, but is it true that you started your career in the RAF as an apprentice?”
MacLeod started slightly, and then growled back, “That’s right, laddie. I joined at age 14, trained three years at Halton and worked two years as a signaler before I was allowed to start flying training.”
“Would you mind telling me, sir, how I might best go about following in your footsteps, so to speak?”
“You can’t, laddie. Your feet are too small,” MacLeod answered with a contemptuous jerk of his head in the direction of the little rigger’s feet. MacLeod was wearing flying boots, which made his feet all the bigger at the moment.
Appleby wasn’t put off for a moment. You don’t survive growing up in the East End of London if you are thin-skinned, and Appleby’s Dad had abandoned his Mum when Appleby was 7. He’d been the middle child, left very much to himself, and so used to remarks of this kind. He grinned. “You’ve got it backward, sir. I can tread in your prints, but not you in mine.”

A finished dialogue is therefore much more than the raw text provided in the first “stenographic” recording of what the characters want to say, but in no other component of a novel is the character so powerful. I think this is why I tend to like writing dialogue more than description—as my readers probably can tell!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Changing Points of View: the Art of Perspective

A great deal has been written about “voice” and the use of the first person or an omnipotent narrator. Most discussions I have seen focus on the challenges of the first person, but as someone who works exclusively in the third person, I wanted in this essay to delve deeper into the challenge presented by the unlimited freedom this perspective offers.

The fact is, even if you can write a scene from any perspective you choose, not all perspectives are equally effective. This is not to say that there is any right or wrong way of looking at a particular scene, but rather that an author needs to be conscious of the impact perspective has and then be both creative and disciplined in the selection of the point of view selected.

Let me give some examples of what I mean. In Book II of the Leonidas Trilogy, the legendary encounter between Gorgo, Leonidas’ future wife, and the Ionian tyrant Aristagoras will be described. According the ancient historian Herodotus, Aristagoras came to Sparta seeking aid for the Ionian revolt against Persia in ca. 500 BC. He brought with him a map of the world etched in metal. In a private interview with the Spartan King Cleomenes, Aristagoras first stressed that the subjugation of the Ionian Greek cities by Persia was a shame to all Greece and most especially Sparta. Then he told the Spartan king that the Persians had poor weapons and no armor, making them easy to defeat and finally he showed Cleomenes this map and used it to describe the vast riches of the Persian Empire – that he suggested make Cleomenes “as rich as Zeus” if he just took the Spartan army across the Aegean to invade and defeat the Persian Empire. The proposal at first intrigued Cleomenes – until he learned that the Spartan army would have to march for three months from the Aegean coast just to reach the Persian capital. Shocked by this fact, Cleomenes angrily ordered Aristagoras to leave Sparta at once. Aristagoras, however, refused to take no for an answer. He followed Cleomenes with an olive branch, seeing that Cleomenes young daughter Gorgo was with her father, he told Cleomenes to send her away. Cleomenes refused. So Aristagoras was forced to speak in from of her. He now offered Cleomenes ever larger sums of money if the Spartan King would lead Sparta against Persia. As the sums got larger and larger, Gorgo apparently fearing that her father was weakening and tempted, spoke up to say: “Father, you better send this stranger away or he will corrupt you.”

Obviously, this scene is vitally important to any book about Leonidas and Gorgo as it tells the reader a great deal about the impending conflict with Persia, which will ultimately define Leonidas’ place in history. It tells us a great deal about his half-brother, predecessor and future father-in-law, Cleomenes at well, notably that he was thought susceptible to bribery. It tells us the important fact about Spartan society, namely that girl children were allowed to speak in the presence of their parents and even visiting males. And it tells us about Gorgo, her intelligence, courage and incorruptibility.

The scene can be told from four perspectives: Aristagoras’, Cleomenes’, Gorgo’s or from all three sides, switching from one to the other. Switching perspectives weakens the reader’s identification with any one character and makes the entire picture murkier, thus I almost always prefer to have only a single perspective for each discrete scene.

In this scene, Gorgo is the most important character of the three in the book; this means her perspective is most important for the book as a whole. This is, after all, her story, and there is much to be said for seeing this key event in her life from her point of view. However, she comes into the scene late. If I write the scene from her perspective, the reader (like Gorgo) can only come in upon the tail end of the conversation and try to piece together what has gone before. For the sake of showing more about the background of the Ionian revolt, it is desirableto show the entire conversation.

This leaves me with the option of writing the scene from Cleomenes’ point of view or Aristagoras’. Cleomenes is a secondary but important character in the novel as a whole. Indeed, he plays an important part in all three books of the Trilogy. Aristagoras, in contrast, only enters the novel once, in this one scene. Writing the scene from Cleomenes’ point of view therefore has a number of advantages. It enables me to give the reader more insight on this complex character, who is both Leonidas’ brother and Gorgo’s father. His behavior, most importantly his creeping mental illness, has a significant impact on Leonidas’ rise to power. But this scene occurs roughly 20 years before his dramatic suicide – before any signs of his madness were evident to observers. Furthermore, this particular scene offers no insight on his illness, only suggests he might have been corruptible – or not. After all, Gorgo might have spoken up completely unnecessarily.

Writing the scene from the perspective of Aristagoras offers a number of key advantages as well. Because he is a “stranger,” a foreigner, he is unfamiliar with Spartan customs and culture. Seeing the scene through his eyes is an opportunity to make the reader step back and remember how odd Sparta was – particularly with respect to the freedom given to girls. Only from Aristagoras’ perspective is Gorgo’s behavior truly shocking – indeed revolting and repulsive. From her own – or her father’s – perspective, it might have been a bit precocious or cheeky, but not really abhorrent. Furthermore, by seeing the scene from Aristagoras’ perspective, we can learn more about the revolt against Ionia, because he is the only one of the three in this scene, who knows much about it. Thus, despite being a fleeting character in the context of the Trilogy, this scene can be presented most effectively through his eyes.

For each and every scene in a novel, similar decisions must be made. I have often found it useful to write a particular scene from two or more perspectives, to test which works best. When rewriting, the first thing I do when I feel a scene does not work as well as I wanted, is to see if changing the perspective provides the added power I am looking for.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Picking a Topic for a Novel

People often suggest topics for novels to me. They say: “You know, what you should write about next is….” – and then launch into a more or less lengthy description of a plot or a personality or period in history that they find particularly fascinating. A suggestion of this sort is almost always interesting. After all, the topic has caught the attention of a reader. They care enough about it to suggest it me, and they describe their ideas with all the passion and enthusiasm of salesmen selling their product.

When people make such suggestions to me, I usually reply by suggesting they write the book themselves. This is not meant flippantly or as a put-down. Far from it. The point is simply that if they had the idea, then it is their story to tell. Not mine. Thus, no matter how good the idea is or how much I would like to read a book about that subject/person/place or time, I know that because it isn’t mine, because it did not come from within me, I would never be able to do the story justice.

So how do I pick a topic, others ask. The answer is simple: I don’t. Topics pick me. Or rather characters and stories find me. It is quite easy to choose the topic for an academic paper, an article or essay. One can look at what has already been published, find gaps, or under-illuminated aspects of any subject, and contribute to the discussion by providing new information. Alternatively, one can challenge existing views and enter into a debate on a topic by presenting a new interpretation of existing facts or exposing logical flaws and contradictions in previously published material. But novels, in my experience, do not “work” that way.

Novels do not “fill gaps” or “answer questions” or “contribute to the debate” on this or that. They just are. They tell a story about unique individuals in a unique way. It doesn’t matter how many love stories have been written, there is always room for another – just as love is never used up or worn out. Which is not to say, there can’t be “bad” novels about love – or any other topic for that matter. The point is simply that no topic is inherently more appropriate than another. The only thing that matters is that the story-teller understands the material and wants to share it.

Having a story inside won’t necessarily give an author the words, the patience, the discipline or the time to write. Having a good story doesn’t necessarily make a good novelist. But it is the absolutely essential basis for success. If you don’t know what you want to write – then don’t. If you find you have to force yourself to write – don’t bother. If you find yourself copying someone else – you are wasting your time, everyone will know it when they read it.

In short, the story is the genesis of a book and without it there will be no novel worth the name. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient of a great novel. The other aspects of a novel, from pace to perspective, are techniques and skills that anyone can master with enough patience and practice. Finding the right subject for a novel and the characters to populate, however, it is a matter of inspiration rather than skill.