Posts Tagged historical novels

A world in a word – 3 ways your vocabulary can increase reader belief

I had an interesting comment from a reader of my novel Lifeform Three. She was curious that I’d described a horse’s coat as ‘fur’. Surely the more usual term, she said, is ‘hair’.

She’s not wrong.

‘This might worry readers,’ she went on, ‘who will think you don’t know one end of a horse from the other.’

We’ll return to that in a bit.

The writer’s deception

Fiction writers are, of course, the ultimate fakers. We write experiences we haven’t had. In places we haven’t been to, about people who never existed. And we must make it real. Readers want to believe. Even if they know we can’t have been alive in Victorian London. Or on a fantasy planet.

Vocabulary is one of our tools for this.

1 Vocabulary is occupation, profession

A bomb disposal expert has to sound like a bomb disposal expert. And not just in the way you describe the activities of their work, with technical language and insider shorthand. Their work will give them a life outlook too. Any occupation will add to a character’s slang vocabulary, and even their humour style. Think of medics and their distinctive black humour.

2 Vocabulary is culture and time

Vocabulary shows the culture of the book’s world – the way characters think, the way they behave with each other.

Fantasy authors are a good example. With every word choice, they’re casting the spell of the setting, letting us know we’re not in the everyday. If their world is quasi-medieval, they might choose terms with an archaic or courtly quality.

Historical fiction authors have an additional concern – they mustn’t introduce words or phrases that are inappropriate for the times.

This brings me to character attitudes. Attitudes come from the culture. In our own time, social attitudes change wildly within a decade. Put another way, each era has distinctive values that affect how characters behave to each other. A major bugbear of historical novelists – and readers – is character attitudes that are anachronistic, especially 21st century snark and rebellion. There’s nothing wrong with rebellion, but it must be a kind of rebellion that fits with the times. (Aside: if you want to put ‘bugbear’ in your historical novel, you’re good. It entered English in the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster.)

3 Vocabulary is individual character

Language also shows character, especially in dialogue and first-person narration (and close third where we follow the character’s thoughts and feelings).

Characters will have different ways of thinking, which come from their education levels, their occupations (or lack of them) and their personalities.

Characters will have their own lexical signature. How they curse. What they say when impressed or upset. Even, how they say hello or goodbye. What they call their parents – Mum and Dad, Mom and Pop, Mummy and Daddy, Mater and Pater. Perhaps one parent is a warm word (Mum), the other is severe (Father). Perhaps they use first names. (There’s loads more about this in my characters book.)

Fur again

Back to Lifeform Three. Of course – of COURSE – I know the correct term was hair, not fur. So why did I use such a weird word?

1 – Temporal setting – Lifeform Three is set in the future. Terms might have changed. My odd choice of word is a cue to the reader; take notice, this is not your time.

2 – Cultural shift – at the time of Lifeform Three, people don’t encounter horses very much. Or any animal. ‘Normal’ terms are created by communities. Dog owners of the 2020s know what to call everything because there is a long tradition and expertise. They talk to each other, read books, write blogs, go to vets, buy gear. All of that creates a shared vocabulary for talking about dogs. If no one does any of that, there is no shared vocabulary.

3 – Character – the narration is from the point of view of an artificial human, who has to invent his own terms for everything.

As I wrote that scene in Lifeform Three, I felt the term ‘hair’ would be wrong.

My perceptive reader noticed. Wondered why. Which is what I wanted.

And should readers be concerned about my grasp of horse lore? In a superb irony, the idea came from a weird comment by a riding instructor. ‘Ram your outside hand into the horse’s neck,’ she called, ‘right into the fur’.

‘Fur?’ I thought. ‘You always pick such peculiar words.’ Peculiar words were one of her tics, bless her.

Years later, about to type the word ‘hair’, I stopped and thought, is ‘hair’ the best word for this character, in this time? Would another word serve me better?

Sometimes, the strange word is the right word.

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval

for logoMusic is at the heart of my guest’s story this week. The setting is 16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India, a landscape of temples and fortresses, jewel-toned textiles, blue skies and golden sand. It’s also the land of kathak, a stamping, rhythmic, hypnotic devotional form of dance practised in Hindu temples by girls who were wedded to the temple’s deity – and wealthy patrons who looked for companions. My guest wrote her story in New England, and listened to the rhythms of the traditional dance to conjure up her novel’s parched, colourful landscape and people, a place where rain was so rare that children would view it with terror. She is Anjali Mitter Duva and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

brit librarySTOP PRESS! I just got a Google alert that this blog (I’m talking about Nail Your Novel now, not the red one) has been archived for preservation by the British Library as part of its special collection for Arts, Humanities and Literature.

And by the look of it, they’ve been reading for a while because they have screenshots of designs I’d rather leave discreetly in the past… *Slight embarrassment*

Okay, back to the music. Undercover Soundtrack this way.

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How to write what you don’t know – research tips for writers

6930840018_583f784d83Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.

Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.

So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.

Good first-hand accounts

Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.

Guides for writerNot really undeads

There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.

What everybody else may already know

If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.

Photographs

Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.

Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.

Befriend an expert

Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.

You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.

Thanks for the travel pic moyan_brenn

What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!

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‘Dark bars, blazing sun and volatile people’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Erika Robuck

My guest this week says music helped her slip away from 21st century family life into the volatile, simmering Key West of 1935. Her novel features a half-Cuban woman who goes to work for Ernest Hemingway (who himself once said he used words the way that Bach used notes). She is Erika Robuck and she’s on the Red Blog talking about the Undercover Soundtrack for Hemingway’s Girl.

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Got to explain my story’s world… but how do I avoid exposition?

I have a client who has written an ambitious novel set in a dystopia. It’s a powerful idea, but he hadn’t made me understand the world. I was constantly confused about what the characters were doing and why the scenes he showed me were significant.

He explained he was trying to avoid exposition – for which he gets a stack of brownie points, if not actual brownies. But how should he fill the gaps?

Don’t even mention ‘prologue’

Neither of us even uttered the words ‘explanatory prologue’. I’m saying them here for the sake of completeness. A prologue describing the world is not, generally, a good way to captivate a reader. They want to plunge into the story and bond with characters, not sit down for a lecture.

What’s exposition?

Exposition is when the author tells the reader something they need to understand and is obvious about it. So a pair of characters natter about a subject they don’t need to talk about. ‘I have to go and clean the neutron drive, Susan. As you know, we’re on a big spaceship and have been for many months.’ Unless the line is to show an ironic character quirk, this is the author shoving his face between the characters.

Opposite of TMI

But if you give the reader too little context, they don’t know where they are or what anything means to the characters. Yours truly, Baffled.

Let me explain

The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural. So you find ways to slip this material in without breaking the fourth wall.

If the world is new to the character, like Harry Potter’s entrance to Hogwarts, your task is simple. Get the reader curious, then show them all the mad stuff. But if the world isn’t new to the character, you have to be more subtle.

Here’s how George Orwell does it in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He begins with a tour of Winston Smith’s ordinary life. We have a day in April (relatable, familiar) and clocks striking thirteen (borderline normal, and strange enough to intrigue us). Winston is hurrying along in the wind to his grotty apartment block (normal). The lift is out of order (relatable) because of Hate Week (crikey, what’s that?). There’s a poster: ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ (intriguing and sinister). Inside his mostly familiar apartment is a telescreen, which he can’t turn off (weird). Outside his window there’s a sign in a distorted form of English (skewed and forbidding). He tries to find a place where the screen can’t see him (exactly as we might, because it isn’t nice being watched). Why is he hiding? To do something we take for granted – he is writing in a diary.

This sequence is explaining the world but it’s totally natural. (Historical novelists have to do it too.) It’s showing a piece of life that we would recognise, and intriguing us with what’s distorted. Even better, Orwell has added the character’s need: privacy to be himself. Because a world isn’t about things, it’s about people.

Information, information

At any time in a story, we might have to convey lumps of information that the characters know but the readers don’t – for instance, what spelunking is, how a horseshoe is made. Explaining a world is no different.

Exposition is simply when you do it badly.

Let’s have some more examples of authors who explain their characters’ worlds with style – share in the comments!

 COMPETITION WINNERS If you get this blog by email, you might have had trouble with the post I whipped up first thing announcing the winners of the Future Life special edition. I loused up the link to the Red Blog – it should have been this. Doh. Scoot to the bottom of the post for the results. And note to self: medicate with coffee before hitting publish.

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