Saturday, 9 July 2011

History - Sally Nicholls


One of the things I love about being a children's author is the freedom. While adult authors moan about how they're stuck writing science fiction, or chick lit, or historical fiction, even though they've had this great idea for a book about Napoleon's aunt, I have – to date – written a realistic novel, a fantasy novel and a historical novel, and am in the middle of something completely different again.

One of the things I hate about being a children's author is the freedom. I get carried away with all these brilliant ideas - “Let's write a book about the green man!” “Let's write a book about the Black Death!”, my brilliantly accommodating editor gets all excited, and it's not until I'm about 10,000 words in that I realise I don't know anything about how to write fantasy novels. Or medieval England.



Writing a historical novel is hard. It's hard because I don't really read non-fiction (or didn't – I've read a lot of it now). It's hard because the things you want to know – like, if the pig lives in the corner of your room, and you have to take him out to the swineherd in the morning, how do you get him out of the door? - aren't generally covered in textbooks on medieval English life.

It's hard because much as I would like my characters to be talking medieval English, I've read Chaucer and I can't see it catching on for ten-year-olds. But then, if I'm translating their words, how modern should the translation be? Somewhere between, “Yeah, cool,” and “I'faith, I would it were so,” probably. I hate faux-historical writing, but I can't help worrying that my main character sounds like a modern teenager dumped in 1349.

I'm working through edits at the moment, and they're full of comments from my editor - “The pigs wandering around York are unlikely to be wild.” “Why don't they just drink the river water?” My instinct is to write a shirty note back. “Actually, wild pigs were a huge problem in medieval cities,” but this would be missing the point. If an educated adult is starting to disbelieve my book, it doesn't matter how historically accurate it is. It has to be historically accurate and believable. And get all those pesky bits of important information across. Without info-dumping.

Sigh. I think I'll go and make another cup of tea …

Sally Nicholls is the multi-award-winning author of Ways to Live Forever and Season of Secrets. He latest novel – All Fall Down – is out in March.

22 comments:

Rebecca Brown said...

I'm writing historical fiction too and I have the same problem - how DO you make your teenager from whenever (mine's 1816) not sound like they've been dumped there by a fed up 21st century parent? I'll watch out for your books so I can get some tips!
Brilliant post that I really identified with, thanks.

MC Rogerson said...

So far I've avoided writing historical fiction for this very reason! Looking forward to reading All Fall Down.

Book Angel Emma said...

Brilliant post. As a librarian I am interested as to how historical fiction fits into the library lessons and enhances the history curriculum.
I have to say I snigger every time the pupils mention Chaucer you only have to tell them how much sex is invovlved to get them to read it lol - it is so full of innuendo.

makingsense said...

Thanks Sally - a good blog read. You really inspired both me and my son recently at the Witney Book festival. I think hearing a real author talk about the process of writing made it more a reality - writers are normal people just struggling with words and ideas to bring a book to life, to make sense. Thank you, and best wishes for your third book!

Lucy Coats said...

I love delving into all that non-fiction and finding snippets of stuff which trigger 'oh yes' moments in my books (thinking of my Greek myth research here). I find I have to be really disciplined and write down page numbers and refs, though, or I get totally confused and spend hours trolling through to find that vital piece of info again!

Wendy Meddour said...

Hmmm - that does sound tricky. I think I better stick to what I know!

adele said...

Ace post, Sally...can't wait to read book.

JoMacdonald said...

Thanks Sally. Really enjoyed this.

Linda Strachan said...

Great post.

It is so true that the things you really want to know, the everyday ordinary facts of lining in a different era are so rarely in the reference books and those are the things that make your reader believe that they are there with the characters.

There is also that dreadful feeling that you are going to get something totally wrong and someone who really knows about that period of history is going to come back to you once the book is out and tell you what you did wrong, when it is too late to change it!

Sue Hyams said...

Enjoyed this post very much. So how do you get the pig out of the room? I write historical fiction and the balance between authenticity and readability is a tricky one. And it's so hard not to be clever and shove ALL your research in just because you've done it!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I think How to get the Pig out the Room should be the title of a book om Writing Sally. Are you up for it? A great post. I find I get totally carried away and go through SO much ink printing out images. And get totally distracted in the V&A looking at clothing styles, jewellery and shoes etc when all my character is supposed to be wearing is a pair of breeches and leather boots!

Susan Price said...

Enjoyed this post. My uncle used to keep pigs. The answer - use food.
I reckon that, way back then, when they said, 'I'faith, that be blessed,' it sounded to them exactly like, 'Cool!'
And I love those conversations with editors too! The Vikings didn't have sausages! - Yes, they did. Astrid is a modern name. No, it isn't. York is miles from the sea, you couldn't get a ship there! - A Viking ship, you could - and so on, and so on.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Great post. The reactions of the characters to all the stinky, underfoot, livestock are key to keeping things believable -- good luck with that. I spend hours researching elements I'm never going to mention but I feel I need to know just-in-case ;)

Candy Gourlay said...

I'm putting off the historical novel for a couple of years - there are so many pieces to the jigsaw! Look forward to your next book (and movie)!

Candy Gourlay said...

I'm putting off the historical novel for a couple of years - there are so many pieces to the jigsaw! Look forward to your next book (and movie)!

Candy Gourlay said...

I'm putting off the historical novel for a couple of years - there are so many pieces to the jigsaw! Look forward to your next book (and movie)!

Sally Nicholls said...

Thank you!

I'm afraid, in my book, the answer to how you get the pig out of the room is that you go to the well to get water and when you come back your little brother has already taken him to the swineherd.

Not sure I should be admitting this in public, though!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I keep the writing in my historical novels modern, though obviously without contemporary slang. I get amazon reviews from people complaining that they googled words in my books and they didn't come into use until later. I think pur-lease...how much would you have read if it had been in genuine 1540s language? It has to be accessible to a contemporary readership. If you are thinking too much about decoding the language you can't relax and enjoy the story. It is, as you say, a challenge.

Leila said...

Surely to get the pig out of the room you just use a big stick and the keyword 'Bacon!' :)

Cindy Jefferies said...

A pig board, that's what you need. You hold the board next to them and they walk alongside it, as if it's a wall. You sort of steer them by pushing the board towards or away from them. Weird, but it works. Well, it worked with my pigs, not that I have any any more now I'm a writer!

catdownunder said...

Oohh the things I am learning - not that I am likely to need to take a pig outside.
All good writing takes research - even that set in the present day!

jane eagland said...

I enjoyed this, Sally - and sympathise. I've been there - certainly on the question of how to keep the language accessible yet still sound authentic. And I also had a pig problem when writing 'Wildthorn'! I suddenly realized I didn't know how a pig would behave if someone came into the sty. I rang up a pig-farmer - who thought at first that I was one of his friends winding him up! But then he told me what I wanted to know...