Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Past Perfect Sheena Wilkinson

I have a secret other career.

Though I’m most known – insofar as I’m known at all – as a writer of contemporary YA, I have since 2006 (four years before my first novel was published) been writing, and publishing, short stories for adults, mostly historical, almost all about World War One or its aftermath. 

Now I’m having the chance to combine my two great writing passions – realistic YA and historical fiction – as I have a story included in Walker’s forthcoming anthology The Great War (pub. 3 July 2014). All the stories are inspired by actual artefacts, and my story, ‘Each Slow Dusk’, is inspired by a collection of 1914-19 school magazines, from the school where I taught for nineteen years. I curated an exhibition based on these magazines in 2004, so in a way this story has been ten years in the making.
school magazines from WW1 

 I fictionalised details of the school’s war effort, foregrounding the experience (often overlooked in war literature) of a schoolgirl, sixteen-year-old Edith, whose dreams of higher education are shattered when she has to leave school to care for her older brother, invalided out of the army with rheumatism. It’s very like the rest of my World War 1 stories, apart from the fact that the main character and the intended readership are younger.

Historical fiction always produces tension between wanting to evoke the period so that it comes alive for the reader, but not recreating it so systematically that it lapses into pastiche. The story must work as modern fiction, so it has to feel fresh, especially to a teen reader, who is likely to baulk at anything that feels worthy or schooly. This was a big challenge for me: there are no battles, no gore; the story takes place in a single day in a Belfast suburb. How could I make duty and quiet desperation interesting to a modern teenager?
music from the period

Unlike the intended readership, who are likely to have a prolonged period of young adulthood, the teenage characters in ‘Each Slow Dusk’ are children at school one minute and adults the next – not only leading men into battle, but, in Edith’s case, taking an adult caring role. Notions of duty are much more pronounced than they would be today, and Edith seems both older and younger than a modern sixteen year old.  How could I make her voice and choices accessible to a modern teen reader without compromising the sensibilities of the 1917 narrator?

In trying to evoke the Zeitgeist of 1917 I was scrupulous, but not heavy-handed, about period detail, and about ensuring these details are used only when it is natural to do so – when it would be equally natural to mention them in a story set in modern times, rather than have them come blazing signs shouting Period Detail. Being a geek, getting every detail exactly right matters to me, but accuracy isn’t always enough. In ‘Each Slow Dusk’ Edith and her friend Maud pass notes in class, and in one note they use the @ symbol – Meet you @ break. I spent some time checking that this sign was in common usage in 1917, and was pleased to find that it was. I liked the fact that it looks so modern, and hoped it would be one of the many small details to help bring 1917 alive for my reader. My editor agreed – but in the end the @ sign had to go. Why? Because, although I and my editor knew it was correct, it was flagged up at the copy-editing and proofing stages as looking anachronistic. And it only takes one little detail to break the reader’s trust in you. On the night before we went to print, @ was replaced by at.

I once started to read a novel set in the thirties, where the characters’ sexual attitudes were anachronistically modern. When they gathered round a television to watch the coronation of George VI, I flung the book away in disgust, saying ‘Wrong coronation! Can’t even get that right!’ Later I discovered that it was technically possible, if highly unusual, to have watched the 1937 coronation on television, but by getting the tone wrong in other areas, the writer had compromised my trust. Once that compact between writer and reader is broken, all the accurate period detail in the world will not restore it.

the first in Wilson's excellent Victorian series 
I’ve been thinking a lot about historical fiction recently. I’ve just finished Bring Up the Bodies, where Mantel established that trust so confidently that she could have told me anything about the 1530s and I’d have believed her. Last month I blogged about temporarily abandoning an academic paper in favour of a week’s uninterrupted first-draft scribbling: that paper was a chapter about Jacqueline Wilson’s Victorian novels for a forthcoming Casebook study of Wilson. It’s now finished and submitted, and the whole process was invaluable to me, even though it kept me away from my real work for weeks on end. I loved the Hetty Feather books, and thought Wilson dealt deftly with all the tensions I’ve noted above. This week I’m coming back to the present, for a big edit of my next novel. Set in 2014. I hope I get the details right.


Anonymous said...

What an interesting post. It really made me think - and I completely agree with the breaking the trust of the reader thing. For me, it's not just true for historical fiction. I have had it happen even in a completely fictional world, when a character does something that feels wrong. It jars my willing suspension of disbelief, and it's hard, although not impossible, to come back from that.

Richard said...

I fondly remember the first time the Today programme read out its email address. John Humphries (I think it was him) was clearly uncomfortable as he stumbled over the mass of letters and punctuation that included what he hesitatingly referred to as 'the commercial symbol for "at"'. Evidently it was clearly out of common use at that time, which is probably why we would assume that it would be anachronistic in 1917.

But it is not in any way a new symbol. In the days before computers, when even pre-printed invoices must have been an unaffordable luxury for many small businesses, everyone may have been used to seeing "3 doz eggs @ 2d" almost every day.

So if I had seen it used in your book, I might have paused for a moment but, on reflection, I hope I would have realised that it was a brilliantly observed piece of period detail.

Emma Barnes said...

A fascinating post. It made me think of the example of the TV version of "The Other Boleyn Girl" where Anne was shown wearing a necklace with a "B" - which many viewers were convinced was modern "bling" she'd never have worn, but was actually taken from a contemporary portrait. The trouble is, if you always write for your readers' expectations of a period, you may just end up perpetuating stereotypes, yet if you include accurate, but unexpected details, you may lose your readers anyway!

I've my first historical for young people coming out next month - what I found most reassuring was that I could check it against the memories of family members (it's set in the 1950s austerity period). Even then, memories aren't always reliable...

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Interesting comments, everyone! Now I am almost wishing I had been brave enough to insist on the @!

Richard said...

Of course, it's all nit picking compared to the huge gaffs that arty-type writers and directors make in science fiction:

Star Trek encounters an energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy. They meant the Universe, but had to do some fast footwork to recover.
Firefly seems to take place in a single solar system with 210 inhabitable planets, every one of them with a 24-hour day and a 365-day year. Not to mention a temperate climate and Earth-standard gravity.
Buck Rogers opined that there were a googleplex star systems in our galaxy. If you turned each atom in the entire universe into a zero, you'd have enough to write out a googleplex — it's rather a big number. Conversely there are at most four hundred billion stars in our galaxy.
Star Trek III manages to use one quarter impulse power in space-dock. Full impulse power gets them up to just under the speed of light. It's about a million times worse than going around a multi-story car park in fifth gear with your foot only a quarter down on the accelerator pedal.

Compared to those, a tiny anachronism in a note or necklace is petty.