Saturday, 15 August 2020

Who, what, why, where, when & how: a journalist's checklist - by Rowena House

In her PhD thesis, historical novelist Emma Darwin comments, “The trend towards giving fiction the scholarly apparatus of non-fiction, [reading lists, authorial notes etc.] which seems to reinforce the authenticity of a novel, to my mind actually undermines its effectiveness and therefore [its] status as art.”

She quotes John Mullan’s argument in How Novels Work that the more fiction “stacks up its evidence, its sources, its academic credentials, the more it confesses to a secondary status - something perhaps more entertaining than the truth, but something less than the truth too”.

How, then, to avoid my 17th century work-in-progress, which is part of my own PhD thesis, becoming a) second-rate art and b) second-rate history? How, in other words, can a good story also be ‘true’?

The relationship between art and truth has, of course, been a matter of philosophical debate since the Ancient Greeks, and I promise I’m not about to add my pennyworth here. Nor do I want to venture into academic discussions about truth.

Instead, I’ve been going back to my old stamping ground - journalism - to see if the basic questions any good reporter asks of a true story (and yes, I know, the British media aren’t exactly shining examples of truth tellers at the moment) can help me plot a fictional story which is both authentic and a decent yarn.

Who, what, why, where, when and how: you’d think these were simple questions to answer. 

In fact, as a reporter, pinning down who did what when is extremely difficult if the people involved (criminals, say, or corporate lobbyists or politicians) don’t want you to know. Fathoming out why they did what they did, and how it all fits together, is the stuff of sophisticated investigative journalism.

With historical research, the people involved are even less willing to talk, being dead, and the few who left any kind of record behind them tend to be highly partisan, e.g. the victor in war, churchmen, social elites etc.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t read between the lines to discover what they might have been hiding, or make educated guesses about what they left out.

I’m tempted, therefore, to answer John Mullan’s concerns about truth thus: authenticity is less a matter of the number of primary and secondary sources listed at the back of a book and more about the quality of the author’s judgment about the reliability of their sources - an issue that affects historians, novelists and journalist alike.

So how does any writer know if they can trust their sources?

For the WIP, my primary text still exists. It’s a trial pamphlet, written by a middling sort, a clerk of the court, and edited by the trial judge. Original copies can, apparently, be consulted at the British Library and facsimiles are readily available.

So far so good.

As an author, I also make the judgment that academic historians know about stuff like original documents, so if they say it’s genuine that’s good enough for me.

I therefore accept as limitations on my fiction whatever facts historians have concluded are unassailable. It would be perverse, for example, to doubt that a trial took place in the city and on the date recorded, that the named defendants were prosecuted by the magistrates (also named), that the trial judge and the clerk were who they said they were on the cover of the pamphlet, and that the executions were carried out as stated.

After that, however, the historical record quickly turns to murky.

The magistrates’ questions which allegedly elicited the defendants’ damning responses assumed a world of magic and the occult which, by any rational yardstick, cannot have existed.

An intelligent reader will also see how the clerk’s description of the wisdom of the judges drips with sycophancy and that his words are laced with bigotry. Less obviously, the cover contains a glaring error of fact. The defendants’ words have been erased and replaced by lawyer-speak: the said witness aforementioned ... blah, blah.

Since no other record of the trial survives, we can’t know what was asked and answered; that truth is lost to us. We only have a pamphlet, a classic example of ordinary people silenced by the oppressor, the victims of injustice misrepresented by their accusers.

In this dark corner of England’s past, it is the record itself that falsifies history.

So what about art? What duty does a writer in pursuit of a good story owe such a past?

A lot is known about the times of this trial: the political background, the literary and philosophical debates, belief systems, scientific advances, geography, economics, dynastic ambitions, diseases, religious plots and cataclysms to come. 

It’s one of the joys of historical research to discover these things, and then not to write about them, but let them live in the echoes and shadows, and not get them wrong.

I haven’t yet worked out how to deal with the real people on whom my characters are based. I thought about changing their names so they both were and weren’t their historic selves but that seems transparent and silly.

I do know, though, there won’t be one rule for the rich, about whom biographies have been written, and another for the poor whose lives are a mystery. Queens and witches will be equals in my fiction.

I also know I don’t want this to be a retelling of history; it’s a novel for now set 400 years ago, so matters of storytelling craft are integral to its planning and writing.

For example, in last month’s ABBA post I mentioned how (eventually) I worked out that the What of the story, its content, characters and events, were intimately connected to the How of the story: how it will unfold, how it will be structured.

Here’s the link ICYMI:

Without the How I’d found myself researching ever widening circles of context, political, religious etc., rather than focussing on these events, these people, this plot.

In response to that ABBA post, Lucy Van Smit, author of a superb YA thriller, The Hurting, recommended Linda Aronson’s The 21st Century Screenplay, which provided a blast of fresh air in terms of structural options, with detailed explorations of tandem storytelling techniques, flashbacks, flash forwards, and genres I’d not come across.

Happily, she blew aside all the stale genre conventions and Jungian archetypes that had clouded my thinking up till then. In fact, her book is so stimulating I spent days mixing and matching possible structures for subplots.

So, thank you again, Lucy, my How is now well and truly underway; and given the Who, What, Where and When are largely determined by the historical record, that just leaves  the Whys to figure out.

Why did the clerk write his pamphlet? Why did the trial happen all at? Why were the dedicatees given such fulsome praise, and why did a mere clerk feel empowered to quote the king extensively?

It’s a matter of instinct, yes, but I’m sure that from such questions good as well as authentic fiction can grow.


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1 comment:

Rowena House said...

Another lesson I should have learnt by now: always sleep on a feature article! I swerved right off piste about the reliability of sources. Soz. It's such an important topic too.