Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Two steps forward, one plotline back - by Rowena House

Two steps forward this past month with – potentially – big implications for the seventeenth century work-in-progress.

One step was serendipitous, the other came during to a two-hour Zoom discussion with a great writing friend about Maggie O’Farrell’s prize-winning and best-selling Hamnet, a story inspired by the childhood death of Shakespeare’s son.

Naturally, with Hamnet, we talked about the story as readers first, sharing our favourite bits and which scenes we found to be less successful. The breakthrough came after we analysed Chapter 2 as writers: what had the author done with this text; how did she do it, and what could we learn from it as historical fiction writers?

I’ll add two caveats here: a) I haven’t yet finished the book, though my friend has, and b) we’re going to continue our discussion, analysing a favourite scene each, therefore these observations are both broad and tentative.

Please do add your comments; it would be lovely to widen the discussion.

Anyway. Our first big takeaway was is how light Hamnet is on historical context compared with (for want of a better term) mainstream historical fiction. 


In not naming William Shakespeare, who is variously ‘the husband’, ‘the father’ or ‘the Latin tutor’ etc., O’Farrell boldly and explicitly puts his wife, whom she calls Agnes, centre stage.

This is a domestic story about complex family relationships, rich in history but not the familiar sort about events, particularly events that involve kings and queens, battles and dates.

Apparently, O’Farrell never even names the location of the story as Stratford, though she names streets and describes Shakespeare’s house in great detail. The historical event at its heart is a private tragedy: devastating yet commonplace.

The boldness of this exclusive, penetrating focus on the personal felt remarkable as I re-read Chapter 2 with an analytical, writerly hat on.

As a technique, it is effective and genre-bending. Indeed, reading the whole opening again reminded me of the first time I came across Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a slow burn, then boom! And I got it.

It may be that this sense of surprise reflects a dearth of recent historical fiction reading, which has suffered from the amount of non-fiction research I’ve done in the past few years, plus life’s demands in general.

If anyone can point out contemporary examples of novels like Hamnet, I’d love to hear about them.

The other big thing that struck me from the Zoom discussion was the ease with which my friend accepted Agnes’s powers of fortune telling and mind reading as a natural part of her character, without seeing them necessarily as magical.

Like Hilary Mantel’s ghosts, O’Farrell’s use of the supernatural seems to glide by reviewers and readers alike. [I accept this is a huge generalisation, but these are preliminary thoughts yet to be tested.]

Both these observations have relevance to my tale about a witch trial.

First, how much ‘history’ do I include beyond the immediate events of the story?

For example, I have been trying to develop a secondary plot which is heavy on historical context, with a viewpoint character who spans the social divide from my protagonist, a courtroom clerk, all the way to the Courts of James I and VI and his Queen Consort, Anne of Denmark.

I’ve grown very fond of this viewpoint character, Lady Beth Knyvet, in the year or so I have spent researching her life, and plotting her goals and motivation etc. But I have a horrible feeling she is tangential to the core story, so [deep breath] I have decided [for now at least] to ditch her storyline.

Bloomin heck.

The second point about Hamnet relates to my ghost. I haven’t begun to write her yet but I know she’s got to be there.

Whether she is an actual ghost or the projection of a disturbed mind remains moot. Maybe it will remain moot in the story. I don’t yet know. But Hamnet and the Cromwell trilogy, among others, suggest that historical fiction readers are willing to accept a certain amount of magic if it is done in the right way.

Fingers crossed.

So what about serendipity?

Before I had set Beth Knyvet’s story aside, a root around the National Archives, as part of an online training course run by archivists and historians at the Public Records Office, threw up a few tantalizing glimpses into the life of another character in the WIP: the judge at the witch trial.

It then turned out that the judge’s wife was a much more interesting woman than I had imagined her to be. Hurrah! As one door closes, a new one opens.

Where it will lead, I have no clue. But instinct and inclination agree that there should be a role in this tale for a powerful, intelligent woman, one who isn't a victim.

Meanwhile, a wholesale edit of the various synopses and texts beckons, with my protagonist morphing from an empathetic young man into a more jaded, worldly, nuanced and less likeable character.

Without wishing to jinx the whole thing, I’ll admit to feeling a bit more optimistic about this project than I have for a while. Happy writing!

Twitter: @HouseRowena

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Website: rowenahouse.com


Penny Dolan said...

Oh, so good to hear of problems being analysed and solved. Thanks, Rowena.

The world of magic, supernatural & spiritual stuff isn't easy to use as an element of a story, ie when it is not a blatantly ghostie plot.

Though I might have to go and read Hamnet now rather than save it for a less busy time.

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Penny. It's lovely to hear people are interested in the process. Articulating the problems each month for ABBA has become part of the way I resolve them. Having to pinpoint something once a month brings it into relief. 're Hamnet, it is a fascinating read, imho. Not entirely my cup of tea, but a lot to learn from it and to think about.