Here I go again, thinking with my pen – finding out what I think about something by writing about it. (It’s almost as though writing were an intellectual, exploratory, ambitious endeavour and not an action that can be reduced to its component parts and imitated by a machine…)
Anyway, cut to the chase… In fact, cut to Chasing Mercury, my series of what looks like being three espionage/action adventure thrillers set in the immediate postwar period.
I’ve touched on this before, when I talked about some historical authors seemingly fighting the urge to give their characters cellphones in my piece about world-building and wordcounts. But there I was discussing different stylistic conventions of historical novels, from the modern-day framing narrative to the ‘plunge right in and make it feel immediate’ lobby...
Here I’m thinking about honesty (and how to fake it, as Groucho Marx, Sam Goldwyn, George Burns, Jean Giraudoux or ChatGPT might have said).
And specifically, honesty in representing the way people thought and felt during the period. Not necessarily how they expressed these thoughts and feelings, because representing period dialogue must always be a balancing act and a stylistic choice, especially the further back in history you go. But being true to the kind of underlying mindset and reactions that your characters would have; that goes to the heart of motivation, plot and everything.
And of course it’s still a balancing act. No one wants to read a hero who’s loaded with all the prejudices of his age. Nor, I think, should we be happy with one who is so anachronistically ‘woke’ that he or she (or they) has none at all. Or not in a genre novel, anyway, even if you’re playing with that genre in other ways.
But let’s get specific and look at my period, WWII or just after. In recent years there has been a very dishonest propaganda campaign waged to misrepresent the national mood during the war – and thereby to undermine the narrative of its aftermath. Yes, I’m talking about that bloody poster. I know the bookshop it was miraculously rediscovered in. (You would be hard pressed to find so many pairs of green wellies in any other secondhand bookshop!) And I also know the inconvenient truth about KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON – that it wasn’t used, because when this poster campaign was tested on the public, the establishment was told in no uncertain terms to come back with something less patrician and more inclusive. And they did, adopting a new tone of mutual respect and responsibility that would contribute, when the fighting was over, to the shift in the notion of national duty and, ultimately, to the introduction of the welfare state and the NHS.
And if you don’t believe that the efforts to popularise this poster were a desperate propaganda campaign – to bend national positivity-in-the-face-of-adversity to sinister, retrograde ends – look at what was going on at the same time. Look at the 2012 London Olympics. Remember how great most people thought the opening ceremony was, despite all our gloomy predictions. And remember those few, bitter voices raised in dissent: the unreconstructed Tories whinging about multicultural claptrap. What they hated, as in 1945, was the emergence of a new kind of national pride, one open and optimistic and far removed from the narrow, outdated narrative they thought they owned. In that moment they sensed their own irrelevance (even the Queen and James Bond were against them!). And so, yes, spoilt brats that they are, they decided to smash everything up. And the rest is indeed history. And tragedy. But my point here is how insidious the misrepresentation of the way people actually thought and felt can be.
And if you want another example, look at the (to me, genuinely) astonishing success of the latest All Quiet on the Western Front movie, which not only plays fast and loose with the history and the source material, but also reanimates the same betrayal narrative advanced by the Nazis. Apart from the Germans, who think about these things, no one else seems to have noticed.
But back to the Chasing Mercury books. No, I don’t want to lazily write my 1945-48 characters as though they somehow have access to 24-hour rolling news and decades of perspective. Nor do I want them to feel like ghosts (using the terms of that previous blog post, these are ‘plunge right in’ stories, not framed historical pieces). And so I have to juggle, of course. Whilst walking a tightrope. Over a minefield (where the Allies are using POWs to clear the mines and redesignating them Surrendered Enemy Personnel to get around the Geneva Convention).
And I think what it comes down to is honesty of intentions. So here, a bit like an accidental or impromptu manifesto, are mine:
To weave my fiction into the historical events in such a way that the reader is neither misled into thinking that the fictionalised events are factually true nor insulted by obviously inauthentic representations of the period.
To do this by drawing on a variety of research, where possible some of it original, rather than serving up the same old detail from the same old history book that every other author refers to.
To limit the extent to which this context is ‘info-dumped’ on the reader – and ideally to achieve this by limiting the knowledge and understanding of each character to what they would actually know and understand at the time.
To do all this without losing their relevance and appeal to a present day audience.
KEEP FAITHFUL & STAY FRESH!
I've been writing for as long as I can remember (I think my first letter was a P). I got a degree writing about other people's writing and ever since then I've earned a living writing commercially, one way or another. But I never stopped writing and refining my own stuff. I just didn't do anything with it, until now.