O! For a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. — William Shakespeare
Is it muse? Or skill? I’ll take either, please.
Last week I wrote another flash memoir but have had to set it aside. I’ve edited and crunched it down to its core and while it says what I intended, it reads high, dry and flat as a Central Asian steppe. No, I take that back. A Central Asian steppe is a wondrous thing of beauty and mystery. My flash memoir is not. Sigh.
There is more to communication than tightly edited words—no matter how clever. Emotional tone is key and, for that piece at least, the key has gone missing.
In writing it I discovered the core idea, so I now know what tone I want. But I’m too close to it to inject the correct tone after the fact.
What to do? I’ll walk away for a while. It might be better to start from scratch having the idea and mood in mind from the beginning, then see what happens to the words.
Such a mysterious process–these little marks in front of our eyes transmit meaning beyond facts. They can affect our emotions, sometimes just by their arrangement.
How do we learn this? How does the objective ordering of words result in such variation of impression?
As noted in a prior post—Worry About Words—my greatest anxiety about creative writing is at the nitty-gritty word crafting level. I feel confident enough where non-fiction is concerned. But stringing together words that evoke time, place, action and emotion terrifies me. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea.
I’ve reviewed many editing resources: books, articles, videos, etc., so, I think I understand the principles of ruthless self-editing. If anything, I risk taking the word-crunching too far—cutting so close to the bone that there’s nothing left for the broth. Most beginning fiction writers over-write. I’ve been told that I under-write. I’m content to lean towards minimalism, but I do want to leave the reader satisfied, not rushed through to a dry and exhausting end.
I recently stumbled upon a podcast about the value of poetry for fiction writers. The speaker happened to be an expert on Haiku—that minimalist Japanese genre that we all amused ourselves with in grade school. Intrigued, I ordered a couple of books—collections of the Haiku masters—and dove in. It required some refocusing of my brain but once I made my way, I found myself squealing with pleasure at these spare treasures.
How can you not love this stuff?
A bee staggers out of the peony.
Awake at night— the sound of the water jar cracking in the cold.
Or, one of my favorites:
Fleas, lice, a horse peeing near my pillow.
That last one makes me LOL.
But seriously, the drilled-down immediacy of these tiny moments is exquisite and fun—like little STOP signs saying, Take notice! of everything.
Then quits he the field, the rain-floods ebbing round him: He goes like a race-horse covered with cloths, no faster, And makes for a winding gully; and now he ambles, And now he puts forth the utmost of speed, unsparing: His fore-feet cleave the shrub-sown sands of Dahna As players for stakes who rummage amidst a sand-heap He crosses the plain, alone, in his morning glory, As bright as the blade of sword that is newly polished.
That’s just a taste. There’s so much more. But I’m holding back the best because I’m may put some of it in my characters’ mouths.
Squeezed onto a hard bunk, high up the compartment wall, she settled into the night journey. She would not see the countryside slip past the black window below. But she was alone, on a train, and headed to a far-off city that only three years earlier had been forbidden.
On Christmas Day, 1989, after crackers and pudding, she had gaped with others at the TV screen – BBC images of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, bullet-ridden.
Now she lay in the dark, the ceiling so close her breath circled back to her face; aware of the other women in the cabin – crinkling paper, digging about in baggage, whispering in an unknown tongue. The piercing whistle. The ka-chunk, ka-chink, ka-chunk, ka-chink. The shush. Shush. Shush. The steady rocking of the bunk – so began the long night.
She did not sleep but lay in adrenalin fueled alertness, absorbing every metal-on-metal screech, every curve in the track, the way her center of gravity shifted on the vinyl and pressed against the compartment wall.
Through the mesmerizing rhythm a new sound broke. Stomping, clapping, fiddling. Young men’s voices singing patriotic folk songs built to a crescendo as the train reached a station; the celebration fading into the distance as it moved further east.
Throughout the night the same pattern: mid-night celebrations, rising and falling, as new recruits set off to join the army in a changed world.
I’m supposed to be editing my novel for story. (This is only the second draft.) But I can’t help tinkering with the words and it’s causing me a great deal of anxiety. It seems that I need another 30 years of practice before I can hope to have sentences that are either lyrical or, at least, expressive and the proper tone for the piece – words that flow with the same rhythm and feeling as their intended meaning. To improve, I’m trying to deconstruct the flowing words of others. They say you should copy passages you love – and thereby absorb skills via osmosis. I still need to do this. Maybe it will help. In the meantime I see patterns of sentence construction that I use over and over in my attempts at fiction.
This is a code need to crack. It’s one I understand logically but I can’t seem to break through with my own writing.
Scenic artists are often tasked to apply visual or physical textures randomly – so that they appeared natural, not manmade. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to keep from falling into a repeated pattern.
Property insurance adjusters can usually tell when wind or hail damage has been faked on a roof because the “damage” shows an evenly spaced pattern when looking at the entire field. Nature doesn’t do that. But humans fall into it no matter how hard we resist.
Back to words – this bent for repetition is embedded in my writing. I’m using the same syntax in nearly every sentence whether long or short. I have ProWritingAid software and the Sentence analysis shows I could do with more variation. So, this is my next step with words – copy words I love and do some structural analysis of my own.
I do believe fine writing can be learned. But I sometimes question why I would abandon 50 years of visual art experience in order to write. After all that painting, I could still do with another lifetime to conquer it.
How do I get up to speed with this new skill fast enough to create my stories before I die?
Striving for authentic language is all very well when you are writing historical fiction that takes place in an English-speaking context – even going as far back as Shakespearean times.
But, what if you are writing about a time from which we have very few written sources, the ones available are in four or five languages, and each of those would require a PhD to be readable?
Written resources for my story’s exact period are few – there was too much upheaval for scribes to be writing it all down. I am thus limited to extant documents from the prior century, a few in my target century, and the rest written one hundred or more years on. And, they have to be available in English translation – because my pre-Quranic Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, Latin and Greek are a bit rusty.
The other difficulty is: people don’t always speak the way they write. Does anyone really think the Elizabethans spoke in iambic pentameter? Formal Roman speeches probably did reflect written rhetoric because both were highly valued and intertwined skills. But, did they speak that way to their children? What about the speech of commoners? Soldiers? How do we know? We mostly don’t know.
(I once had a critique group member insist that people during my time period would not have used nicknames in dialogue. REALLY??? — Sorry, that’s still a sore spot.)
However, any good translation attempts to capture the style and syntax of the original. Since a direct translation of my period’s speech is impossible, and would be unreadable, my fiction efforts will focus on capturing hints of the cultural hierarchy in language, and some sense of rhetorical style, vocabulary, expressions and worldview. I will have to trust that my translated resources retain something of the original flavor.
But what I really want to know is: what English term do we use for “gunwale” when writing about pre-gunpowder times? Seriously, I can’t find a good substitute. I’ve seen other pre-gun era books use the term. If those writers even considered it, they probably decided to use “gunwale” rather than have to repeat over and over “that topmost strake of the boat”. I have found “saxboard” but no good etymology for the word – and would my readers know what it means? It sounds northern to me. I’m sure there was a term for the topmost strake in Aramaic, but, whatever it was, it would be meaningless to me and there seems to be no good English substitute.
I’ve recently read several blog articles about language use in historical fiction. These writers take great pride in their efforts to use vocabulary, sayings and syntax to establish their story’s manners, mores and customs. They delve into novels, letters, news articles, chronicles, public records, anything they can find from the period in order to provide an aural immersion experience for the reader.
“The manuscript should not offer a single word, phrase, or description inconsistent with the era, or the illusion of time displacement will be compromised.”
In his Royal Literary Fund article titled, “No Pastiche: Re-voicing the Past“, James Wilson explains that he goes as far as actually learning the (English) language of the time:
“I learn the (or an) English that’s appropriate to the world in which the novel is set, and then use it – exactly as I would my own present-day English – to describe the characters’ experience as vividly and authentically as I can.”
These are high goals. And, of course, few of us have the patience to read Old English. I haven’t read works by either Mr. Colton or Mr. Wilson but I trust they have learned to balance today’s reader expectations and pace with their immersion research.
My next post will address my own challenges in this area.
Meanwhile, what are your favorite examples of historical fiction that best reflect the language of the period without getting bogged down for today’s reader?
What are your favorite #Histfic reads that best reflect that period’s #language usage?