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Margaret Skea: A Sense of Place and Period

Margaret Skea: A Sense of Place and Period. 25th November 2015

The President’s theme for this year is A Sense of Place and Margaret Skea’s address gave us Period as a bonus, but as L P Hartley wrote ‘The past is a foreign country.’ Time and place are intertwined in fiction as much as in Einsteinian physics. Creating a sense of both is critical to all forms of fiction not just historical novels.
Margaret Skea is well qualified to help. At the age of eight, she began to write poetry and short stories, eventually winning a word processor and a trip to London, where she was told to write a novel. She didn’t and for a long time stuck to 3000 word short stories. Eventually, an Arvon Foundation course led to a novel, Turn of the Tide, which became the Harper Collins Historical Fiction Winner and won for Margaret the Beryl Bainbridge Best First Time Author award in 2014. She has also won numerous short story prizes. We were in safe hands, ones that had created their own imprint and knew that books printed on paper with vertical grain flop open pleasingly, even if that way it costs more.
Creating historical fiction is an invitation to ‘come with me and inhabit this world’, which should be at the very least plausible but aim for authenticity. We should take our readers to places they have never been; put characters in that place; make something happen; and visualize the landscape, its lakes, mountains, deserts or seas. For Period, we need to choose the era – Roman, Tudor, Contemporary or Future – but also the time frame, which might encompass centuries or days. Our characters and their story come alive in their interaction with time and place.
To create a believable world, we need to create the context in which our characters live. This is not just their geographic location but their class, age and gender as well as their economic, ethnic, cultural, religious and political environment. Our characters’ understanding and reactions help reveal the context, which will also influence their behaviour: a Roman soldier will approach marching with armour differently from a Reiver setting out on horseback; and their codes of honour and what they consider normal will differ.
The tools that are available to create this plausibility are our own imagination (can we understand what it felt, smelt, tasted, sounded and looked like?) aided by maps, museums, restorations, historical recreation societies, and the small details in paintings. We can eavesdrop on the past through diaries, letters, newspapers and court reports and experience the physical environment by visiting the location, recreating the journeys, playing out the actions – fire that pistol, feel the kick, smell the powder!
Research must be like an iceberg, the majority remaining unseen: the description of the setting is not a guidebook or a pamphlet to boost the local economy. Research must be sufficient to let the writer play out a scene all around, as if it happened only last week, and write, uninterrupted by fact checking. That is for the editing stage and must be thorough – from historic journey times to prices.
In the actual writing, the context is revealed not just by description but by style, word choice and dialogue. An aura of authentic historical dialogue that overcomes the problem of representing past speech to the modern reader can be created by using dialect, non-standard grammar and word order. Contemporary events will resonate through the topics of discussion, which should be relevant to the characters and their interaction with their world.
Such a thorough exposition of how to create a sense of the past, left me part enthused, part daunted but I now have a ready reference, should I ever be tempted.
James Rose

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