Writing: The Balance between Facts and Fiction and Characters Behaving Badly

23 April, 2008 at 11:51 pm Leave a comment

From the blog of Emma Collingwood:

There are the facts in the history books, and then there’s the fiction in my books. That’s the basic problem I have as an author – establishing a balance between the two. I’m a bit of a perfectionist; if I write a story set aboard a ship of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, I want the setting, the language and the characterisations to be as historically correct as possible. But there’s a group of people I’m not allowed to forget in my navy-induced euphoria: my readers. Some of them would appreciate a book written in the language of the 18th century, or lengthy descriptions of uniforms; they’d greatly enjoy tons of naval terms and information regarding a purser’s handling of payments and book-keeping.

But the majority wouldn’t. I write to entertain (myself and my readers), and I can’t expect the audience to buy three lexica, four guides and a special edition of The Young Officer’s Sheet Anchor just to understand what the hell I’m talking about. My work must be understandable. It’s a difficult balance act to find the right words and terms to keep the characters and their actions in the correct timeframe, but at the same time not bore the readers out of their skulls. And don’t say that couldn’t happen – it happens faster than you think! Only yesterday I went through a chapter I’ve been very proud of, only to realise that, from a reader’s point of view, it was about as exciting as an article about the mating rites of dung beetles. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t folks out there who would find great pleasure in the love-life of bugs, but – you know what I mean. The chapter had to go.

Too much realism or historical accuracy can ruin my work. I write historical naval adventure with supernatural elements and male/male romance, not a history book or a naval manual. Reading about a supper the heroes enjoy is probably more enjoyable than the details of the food’s contents. Of course, no Age of Sail story without mentioning weevils at least once, but personally, I draw the line at whipworms, hookworms and pinworms. It’s great if a reader thinks at the end of the story “Mmmm, now wouldn’t it be nice if Captain Denningham walked right through that door and stayed for supper?” I don’t want said reader to add “…but I’ll have him deflea’d, dewormed, thoroughly bathed and sent to the dentist first before we move on to the dessert.” It might be true and historically accurate, but – no. Just no.

If I wrote gritty, realistic drama, things would be different. There couldn’t be enough dirt and stench and whips and whipworms, I guess. But I’m a 21st century person. I have to create a scenario in my head that allows me to throw some romance into the adventure, and that scenario does not allow too much dirt and parasites. Well, not of the animal-kind.

Looking at the final draft of “The Purser, The Surgeon, The Captain And His Lieutenant” now, I can say that all the characters are fitting into the time-period, and behave accordingly. But the only character who’s really “authentic” to the core is the purser, Sebastian Quinn. And while many of his actions are ruthless from our modern point of view, they make perfect sense for the man he is and the time he lives in.

Actually – and that’s really a weird thing I noticed – I had more problems writing the chapters set in modern London than those in the 18th century! It was more difficult to describe something I actually know! Switching from one time period to the other really wasn’t easy, especially as the language of the characters differs greatly between the two centuries.

Denningham is not a problem, nor is his sister, but Quinn and Barnett? Somebody pointed out to me that these two are really bad role models, and that it might not be such a good idea to describe the “good guys” as drinking, smoking and swearing. But what can I do? They are swearing. They are drinking. They are smoking. It’s part of their lives and personalities.

I’m all for “cleaning up” the 18th century setting (far thee well, beloved ringworms!), but I refuse to clean up the characters for reasons of political correctness. This is non-negotiable. But maybe I’ll put a special warning label on the front cover: “Being Sebastian Quinn is hazardous for your health! Especially when Thomas Barnett is close by!” It might increase sales…

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Entry filed under: emma collingwood. Tags: .

A new Collingwood book! :-) Resource/Collingwood: Punishment of Midshipmen; the Collingwood Brothers

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