Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker

Jeffrey K. Walker is an award-winning author who came to writing historical fiction from a unique background as a bomber navigator, criminal prosecutor, legal historian, and international attorney. He’s written two novels of his Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy, depicting the epic events and impact of the First World War. As many of you know, I have a soft spot for those who write about WWI. Over to you, Jeff.

Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker

My second novel just went on sale, so now with Two Books In A Row I might have something mildly interesting to say. With a big dollop of trepidation considering I’m writing this post for the crazy-talented M.K. Tod’s blog [OK, I’m blushing here – MKT], I’d like to share my struggles to find authentic historical voices.

Like M.K., I write in the period of the First World War. This has distinct advantages compared to writing in Saxon England or Ancient Mesopotamia—there’s a lot of material available. On the other hand, the epoch of the Great War is much more familiar to modern readers than remoter stretches of history. Some might even come preloaded with first-hand accounts from grandparents. This adds a free radical to how readers approach a WWI-era book. Suffice it to say, authors who write Tudor or Regency don’t have quite the same problem.

As historical fiction writers, we’re chasing the bubble of verisimilitude. We’re seeking to lull our readers into a fictive dreamscape set within our chosen period, not pass a blind peer review by a panel of PhDs. Within the superstructure of solid research, we imagine our histories and we therefore have to find voices for the characters we’ve imagined placing there. By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. That’s the challenge in developing richly drawn, three-dimensional characters that engage readers on a deeper level than merely as historical curiosities.

Admittedly, I’m a little neurotic about dialogue. As a result, I spent time researching well beyond what kit soldier’s carried on the Somme or what daytime shoes a woman would’ve worn in 1922 Harlem. In the end, my obsession with authentic voices led me down some interesting rabbit holes.

My biggest and earliest Aha Moment came with Paul Fussell’s 1975 work, The Great War and Modern Memory. Technically a work of literary criticism, this incredible book opened my eyes to the great tectonic shifts the First World War produced in Western culture from top to bottom. The insidious turning of the forces of science and industrial progress to the mass production of death and destruction resulted in a wholesale rejection of a hundred years’ worth of cozy Victorian consensus about the benign progress of modernity. With this personal epiphany, I went off in search of primary sources to find the voices of those who somehow endured 51 months of carnage and privation.

I started by diving headlong into the War Poets. The highly distilled emotion of these poems—some by men like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen who wouldn’t survive the conflict—established a poignant benchmark for other first-person sources, as well as providing titles for my trilogy and the first book. This propelled me on a free-range survey of other original material.

I was desperate to get the sound, cadence, vocabulary, and idiom of these remarkable men and women into my head. I read all four volumes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, some Robert Graves, and reread for the umpteenth time Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I bought used copies of war letters, trench diaries, and memoirs. (I caution against relying on memoirs written more than10 years or so after the War. Rose-colored glasses and all that.) One of the more remarkable of these was a recent translation of the notebooks kept by a socialist barrel maker from the Midi, a poilu named Louis Barthas who served from the first day of the War through the Armistice.

I bought a box of reproduction artifacts in the gift shop of the Imperial War Museum—which led me to spending several hours listening to two dozen songs listed in a Red Cross entertainment program from 1917 to literally get the sound of my character’s music in my ears. On a more practical level, this broad survey of original writing gave me a strong grounding in the slang, idiom, word choice, and level of formality used by people of the period. I found one important exception—profanity. Writers self-consciously cleaned things up, even when writing to their diaries. I found one of the more authentic sources for period profanity to be original lyrics of soldiers’ songs. I refer you to the invaluable Punch publication, Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, collected by Martin Pegler.

Then there was the problem of dialect. In my first book, I drew main characters from Newfoundland and Ireland, as well as supporting characters from New York, Boston, Scotland and England. Without a lot of forethought, I managed to stumble into some of the densest dialects of English outside the Caribbean islands.

The dialect issue was a two-axis challenge. Not only did I have to reckon with the regionality, but I also had to place the dialect within a specific time period. This meant expending a lot of effort researching the etymologies of idiomatic phrases. As an example, I wanted to say of my main character Deirdre Brannigan, a delightfully opinionated nurse from Dublin, “Sure, she’d snogged a few boys before…” There were two problems with that little phrase. I knew snogged was British idiom, but is it Irish? In particular, is it something a Dubliner would say as opposed to a Corkonian? Yes? Good. Now, when did it enter common usage on either side of the Irish Sea? Shoot, not until the 1950s. So that phrase never made it into the book, although to my 21st-century Yankee ear it sounded rather old-timey.

And there’s a deeper problem with dialect. My Newfoundlanders presented a stark example of the tradeoff between authenticity of voice and accessibility of dialogue. Anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes on Newfoundland or watched the later seasons of Republic of Doyle can attest to the impenetrability of Newfounese. Complicating matters, the historical isolation of the various parts of the island has led to some two dozen sub-dialects within a population of 528,000. Yikes.

It took me a few drafts to figure out how best to skin this dialect cat. Particularly with the Irish and Newfoundlanders—two cultures with strong oral and storytelling traditions—I thought it essential to impart some sense of the sound of their dialects. My early attempts at phonetic punctiliousness yielded something impenetrable to all but linguistic nerds. As is often the case, I ended up with a compromise, trying to impart just a flavor of the rhythms and textures while keeping the dialogue comprehensible to the elusive Average Reader. So my Newfounese is something of a pastiche of old idiom and some unavoidably characteristic phrases. Whadda ya at, b’y.

I went through a lot of effort and angst to capture to the authentic voices I was chasing, but in the end isn’t this sort of challenge why we write historical fiction? I’ll leave it to you to judge if I’ve succeeded.

Many thanks for adding your voice to the discussion of historical fiction, Jeffrey (pun intended). You’ve reminded me of the research I’ve done – although not with the same dialogue challenges. Wishing you great success with your trilogy.

Truly Are the Free by Jeffrey K. Walker – Ned Tobin leaves his Newfoundland comrades to join the American forces in 1917. Chester Dawkins, son of an affluent African-American family, joins a newly formed regiment destined for France. They both confront their long-held assumptions and prejudices when Ned is assigned as a white officer to Chester’s “colored” regiment, the 369th. Meanwhile, sister Lena Dawkins secretly chooses an unsavory path to keep her family’s Harlem home. And Ned’s beloved, the alluring Adèle Chéreaux, carries a secret of her own as she flees the Germans to an uncertain future in Paris. In Truly Are the Free, the second book of the Sweet Wine of Youth Trilogy, these intriguing characters from None of Us the Same and some surprising new ones come vividly to life. How do the soldiers of the 369th endure the unspeakable horror? What new relationships lie ahead in Jazz-Age Harlem and avant-garde Paris? Can Ned and Adèle find happiness together?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website            

Author Simon Parke on Writing Historical Fiction

soldier_gaoler_spy_loverSimon Parke  has written many books, both fiction and non-fiction. In The Soldier, the Gaoler, the Spy and her Loverhow’s that for a title?he brings a true historical account to life. In particular, he writes of the life of Charles I’s spy and mistress Jane Whorwood, who has been all but written out of history until now. Today Simon answers questions on the unique aspects and appeal of historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

The magic ingredient of historical fiction is the emotional truth of the time, the landscape of consciousness in the era described. I wish not only to be in the same century as the characters and in the same room, but in their hearts and their minds.

All historical fiction writers do their research. (And some even prefer it to the writing!) But the best writers then throw a cloak of invisibility over their studies. The research is there in the warp and weft of the narrative, but never made obvious, never clunkily on display, like a sixth former trying to impress teacher.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Shakespeare would often set his plays abroad, (Love’s Labour’s Lost, As you like it, Othello etc) in order to speak about England… like a child must leave home to see their parents better.

And in a similar manner, historical fiction heads for the past better to describe the present. If our present times are all we know, then we know very little.

So in my 17th century novel, ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’ we discover parliament taking on the king, the embodiment of government. Where did sovereignty lie? Many would die before that question was answered.

While today, four centuries later, we have the Supreme Court having to adjudicate between parliament and the government once again over the triggering of Article 50 – and declaring 11- 3 for the sovereignty of parliament.

We’ve been here before…historical novels are delightfully full of both past and present.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel?

There are different landscapes to enjoy.

There’s the landscape of action: So Who did What and When? This is important, a chronological scaffold…people need to know where they are because this era may feel like a foreign land. I have a friend whose knowledge of history has been acquired entirely from historical fiction. (And the Asterix cartoon series.) She never listened at school, but she loves listening now.

Then there’s the landscape of setting: so what did a 17th century English kitchen look like; why did the astrologer William Lilly, a poor boy made good, have the best house in the Strand; how many courses were served up for the imprisoned king at his evening meal; who were the Ranters and the Levellers; what did a 17th century spy look like; how did the Post Office start and what did these people do with their time, without mobile phones?

And finally, the landscape of consciousness: what stirred the hearts of these people; why was England so crippled by distrust at this time; why did Cromwell’s wife support the king (awkward); what did Charles feel about his adultery with Jane Whorwood and how on earth did the nation come to the decision to kill their divinely appointed king – when five years previously – no, two years previously – this would have been considered quite impossible, an absurd and evil idea?

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

The 17th century was a very literate century, more literate than our own. They wrote letters, they wrote tracts, they wrote poetry, they wrote constitutional proposals. (And they were happy to listen to two or three hour sermons. They really did like words.)

Political journalism was born in the 1640’s (with Marchamont Nedham perhaps the first political journalist) and this was the time of poets like Marvell and Milton.

And as I read and listen, I see the issues that gripped their souls and discern patterns of behaviour as events unfold. I note the lies, the alliances and the fall-outs and very quickly, these figures become people quite as real as my friends and neighbours.

And as a former writer of TV and radio comedies such as ‘Spitting Image’, I enjoy creating the dialogue that both joins these characters and separates them. And amid the power struggles, there are some very funny moments, like the king getting stuck in the prison window…and Edmund Ludlow and Oliver Cromwell having a cushion fight. True.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

What are they eating? Who are they fearing? Where are they living? What are they reading? Why are they crying? How are they talking to each other? What is their God like? Who are they killing? What are they hoping?

Do you see any particular trends in Historical Fiction?

I don’t see one single trend – apart, perhaps, from a fine obsession with King Henry and his wives.

Historical fiction is a large, unregulated field, a hugely varied genre. Some books are what one might call ‘fiction in tights’ – yes, it’s in another century, but most of it is invention.

My novel is at the other end of the scale, staying closely with the history. The last year in the life of King Charles is a famous story which nobody knows. You couldn’t make it up – so I didn’t.

Historical fiction is similar to chocolate in this regard. How much cocoa do you want? 30%? 50% 70%?

You want a thrilling and intriguing story, of course you do. But how much history do you like?

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’ is the story of the last year in the life of Charles 1, the only English king to be executed.

I have to say, I think it’s one of the most gripping tales in English history, a time of national turbulence and uncertainty, (rather like today) and I’ve told it by weaving together four coinciding stories: those of Charles, including his extraordinary year-long imprisonment on the Isle of Wight; Robert Hammond, the poor man who found himself the king’s gaoler; the remarkable Jane Whorwood – super-spy and Charles’ mistress (written out of the records by royalists) and of course the brilliant, kindly, violent and depressed Oliver Cromwell working through his demons of religion, politics, love and death.

This was not the age of toleration: it was a conflict of different visions of authority, in which love, lust, prayer, high-mindedness and political treachery flourished.

And it was an age – the only age – in which the English put their king on trial.

How did that happen?

Many thanks for adding your perspectives on historical fiction, Simon. Your thoughtful comments and examples will be of interest to both readers and writers.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Unexpected research for new story

We are in Chicago at the moment, visiting with our daughter, son-in-law and grandson who is about to turn one (how time flies). Decided to visit the Chicago Art Institute — and no, we did not take our grandson. The visit turned out to be an unexpected source of context for a new novel that’s brewing in the back of my head, this one set in mid to late 19th century Paris.

As we wandered through the Impressionist section on the way to a special exhibit on Ireland, I found various paintings depicting people and places of that period as well as pieces of furniture to begin creating an image — closely tied to the word imagination — of what life might have been like in Paris and France.

Did you know that the collapsible umbrella was invented in that time period?IMG_0961

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Ideas are beginning to bubble. For those who read Lies Told in Silence, I’m thinking of writing about Mariele – Helene’s grandmother – and Camille who originally owned the house Helene and her family lived in during WWI. We shall see.