I like historical novels – I’ve even written one or two. When you write a story set in the past, you have a fundamental choice to make about language. Do you try to write as people really spoke at the time your novel is set – or do you ignore the setting and write conversations as if they took place yesterday? Either way can work well.
I’ve just finished reading a book set in the seventeenth century. I’m not going to tell you what it was, because it is by no means the only example of the problem. It’s an issue that crops up, not just in books, but in films and television drama; on the stage… everywhere. And that is, writers using language that is now archaic without understanding how it works – or even what it means, sometimes. You find thou and thee sprinkled indiscriminately, a bit like salt or pepper, through a text. I saw a headline recently “Pick up thou hat.” or some such. Of course, it should be “thy”.
In general there are two kinds of writing instruction: one says you should write for yourself; the other tells you to write for an audience – and generally this means a market, preferably focus-grouped.
The first method – and it is most people’s first method – says that the integrity of the art, the work, is the most important thing. An artist will create great work if they are entirely engaged with it, because this is what they want to say, and this is the way they want to say it. In this case, selling the resulting work is secondary. The act of creation is what matters. If people want to buy it once it has become a Thing, then that’s a bonus.
This is about prejudice – about hearing what you want to hear, not what is being said. A class of ten-year-olds were asked what they’d do if they suddenly had a lot of money to spend. One schoolboy of south Asian extraction said that he would give alms to the poor. His teacher heard “arms to the poor” and, assuming he was calling for insurrection and encouraging terrorism, referred him to the authorities.
It takes more than good food to make a good restaurant. Whether you enjoy a meal, whether you go back somewhere, is affected by more than just the cooking. It’s the service, the décor, the whole atmosphere. In fact, many people in the restaurant business agree that – if you have to choose – a restaurant with wonderful service and average food is more likely to succeed than one with wonderful food but terrible service.
Everyone likes to think that they are uniquely good at whatever they do. And I think it’s true that everyone has something that makes them different from everyone else. But – I’m sorry to have to break this news – whether your unique skills are greeted with acclaim and riches, or whether they are enjoyed by just a select few people, has very little to do with the quality or nature of the work and the idea. It has everything to do with luck, plain and simple.
There are two opposite ways of making a documentary. The first, and more traditional, is to have no fixed idea of a narrative before you start and to film real people and real lives to find out what’s there. The other way, of course, is to have your story ready before you start filming and to fit everything into a pre-constructed framework. That way is a lot easier to do, but it’s also a lot less like life, or truth. In “A Parcel of Time”, I took the first approach. I had some general expectations, but no real idea of what I would find.
I filmed the first interviews in 2017, and the last one during the Covid lull, almost exactly three years later. To give you an idea of the numbers, the completed film is just under ninety minutes long. In total, I filmed around 26 hours of interviews and another 25 hours of events, activity, and scenery. A shooting ratio of around 34:1 is not at all unusual for a documentary. In fact, it’s quite modest for a project of this nature. But it takes a certain technique to find a film in the mountain of material.
This is a step by step guide to the technique that I use. It’s one that I learned a long time ago when I worked on a thirteen-part tv series which was also based around extended interviews. You might have other methods, but this has worked for me over the years.
The politics of history. I’ve touched on this before – in the past most people could assume that the people they encountered would share the same basic assumptions and attitudes to life. Not that they all agreed with each other, but that the terms of disagreements, too – even war – came from the same shared background.
It can be a real slog at times. You’ve got to page fifty. But what then? The page is blank. Pure. Unsullied. You stare at it, willing the words to appear. You make a cup of coffee. You take a vacuum cleaner to the stairs. You do a bit of computer housekeeping and take a quick look at your favourite sites on the Internet to see what’s new. You go to see if that was the postman or the Amazon delivery. And then? The page is still as clean and untouched as it was an hour ago. You begin to hate the whole thing.
You know what? Leave it. It’s not worth it. Walk away. It won’t get better if you sit there.
I mean it. There’s no point.
I wanted to write a little more about “Gothick”, which has just been published (as I write). A bit of “behind the scenes”, if you like.
Why a historical novel?
For one reason or another – mainly simply enjoyment – I’ve read a lot of novels and diaries written in the years between, let’s say the American Revolution (or War of Independence, if you prefer) and the coming of the railways, say 1775 to 1825. I felt that I’d like to explore the time for myself – as a visitor, if you will.
I’m going to be a bit stern, here, because this keeps coming up in various forms. It’s really quite simple.
ONE SIMPLE RULE
Every piece of creative work is owned by someone. That is, the copyright belongs to somebody. To take someone else’s creative work and use it without permission is to break the law. It is theft. Just as much as if you had walked into a computer store, picked up a laptop, and walked out without paying for it. There is no difference in law. Taking a picture, a piece of music, a section of text, a piece of video without asking is stealing.
It really is that simple.
I’ve several times recently read of people announcing that they suffer from imposter syndrome – and they talk as if it were a bad thing. They think themselves disadvantaged.
Anyone who is any good at their job feels imposter syndrome. If you feel like an imposter – particularly if you care about what you do; if you always feel as if you’re about to be found out for the useless person you are, that’s not only perfectly normal, it would be worrying if you didn’t feel like that. (Not every minute of every day, of course, that would be incapacitating. But often enough.)
It doesn’t make you a victim. It’s not something done to you and deserving of sympathy.
I am more than usually angry with our British Government today, and had to walk out of my house and sit somewhere calming (pictured) for a while.
There’s a proud philistinism common in England, whose adherents proclaim that they never read fiction or poetry, only watch the news or sport on television, and have no interest in theatre. Many of the richer sort will pretend an interest in opera, but that’s largely for social reasons – that is, they’re not interested in the music, but go to see and be seen. Most philistines of any income level condemn opera in particular, and the arts in general, as elitist luvvie rubbish – and see all art as inessential and irrelevant.
At the beginning of July 2020, the British government announced a package of £1.57 billion to support the arts and culture in the time of Covid. Sounds great, and not at all like a government of philistines. But (surprise!) there are major problems with it.
Creating a work of art, in whatever form, is hard. It takes sustained effort, self-belief, and craft skill. And then, at the end of that long road, there it is. A thing of beauty and awe. And you, the creator, are the only person who knows anything about it. Whether what comes next is a process to be enjoyed or feared will depend on how you are. There’s no way to change your instinctive reaction. Do you enjoy selling? Or do you hate self-promotion?
Whatever the case, a piece of art is a commodity that has to be brought somehow to the notice of the world – unless the artist is genuinely fulfilled by the act of creation alone.
Which brings me to today’s question: who are you writing for?
Here’s something you can’t write. Two of the most powerful moments (in otherwise so-so films) I’ve encountered recently haven’t been words at all. I’ve talked about La-La Land before, and the look between the two main characters at the end; it was the best thing in the film for me. A couple of nights ago, I saw After the Wedding. (I’ll try not to give any spoilers.) It’s a film about three women, with most of the men having little more than walk-on parts. The three leads – Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, and Abby Quinn – give amazing performances and it’s entirely down to them that the film is watchable at all, since it travels an awkward path, beginning with somewhat questionable “white saviour” activities of Michelle Williams’s character in India, and ending up quite deep in predictable sugary sludge.
Is it just me, or have you noticed it, too? So many movies – and television productions – are about making movies, or have lead characters who are actors or directors or writers or some such. It’s a bit like a snake eating its own tail.
Oh Happy Apocalypse! Our world has not, after all, turned into one rife with murder, cannibalism and theft. All those self-isolating fans and producers of post-apocalyptic fiction have looked through their windows and seen ... normality. A bit quiet, but the world turns as normal. Trips to the supermarkets have been a little strange – especially at first, when there was no pasta – but, all in all, it’s amazing how kind people are. It’s a disappointment. All those works which are going to have to be rewritten now; films remade. We are not all red in tooth and claw. We are kind and considerate – perhaps a little tetchy as the restrictions on our movement continue, but all in all, mankind, womankind, is Good.
They mean well. As they see it, they’re protecting those who are less able to defend themselves, but I feel that accusations of cultural appropriation are ultimately unhelpful.
It’s always good to think twice about what you’re saying – or writing, or whatever you do to create your work of art. But the logic of the ban on “cultural appropriation” leads to a shutting down of pretty well every work of imagination.
Quite often I show people around some of the lesser-known corners of Vienna (I’m a Vienna Greeter, viennagreeters.com). My companions come from all over the world, and one of the things I’ve learnt is the need consider where my visitors come from, and to adjust the stories I tell accordingly.
For example, the Strudlhofstiege (pictured) – an elaborate set of steps in the north of the city. The Strudlhofstiege was used as a symbol in an eponymous social, state-of-the-nation novel by Heimito von Doderer, set in the vicinity before and after the first world war – one of the most important works of Austrian literature of the twentieth century. Yet very few people outside Austria have ever heard of it.
o my surprise, I am increasingly and profoundly uncomfortable with the inauguration of Holocaust Memorial Day (in 2000) and what seems a proliferation of Holocaust memorials – particularly the one planned for London. Why? I’ve been struggling to work it out myself. I’m the child of a refugee from Hitler. My family were, mostly, lucky; but those who survived still lost pretty much everything except their lives. You would have thought that I would be the first to say that the Holocaust must never be forgotten. And it must never be forgotten. So why am I not glad?
I was a judge for a film festival competition earlier this year – it’s always interesting to see films from around the world. One thing that struck me this time was that several films (OK, three) had as a main thread the desire of a character not to be a loser. And I thought, where does that – now common – expression come from? I mean, what does it really mean?