WRITER TO WRITER: Rebecca Mascull and Jason Hewitt

Welcome to the next in our series of Writer to Writer conversations. This month, Rebecca Mascull and Jason Hewitt talk about the intricacies of narrative voice, historical research and much more…

 

ABOUT SONG OF THE SEA MAID: In the 18th century, Dawnay Price is an anomaly. An educated foundling, a woman of science in a time when such things are unheard-of, she overcomes her origins to become a natural philosopher.Rebecca Mascull
Against the conventions of the day, and to the alarm of her male contemporaries, she sets sail to Portugal to develop her theories. There she makes some startling discoveries – not only in an ancient cave whose secrets hint at a previously undiscovered civilisation, but also in her own heart. The siren call of science is powerful, but as war approaches she finds herself pulled in another direction by feelings she cannot control.

 

ABOUTjason-IMG_2552 1200 pixels DEVASTATION ROAD: Spring, 1945: A man wakes in a field in a country he does not know. Injured and confused, he pulls himself to his feet and starts to walk, and so sets out on an extraordinary journey in search of his home, his past and himself.

His name is Owen. A war he has only a vague memory of joining is in its dying days, and as he tries to get back to England he becomes caught up in the flood of refugees pouring through Europe. Among them is a teenage boy, Janek, and together they form an unlikely alliance as they cross battle-worn Germany. When they meet a troubled young woman, tempers flare and scars are revealed as Owen gathers up the shattered pieces of his life. No one is as he remembers, not even himself – how can he truly return home when he hardly recalls what home is?

 

[1] Using first vs third person – what are the differences, pros and cons, effects on the reader’s experience? How did you both reach your decision and do your current works-in-progress use the same perspective and tense as well?

JH: Both my novels are written using the past tense and a close third person narrative. For me these are the most inconspicuous means of telling the story, the least likely to bringTheDynamiteRoomPBB 1200 pixels attention to themselves and the easiest for me to control. In The Dynamite Room I knew that I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the two main characters and so the third person close perspective seemed the obvious solution. It allowed me all the benefits of a first person narrative without the confusion of having two ‘I’s. In Devastation Road the story is only told through the eyes of Owen but even then I decided against a first person narrator. You use the first person brilliantly in both your novels, Rebecca, but I always find myself getting tangled up in silly questions like who exactly is the protagonist telling their story to and why, and the choice of words they would use to describe things. Would they know particular words? Even writing in third person I try to use metaphors, for example, that are in tune with the characters. Owen is mechanically minded so sees the biological world in terms of nuts and screws and pistons. Birds are flying machines.

RM: Firstly, I’d say that I know exactly what you mean about the questions of who is talking to whom and all that, but I actually don’t care! My view these days is that it’s a novel, it’s fiction, and so it can be any voice talking into the ether, talking to me or you or anyone, I really don’t mind. It used to concern me as a younger reader, but in recent years I’ve lost that concern and I now enjoy the freedom of not giving a stuff about that!

Visitors paperback cover hi resI didn’t have any strong views about which voice to use before I started writing my first published novel The Visitors. But one day during the planning stages, this voice just popped into my head and started talking: “My name is Adeliza Golding. I am born breech and nearly kill Mother.” It just came whole, like that, and then she wouldn’t shut up! I’d learnt enough by then about the muse to know you don’t ignore that kind of thing, so I wrote it down and from then on Liza’s voice told her story and it was a case of listening, a kind of channeling – all this sounds very airy-fairy nonsense I’m sure, but it really did happen that way. As I drafted, I did modify her voice to include other influences, such as what I’d been learning from research about three things: 1. Victorian patterns of speech 2. Kentish dialect 3. The way deaf-blind children learn to communicate. So, I did add in inflections and vocabulary to satisfy those requirements, but other than that, she just upped and told it how it was.

JH: Oh my goodness, that’s really interesting. I’d be fascinated to know also how you chose the tense you write in. I always struggle initially to make a decision. I started writing Devastation Road in the present tense, for example, and faffed around with it for a whihttp://amzn.to/1NRkRzgle. It seemed to make Owen’s thoughts flow more easily but every time I hit some action it jarred so I ended up going back to the past tense. I think third person past tense has become my fail-safe now. That said, in both novels I’ve used the present tense in a short epilogue. For me it’s a moment when the story, characters, reader and narrator are all finally aligned before I allow the characters to step forward and form their own future beyond the confines of the page.  As for my next project I’m sticking with what I’m most comfortable with. It’s a story told through the eyes of three characters and so I’m definitely not writing it first person. That would be a guaranteed recipe for confusion.

 

RM: That all makes perfect sense to me. If I were writing from multiple perspectives, I don’t think I’d have the nerve or could be bothered, frankly, to come up with three wholly different voices to express those three people. It’d be a huge challenge. I’ve often found books that try it end up with the same basic voice for all the characters, with a few quirks to differentiate them, but basically, it’s the same voice. I’m trying to think of novels that have done it successfully – something like The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, I guess, though it’s brilliant, a bit too modernist for my taste.

As for tense, I wrote the first chapter of The Visitors in past tense and then sent it to my mum to read and she immediately said I should rewrite it in present tense. She felt Liza’s world at the beginning of the novel was very much stuck in the present, as she had not yet learnt to communicate and had little concept of time. And she was bang on. I rejigged it and it suddenly leapt off the page. For my second novel, Song of the Sea Maid, the voice did not conveniently pop into my head fully formed, more’s the pity. So I ended song of the sea maidup trying third person limited and omniscient, past and present tense! All seemed to stay flat on the page. Then I thought, What the hell, and tried the first person past and started to flutter and lift, then I tried first person present and it jumped off the page and ran down the alleyway to the pie shop, and we were off! I don’t know why. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Some voices just feel right. Maybe it’s because both narrators were young children at the opening of the novels, so first person present is how kids think, being almost entirely egocentric. Perhaps that’s why. I don’t like to analyse it too much. I enjoy the mystery.

[2] Historical fiction and research – what methods do you use to get your facts straight? Historical fiction writers walk a thin line between writing novels that are factually light or novels that are over-burdened with detail. Where do you both sit on this line, and how do you decide which facts are going to stay in and what should be cut?

JH: I’m an old-fashioned book geek so most of my research is done poring over books at the British Library, but I also get a kick out of reading documents and letters at places like the Imperial War Museum, or just watching old films and documentaries. There is so much information out there on the Second World War that there really is no excuse for getting something wrong. For Devastation Road I also sThe house was tucked awaypoke to someone who worked as a draughtsman at Hawkers Aircraft as well as getting my hands on an old Avro Lancaster flying manual. I also visited all the locations including taking the same route that Owen takes across Europe. As an actor I was always a big fan of method acting and I have the same mentality when it comes to writing fiction.

RM: I agree about the method thing, when at all possible. I saw the movie The Homesman recently (wow, that was powerful stuff) and one of the actresses said she sat around on set in her character’s dress before she did any filming, just getting used to being ‘in her shoes’ as it were. I thought, what a great idea – I’d love to do that with my historical characters! Try on a corset or stays, clumpy boots or petticoats, whatever. I certainly try to interview people or read books about those who have the same kind of interests or mind as my characters, such as scientists for Sea Maid. I’d also like to walk down every street or see every sight they saw. But I can’t afford the time or the money to do all that, sadly! So I do my best. I did visit a hop farm for The Visitors, and I knew Kent pretty well anyway, but I had to rely on third-person accounts of Boer War-period South Africa, as I couldn’t afford the fare. Similarly with Sea Maid, I visited 18th-century houses in England and I’d been to Portugal and Spain in my twenties and used many fond memories to flavour those sections, but I’ve never been to Menorca, so again I had to use what I could and let imagination serve the rest. I thinFossils I found on Charmouth Beachk that’s ok, and I don’t think readers mind as long as you’ve done your homework. I’m not deaf-blind and I’m not an 18th-century scientist, but I do my research, talk to people, read, read, read, visit locations and weave it together as best I can. Yet, to be frank, what really bugs me is when a reviewer claims this or that wouldn’t happen or he or she wouldn’t do this or that, when they haven’t done the research that I spent months doing. Judge me on my mistakes, but don’t assume you know the history better than I do if you haven’t bothered to find out simple facts…OK, rant over!

JH: Oh God, you’re so right. A couple of years ago I saw Jim Crace giving a talk about his Booker-shortlisted novel Harvest and he was quite vocal in his opinion that the research should always come second to the story and that he wrote fiction not history, and that if people wanted the facts they should read a history book instead. I rather take the same opinion – the story should always come first. That said I’m still methodical in my research and always double-check that every detail is correct. There are only a couple of instances in my books where I know that I’ve veered from the truth and in both cases the story has dictated it. I don’t think you should be a slave to history – fiction writers are storytellers not historians – but I do think you need to be able to justify when you deliberately bend the truth. I hope I give enough detail to give an authentic sense of the period – a whiff perhaps – without bludgeoning you with facts. The last thing you want to read when Lydia opens a larder in The Dynamite Room is a list of what she might find in a larder in 1940 just to prove I know it. You want her to take out the tin of processed peas, shut the door and get on with the story.emilie

RM: I absolutely agree. I’ve read a couple of historical novels – naming no names – where the wealth of historical detail felt like I was being bashed over the head with a history encyclopedia, not enjoying the story. I do try to get the balance right, with enough historical detail to keep it authentic, yet without too much that the reader starts skipping lines – I hope! If I’ve bent the facts a little, I’ve made sure I’ve detailed this in the Author’s Note at the back of each book – this is a very useful tool and I know some people have enjoyed reading them in themselves, but sometimes I wish I didn’t worry so much about historical accuracy and all that – it is a novel, after all, as you say. Having said that, the truth is so often stranger than fiction and I’m always amazed at the really weird true stories one comes across in research, that if you put that in a story, people would say, That’d never happen. It’s such a tricky mixture to get right – enough drama to keep it interesting, and enough truth to make it believable. The trouble is, the real world is truly a crazy place full of bizarre coincidences and incredible strokes of luck – we just don’t seem to trust these when it comes to fiction!

[3] Our favourite historical fiction books.

JH: I think we’re in agreement on this but one of the best historical novels I’ve read in recent years was Mark Slouka’s The Visible World. Despite being on the Richard and Judy Book Club it seems to be one of those hidden gems that very few people have heard of (not helped probably by having the world’s most insipid cover). For me it was a huge inspiration for Devastation Road, not only because a large part of it is set in war-torn Czechoslovakia but also because it gave me the idea to write part of my own dialogue in Czech, as Mark Slouka sometimes does (and often not even translate it). What’s more, it’s so beautifully written. His imagery is simply stunning and gives the story an almost fairytale-like atmosphere.He had walked long distances before

RM: We discovered our Slouka fandom recently, didn’t we, and we were so pleased to find someone else who loved that book! It was a revelation to me, the beauty of the prose and the subtle power of it all. I didn’t even know it was an R & J book! Anyway, I found it by accident, as many of the best books are found, and just fell into it and was deeply sad when it finished. And the romance in it was simply wonderful. Just a stunner.

JH: I don’t know about you but other favourites of mine are Ben Ferguson’s The Spring of Kasper Meier which is set in Berlin after the war and is historically rich, absolutely thrilling and, of course, wonderfully written; and also Adam Thorpe’s The Rules of Perspectives, again set during WW2 and told partly from the point of view of a US soldier capturing a town in Germany and partly from the point of view of a group of Germans hiding in the cellar of the museum they work in. It’s a novel as much about art as it is about war and is surprisingly witty. Also, the characterization is simply outstanding.

RM: I went on an Arvon course taught by Adam Thorpe many moons ago! My favourite historical fiction isn’t necessarily classified as such – I mean things like The Cazalet Chronicles – five novels about a family across the years spanning WW2 by Elizabeth Jane Howard. One might not place it in the historical fiction box but it is a great chronicle of its setting, the lives people led who were not away at war, the Home Front and all that, but deeply involved in character, which is why I found it fascinating. Another which doesn’t neatly fit into the mould is Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx – it follows an accordion as it moves from one owner to the next across the immigrant groups of America. I learnt so much about American history – and that of its many groups of immigrants – by reading that book. I do love a book when I learn something new about history, but mostly I want a cracking good story and fascinating characters who I grow to care about and love – and if it ain’t got that, then I ain’t bothered.:-)

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