Wednesday 21 August 2013

Elements of Place and Time in writing an historical novel

-Lutetia - Gallic Roman city.
Eventually to become the city of Paris
I wrote here in February 2012 about elements of Place in the writing process.

 Among other things I said: Element Two is the need to locate the characters and action in a place that adds to, that underpins, that shows rather than tells of the main themes of the novel. Think of the psychopathology of cities such as Dickens’ London and de Balzac’s Paris, of Martin Amis’s London and Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh.  Think of the drawing rooms of Jane Austen, the muddy nightmarish battle trenches of Pat Barker, the Gothic moorland of the Brontes! 

Model of Roman Fortress of Chester
Deva (Chester)
But what if the fuzzy knowledge of much more distant times suffers from a stereotyping of mis-understood history. Part of the text-book rhetoric regarding so-called  Roman Britain involves the taken-for-granted view that the Romans brought everything that is civilised and cultured to these islands.  

For me this is rather like saying that the British  brought all that was is cultured and advanced  the far reaches of its world empire...Or that the Germans brought efficiency and order to the muddled and inefficient European countries they conquered in WW2

Magnus Maximus coin

Coin issued by Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig)
during his reign as  co-emperor, holding a laburnum
and Victory on a globe.

But what if - as is the case in my novel - the elements of place are differently located, differently named and exist in a very different time? How can I keep the reader's imagination operating alongside the narrative? What if there is almost no unbiased written evidence to support one side of the story?

With my present novel - set in British/Roman times (AD 383) this factor of elements of places sits in a kind of crosspiece with history. Normally, when one says London, Paris, Edinburgh or The Somme our readers - even if they've not been to those places have an intuitive, residual intelligence of the location of our novel

One way  I am approaching the issue in this novel is to use material objects and artefacts  to supply the incidental close detail of place and time. These are  embedded  within the narrative like fine stitches in a piece of embroidery. My approach is to try to do this without telling or describing (not so easy!). Such objects and items,  after all, are part of the taken for granted world of my characters. In the world of Elen, my main character, The  threads that make up this embroidery would include naming of places and characters, the nature of the  built world and the landscape,  the spiritual beliefs of the communities and the skill sets of individuals.

If this subtle process works then I trust my reader will stay with me throughout the narrative  in this similar-but- different land and in this different time, where human motives and preoccupations are identifiable with those that exist in our own modern world.

The other thing I've done for my reader is to include -  in a section at the end of the novelI call Author's Extras  - annotated lists including one  of places in the ancient world. Another is about people. Another is about subsequent history and events. These are appendices as applied to  fiction. The reader may use them if she or he chooses to further locate  the story in place and time. For some this may not be necessary. For others it may add to their understanding and enjoyment of the novel.

Here is one Author's Extra - this one regarding elements of place for this novel:

Place names in Elen’s World

Note: Wales as an entity did not exist in Elen’s day. I have named her territory West Britain which reached as far north as York, as far west as Caernarvon and as far south as Caerleon.

AgathaPort of Agde in South West France

Aquileia – an ancient Roman city in Italy, at the head of the Adriatic at the edge of the lagoons, about 10 km from the sea

Armorica – The name given in ancient times to the part of Gaul between the Seine and the Loire rivers, extending down the Atlantic Coast.

Luavalium - Carlisle Cumbria UK

Castra Deva – Chester UK

Deva Fluvius – River Dee UK

Eboracum – York UK

Hispania – The Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula

Isca – Caerleon in South East Wales UK

Lugdunum  Lyon in France

Lutetia - Gallic Roman cityEventually to become the city of Paris.

Massalia – French city of Marseilles

Mediolanum – Milan Italy

Segontium   Caernarfon, North Wales UK.

Trevorum – Trier -  Ancient German city on the banks of the Moselle.

Vinovium – Roman Fort  near Bishop Auckland in County Durham

Welsh landscape with pathway. 

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