Monday, December 3, 2012

What we do for the sake of fiction

Walking the Walk with Historical Characters

Setting is one of the main elements of a novel.  Setting shapes characters, evokes environment and immerses the reader into the imagined world constructed by the writer. Setting must be successful for a novel to succeed. Historical fiction writers construct settings through researching time and place – and then through the prism of imagination. Despite the passing of hundreds of years and locations almost unrecognisable from what they were in the past, it is not uncommon for writers to visit places important in the lives of their historical characters.

How important is this kind of research? In 2007, I travelled from my home in Melbourne, Australia to England and Spain to “walk the walk” with the historical personages in my Tudor fictional work in progress. This paper explores the power of setting through investigating the practice of other historical fiction writers as well as revisiting the day I spent walking from the Tower of London to Westminster, along the coronation route of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII.



Our past is situated elsewhere

On February 7, 2009, an event happened that brought home to me the erasure of setting: my home state of Victoria suffered the worst bush fires in Australia’s recorded history. Black Saturday we call it now. That Saturday, driven to distraction and increasing dismay by unending news reports about the fires raging all over our summer scorched state, my sister and I headed to a lookout, thirty minutes from where we now live, to gaze at the burning hills of Kinglake. We knew what we saw would change those beloved hills forever, and construct a different setting to that of our growing up years. From a safe distance, we watched the place of our early history go up in smoke.

Kinglake is altered now. Fire devoured huge areas of bushland, fuelled by the eucalyptus oil found in gum trees. Visiting Kinglake not long after Black Saturday, we saw crews with chainsaws cutting down fire-ravaged gums, marked as too dangerous and too far-gone for survival. Many more gumtrees were chopped down later because locals viewed them through fear. A symbol of lost lives and livelihoods, trees – to many in the Kinglake community – represent the possibility of future bushfires and further tragedy. 

Now I wonder how my grandchildren will see Kinglake, the setting that nurtured and enriched me, widening the doors to my imagination. Kinglake gave me the space and periods of isolation necessary for the start of my writerly journey. Will my grandchildren understand the importance of this setting to me, and how it helped construct my writerly identity? What they will see and hear will not be what I saw and heard as a teenager walking along rough, dirt tracks shaded by upright, sky reaching gumtrees. Only my memory can paint in my mind the Kinglake of my youth and recall the times I stilled to listen to the distant rush of the wind as it travelled through densely treed bushland to my home. The wind’s voice soon became a roar, an engine drone that bowed the heads of trees in reverence as it passed. In a rural landscape where human habitation was measured by distance, I can only construct this setting through a personal, textual prism that remembers my past. The daydream necessary to writing practice returns my history to me. But surely to dream of your past also acknowledges the erasure of time?

“Such dreams unsettle our daydreaming and we reach a point where we begin to doubt that we ever lived where we lived. Our past is situated elsewhere, and both time and place are impregnated with a sense of unreality. It is as though we sojourned in a limbo of being” (Bachelard and Jolas 1994: 57-58).

It is true. The past is situated elsewhere – even more for the historical personages who stride the stage of our storytelling. “The past is another country; they do things differently there,” L.P. Hartley once wrote, setting the stage for The Go Between (Hartley and Brookes-Davies 1997: p.5). For fiction writers, how useful is researching setting by visiting places in the now to evoke the past? I explore this question by revisiting the time when I walked with a friend and fellow Anne Boleyn devotee along the coronation route of Katherine of Aragon and also by drawing upon the practice of other historical writers.

Evoking the past

I am an Australian who writes about the Tudor period – my imagination prefers to situate there. Perhaps this is because of my English father, who grew up during World War II in the slums of the Isle of Dogs. My father had a great love of history. His bedtime stories conjured up the past, firing up my own love of history early in my life. Ironically, I discovered years afterwards a possible Tudor connection to The Isle of Dogs – Henry VIII may have kept his hunting dogs there (The Isle of Dogs:1994).

            The first draft of my Tudor novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? (Dunn 2004) was written without ever visiting England, other than through constructing a sense of place and time by listening to my father’s stories and memories. A sense of place and time was also built through years of reading books set in an England of a far earlier time. With my interest in the Tudors, it is not surprising that much of my youthful reading was fiction envisioning that period. Nowadays, when I construct my own Tudor fictional works, the bulk of my reading concentrates on historiographical works to help unpack this period. I agree with Linda Hutcheon, who writes,

“The process of making stories out of chronicles, of constructing plots out of sequences, is what postmodern fiction underlines. This does not in any way deny the existence of the past real, but it focuses attention on the act of imposing order on that past, of encoding strategies of meaning-making through representation (1989: 63).
 
My first visit to England altered my view of researching world building simply through books. What I discovered then showed the importance of walking the walk with my characters. Describing this type of research, Sandra Worth writes,  “My next book is set in Byzantium. I visited Istanbul, the former Constantinople. There's nothing left of the fabled Greek and Roman world that once existed there on those hillsides, but my mind erased the continuum of flat-roofed apartment buildings and replaced them with orchards and trees, and the golden crosses of the churches and monasteries that used to stand there. I "saw" Constantinople the way it had been” (Worth, S., 2011, interview, 2 March).

Evoking the Past

Stephanie Cowell speaks of this seeing, too. “In the old City of London almost all the original churches and buildings are gone due to the Great Fire and the Blitz, but there are still those narrow crooked streets with the enchanting names: Fishmongers’ Lane, Aldermanbury, Love Lane. I see the old city but my husband who comes with me only sees the tall financial buildings and is puzzled by my rapture”  (Cowell, S., 2011, interview, 2 March). Her rapture does not puzzle me; I understand it entirely. This understanding left me determined to “walk the walk of my characters” as part of the research for my second novel, the first planned for a trilogy imagining the life of Katherine of Aragon.  

Are we there yet?


Prior to leaving Australia with my then eleven-year-old son for England in 2007, one of my cyber friends who knew of my research plans offered to take me along the coronation route of Katherine of Aragon. Walking along this route opened my mind to Katherine and her world in ways I never expected.   

The day I met with my friend Valerie was also my last full day in England. I have always been fortunate to be blessed with days of beautiful weather in England (Scotland is another story!), but it was overcast when I joined Valerie outside the Tower at 10am. From morning to afternoon we were spattered with rain, but that didn’t decrease our resolve to reach Westminster Abbey before 5pm.

From the Tower of London, we followed Katherine’s journey to Westminster trailing the Thames; not the Thames we know today, but the river’s course in Tudor times. With Valerie’s provided map in hand, we walked together, Valerie often stopping to point out to me where the river once flowed. I saw the evidence for myself when I peered down at the old Whitehall palace’s waterfront steps. The present day Thames glimmered in the distance from the palace and their long obsolete water steps.

Whitehall watersteps - setting changed by time 

On our list of settings was Baynard’s Castle. Henry VIII gave this castle to Katherine of Aragon on their marriage. She had originally stayed there as a young princess, recently arrived in England, before the pomp and ceremony of her first wedding to Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son and heir. His early death started Katherine on a long, rocky road before she married his younger brother Henry shortly after his accession to the English throne.

This important castle to the Tudors met its end during the great fire of London in 1666; nothing remains of it except what is conveyed by walking the confines of Baynard's Castle Ward. This gives a sense of the castle’s size and placement.

Valerie, a proud and very knowledgeable Londoner, pointed out to me the layout of the castle and its surrounds. As I listened it seemed the modern buildings disappeared. I saw before me the stronghold, its open grounds, the nearby Blackfriars Priory, also now gone – I imagined the view the inhabitants of these settings would have had of the Thames. I imagined, on a footpath cut through flower adorned meadows, Katherine of Aragon walking with her women to visit the monks at the priory in spring. I soaked in the heady atmosphere of place that took me from the now to the past.

Continuing our journey, one hour from the Tower of London I turned to Valerie. “When should we arrive at Westminster?” I asked her.  

“Quite a bit to go,” she replied, striding ahead.

Following close behind, I felt at a loss. I remembered the description of Edward Hall, who wrote The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Families of Lancaster, a chronicle of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII published in 1548.

{T]he noble prince with his queen left the palace for Westminster Abbey at the appointed hour. The barons of the Cinq Ports held canopies over the royal couple who trod on striped cloth of ray, which was immediately cut up by the crowd when they had entered the abbey (Hanson 2004)

“They walked all the way?” I questioned Valerie.  Researching Katherine of Aragon’s coronation, I gained the impression through Hall’s account that the royal couple, protected by canopies, had trod their merry way from the Tower of London to Westminster, walking the route on the striped cloth of ray.

Baynard's castle

Valerie looked blankly at me. “Of course not! Royalty either rode or were carried in Litters.”  

At home, my imagination was often shaped by interpreting the reading I did for research. I prided myself that I sought out primary materials for my fictional world building. But I have never been good at reading maps or working out distances. Now I discovered two things: Westminster was not close to the Tower of London and that I would not have discovered this by constructing my world building through books.

Author Pauline Montagna speaks strongly on this subject. “You cannot understand how your characters thought and felt until you've been in their environment. No book or film can convey the beauty of Tuscany, the effect it has on your very soul. My series on Rome was to end with Lars Porsena lifting his siege on Rome and withdrawing to Etruria. He could have taken Rome if he had had the will, but instead he withdrew. I had attributed this to his need to return to Clusium because of war in Etruria. It wasn't until I visited his hometown, then called Clusium, now Chiusi, that I really understood why he would really want to go home. It would be because he's just plain homesick. I know, because I fell in love with Chiusi the moment I saw it” (Montagna, P., 2011, interview, 1 March). Umberto Eco also speaks on this subject: “For The name of the Rose, I drew hundreds of labyrinths and plans of abbeys, basing mine on other drawings and on places I visited because I needed everything to work well, I needed to know how long it would take two characters in conversation to go from one place to another. And this also dictated the length of the dialogues. If in a novel I had to write, “while the train stopped at Modena station, he quickly got out and bought the newspaper,” I could not do so unless I have been to Modena and had checked whether the train stops there long enough, and how far the newspaper stand is from the platform” (Eco 2005: 314).

By 5pm Valerie and I were across the road from Westminster. Making a few Tudor detours and a stop at the London Museum on the way, we had walked for hours. Time had run out for me to see the interior of Westminster Abbey. I had to get back to my English relations and take them out for a thank you dinner. I hailed a cab, kissed Valerie goodbye, expressing my gratitude for a wonderful day. Framed in my memory is my last sight of her in 2007, waving, getting smaller and smaller as the cab headed towards a London train station.

I had just lived through one of the most valuable research experiences of my life.  

Detail of the Tudor Thames

“Walking the Walk”


I asked four historical fiction authors how important was it to “Walk the walk” with their historical characters. While I acknowledge other writers might answer this question differently, all my four authors regarded this kind of research as pivotal to the construction of their historical narratives.  

For myself, I am grateful that my first published novel took years to find a publisher because the passing of time offered the opportunity to visit England and places important to my storytelling. During this first taste of “walking with my characters,” to my dismay, I discovered my imagination failed to comprehend the actuality and dominance of setting. “Landscape is character,” Henry James once wrote (cited by Butler and Burroway: 15). Visiting settings in the now underlined that landscape indeed possesses its own entity.

I saw for myself why the English sky is often described eggshell blue, and the reality of William Blake’s “England's green and pleasant land”. I sat under the shade of majestic oak trees and watched my children play in gardens garlanded with every colour imaginable. In the mornings, I woke to birdsong far sweeter than the more vocal, competitive songs albeit still beautiful songs of Australian birds. I climbed narrow, spiral staircases and imagined how difficult it must have been for women of the period in their long, heavy gowns. On the coast of England, I shivered for hours trying to sleep during a night that drove home a cold that went straight to my bones, and soaked into my imagination.

Stephanie Cowell, author of Marrying Mozart and Claude and Camille, says this about the worth of researching historical settings in the now, “You can’t feel what it is like to walk through certain rooms, or uphill, or how the wind smells, or how the stones feel through books. It is amazing to say of your character, “He stood here!” (Cowell, S., 2011, interview, 2 March)

Likewise, author Sandra Worth, writes, “Historical figures are just names in a book until I visit the places that gave birth to them.  Then they come to life for me.” She also powerfully says, “It makes the past real. I see what they saw - the air, the weather, the topography. I "feel" the place. I remember when I was writing about John Neville, Lord Montagu, brother of Warwick the Kingmaker. I went to Bamborough Castle, and stood at the window in the munitions room, looking out at the North Sea. The room is the only original part of the castle left, and the window is a narrow protrusion. I stood there, and knew I was seeing what John saw five hundred years ago, and when I leaned my hand against the stone wall, I had the sensation that John Neville had done that many times when he was constable of the castle. It was a strange connection I felt with him at that moment” (Worth, S., 2011, interview, 2 March).    

Worth’s experience is similar to mine when I visited the Tower of London in 2007. Standing in the dimly lit, larger than expected chamber that saw out the last days of Sir Thomas More, I could not resist resting my hands upon the walls, imagining Sir Thomas doing likewise. On that spring day in 2007, I felt thankful I wore a woollen cardigan that protected me against chilling drafts. Those confined in the dungeons of the Tower often complained about the cold, and now I began to appreciate why. How harsh, I thought, it must have been to live here in winter.

St Thomas More's chamber

Looking around the chamber, my imagination went into full play. I daydreamed of Alice, the wife of Thomas More, wringing her hands, as she tried to make her husband bow to the winds of change.

“What the good year, Mr. More,” quoth she, “I marvel that you, that have been always hitherunto taken for so wise a man, will now so play the fool to lie here in this close filthy prison, and be content to be shut up among mice and rats, when you might be abroad at your liberty” (Sylvester, Harding et al. 1962: 243). Approaching the window of his chamber, I recalled More had watched the monks of the Charterhouse going to their death and turned to his family to say, “Lo, dost thou not see that these blessed fathers be now as cheerful going to their deaths, as bridegrooms to their marriages?” (Sylvester, Harding et al. 1962: 242).

St Thomas More's Privy

My recollection of this time would one day go on to influence the construction of a scene for my PhD artefact and Young Adult novel, Light in the Labyrinth, when Kate Carey, niece of Anne Boleyn, attended her aunt in in the Queen’s apartments situated in the grounds of the Tower of London:

Kate nestled against Aunt Nan’s knee. Flickering fire and candlelight netted them in amber glow. Shifting on her cushion in discomfort, Kate lowered her gaze, trying not to think about the night, and how it walled her in. She looked back at her aunt. For a long time now – too long – Aunt Nan had sat on her stool without moving, without speaking.

Her back poked by cold fingers of air, Kate’s bladder tingled and twinged. Shivering, she gathered her shawl over her shift, lifted her head and looked towards the darkness that hid the bed and the clothes coffer. Should she get her woollen cloak? Within the circle of light, she saw Aunt Nan’s workbasket. Draped over one side was the sleeve of a child’s night shift. Aunt Nan had finished it tonight, putting the last touches to the beautiful scarlet-work that embroidered the edges of sleeves, neck and hem. Reminded of her cousin, Kate turned to her aunt.  “Do you think they’ll tell Bess?” she asked.

Aunt Nan stared at her and then cried out – a primeval cry of agony that caused Kate’s heart to thump harder against her chest. She thought of men with their entrails burnt before their eyes. Did they cry out like her aunt? Cry out so very stones would hear and remember, forever (Dunn 2012).

Like Worth and Cowell, for me the force of setting was emphasised by visiting places crucial to my storytelling. I also discovered, “Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination” (Bachelard and Jolas 1994: p.xxxvi). 


Arriving to conclusion


All of us gain a sense of setting through a compost of life experiences (Greene cited by Butler and Burroway 2005, p. 23), through our own humanity and learnt empathy, through the books we read, through period paintings we study to gain a sense of our characters, through movies that bring the past alive for us. Writers dig deep into this compost for their storytelling.

Time changes – this is immutable, indeed, set in stone. Author Pauline Montagna, who, like me, grounds her historical fiction in historiography, striving to tell a story through known facts and historical context, says this about the value and worth of researching locations changed by time,  “[N]ovelists have to be careful to take this into account. I daresay we can all recall instances of anachronisms that result from writers imagining that as they see things now, so have they always been” (Montagna, P., 2011, interview, March).

James Thom also stresses this, “Places… change over the centuries, and it's sometimes necessary to research in old accounts to see what the terrain, native flora and fauna, were like in the earlier times, because I try to recreate not just the happenings of history, but the world in which they took place. Most Americans, for example, think the great Ohio River has always been deep and wide, because they've seen it only since the locks and dams were built. In dry seasons before then, you could wade across it. That can determine a historical outcome” (Thom, J., 2011, interview, March). Researching the period, James Alexander Thom speaks of this as “a responsibility to history itself” (2010: 44), aids historical writers to achieve verisimilitude in their work, and to take their reader back then.    

St Thomas More's window

Yet, despite the change of time, I believe the past and future can be detected in the now – by a writer’s perceptive daydream, for, “The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths”(Bachelard and Jolas: 6). Margaret Atwood adds to this: “Where is the story? The story is in the dark. That is why inspiration is thought of as coming in flashes. Going into the narrative – into the narrative process – is a dark road” (Atwood 2002: 176).

Historical fiction brings alive the past and its people, who were once alive in fact. Walking with characters is itself a methodology for writers. It allows them to soak in settings (Novakovich 1995: 25) and provides space for thinking and reflecting, which leads to daydream and the process of imagination.

Visiting important settings of historical characters in the now takes writers to a deeper level of appreciation of lives lived in another time and place. It is a bridge for the writer’s imagination to pass over to gain sense of the setting responsible for character. Walking the walk with historical characters is like being tugged by ghosts; behold, our characters will say to us, this is where I once lived; in this place I suffered and hoped; I loved, hated, felt sorrow and joy. This place was important to me. This place made me who I was. As James Thom says, “Some places, you’ll feel the haunting. Go. See. Touch. Learn” (Thom 2010: 80). What time erases, a writer’s envisioning reveals again through the construction of text.

We “read” a setting to “write” a setting (Bachelard and Jolas 1944: 14). Worth discovered this, too. “Sometimes, when I'm there looking out on what had once been their world, a scene will leap into my mind. Those are the most rewarding moments” (Worth, S., 2011, interview, 2 March).

I conclude now with Bachelard. He speaks of the poet, but with words valid to the fiction writer as well:

The poet lives a daydream that is awake, but above all, his daydream remains in the world, facing worldly things. It gathers the universe together around an in an object. We see it open chests, or condense cosmic stones in the casket. If there are jewels and precious stones in the casket, it is the past, a long past, a past that goes back through generations, that will set the poet romancing. The stones will speak of love, of course. But of power too, and fate (Bachelard and Jolas 1994: 84).


http://www.wendyjdunn.com/


Bibliography
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Dunn W. J. (2011) Light in the Labyrinth, PhD Artefact: Swinburne University.

Eco, U. (2004). On Literature.  Orlando. Harcourt.

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Montagna, P. (2011) Email interview March 1st.
           
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Thom, J. A. 2010 The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books.

Thom, J. (2011) Email interview March 18th.

 Worth, S. (2011) Email Interview March 2nd

 


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