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Wednesday 26 December 2007

Characters' Names

It's interesting in real life how many people seem to suit their names and how quickly people make snap judgements about someone just hearing their name. Some names seem to reflect a particular status, others a religion, others - especially diminutives - even suggest something about a person's physical appearance.

Dickens, the master of memorable names, knew this so well. How many of his characters' names say a lot more about the person than any long description: the hypocrite, Pecksniff; the slimy Uriah Heap; miserly Scrooge; the hard-hearted Murdstone, Headstone and Gradgrind....and of course the Artful Dodger.

Dickens' brilliance in creating the apt-name is now so legendary that it lends itself to satire; episodes of 'French and Saunders' to 'Blackadder' have used similarly, if exaggerated names that in one word capture the idiosyncrasies of a character. Writers now surely, then, have to be less obvious than Dickens but there is still a great deal to be said for choosing memorable and appropriate names....if, indeed, the writer actually 'chooses' the name. It seems that very often, the moment a character is 'born' into a story in the writer's mind, he/she comes with the name in place already. It sometimes feels as though the character, name and all, already exists on some other plane, and the writer merely records what is already there....

Tuesday 18 December 2007

"Life is what our thoughts make it"

Who decides what people want to read or what kind of music they want to hear? Who has the right to make a judgement about what kind of art, literature or music people appreciate?

An established publisher once told me that my biography of one of the most remarkable members of Queen Victoria's family - Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, whose life led her from the glittering Romanov Court, to the slums of Moscow, to being murdered by the Bolsheviks - would not appeal to people because (a direct quote!): "it lacks sufficient scandal for the public taste". Beg your pardon?? For whose taste?
More recently I was told by someone that readers want only to read about 'the dark side of life'. How very odd!

If, as Marcus Aurelius said, "life is what our thoughts make it" or, to quote Robert Shuller, "You are what you think about all day long", is it any wonder that so many lives are steeped in dissatisfaction if we are being fed a diet of scandal and 'the dark side'?

My belief is that none of these assumptions about what people want, is true. This is the philosophy behind giving school children dross that passes for poetry ( http://christinacroft.blogspot.com/2007/11/poetry-and-dross.html ).

Is this the result of a few huge companies monopolizing much of the publishing market, and those companies being led not by people with an interest in literature, but rather by marketing and sales departments, and perhaps even by people with a very cynical view of the world. Is this the same philosophy that says only horror stories and scandal sell newspapers?
Do we really want only to dwell on unpleasantness? Don't we have enough of that from the news? What a low opinion of people, those who make these decisions must have!
People are, by nature, always striving for something better, something more beautiful, something more real and uplifting. Literature isn't meant to drag people down, but rather to raise them up, to entertain and to lead to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human.
Well...if some people believe that to be human means dwelling on the dark side and wanting to be fed only scandal, it is a great pity for them.
To return to Marcus Aurelius, if life is what our thoughts make it, and we all have a responsibility for the life of the world, then we surely have a duty to write and read and fill our minds with what is noble, good and beautiful.

Friday 14 December 2007

The Greatest King We Never Had

Today is the 146th anniversary of the death of the greatest king we never had. Prince Albert, Consort of Queen Victoria, was not only a gifted artist, musician, composer, politician, diplomat and scientist, but also one of the most forward-thinking men of his generation. In an age where royalties had little direct contact with their children, he personally thought up so many brilliant schemes to educate his 9 children giving them both a social conscience and a well-rounded education. At Osborne House he allotted each child a garden, like an allotment, where they grew flower or vegetables which he then bought from them. In the quaint Swiss Cottage, the young princes and princesses learned to cook and to live independent lives, regardless of their royal status. Unlike, too, most princes of the day, he was forward thinking enough to place as much emphasis on his daughters' education, as that of his sons.
He was a man with a social conscience, too, never tiring of discovering how workers lived and the conditions in which they worked, so that he might make suggestions to parliament in improving their lot. His belief that with the privilege of royalty, came responsibility, was one he instilled in his own children too.
There was never a prince more deserving of all the monuments erected in his honour and his untimely death at the age of 42 was not only a tragedy for his widow and children, but also for the whole country.

Thursday 13 December 2007

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

"The pen is mightier than the sword" in that ideas always outlive violence or force, but it's a pity sometimes that the pens of the victors are those who write history. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, are perhaps two of the most maligned people thanks to the pens of those who wanted to justify their murder. Nicholas and Alexandra have been presented and misrepresented for so many decades that even now he is so often seen simply as 'weak' and she as 'obsessive'. Nicholas' strength of character, his absolute loyalty to his allies (who showed far less loyalty to him) and his country (which led to his abdication) and the extreme pressure under which both he and Alexandra lived is often overlooked.
The same is true of the hugely maligned Richard III, whose character was blackened beyond recognition first by the usurper, Henry Tudor, and then by Shakespeare's portrayal of him.
Historical fiction is often closer to the truth than what is deemed to be historical fact. If the historical fiction writer is able to capture the essence of a person, there is far more room for an accurate portrayal rather than what the propaganda of the victors would have us believe.

Sunday 9 December 2007

First Person or Third Person

Some of the greatest classics are written in the 1st person - Dickens' 'David Copperfield' and Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre' spring to mind immediately.
Writing in the first person makes the thoughts, emotions and motivation of a character more immediate and accessible but there are many disadvantages to it. The central character has to be in every scene so unless the story is character-led rather than plot-led it could slow the pace of the novel. It is difficult to portray the admiration or love others feel for the central character without having him/her sounding arrogant and consequently becoming unattractive. Of course, through dialogue it is possible to overcome some of these difficulties and also, through flashbacks to switch scenes for variety. Perhaps one way to create the immediacy felt in a novel written in the third person, is to original write each scene in the first person from the viewpoint of one of the characters and then to rewrite it in the third person.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Emily Bronte's Mystical World

What a mystical and complex person Emily Bronte was! Totally tongue-tied in the company of strangers, so absorbed in her own inner world and so deeply connected to nature that whenever she was forced to be away from the Moors she became physically ill. To all outward appearances she must have seemed to have lacked any real experience about which she could write, and yet not only "Wuthering Heights" but also her poetry is filled with such inner passion that must have startled the people of Haworth who saw her every day as the quiet daughter of their parson. Hour upon hour as she trudged through the 'wild and windy moors' speaking to the characters that populated her inner world and were far more real to her than the everyday people she passed on that cobbled road up to the parsonage, she must have reached depths of understanding that can only be found in silence and following her 'inner guides' until out of a short life came one of the most passionate and memorable novels ever written.

Just goes to show that it's not necessary to have a vast experience of travel or society or anything else, to create a masterpiece! It all must come from within.

The musical "Branwell" * opens when Rev. Bronte, following the death of all his children, opens the little books in which they wrote their stories of Angria and the Great Glass Town. He sings:

"Do impassioned souls find relief in dreams
Creating roles and enchanted scenes?
Of hidden worlds little fingers write
To ignite secret stars making their darkness bright.
A childish script on a tiny page
A pretty play on a paper stage
Was I too old?
How could I understand
The secret games, the names the dreams carved by their hands?

Theirs was a world that I barely saw
Like a glimpse of light
Through a half-closed door;
Like a whispered word that I almost heard
That faded with the echo of a sigh.
Theirs was a world that I could not know,
A trail of footprints in the snow
Once deep and clear then they disappear
And I am left alone to wonder why.

Was their loneliness so intense, so bleak,
That only dreams gave them tongues to speak?
Of secret scars their spirits write
To dispel hidden wounds haunting their sleepless nights.
A fairy tale or reality?
A children’s game or a desperate plea
I should have heard?
How could I ever know
The secret fears, the tears of years so long ago?

* (c. Croft & Croft 2005)

Sunday 2 December 2007

Biography v. Historical Fiction

A script writer creating the dialogue for a film about the real war time experiences of a living person, recently described the difficulties she encountered when the real person looked at the script and repeatedly said, "I would never say that!" "I never did such a thing!"
This is surely the difficulty, too, in writing real characters into historical fiction. Is it alright to attribute thoughts and feelings to people, which they might never have thought or felt? In writing a factual biography, on the other hand, the writer - unless he/she is to come in for a load of criticism - is limited to expressing only what the primary sources show their subject to have thought, felt, said or done. How much allowance is made for the biographer to interpret the motives behind the subject's actions? Unless it comes 'straight from the horse's mouth' with a mountain of footnotes to support it, critics often object to a biographer expressing the subject's feelings without the cautionary 'perhaps', or 'maybe' which makes for very stilted reading.
Those authors who succeed in weaving authentic fiction - grounded in historically verifiable facts, with the added dimension of humanity, emotion and thought which is often lacking in biography - seem to me often to create a truer picture of real historical characters than can be found in factual biography. Sandra Worth's beautiful "Rose of York" trilogy, for example, brings the real Richard III alive again on the page in a way that a factual biography could never do.
Perhaps the writer of 'true' historical fiction has a harder -and far more exciting and rewarding - task - than a biographer, in that he or she must capture not only the events, reactions and interaction of the subject's life, but also capture the very essence of the person so that by the end of the book the reader feels he/she has truly become acquainted with a real person, and not just a two-dimensional character from history.