The old city of Segovia

The old city of Segovia

 

The city of Segovia, of sixteenth century Spain, is the primary setting for the first half of my historical fiction novel Boots of Spanish Leather: Reino de España.

I wrote the first “vomit” draft of this story before I had even heard of Segovia. In one of the early chapters I had the protagonist, an adept foot soldier just returned from service on el Camino Español (The Spanish Road), sitting on a rocky ledge overlooking a city with a large cathedral and the ruins of an Roman aqueduct running through it.

Imagine my surprise when I googled: “Roman aqueduct spain”… And there it was, the UNESCO World Heritage listed old city of Segovia. Not only did it have the Roman aqueduct but one of the last gothic style cathedrals of the period.

I descended into the universe that is Google Earth and did not emerge for several days, though back in 2012 it had nowhere near the detail it has today. I filled my Evernote notebook with pictures and links, many of my key storylines, new characters, and settings were birthed during this initial research period.

GoogleEarth-Segovia

So far I have had to rely on this new virtual city of Segovia, and my imagination, but will spend a week there in the (northern hemisphere) spring of 2017, before continuing on to the other settings of my story: Madrid, Lisbon, A Coruña, Gijón, and Gibraltar.

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Writing techniques for immersive Historical Fiction

Highfields

All readers of fiction crave an immersive reading experience

You know the sensation; the physical and temporal space around you seeps away and you are immersed into the storyworld. The characters spring into existence, the setting seems as real as the chair you sat down on a moment ago. The smells, sounds, buildings, forests, creatures—and danger—surround you.

Conjuring an immersive reading experience for a Historical Fiction is more difficult than with a contemporary setting, because readers lack the tacit knowledge, the construction materials, to create the storyworld. As a reader, you must assimilate an order of magnitude more information before the storyworld has sufficient spatial and temporal mass to immerse yourself in.

Reading is a performance

It is the reader who creates the storyworld; writers merely provide the plan for construction and the guideposts for transportation there. Wolfgang Iser in The Act of Reading suggests that if the plans for a storyworld are “…organised in too overt a manner, …we as readers will either reject the book out of boredom, or will resent the attempt to render us completely passive.”

The reader must become the conductor, taking the raw notes from the page and forming them into a performed symphony.

So what narrative devices and techniques can lead a reader to create an immersive reading experience?

Simultaneous Narration or First Person-Present Tense

All narrative modes offer potential for immersion, but Henry James specifically argued for the superiority of Simultaneous Narration as “…it manages to efface the boundary between narrator and character, …showing what someone is in the process of thinking.” It also allows protagonists to express their “now” feelings untainted by future events; the betrayal of another character, even their own death.

Incorporating the protagonists native language

A large proportion of the narrative in English language Historical Fiction can be considered Unnatural Focalisation if either the setting or the original language, is foreign. Even a setting in the medieval period should be considered unnatural as the English language used by the characters has, in the intervening years, changed so dramatically.

By incorporating words from the native language of the characters we provide more and higher quality materials for the reader to construct and immerse themselves into the storyworld.

My current work-in-progress is set in sixteenth century España and I have experimented and formulated several techniques based on the use of Spanish language to assist the reader to create am immersive experience.

  • Using Spanish words known or recognisable to Western readers:, such as: gracias (thanks); señor, señora, señorita (Mister, Madam, Miss); hola (hello), buenos días (good day/morning), buenas noches (good night), adios (goodbye); perdón (pardon); mucho/muchos (much/many)
  • Using actual Spanish words when the reader does not need to understand them intuitively: but can guess at their meaning in context e.g.

An uproar builds outside my cell.

‘Estar, estar,’ the jailer calls.

I scramble to my feet and retreat to the far wall of the cell.

  • Beginning a chapter or section of the book with a passage written in español: then repeating the same passage translated into modern English. Here the español text can be formatted to further differentiate it from the main narrative:

Me considero bendecido de morar en estos tiempos de guerra, no en la paz, donde me estancaría en la clase campesina; languidez constante engorde my trasero y embotando mi mente…

…I am most blessed to abide in this time of war, not in peace, where I would stagnate in the peasant class; constant languor softening my arse and dulling my mind.

This technique would be used sparingly but it is effective at heightening the otherness of the storyworld.

What techniques and narrative devices have you used to assist the reader to create an immersive reading experience from your stories?

Using Google Translate and other techniques to improve the dialogue of your characters

The Roman aqueduct of Segovia with the Cathedral de Santa Maria in the background

English is my first language but the majority of my writing is historical fiction and so often the original dialogue of my characters would have been spoken in another language. Rather than over use colloquial sayings or try to invent phonetic version of words to give them a German, Spanish, or even an Australian accent I decided to research the peculiarities of the source language.

My current work is set in Segovia around the time of the Spanish Armada, and so most dialogue would have been spoken originally in Spanish.

First of all I listened carefully whenever I encountered a native Spanish speaker who spoke in English. A Spanish barista, when handing my coffee at his busy café smiled and said:

Thank you for the waiting.”

When in actual fact he meant: “I’m sorry you had to wait,” or “Thank you for your patience.”

I also looked to on-line language education tools, discovering the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order etc. Rather than saying:

I am hungry.”  or “It’s a beautiful day.”

A Spanish person will express themselves:

Yo tengo hambre.”  (“I have thirst.”), or “The day is beautiful.”

My dialogue improved dramatically but still lacked the verisimilitude that I am striving for. When a link to Google Translate appeared on the side of my browser it sparked another idea:

What if I translated my English dialogue into Spanish and then translated the result back to English?

I worked my way through the first chapter of my manuscript, cutting and pasting phrases between tabs. The result in many cases was nonsensical, in others rendered almost no difference. But when it was altered it was as though the words exploded from the mouths of my characters themselves.

The most enlightening peculiarity of Spanish I discovered was that they never use an apostrophe and an “s” to convey possession as they are in English. For example:

This is Consuelo’s father.”    or    “The cat’s fur is brown.”

Would be phrased:

This is the father of Consuelo.”    and    “The fur of the cat is brown.”

My current work is written in first person present tense and so I immediately commenced a search and destroy mission to find all occurrences of the damned “apostrophe s”. What resulted was a complete disaster; an unreadable cacophony of words that was as painful to read as it had been to write.

Pairing this back I decided to restrict these rules to dialogue and the result was immediately effective. The contrast of the phrasing of dialogue to that of the narrative highlighted these subtle differences and delivered the result I hoped it would.

My research also highlighted another peculiarity of the Spanish language; they do not capitalise titles or days of the week e.g. “commander” or “tuesday”.

I’d love to hear if you have any other ideas along these lines too in the comments section below.