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?

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Who would take a one-way journey to Mars?

Mars One

Mars One is a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars

Mars One is a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars. In January this year they began the selection process for the astronauts who will make the one way journey to establish a human settlement on Mars. The road map has designated 2023 as the year that the first four humans will land on Mars.

Mars One have begun a search to find the best candidates for the ‘next giant leap for mankind’

Although they have not set an upper age limit for the first crews to settle Mars, with my age placing me in my mid fifties at the time of the scheduled first landing, I suspect I may be beyond it.

Even so I have written a short post on the type of person suitable for this one-way journey.

Australian National Maritime Museum

Many humans have travelled to new lands with the intention of never return but there has always been the potential of a return. Even the convicts forcefully transported to Australia in the eighteenth century departed with the dream of one day returning to their homeland, buried deep in their hearts. In contrast the astronauts of the Mars-One missions must be able to embark on the first truly one-way journey in human history. They must choose to severe all physical ties to their past, and everyone they hold dear. But the void this will leave, like the vacuum of space, will be filled by Mars.

Many of the early seafaring peoples left their homelands to travel to new lands, sometimes on voyages of discovery, other times to help build new societies, but there remained always a chance to return. Even the brave ancestors of the Polynesian peoples, floating in the expansive Pacific Ocean in little more than voyaging canoes, would have held tight to a small hope that they could choose to risk a return journey.

COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII PRESS Side and top view of an Outrigger canoe from Satawal, Caroline Islands.

A Mars-One astronaut must sacrifice all of this; they must jettison all hope of return. They will never hold the people they love in their arms when they laugh or cry; or hear their footsteps; or begin a journey home to them. They will have to accept that they will be several hundred million kilometres from their loved one’s arms when they exhale their last breath.

Experiences that have been part of human existence for Milena will become foreign to them; walking in the open air, swimming in the ocean, feeling warm, no, hot sun on their face. Even walking in one direction for more than a minute, without a spacesuit, will be many years away from being possible.

When they jettison all of this they will be an empty cup, ready to be filled with everything that is Mars. Apart from gaining 37 minutes and 22 seconds each day, they will participate in the birth of a new society and make a positive influence on its formative years. New experiences await them: learning to eat, drink, and exercise in a new gravity; smell and touch the martial soil and rock; seeing the horizon closer than it has ever been.

They will take their newborn existence, like the dry martian soil, and moisten it with the human spirit to alchemise the raw, unformed clay that will be moulded over many years to become a human Mars.

They will need to be learning creatures, and imbibe the essence of whatever they are charged with learning; much like the properties of some rocks to imbibe fluid, drawing it into themselves. They will need to be writers too, of their experiences and emotions but also of Earth. I feel that the first Martian novel will be of Earth.WritingPadAndBooks

Curiosity must drive their behaviour and creativity will be an indispensable element of any of the first Martians but it should not be the bloody minded kind that works in isolation. Any candidate must prove they will be open to the ideas of others and capable of trusting them enough let go of their own. They must be active collaborators and strive to be an enabling ingredient of a team that empowers it to achieve more than the sum of the individual contributions. They will need to let go of old ways with practised ease to release and foster new methods of practise and existence.

English: Mars Terraforming

English: Mars Terraforming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The selection of the first humans to live the remainder of their lives on Mars will be long and exhaustive. The qualities they need to posses such as resilience, trust, curiosity, and ingenuity are also the qualities that will mean these people will have real relationships on Earth that they must physically sacrifice to become the first Martians. They will have to throw the ropes, that physically connect them to earth, into the water just as the ancient mariners did but for them it must be without harbouring any hope of return.

So which of you would take this one way journey to Mars?

HUGE New Gale Crater Panoramas from Curiosity

Associated posts:

A message to me to yourself…

One of my lecturers at University was actually a popular writer in the Romance genre, under another name. He was a grammar nazi of the eleventh order but such a good orator that I could have listened to him talk about paint drying without drifting off…too much.

His pet peeve, which I have been unable to let go of myself is:

the misuse of the reflexive pronouns such as “myself” and “yourself”

How often have you said or heard:

“I will send this to yourself.”

…WTF. It’s like the speaker is trying to over formalise their language just ostracise the potentially uneducated.

Just say “I will send this to you.”

What was one of the major points behind Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in 1946 :

“It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” – George Orwell

My lecturer strode halfway up the stairs in the theater between where we sat in our uncomfortable plastic chairs, turned around and said,

“If you remember one thing from this course it has to be that self pronouns like yourself, myself, herself, himself…urgh,” he grimaced, “should not be used when they…do…not…refer…to the subject of the sentence.

Thanks Glen, mate…and no I haven’t forgotten! But I have held my tongue sometimes when I probably should not have!

Y is for Yourself

Why do we write?

When I was at university some fellow writers and I compared the importance of brain surgeons over writers. Although I do not deny the brilliance of brain surgery, I was quite disappointed in the majority opinion to elevate these mere mortals to a higher plane than writers. I don’t deny they may save a few lives but so do our bus drivers—wether they are aerial or terrestrial in transit.

Writers however (and some other artists) can do more than save a few lives.

  • we are the legislators of tomorrow (source unknown)
  • we provide feedback and test-run changes in society
  • and we can inspire generations into action and illicit positive change in society.

If a piece of writing does not add to our collective consciousness, or alter our behaviour—even in some minor way—it is pointless.  But this need not get too high and mighty:

Not everything we write is going to bring down a government, it could simply be a nostalgic drama that reminds us to value each moment of our life; prompting us to stop our writing, or turn the television off, and play hide-n-seek with our kids.

“W” is for Why we write

releasing your and your character’s VOICE

Photo Credit: Ian Kahn

In the writing world there are two types of VOICE:

  1. Your authorial style, that is unique if
  2. The style of speech and thought pattern or processes of a character

Authorial VOICE

We all have our favorite writers and it is this that we often  recognise from the first sentence of a work. It is more than a style of Point of View (POV) and many author’s work can be recognised from blind readings; Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer I’ve found to have a unique authorial voice.

At University and in writer’s groups I found it useful to imitate the voice of an author I admired. This exercise is like the Form/No-Form training in martial arts but eventually you must relax the form you are imitating until your own appears and it becomes something only you could have written.

It can be as enlightening to turn this exercise on its head and attempt to imitate a writer you dislike, let yourself go and become that writer; you’ll recognise some habits from your writing that you need to drop.

Character Voice

Characters, too, should have a unique voice. I’ve found that I must inhabit the character’s mind to achieve this though. I try to have a minimum of one hour put aside to write in isolation so that I have the time to reacquaint myself with the character and then inhabit them comfortably.

For antagonist or evil characters it is challenging to enter their minds but also to exit their minds unscathed.

I find songs a great source for words to use in character dialog; songs are like haiku (the better ones at least) where every word, every syllable, should be there only on merit. Most of us are lazy in our speech and we often use the incorrect word because it just pops out. If not overdone this can provide a character with a unique voice.

The same two elements of writing apply for a blog; the words should drop out of your head or heart and on to the page, only editing typographical errors.

“V” is for Voice

No-Mind: Do not think about not thinking at all

Thoughts have a power all of their own. Any thought we hold too tightly, or keep too close to our hearts, can have a detrimental effect on our lives.  A thought can become an obsession. For example, a thought that our partner is having an affair develops in our mind, and we filter all of their actions through it, searching for evidence however small. This small thought could develop into an obsession and jealousy and mistrust begins to taint every moment of our lives. Eventually we will see things that are not actually there and over time this will strangle the relationship like weeds in an untended garden.

We should strive to regularly empty our minds lest a thought achieves a foothold that cannot be overcome. Takuan Soho (1573-1645), a Japanese Zen Master and Philosopher from the 1600’s, provided similar advice to his contemporaries whether they were the Shogun, Master Swordsmen, fellow monks or lay members of his community. In a translation of his writings The Unfettered Mind by William Scott Wilson, he said:

If your mind leans in the direction of these thoughts, though you listen, you will not hear; and though you look, you will not see. This is because there is something in your mind. What is there is thought. If you are able to remove this thing…your mind will become No-Mind, it will function when needed, and it will be appropriate to its use.

Unfortunately achieving this state of No-Mind is difficult if not practised regularly. We must make this state, even for a heartbeat, part of our daily lives. But again Takuan warns that this too is a thought: “…the mind that thinks about removing what is in it will, by the very act, be occupied.” He wrote a short poem to help us, and four hundred years later it rings as true as the day he wrote it:

To think, “I will not think.”-

This, too, is something in one’s thoughts.

Simply do not think

about not thinking at all.

Kaligrafia_08

Kaligrafia

Takuan Soho (1573-1645) was a prelate of the Rinsai Sect of Zen, well remembered for his strength of character and acerbic wit; and he was also a gardener, poet, tea master, prolific author and a pivital figure in Zen painting and calligraphy (William Scott Wilson – The Unfettered Mind, 1986).