Fact, fiction, and genre expectations

At the Words by the Water festival in Keswick last week, we were able to witness two versions of the same real events and thereby to compare them. The events in question concerned the life and work of  Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose work enabled the German ‘enigma’ code to be cracked during World War 2. The first presentation came from Turing’s nephew Dermot Turing who gave us five ‘myths’ about his uncle and proceeded to use his detailed knowledge of the family and the history to replace these myths with something closer to the truth. His talk was followed by a showing of ‘The Imitation Game’ a 2014 film ostensibly about Turing’s life and war work, and the events leading up to Turing’s death by suicide in 1954.

At the end of his talk, Dermot Turing urged us to enjoy the film we were about to see, but warned us that the Alan Turing we were going to see portrayed was not, perhaps, the real man, but a filmic construct. He didn’t use those words: in fact he was very polite about a film that demonstrated each of the five myths that he had previously been at pains to deconstruct. No point in railing against it, I suppose, although I doubt whether my reaction would have been so measured.

The film was much heralded when it was released. I can’t recall all the fulsome epithets used by the critics, but some of them at least thought it was very good. But did it actually tell the story accurately? No. In some crucial respects, the needs of the film, the demands of the genre and the presumed expectations of the audience clearly over-rode any semblance of historical accuracy. One example: Turing was already working on the German code before the war began and had cracked it by 1941, but in the film the breakthrough is beset by technical and political difficulties and wasn’t achieved until much later in the war, as the need for it became ever more urgent, creating a false tension that never actually happened.

The script – in my view – was dire, cliche-ridden and sentimentalised. I checked later: the scriptwriter was American and born in 1981. To what extent, I wondered, were both the script and the unfolding of the story affected by the demands of the 3 act structure so beloved of film-makers: – the ersatz crises, the bullying army officer, the cynical MI6 man, the fresh-faced young man who had by some fluke turned up in the code-breaking team. And then there was Keira Knightley as the only woman on the team. Words fail me. Why her, again? I assume I was expected to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story, but instead I was increasingly  irritated by the whole sorry mess.

On the way out I began thinking about my own attempts to weave real events into a fictional setting, and whether I too should be castigated for sacrificing authenticity in pursuit of a good tale. The issue is most pronounced in the third book of my West Cumbrian trilogy ‘Fallout’, which is set against the backdrop of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale in October 1957. I had 90,000 words rather than an two hour film script to play with, but still the responsibility to portray the real events as accurately as I could weighed heavily on me, for two reasons. First, it was a point of pride that I got my facts right. And second, Windscale is just a few miles up the coast from where I live and the fire happened not that long ago, within my memory and those of many people who live around me in this area. You can’t, and shouldn’t, muck about with the known facts when many of them are known by so many. My research was careful and meticulous. Even if it made a better story I couldn’t make the fire last longer, or less long, or do more damage, or require intervention beyond the means of the local men who managed to get it under control. So why did the makers of ‘The Imitation Game’ claim to use a real story, take such liberties with it, and get away with it? I can be very critical of my own attempt to blend fact and fiction but at least I tried to respect the events rather than abuse them.

Historical fiction that purports to represent real events raises particular challenges when those events are within living memory. It’s something I’d like to think more about as a writer, and try not to imitate ‘The Imitation Game’.

 

 

 

 

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What do readers want to read in a blog, or a novel?

I probably know the answer to this question as well as you do: any mention of SEX usually creates a spike in the visitors to any web site, but you can’t talk about SEX all the time. So in between we bloggers have to talk about less stimulating – sorry – things such as genre or structure or titles. Last week’s post about the structure of a trilogy appeared to go down like a lead budgie, even though it was on my mind and I wanted to write about it, so I did. What’s currently on my mind may be unattractive to the average blog reader, but it’s interesting to me, so here goes.

In the past few days I’ve been thinking about the link between visual images and what I write, and I’m asking myself  “Is my best writing ‘filmic?'”. When  I look at other authors’ writing I most enjoy, they seem to create strong visual images. I can see, not just feel or understand, what the writer is presenting to me. The first paragraph of Dickens’ Bleak House and its depiction of London fog for example, or the opening of The Road to Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, about the grasslands of Australia. Just a few nights ago, I dreamed very vividly about the opening scene of book that’s currently taking shape in my head. It was intensely visual, like the opening scene of a film. I could see how the camera would pan, the close-ups and the wider shots. It woke me up, a sign that this scene was in a sense ‘cooked’ and ready.

The problem with the description I’m looking for is that it can cut across the dictum about ‘show don’t tell’. You can’t represent the visual image I have in mind through the speech of one of the characters, without defying every rule of authentic dialogue. A passing by-stander wouldn’t say to herself, or her dog, ‘Look at the green of the samfire and how it’s growing in the mud round our feet,’ or ‘I’m struck by the pale gleam of the rising sun on tide-washed sand’. If the reader is to see the scene as I see it I need to describe it, in my authorial voice, the voice I’m trying to use as little as possible.

Maybe my aversion to this authorial intervention is misplaced and needs to be re-considered. Sadly, I’ve received very little detailed feedback about my writing so far, but  I was once told by an author I respect that what she loved was this – the opening paragraph of Chapter 5 in ‘A Good Liar’.

“August. A hazy Sunday. Breeze from the south, hardly stirring the heavy trees. The land breathed slowly, imperceptibly, as if asleep under the sun. Tides crept up and down shingle and sand, silent save for a creamy whisper at the edge. On the beach the air shimmered over warm stones. Fields and valleys smelled of grass. Sheep crowded into shade, panting.”

There’s no action in this piece, except the movement of the tide. There’s no dialogue. I needed this scene-setting passage to explain a significant encounter for one of my characters. And the opening scene of the new book will need the same sense of place, as the setting is almost a character in itself, influencing both the people and the events of the story. What I really want is to find the words that will share the image in my head with the reader in an unforgettable way, that the reader will want to read again and again and share with others, like a poem.

So maybe I’ll think again about ‘show don’t tell’ and allow myself the indulgence of  carefully worded description every now and then, something I’ll enjoy reading out loud, to myself and to others.

 

Opening paragraphs

At the very beginning, when I was starting my very first novel, I wanted to ‘set the scene’ for my readers, and began with a long description of a time and place – actually Barrow-in-Furness in 1916 – which I thought was pretty damn good. Considering what I was describing, steel works, a shipyard, a Victorian town hall, it was positively lyrical, a seagull’s eye view, dropping down to my heroine standing on the town hall steps, waiting for her lover. Lyrical, but no good. The whole thing went in the bin. What sent it there was an exercise I did while on a very good course that was ostensibly about finishing a novel, but turned into how to start it. Our ‘homework’ was to go and find the best opening paragraph and decide what made it so.

The are some classics, in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Bleak House’ for example, and quickly became clear to me that my description of Barrow-in-Furness Town Hall was not of that ilk and would have to go. What replaced it at the start of ‘A Good Liar’ wasn’t brilliant, but it was certainly better. I read it sometimes when I’m talking to groups about the trilogy, and there is often a gratifying ‘Ah,’ after those few opening lines. For some people, that means ‘I’m hooked’ and that’s exactly the effect I was looking for.

In Book 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’ I used the great opening sentence that I’m sure has been used many times before, because has such delicious portent: ‘Someone was knocking on the door.’ I recall seeing the movie ‘Sideways’ for the first time. The opening shot is complete darkness, and then the sound of someone hammering on a door. It’s the hero’s door, and the action starts as he wakes, listens, gets out of bed and opens it. I loved that, and remembered it. Incidentally, the same film ends with the same character knocking on another door, as the next phase of his life begins.

Now I’m thinking about the new book, and possible opening paragraphs are rolling through my head. I see a striking, intriguing image, and try to find the words to write it down. The starting point is not words, but a visual image. Is that the way you write?

Try it: pick up a novel and read the opening paragraph. Dissect it. What has the writer decided to do, and why? What do you see from the words on the page? What makes you want to read on, or not?

Maybe I should leave the opening paragraph right to the very end, savouring every detail, every word, until I’m happy. That takes patience, and I have to work very hard at that. Meanwhile the ‘events’ of the new book are beginning to take shape, and the first chapter is forming in my head, even if the first paragraph will have to wait.