Tag Archives: jo bourne

some history lessons from the masters

Last year I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and it changed my life. Or my brain. Or something. It challenged me to think while I read. It screwed my emotions tight and then didn’t let me go and then screwed them tighter again.

Those six books, the most incredible series I’ve ever read, were Dunnett’s learning-to-write books. I’ve just started her eight-book series House of Niccolo, which are her I-am-a-master-craftswoman books.

Special k always knows when I’m reading from the gasps and laughter and “Oh my God, Oh my God!” that emanates from the couch.

But really, I want to talk about writing history.

In my last post on writing within a genre, I raised the question of how detailed a description I should give of the famous London gentleman’s club White’s. This sparked a fascinating conversation on twitter about how much detail is expected in romance, and whether this should be redressed.

And here’s one of the reasons I love twitter: Jo Bourne, who I cited in that post as the master of detail, was right there in the fray giving her thoughts on the subject. She made one statement that started fireworks in my brain:

You want to describe something at Almacks, you describe a moth on the window.

Just pause and soak in the brilliance of that statement. Instead of the particular wallpaper Almacks had that year – which would take hours of research, and come across as a researched detail, a historical detail – we have a moth on the window: a right-now, visceral detail that connects me as a modern reader directly to the historical character. It’s a common experience between us.

It achieves what I ultimately strive for in writing in a historical setting, which is to evoke characters who live in the modern world, staring down change and industry and the sense that global disaster waits just around the corner. It’s difficult to do, because when we write history it’s through a lens, looking backwards.

This is where Dunnett’s genius comes back into play. More than any other historical writer, she places her characters right at the front of the charge into the future. Her lawyers know their law and are still part-student, her doctors are clever with their potions and her city council parades are tacky affairs.

One of the ways I’ve noticed she manages this (and trying to figure out how Dunnett does anything is not simple) is that her details are completely unconscious of the modern reader. For example: There’s a short description of a woman sitting by a window, with a rug thrown over the sill. I suspect other writers would be tempted to explain the rug, because it’s a detail that’s alien and interesting to a modern reader. It would look something like, “As the windows had no glass pane, the window sill had a rug thrown over it to reduce the chill and as decoration.” In Dunnett’s world the rug is simply there, because that’s the way things are done. It is a complete world that doesn’t question or explain itself, just as I wouldn’t think, “I am sitting on the couch with my laptop because it is wireless and doesn’t require to be on a desk.” It just is.

I’ve been thinking lately about leeching – that old medical practice that seems barbarous, almost farcical to a modern mind. Of course you don’t take pints of blood from someone already weakened by illness.

In romance novels, I’ve noticed, you can tell whether a character’s supposed to be good or evil by their stance on leeching. No hero or heroine worth their salt would believe it to be a good idea.

I want to read a physician-hero who believes whole-heartedly it is the right thing to do. The mad-inventor heroine I’ll be writing a few books down the line is going to think the battery heralds a whole new world, with an unlimited power-source that will close the class divide.

I want people who are passionately, integrally of their time – visionaries who see not the future we know followed, but the future their world suggests to their imagination.

the genre debate is never done

Last week Ursula Le Guin posted a great piece on genre vs literary fiction in response to Krystal’s article ‘Easy Writers‘ in the New Yorker in May. I don’t know that this debate will ever be done, so I see each of these pieces as the next part of a conversation – the next voice around the table.

For me, the most interesting piece to date has been Grossman’s reply to the same article. I can’t recommend reading it enough. He looks at what exactly “escapism” means, suggests that literary criticism has failed genre fiction, and concludes that genre fiction is disruptive technology. He also uses the sentence: “Because the shades of grey here, they are many.”

When special k started reading a draft of My Lady Untamed, he couldn’t immediately place himself in White’s Gentleman’s Club – didn’t know what it was, or that such a thing existed. He wanted description. He wanted to be placed firmly in a context.

When a contest judge read the same draft she wrote, “You probably only need to say ‘White’s’ – your readers will know what you mean.”

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that if I could write like Jo Bourne everything would be present in description in the most vivid, unobtrusive way possible.

These two pieces of feedback brought forcefully home to me what it means in real terms to write within an established genre. I don’t describe White’s, because I imagine that the readers of Regency romance have, like me, their own default image of White’s that they call up each time a book takes them there. I work within a preconceived framework that allows romance to be the central, organising element of my narrative.

This is the shared “cultural encyclopedia” that Remittance Girl talks about in her post on erotica as literature. If I write with the expectation that my readers have no knowledge of the Regency I might appeal to a broader audience – but in the meantime I’d be losing my romance audience. Or at least covering ground they’re so familiar with it’d bore them to tears to read it again. I write with an assumed level of knowledge and expectation in my readers.

Grossman writes about plot:

But conventions aren’t the iron cage they’re made out to be. Sonnets are bound by conventions too, but that doesn’t stop them from being great, and wildly various. Conventions are more like the rules of chess: a small set of constraints that produces near-infinite complexity. They’re not restrictive, they’re generative.

My book is a 100,000-word love letter to the romance novels I read. It defers to and challenges the genre. It exists within a context – a long, constantly evolving history.

This is, for me, the practical implication of writing genre fiction. It’s why I don’t agree with Ursula Le Guin that all written fiction should simply be termed “literature”. Unless you’re defining “literature” as “literary fiction”, this is already the case. The way I would level the playing field is to acknowledge that literary fiction is its own genre as fully as romance or sci-fi, with its own set of markers and shared cultural encyclopedia.

We can’t attempt to level the playing field by making all written fiction the same but different, because the truth is that I’m not writing for anyone, I’m writing for a particular audience. It’s my hope that anyone could enjoy reading my novel – but I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I lost sight of the genre it belongs to.