On Writing Historical Fiction

On Writing Historical Fiction

One day this period that we are living in will be the subject of historical fiction. Our Instagram, electric cars, and smart phones will seem like medieval devices. We will seem backwards in our dress and old-fashioned in our thinking. People will think the 2020s were populated by small-minded simpletons, that the people were afraid of science and new ideas, that the governments were stuffy and the class divide was great.

I write westerns under the name, Elwood Flynn (they will be published next year, but you can find Elwood on Instagram if you are interested in following that journey) and so I spend a lot of time thinking about how people thought back then.

It is easy to write two dimensional flat characters, stereotypical and slightly less intelligent than our far superior future selves. To write engaging real people in historical fiction you have to keep in mind one very important thing: Every person who has ever lived believed that they were living in the most modern times in all of history.

Cowboys photographed in grainy photographs in the late 1800s, in bowler hats and waistcoats; how old-fashioned their minds must have been. But even though these were gunslingers in a lawless land, they were wearing the highest Victorian fashion of the time, dressed like the British upper-class. Even outlaws were trendy, just not to us, not now.

Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch were some well-dressed dudes.

Maybe people will look back at teenagers in DCs and hoodies, and wonder, “Why were the teenagers back then dressed so formally?”

That’s how I dressed when I was a teenager, twenty years ago. When people were afraid of youths wearing hoodies. Front page news: BEWARE THE HOODIE! And now there are photographs of politicians wearing hoodies to make themselves seem more normal. More like the average working class man. Rishi Sunak, the British MP, trying to fool us in his hip garb.

Could you imagine Winston Churchill wearing a hoodie?

We think the ideas we are having now about people being scared of vaccines, or getting angry at cancel culture, are modern problems. And they are, just as they have always been.

This is a classified ad from 1952 –

There are articles from the 1800s about the new smallpox vaccine. One article from the Chamber’s Journal, July 31, 1886, reads, “The newspapers constantly remind us that there are many persons in the kingdom who object to vaccination…”

qrf

Comedian’s from 1903 declaring we can say, “good-bye to comedy” because racial and ethno stereotypes were banned on the stage.

In 1957, comedian George Gobel said, “…a TV comic nowadays needs the soul of a seismograph to know where the rumble of public wrath is coming from. We have to be verbal tightrope walkers.”

It has always been this way, and so it will remain. Nothing changes. Not really. We are not advanced. We have not learned from our ancestors.

We have always been, and will always be, modern.

There is a film from 1971 by Ken Russell called The Devils. It was banned pretty much everywhere for its blasphemous sex scenes (the infamous raping of Christ being the main problem), and has still not been released in full by Warner Bros. But that film did something very interesting. If you watch it, it looks weird to the eye. The sets are all so… modern. The prison scenes have bright white tiles, brand new bars. The town walls and the castle are clean and built with new stone.

The film is set in 17th century France and when the set designer came to build the sets, he went, as one does when making a historical film, to create moulds of crumbling walls. Ken Russell stopped him, reminding him that at one time these old castles were not old castles, but modern architecture. And so they built them as new. When we watch The Devils, we are not watching old fashioned people in the past being barbaric, we are watching modern people in the present raging against new ideas, just as we do now.

People have always had complex thoughts. There has always been extremes in outlook. There have always been people who are racist and bigoted, but there has also been people who are against those things. Not everyone in the 1800s was racist, otherwise the politicians, who sink or swim in an ocean made of popularity, would never have been able to abolish slavery.

This post has gone on longer than I had planned, and it’s all to illustrate one point. One lesson about writing historical literature. We must view them with a modern eye.

The thing is, about those cowboys I write about in my westerns, they have no idea that they are living in the past.

Ignore me. I’m sick.

What is this art form? This theatre of words moving across a page? The trade of building images out of symbols? Carving literary statues with grammatical chisels? Writing is so much and so little. A bad sentence is almost indistinguishable from a good one. It takes a person with a degree to know what is good and what is not. They will tell you Dan Brown paints his words with turds and shake their fists at the pages of The Bookseller magazine which dares to print sales figures that contradict their assessment.

The average reader has no idea. Nor do they care.

You can have a novel, 120,000 words long, and find nothing of meaning within its pages. Heroes running the same course as many before them. A save-the-cat journey of write-by-numbers plots designed to move and thrill. The same story sold bought and read again and again and again.

Another book. Which follows no particular pattern. Does not follow the rules of grammar exactly. And does not dance around a story circle. Filled with depth and aphorisms and wit. Is never read.

If a genre book is considered literary is it no longer genre? If a literary book is blandly written is it still art? Is storytelling itself art, regardless of the prominence or not of adjectives in its prose?

I always wanted to write whatever the British equivalent of The Great American Novel is. In wanting to learn how to do this I have become more and more interested in turning a collection of words on a page into a continuous moving image in the reader’s mind. I write westerns now. The goal of the books is not to blow you away with a skilful display of my vocabulary and the wrangling of obscure and rarefied words, but to put the words out of your mind entirely. I want my stories to grab you by the hair and drag you through the dirt. I want you to read them in one sitting and turn that last page with your heart racing and your eyes raw with fatigue and belly hungry. But instead of eating, or sleeping, I want you to turn right back to the start and read it again. Is that art?

To do that, maybe I have not created art. I have created entertainment.
Will that do? Is that enough?
I still want to write The Great British Novel, but writing pulp is too much fun.

Right now I am sick. I’m sat on the couch amidst a snowstorm of crumpled tissue. My nose is red. I’m sniffling. I have a tickle at the back of my throat that I have been refusing to turn into a cough since I started writing this incoherent nonsense. I should be writing the next chapter in my book but instead I am rambling about, what? Whether or not writing is art? I have no idea. I have lost the thread of my original thought. The cold that has turned my brain into a red hot storm of snot has forced my imagination into some kind of fevered spasm of bollocks.

I have the urge to write but not the clarity to do so usefully. So now I have done this. I started writing with no plan and have ended up here, and you’re right here with me, wondering what the point of any of this is.
We are conjoined in an existential crises of blog gibberish. I will set you free so I can go and sneeze.

Let me leave you then. I am going to drink coffee, cough up some lung-butter (as Rachel so juicily calls it), take some Sudafed, and try again to write what I opened my laptop to write in the first place. Some good old fashioned gun-slinging pulp fiction.

Would you like a gun with that ice cream?

In researching gun shops in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 1870 I came across this ice cream shop. (It didn’t help in my research but it did make me smile).

Top Google review – “Ice cream and gun shop, what more could you ask for.”

Isn’t America a weird place?

I remember meeting my parents in America once and as we travelled from Boulder City to Las Vegas we drove past a burger restaurant with a sign outside that read, “Enjoy a burger and fire a machine gun.”

I think it was called Burgers and Bullets.

And people think the western is a dead genre. In a place where you can ask for extra pickles and ammo, a scoop of vanilla and a Glock G19, the Wild West is still alive and kicking in the unbridled hearts of a number of its inhabitants.

Cover reveal tease and newsletter news!

Cover reveal for Jack’s Game!

Next weekend I’ll be revealing the cover. This is my vain attempt to build buzz.

It finally has a release date! My debut horror novel, the one I’ve been working on for two years, will finally be published this Halloween!

If you want to see the cover before everyone else, and get a FREE horror story right NOW, all you have to do is sign up to my newsletter. The link is in my bio.

http://www.subscribepage.com/gnome

When you subscribe you will get my horror retelling of the Brother’s Grimm story, Gnome for free. It is a homage to the creature features of my childhood. This is my Gremlins, my Critters, my Ghoulies!

Melody and Faith just wanted to pick fruit, but a cursed nursery rhyme could kill them both…

When you’re playing by the tree

Eat the fruit and then you’ll see

Eyes like marbles, black and small

Teeth like razors, sharp and cruel

If they find you feed them bread

Or you’ll end up dead, dead, dead!

Eat my flesh and break my bones

All should fear the twisted gnomes

– Playground rhyme*

*WARNING: DO NOT SING THIS RHYME IN THE WOODS AT NIGHT

David’s Inferno

I’ve redesigned Dante’s Inferno just for David Chapman.

Some backstory first. I experience a severe type of misophonia when I hear the sound of a fork scratching on a plate. It’s normal for people to hate that sound. My reaction to it is a physical one. (I think it stems from watching Nightmare On Elm Street when I was six and the months of nightmares that followed).

It makes eating in restaurants a battle of survival. Not for me, but for the other diners. A battle they don’t know they are a part of. I hear a SCHREEE and it’s all I can do to not stab them in the forehead with my fork.

All of my family are aware of this. Any time we get together for a meal, and somebody accidentally makes that helll-spawned sound, the whole table stops what they’re doing and look at me. I’ll be gripping my cutlery tightly, my eye twitching. Sometimes threats of death will lurch from my mouth in a way that is beyond my control.

Somebody usually asks, tentatively, “Are you okay?”

A question I can’t reply to because I’m grinding my teeth so hard I can feel them break in my mouth.

This is more than a dislike of the sound. It is an adrenaline fueled panic that triggers the fight or flight response. It’s primal. If I ever go to prison for murder that will be my reason.

My brother knows this well.

Before I had even sipped my coffee this morning I noticed a message from him. It was a video. I clicked on it. A fork was pushed along a plate and my phone was on full volume. SCHREEEEEEEE!!

I dropped my phone and started shaking.

He is a total and utter c**t.

When Virgil guides him through hell, just as he did with Dante so many centuries ago, he will get to the bottom and find that it doesn’t go deep enough.

As such I have redesigned the Inferno to include a new layer just for him.

5am Writing Blues

Getting up at 5am to write stopped being fun this week. It was hard. The words came out like stone toothpaste.

Next week will be different. I will get up with that same verve that I started with. The excitement of being amongst gunslingers while the house slept.

This week was difficult because the story stopped being a western. It was always meant to start in New York and wind its way west. I’m halfway through and can’t find my way out of the city. Gritting a 6’9″ pissed off lawman and a percheron horse halfway across a country is harder than it sounds, especially when you’re trying to maintain a certain level of pulp action.

I should have picked a city closer the the lawless frontier.

This is Robin Castle’s origin story. He’s a marshal in New York. Something terrible happens to his family and the guy who did it flees. Castle gives up his badge and the rule of the law to take after him.

He finds himself in a dry unforgiving land with vengeance in his heart and a gun on his hip.

Sounded simple when I came up with it.

Publication news!

Dinosaurs, Jetpacks, and Rock Stars! (a book I wrote with Kassidy when she was 6) is available to buy today!

I didn’t realise you couldn’t set up a paperback for preorder so I’ve accidentally launched earlier than planned. (Nothing but professionalism here…)

The Kindle version is up for preorder for the actual release date, which is the 27th February (my daughter, and co-author’s, birthday), but the paperback is out there in the wild all by itself now!

Dinosaurs, Jetpacks, and Rock Stars! Is published! Hurrah!!