Historical Novels versus History Books, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall: The Power To Make You Feel You’re An Insider in the World of Henry VIII

Hilary Mantel’s  success in winning the Man Booker Prize for her novel “Bring Up the Bodies” has provoked many varying opinions of her work. For my part, I look forward to reading this second book in her Tudor Trilogy.

Hilary Mantel has opened up the life of Thomas Cromwell (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)
Hilary Mantel has opened up the life of Thomas Cromwell (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)
The other day I had a conversation with a keen reader who said, “I don’t like historical novels. I’d far sooner read a history book. If I read a historical novel, I think: But how can they possibly know?”

Of course, how can Hilary Mantel possibly know? But when I’d finished “Wolf Hall”, I felt as if I’d been an insider in the world of Henry VIII. I bought the book following a friend’s recommendation. She said she found it so powerful that she couldn’t read anything else for a considerable amount of time after she’d finished it.

And certainly, reading this book changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we are in throughout the novel. Upon reading Hilary Mantel’s account of this man, I admire him and can understand his role in relation to Henry, and his extraordinary gifts as he navigated Henry’s changing whims.

As to Henry himself… what was his prayer? That he might have a healthy, long-lived, legitimate male heir to take over the English Throne for the Tudors, and hold it strongly into the future.

I can imagine now how he must have felt each time Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. He felt professionally devastated and personally anguished; frightened that he had incurred the displeasure of God; afraid that after having been in his hands the throne would go where he did not want it to go; afraid his hopes and dreams would never be fulfilled; afraid that this was God’s punishment. After all, the English Throne was his professional business, his livelihood, his calling.

Now, of course, with historical hindsight, we can see how wrong he was:  wrong to have Anne Boleyn beheaded; and wrong to have various people brutally slaughtered for not agreeing with his divorce, and for not thinking the right things at the right time about religion, and for thinking he, Henry, was wrong.

But what should he have done instead, according to us with our historical hindsight? We may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and patiently and with forbearance lived out his life married to her.

What actually happened? Ultimately the English Throne became strong and proud under a very long reign by the child Anne Boleyn bore him – notwithstanding the fact that this monarch was a female – a monarch who became in the eyes of many then and since, Britain’s best and most famous monarch: Elizabeth I.

So we may well say that God answered Henry’s prayer – but not in the way he expected.

This philosophical rumination has been inspired by “Wolf Hall” simply because so many of us are familiar with the Tudor story – but in fact the narrative of this, the first novel in the trilogy, only goes as far as the execution of Sir Thomas More leaving the downfall of Anne Boleyn still in the future.

Perhaps the thing that most fascinated me about “Wolf Hall” is the way the reader follows through delicate, graceful, civilised conversations – gentle, balanced, measured… and then out of them comes a decision to burn someone alive, or have them hanged, drawn and quartered.

One sentence in the book stands out for me: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”

Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what this book shows you about human nature  will stay with you.

The Writer’s Journey: A Satisfying End to the Story

The way in which a novel ends is critical to its success

A satisfying end determines whether readers will go away and say to their friends, “I’ve just read this fantastic novel!”

I believe that a novel is defined by the way it ends. The theme becomes clear, and the focus of the story shines out.

 So important is the end, that it can spoil an otherwise excellent novel

As a regular Amazon reviewer, I’ve read novels thinking, This is superb. I’m going to give this novel 5 stars. And then I’ve reached the end, and my potential review slips a star.

So how do fiction writers ensure their novels come to a satisfying conclusion?

A novel is an organic thing. Writers may set out on the journey with the goal of exploring what it is they want to say. The theme may be as yet unknown. Only by a satisfying end to the story will that theme reveal itself. Characters can take over and change their creators’ minds. A pre-determined end turns out to be totally inappropriate. A story may have its true conclusion earlier than you had envisaged. Or too many strands are tied up neatly. You need to backtrack, finish the story at an earlier point, leaving some questions still open in the mind of a reader.

A novel may have a closed or an open ending. The end may be happy, sad, bittersweet or ironical. But certainly the end is determined by the way in which the main protagonist has pursued that over-arching desire which is the spine of the story.

Here are 5 questions to ask yourself as you consider the end of your novel:

1) Is there a “deus ex machina” in your conclusion? Or has the ending evolved from the choices made by the main protagonist? Could this ending have occurred if the protagonist had not made those choices – the motivation for which you have developed throughout the novel, folding them through the plot in a skilful weaving of characterisation and action?

2) Have you answered too many questions and tied up too many loose ends?

3) Have you said more than you needed to? Have you failed to respect the intelligence of the reader?

4) Is your ending climactic?  or could the reader have predicted it?

5) Has the outcome been foreshadowed? Could the reader say, ‘Oh yes, of course, this makes sense because…”

Take some great endings as an example.

John Fowles’ novel “The Collector” has a conclusion which penetrates the reader to the core, it is so chilling. And yet it has an organic relationship with the events of the novel and the development of the two characters.

Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings” is one that satisfies on many levels. One aspect of the ending which greatly satisfies me comes when Tolkien notes that the power of the Dark Lord is reduced and shrunk but not totally annihilated. It is still there, in a corner. It can be reawakened. I found this a profound recognition of the nature of evil in this world.

Finally, a very well-known happy ending is to be found in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. And yet we are still left with the fact that Mrs Bennett and Lydia and Wickham will all continue to be problems in the future. The problems they pose will be of a slightly different nature as a result of the events of this story – but they’ll still be there, because they are inextricably bound up with those characters.

Have you any examples of novels with endings you love? Or maybe you remember only too well those novels spoilt by an ending which failed to satisfy? Let me know what you think! Leave a comment and tell me about the novels which delivered all they promised, and those who let you down with their endings!

Unconscious Research and Dream Yoga

What might walking backwards through the Australian rainforest have to do with a mystery romance novel set in the Cotswolds? It was all part of my “unconscious research”. And it was a long research journey too, I admit. If you’re intrigued, go to Martin Willoughby’s blog to read my guest post on how “Dream Yoga” played a role in the creation of the story of “Mystical Circles”.

Minor Characters Who Highlight the Theme in Great Fiction

The success of a great novel does not lie entirely in the hands of its hero. Many of my favourite novels come with a surprise gift – the character who is most interesting of all, who is not the main protagonist. This is the character you wonder about later, the character that seems to step outside the story and comment on it, or the one whose dilemma is never really solved by the outcome of the plot. Here are three examples:

1) Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice

Lizzie’s father Mr Bennett is the character around whom the story problem – the Entailment – is centred. He could have seen the crisis coming, and had the power to avert it – Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, which threatened to ruin all of them. Instead, he allows himself the luxury of standing outside the story and commenting flippantly on it, as if the fate of his family had never hung on the decisions he made. In the end, the family is saved, by good fortune operating through the characters of Lizzie and Darcy – and not by Mr Bennett fulfiling his duty. And yet he says, And so Darcy did everything… I shall offer to pay him tomorrow; he will rant and storm, about his love for you, and there will be an end to the matter. And near the end we have Mr Bennett’s delicious irony in this remark to Lizzie: I admire all my three sons-in-law highly. Wickham, perhaps is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well as Jane’s.

2) Gollum in The Lord of the Rings

Gollum is for me the most haunting character in Tolkien’s great novel. Starting out as one of the River Folk, who evolved from the loveable hobbits, he became consumed by his lust for the Ring. And yet he is offered redemption, by Frodo. Frodo uses his original name, Smeagol, to try and recall him to a sense of who he once was. He demonstrates trust in Gollum. This indicates Gollum can be redeemed if he chooses. And there are moments when he comes close, moments when we long for him to be redeemed. Yet Gollum’s final choice, to grasp the Ring, brings about his own destruction, and that of the Ring itself.

3) Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Mr Tumnus the Fawn is the character who first comes into my mind whenever I think of The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe. Childlike, pure, guileless, representing the natural world, the first inhabitant of Narnia whom Lucy meets, who offers her hospitality and friendship – yet he’s prevailed upon to spy for the White Witch, and first alerts her to the presence in Narnia of a Daughter of Eve. And he suffers for it. But ultimately he is redeemed.

Do you have any examples of minor, or secondary characters in your favourite novels? Perhaps they may be for you the most interesting character of all. Let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

Structure, Collapsed Middles and Fiction Writing

One of the greatest challenges I have found in writing a novel can come  through a surplus of ideas. Which ones do you choose, and which have to be set aside to be used in another novel? The result of trying to pack in too many ideas is often a collapsed middle. So the best way to deal with this dilemma is to look at overall structure first.

And then, when it comes to writing the novel, I suggest doing the first draft in a relatively short concentrated space of time: say, six weeks. If you take too long to complete that first draft you may become vulnerable to “writer’s block”.  Even if there are many interruptions, and it’s difficult to keep up the momentum of the writing, I believe that if you care about writing your novel, you will find the time. You will prioritise and remove distractions from your life.

In addition, writer’s block may also happen when you lose passion and excitement with your characters. Suddenly they no longer inspire you. Graham Greene illustrates this situation through the main protagonist in his novel “The End of the Affair”:  “When I begin to write, there is one character who obstinately will not come alive… He lies heavily on my mind whenever I start to work like an ill-digested meal on the stomach robbing me of the pleasure of creation in any scene where he is present… he never surprises me, he never takes charge. Every other character helps, he only hinders.”

Here are three possible ways of overcoming this situation:

1) Plan the novel beforehand. As I mentioned above, structure is vital. I can recommend designing your novel using Snowflake Pro, novel design software created by Randy Ingermanson, who has (with Peter Economy) also written an excellent book on Fiction Writing.  If you start by establishing structure, and move out to the details, then you are working from a stable position, and will avoid what Ingermanson calls “the flabby middle”.

2) Have a regular writing schedule – don’t allow long spaces of time to elapse between writing sessions. The habit of discipline should train both mind and body; the mental powers of imagination, observation, research, and concentration, allied to the body that sits at the table or desk, the hand that holds the pen and writes, or taps the keys of the laptop.

 3) Trust the unconscious if your character is failing to live up to his promise. This is the situation Graham Greene describes. But be encouraged by this: he goes on to say “So much of a novelist’s writing… takes place in the unconscious… the superficiality of one’s days.  One may be preoccupied with shoppping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed… one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from air: the situation that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse moves forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.”

So then you can be bold and strike out and ask What if? and then go with whatever crazy idea first strikes you. Allow somebody new and unexpected to enter. Perhaps move your character to another setting, present the character with an unforeseen challenge.. Of course overproliferation of characters and locations is another danger. But this is your first draft. You can fix it later, can’t you? And it’s better than giving in to writer’s block. The important thing is to play your part, and show up for work – so you are there, on the spot, ready for when the words come as though from air.

On the Outside Looking In, Royal Barges, Rowing Boats, Glimpses, Panoramas and Artistic Vision

As I watched The Diamond Jubilee River Pageant on TV and tried to work out whether I wished I was there, or whether I was glad not to be, I remembered these words in a radio interview several months ago. ‘I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.’

I was listening to a bestselling novelist speaking about his recent success in winning a major book award. Among the many things he said which touched and amused me, the most striking was this reply to the interviewer’s question, ‘Now you’ve won this prestigious award, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?’

Then, looking at the Queen and her immediate family on the royal barge, I found myself thinking, “I wish I was on the royal barge, watching everything pass by for my benefit.”  And in the same moment I wondered whether William, Catherine and Harry felt slightly wistful and wished perhaps they were out there on the river, rowing some of those boats instead of standing on a floating version of Buckingham Palace being gracious and removed and “on the outside looking in”.

Would I have liked to be hanging over a bridge in the pouring rain catching perhaps a two second glimpse of a white figure amongst gold and crimson? Or was it much better to be viewing the entire panorama from a warm dry living room and hearing all the commentaries and flashing back and forth between different viewpoints as we do sometimes in a great novel?

We rarely strike the balance between the excitement of real moments, and the  enjoyment of long perspective, and full appreciation of whichever situation we are in.

We cannot always be outsiders looking in. Sometimes it’s necessary to get involved, and come alongside. I believe both can co-exist simultaneously. There is in fact never a time when a writer is so fully involved, he or she cannot at some future time stand back and write about it. Every experience, no matter how negative or difficult, can prove raw material for a writer because in the act of writing a story you are often drawing upon unconscious material.

In the world you have to participate. But you can also observe. The truth lies in paradox. Thus the most successful creative people can literally be, in the eyes of the world, on the inside. Of course they have arrived! And yet they can sometimes feel they are always on the outside looking in, whether that be from the glamour of a royal barge, up on a bridge, or in a temporary TV studio.

What are your thoughts on this? As ever I love to have your comments!

Spaces, Holes and Boundaries in Creative Imagination

In the Birmingham City Art Gallery I found an artist whose work conjured up for me an imaginary conversation between two people meeting at a party: “So what do you do for a living?” “I tie threads round holes.”  As I imagined the likely response, I gazed at a series of photographs of various holes in fences – barbed wire, timber, whatever – on private or official property – which the artist had woven around, decorated, defined, and given meaning with thread.  The thought sprang into my mind, This could only be done secretly and without permission. Then I read in the artist’s note that was exactly what she did. I loved it.

The exhibition Lost in Lace showed me how holes, spaces and gaps concentrate meaning within themselves.  The artists, inspired by lace, had shown this in various ways. They had built networks and connections, by creating boundaries and structures – like an inverted crystal cathedral hanging from the ceiling, or After the Dream, a room filled with a disturbing and sinister network of black embroidery wool, enclosing four long white dresses. A glittering rose pattern punched on a wall seemed to have been created with sequins, or glass beads, or crystals. But they were only holes. Behind them a large window let in natural light; and the holes defined the pattern.

I entered a room A Thin Line Between Space and Matter which plunged the viewer into darkness and only threads of light could be seen, curving around, above and through space,  given meaning by the hole of darkness at the centre.  Recognising this put me in mind of another kind of space – the alleyway.

When I was a young child, an alleyway opposite my house was the way through to colour, adventure, romance, magic. This was because it led to the road along which the local Mayday Carnival processed. The amount of excited anticipation that I concentrated on that alleyway lent it a significance that would haunt my dreams of years. The reality of the alleyway may be weeds, delapidated concrete, a weathered gate, broken paving stones. But in my imagination that alleyway is a portal to another world.

So it is in creative writing. Gaps are essential to great story: the gap that opens up between the expectation of the reader, and what actually happens. And from that gap pours a flood of insight.

SC Skillman

Sherlock Holmes And Creative Writing

Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft tells Watson in the latest BBC recreation of this much-loved character, has the mind of a scientist or a philosopher; yet he chose to be a consulting detective. When he was a child he wanted to be a pirate. And Conan Doyle tells us Holmes is also a consummate actor. He will disappear into another room, don a completely different outfit, and emerge “in the character of” somebody else. This enables him to mingle with like characters and listen to their conversations and gather information. Of course, as Sherlock tells us airily, most of it will be irrelevant; but his genius is for alighting on exactly the details he needs, and filtering out everything else.

Scientist, philosopher, pirate, detective, actor: there are times as a novelist when you employ skills which would probably feature in the Person Specification for every one of these jobs.

A Sherlock Holmes story usually involves a conundrum for the great detective to unravel. His talent is for changing one in a set of presumptions. Then several obstacles and caveats disappear. Removing one notion can immediately cast several other scenarios as feasible.

In Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’s reinterpretation of  Sherlock for the BBC, the great detective is shown to display certain features of Asperger Syndrome; i.e. he’s not good at the nuances  involved in personal relationships. Yet he works always to restore balance and legality and order to people’s lives.

A line I love from the end of Conan Doyle’s story “The Dying Detective” is: Good evening Inspector. All is in order and this is your man. Holmes had appeared to be dying of an Asian disease, in order to trap the killer into a confession. The need for order and balance is inextricable from human relationships – otherwise there can be no warmth, compassion, or responsiveness. These are the keys to a good relationship: rewards for and recognition of relational goodness. And this is the paradox: Sherlock rewards Dr John Watson in this way. Thus he demonstrates his friendship which intermittently lifts him out of his habitual way of relating to people.

Conan Doyle himself may have struggled to like his own creation; but we the readers and viewers love Sherlock Holmes. This is because he presents one of those archetypal relationships (see my post on Archetypes:https://scskillman.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/how-can-carl-jungs-theory-of-archetypes-help-you-in-your-creative-writing/; above all we love his relationship with Dr John Watson. And a key relationship which the readership loves is one critical element of successful fiction.

SC Skillman

How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Synchronicity Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “synchronicity”. This may be defined as “the meaningful patterning of two or more psycho-physical events not otherwise causally connected”. I’ve known of this theory for several years, and have seen it operating not only in my life but in the lives of others. Now I realise how it can help creative writers too.Let me give you a few examples of synchronicity in my own experience. 

Rob Parsons: A Wise and Entertaining Guide to Good Family Relationships

Rob Parsons has beguiled,moved,and doubled me up in laughter several times on this subject, both in person as an inspirational speaker, and in writing. Now he has again written on a topic that should be closely studied by policy-makers. If you’re a parent, and you’d sooner your child achieved their critical acclaim and professional success in a couple of decades time by some other means than publishing their misery memoir, Rob Parsons sets it out in very simple,clear terms in “The Sixty Minute Family” (pub.Lion).

One of his answers is as simple as a father spending ordinary time with his child – just “being there”. And beyond that is a truth: “relationships matter more than money”. I expect many more books will be written in more complex terms, saying the same thing.

Within classic story structure, what is the one most familiar trope a writer can always rely on? It’s the Dysfunctional Parent/Child relationship. The Disney story writers trade on it, the psychiatrists and counsellors make their living from it; the radio interviewers and TV chat show hosts recognise it as their most fruitful area of analysis.

Reading what Parsons has to say now (the book was published in 2010)I feel his stance has toughened since I first heard him on this subject. This book gives strong clues to the powerful influence of physically and emotionally absent parents upon the society we live in. But to end on an uplifting note, it may be, as Parsons says, that “most of us are doing a much better job of parenting than we think – and it normally turns out better than we dared hope”.

SC Skillman