A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett

‘The historical novelists’ historical novelist’ . . .

A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett (1923–2001)

There are two sets of Dorothy Dunnett’s two historical novel series on my bookshelves, plus two copies of King Hereafter: a few are hardbacks the rest are now dry, cracked-spine paperbacks, whose pages are so yellow and print so small that I struggle to read them – but I still do. I’ve bought a few replacements over the past forty years, but somehow can’t bring myself to throw or even give away the originals. The other curious thing about these old books is something very modern. Without strapping any box to my head or standing in any man-made cubicle wearing black goggles they produce a form of virtual reality. Just by looking at a title I can see scenes. Stills and moving images hang in the air: a joyous youth riding an ostrich, the same man now older rides a silken-hide camel; a little boy with sturdy legs runs through apricots drying on a rooftop; a vast eagle swoops across a snowy waste onto an arm; a mad, brave youth runs across moving oars and marries a woman with ‘spawn-like’ eyes . . .

If you recognise any of these scenes you probably qualify as a Dorothy Dunnett fan, and are very likely a ‘historical fiction junkie’. That’s what I was told Dunnett fans were a few years ago. There are currently three Facebook groups for Dunnett fans that I know of. I dip in now and again and am always rewarded by some insight into a bit of history or details on one of the many locations. The news on one today is from a student in Australia who is writing her MA dissertation on Dunnett.

Dame Hilary Mantel’s recent Reith Lectures on creating fiction out of past events makes this tribute particularly timely for Dunnett did not have access to the Internet to check details as we do. She conjured the past from hours of very serious reading then wove fact through her fiction, writing long into the night. By her own admission her investigations were time consuming. Speaking with Isolde Martyn in March 2,000, Dunnett said,

My notes for my early novels are in ledgers. My studio is lined with bookcases. I buy a huge number of reference books and I subscribe to about twenty periodicals so I can keep myself informed about what is available.

If Dunnett’s background reading into real events, people and facts was rigorous, her readers are also expected to keep up. Writing in the New York Times in December, 2000, Anne Malcolm said: ‘(Her) novels are unusual in their erudition; Dunnett’s characters are apt to address one another in quotations from Renaissance verse (in several languages, generally untranslated), and the ground is thick with classical allusions. Using a vocabulary that sometimes outstrips the resources of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the books lavishly evoke the intellectual furnishings of the 16th century.’

In this regard Dunnett ignored the rules would-be authors are advised to follow nowadays because they also have hundreds of characters, both fictional and those ‘mentioned in history’. And the books are difficult. Readers have to think. We witness what Lymond, Thorfinn and Niccolò are up to from multiple and often conflicting viewpoints. There are no revealing internal monologues from these flawed heroes to help predict what is to come or confirm what has just happened. Plots are intricate, onion-skinned intrigues – one layer reveals another then another then another. As Alaya Johnson said in 2014, ‘If a writer wants to depict political intrigue and misdirection, Lymond is the template of hidden agendas and the benchmark of single-minded ruthlessness’.

There are a few so-called rules for modern writing Dunnett does observe, however: the opening ‘hook’; the flawed hero, and ‘show, don’t tell’. The Ringed Castle opens with: ‘Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin.’ Try putting that one back on the library shelf! Regarding her charismatic, flawed hero Lymond, Dunnett is quoted as saying:

Ian Fleming was a friend of ours and he told me he was going to write a novel about ‘a spy to end all spies’ and he went ahead and created James Bond, and I decided, ‘Right, then, if he can do it, so can I! I am going to create the hero to end all heroes.’

Before becoming an author, Dunnett was a successful portrait artist, which may explain how and why she shows us personalities through significant details or scenes. Take this as an example:

‘Each in its nest of gauze and gilt thread, of tissue and taffeta, swathed in silver and satin, in velvet and white fur sugared with diamonds, each face painted, each brow plucked, hair hidden by sparkling hair of raw silk, the well-born of France sat in waxlight and flowers like half a hundred candied sweets in a basket. Last at the last table, soggy gristle next the sugar plums, sat Thady Boy Ballagh.’

‘Soggy gristle’ Thady Boy Ballagh is Lymond in disguise, but we also see aspects of minor and secondary characters’ personalities and private histories via significant scenes. In the first novel in the Niccolò stories, Katalina van Borselen, a key figure in Niccolò’s life, is shown to be afraid of night-flying insects. In the third story Race of Scorpions set on Cyprus, her cold demeanour is completely undermined when dusk falls and moths gather around a lantern. We are reminded of what happened in Bruges in Book One and what has happened to her since with a few artful brush strokes.

In the same story we learn of the wantonly cruel nature of a Mameluke commander not through his violence towards other men but from what happens to a hundred innocent, many-hued monastery cats. I’m not a cat person but the image of those cats when they are first presented in their warm and subtle, multi-coloured hues stayed with me for years, so much so that when I was in an Italian mountain-top village a long time later and they re-appeared weaving patterns around me I had to go home and write about them.

As a reader I continue to be enthralled by these stories, but as an author I am permanently in awe. Dorothy Dunnett set the bar very high.

© J.G Harlond

This post first appeared as a Discovering Diamonds (@DDRevs) Mid-month Special. See: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/search?q=A+tribute+to+Dorothy+Dunnett

Writing secondary characters

Riddle: How does an author use historical fact to create and describe secondary or minor characters in historical fictional?

 Secondary characters are often used to develop the main character(s) and/or move the plot. Whether or not the protagonist was a real person these characters are frequently fictional constructs, and, like minor characters, in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable; meaning they should develop or change during the course of the novel, and have identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws readers can relate to.

An example of this is the character Marcos Alonso Almendro in The Chosen Man (Penmore Press, 2015).

Here’s a scene from the novel where the main character, wicked, wily Genovese merchant Ludo da Portovenere is making his first moves to manipulate the tulip market in Holland during the 1630s. He and Marcos, who is acting as his servant, are in a tavern. This is where Marcos is introduced to his first taste of coffee.

Amsterdam, early June 1635

‘Leaving a glorious day of bright summer sunshine, Marcos followed Ludo through a door and stepped into a netherworld of peat-filled grates and dark afternoons. It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of Dutch taverns he had already come to know – that particular hush broken by hearty guffaws and back-slapping camaraderie – this place was a composite of scents and sounds he could not name. There was one odour in particular, a pleasant aroma but not the usual malty smell of warm beer, nor the clear liquid that they served in thumb-sized tumblers that smelled like a woman’s perfume. He stopped and inhaled.

“Coffee,” said Ludo. “Like it?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“Doesn’t taste as good as it smells, but you can add it to your list of new accomplishments.”

Marcos gulped, the bastard knew about his journal. He knew everything – all the time! But the Italian wasn’t interested in him, his eyes were scanning the darkness: an eagle-owl detecting its prey in the half-light.

Groups of men smoking curled-stem pipes were gathered around circular tables. Above, on a balcony, six or seven burghers huddled in negotiation. One smaller table was occupied by a single client. Ludo put a hand on Marcos’ shoulder and steered him towards a corner. A stub of candle stuck in a wine bottle flickered as they disturbed the heavy air.

“Why’s it so dark?” Marcos asked.

“So people can’t see each other I expect.”

Ludo removed his wide brimmed hat and placed it conspicuously on top of his miniature sea chest in the centre of their table (. . .) settled himself into a chair and leaning back in his customary manner, gazed around him. “Dark is what they are used to,” he said. “Light is a special commodity in the Low Countries and your average Dutchman is too tight-fisted to waste money on candles. Candles offer no material return by definition.”

“You don’t like the Dutch, do you?”

“On the contrary, I enjoy them greatly: trying to out-manoeuvre them is one of my favourite pastimes. Successful strategy is the finer point of profit, Marcos. If you don’t like …” He was interrupted by the serving girl.

Marcos watched the way the plump wench looked at Ludo. What did women see in him? He wasn’t good-looking. Could they smell his money?

“I’ve ordered coffee for you to try, but not at this table. You’re my servant remember, you should be over there.” Ludo nodded in the direction of the kitchen area. “But stay close and keep an eye out for onlookers. I’m expecting company and I want to know who sees us talking. If you notice anyone taking a special interest, follow him. Find out who he is, and where he lives if you can. I’ll see you back at the lodging tonight if we are separated.”

“Yes sir.” Marcos got up and doffed his soft cloth hat. It wasn’t a fatuous move, Ludo’s tone was too serious for that.

“Chat up the waitress,” added his master, “see if that man up there by himself is a regular or if he just came in today.”

“How shall I do that? I don’t speak Dutch – or French – and she won’t have any Latin.”

“You’ll manage. Languages are only an obstacle to people with no imagination. Do you have an imagination, Marcos?” . . .

Marcos leaned against the high trestle table that acted as a bar at the back of the tavern. The waitress placed a small white china cup beside him and smiled. He winked and lifted the cup. Keeping his eyes on the girl’s blue gaze he gulped the hot brown liquid. The wench smiled as his eyes opened in shock and surprise. He would have spat out the foul tasting stuff immediately but she was in his direct line of fire: she’d put herself there on purpose. He moved the scalding, bitter liquid around his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The cheeky wench laughed, said something incomprehensible and raised a hand holding a bowl of brown granules. With her free hand she spooned some into his cup and stirred. Marcos stared at the brown poison. He was going to have to drink it. The girl mimicked his wink and waited until he had the cup to his lips again before skipping off to serve new customers.

Marcos took just a very small sip. It tasted better. In fact it was quite nice. Crossing one leg in front of the other and leaning sideways with an elbow on the high bench behind him, in what he considered the appropriate stance for a coffee habitué, he took in his murky surroundings. The door to the street opened and in that instant of light something on the balcony caught his eye, he glanced up. Something had glinted. That something was a pair of round spectacles on the round face of a gnome-like creature from a children’s fairy tale; a shoemaker, a tailor. Whoever and whatever he was, he was bending down observing Ludo through the balcony railings with far too much interest. Marcos looked for the girl; now he needed to find out about two men. But exactly how he was going to learn anything at all was quite beyond his imagination.’

***

Without knowing it at the time, this scene follows author Helen Hollick’s tips for writing historical fiction. I tried to put myself into the setting to create the atmosphere and imagined what it must have been like in a Dutch tavern in 1635. I needed the secondary character, Marcos, to start acting on his own, and I needed to show the protagonist, Ludo, was not to be trusted. Fact in historical fiction is vital: accuracy in setting and detail is essential. But when it comes to the plot and fictional characters take Hollick’s advice, “Don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get on with writing your story”.

Avoiding ‘gadzooks vocabulary’ is both easy and difficult: employing diction that is appropriate to the time and setting, while also being in the modern lexicon sometimes means looking up words to find out when they were first used, and making some surprising and disappointing discoveries. In this scene I use the word ‘waitress’. It sounds like a relatively modern term for the setting, but I wasn’t happy about using ‘serving girl’ all the time, it was awkward; and the idea of ‘serving wench’ carries vulgar implications that distracted from what was happening. The term ‘waitress’ slipped in and felt appropriate because it reduces the girl to her function, making her less relevant to the incident and maintaining the focus on what Marcos is doing, and is about to do.

When I did finally check ‘waitress’, I was delighted to find the term waiter goes back to the 14th century and was used for males waiting at tables in taverns in the 17th. Unfortunately, the term waitress wasn’t in common use until the early 19th century – but it might have been . . .

(This was originally written for the Hoydens and Firebrands blog.)

Historical Novel Society Review of The Chosen Man November, 2015

Be prepared to be immersed in this book. The research into the tulip trade in 1636 (the story is based on a true event) and the manor house life of 17th-century England add depth to the storyline.  A well-written period novel that I highly recommend. Jeff Westerhoff for the HNS.
See the review.

Click on this link for Amazon preview

J.G. Harlond

See: www.jgharlond.com

 

“You write what you read . . .”

I recently heard a comment that an author writes what he or she reads. This is possibly true, but herein lies something of a dilemma for modern fiction authors, because these days, to be successful – it is said – one is supposed to choose a genre and stick to it. To become a ‘popular author’ one is advised to write a whole series in a specific genre.

But if we write what we read, how many of us only read one genre? And even if we do, within any category there are all sorts of sub-genres. Up to now my books can all be classified as historical fiction, but they include various types of crime, international espionage, Vatican intrigue and financial skulduggery, swash-buckling pirate scenes and stately royal scandals, and recently, a World War II murder mystery based on the highly secret British Resistance movement set in a Cornish village. And now, to add to this motley list I have to add ‘fantasy’ because it is based on part of the ancient Norse Volsung Saga and includes a shape-shifting, evil-minded dragon. So as you can see, my own reading and research has ranged pretty far and wide. I only wish it had dawned on me to put it all in a series and call it something like a Game of Thrones.

Setting aside the genre dilemma, I will confess to trying to write some of what I have read. This might explain how and why, after ten years as a full-time fiction author, I came to finish (I’d been writing it on and off for years) The Doomsong Sword, which began life as part of a school series on traditional tales – a project that was cancelled during the financial crisis.

I loved, and still enjoy high fantasy with dragons and arch-mages and shape-shifters. As a child, I gobbled up all manner of classic tales and folklore from Narcissus and Theseus to The Little Fool Ivan and the Knights of the Round Table. Later, as a student I dabbled in the academic side of traditional tales and read the Russian folklore analyst, Vladimir Propp. I devoured Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, and then enjoyed it all over again reading it to my own children. Throughout the years of this type of reading, I suppose I have been most influenced by the blurred text where history meets magic: T.E. White’s Once and Future King, Tolkein’s use of Norse tales, and Beowulf, especially Heaney’s translation.

I can’t say all this consciously inspired me to re-write The Doomsong Sword as a novel, but I was motivated in part by the desire to create a meaningful story out of an old tale for a new generation – my newborn grandson in particular. Davor, the reluctant hero in the story, is an ordinary boy in an extra-ordinary situation: he is lazy and dreams up wild stories to get out of doing his chores. But then he begins to live one, and it is a story more fantastical than he has ever concocted. He not only has to survive alone in the cold Dark Age North with only a wolf-cub for company, but confront all manner of dreadful and frankly outrageous situations, such as finding himself in the home of a three-headed troll and evading the vicious Dwarf, Andvari, under a waterfall. The sword in the title is named ‘Anger, Doomsong and Truth-teller’ in the saga and I had huge fun writing this into my story, although the manuscript went through many, many drafts before it felt right. Weaving bits of Norse mythology into the basic Sigurd, the Dragonslayer legend to create something new – a coming-of-age story that has meaning for a 21st century reader – was not easy. Nevertheless, as soon as I’ve finished the third book in my wily Ludo da Portovenere (17th century) trilogy I’ll be back in the old, cold North to write the ‘Doomsong’ sequel.

This brings me back to being accepted as an author writing in different genres. ‘Genre’ is a convenient concept for online retailers and librarians, but many fiction authors bring elements from a whole range of genres into their new works. The joy of creative writing surely stems from the joy of having been taken into other worlds by other authors; living in past epochs, walking in another person’s shoes in numerous, different types of book. Yes – we probably do write what we read. This is also why children need to read all manner of stories – and daydream. They need to imagine other lives, experience, albeit vicariously, other people’s cultures and world views so that they are better prepared for some of the odd, difficult and perhaps even dangerous things that may befall them in the future. All-powerful dragons and three-headed trolls come in many guises, especially nowadays.

This post first appeared on Tony Riches’ blog on 25th April, 2017, The Writing Desk: http://tonyriches.blogspot.com.es

*Image of Odin and the sword named Gram (Anger), Doomsong and Truth-teller from the Volsung Saga is the woodcut ‘Sigmund’s Swert’ by Johannes Gehrts, 1889.

Secondary characters in historical fiction

Secondary characters are used to develop the main character(s) and/or further the plot in any fiction genre, but in historical fiction the author also has to ensure what they say and do is appropriate to the epoch of the novel.

Whether or not the protagonist was a real person, secondary characters are frequently fictional constructs and in the story to serve a purpose. Continue reading “Secondary characters in historical fiction”

Confessions of a reluctant show-off

In response to an article on how the real slog and sadness in an author’s life can begin on publication, I’d like to raise the issue of so-called ‘celebrity status’, and the silent worlds most comfortably-dressed, disconnected, happily-individual writers inhabit.

In what now seems like a previous existence, I studied dance and drama. It was drummed into us that we must never be seen off-stage Continue reading “Confessions of a reluctant show-off”