You tend to pick some things out and describe them in detail – smells, weather, etc. Do you specifically try to base these on theories or do you make them up?
Yes and yes.
There – I think that answers that question!
Seriously, if I know the event I’m writing about takes place on a rainy day then I have to say so obviously, but from that moment on, a lot of it comes out of my head. Actually, that sounds quite unpleasant, but you know what I mean. When I wrote about the Great Library at Alexandria burning, I was actually there. How hot would it be? What would I smell? How easy would it be to see? To move? What hazards would there be? What could go wrong? What might go right – because, believe or not, sometimes that does happen. What are Max’s reactions to what is going on around her. What will she do next?
So yes, I was there when the roof came down and she was on fire. I was there when she was slowly roasting in her fire suit, unable to breathe properly, sweat stinging her eyes, panicking because her gloved hands couldn’t unfasten her smouldering suit. I was there.
Sorry – I do get carried away – be warned!
At the moment I’m writing about an event in which the weather conditions were the cause of the historical event, so at the moment, I’m looking at storm surges, flood defences, that sort of thing. Again, pages of notes will probably result in half a sentence, but that’s the way it goes. I will go on to try and establish some sort of framework. I’ll draw up a timeline, what happens to whom, when, and where they were when it happened. I’ll make a plan or map and work out how the characters move around. I’ll make sure, as best I can, that what I propose to do is feasible. Having then established a framework, I close my eyes and imagine the terror, confusion, devastation, the cold dirty water …
“The non-historical events that occur at St Mary’s, of course, are completely fictitious. Mostly. Although yes, I do know someone who did actually run into a horse’s bottom and it’s going to cost him a great deal of money to keep me quiet.”
This actually sums up what I’m trying to do for (and occasionally to) History. As I said in What Could Possibly Go Wrong, yes, we read about Joan of Arc in History books. The story always ends with – and she was burned at the stake in 1431, but that’s just a statement of fact. Dull, dry and boring. Close your eyes. What would it actually be like? How long does it take to burn a body? How did the people present react, always bearing in mind, of course, that our present day values and principles are not those of 1431. Events that would cause shock and horror today were treated much more casually then. Alternatively, of course, a throwaway joke that wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow today could win you a fun weekend for one with the Inquisition and end in having your tongue cut out. A town under siege by William the Bastard (or Conqueror as he probably preferred to be known) thought it would be hilarious to poke fun at his less than noble origins. When the town eventually fell, he continued the joke by having their hands and feet cut off.
Back to Joan – sorry, I do wander. Doesn’t your heart go out to my editor? – I researched the event, dates, times, places, etc., drew up my timeline, built my framework, and then inserted Max and the other historians into the picture. From that moment on, my control over events tends to evaporate because, if I’ve done my job properly, everything should unfold in my head, one scene after another as I frantically scribble or type (depending on where I am) trying to get it all down before it dissolves like so much smoke in the wind. And it does. It only takes the telephone to ring, or a voice in the street and it’s gone. That happens heartbreakingly often.
The non-historical events that occur at St Mary’s, of course, are completely fictitious. Mostly. Although yes, I do know someone who did actually run into a horse’s bottom and it’s going to cost him a great deal of money to keep me quiet. The ideas usually shoot into my head while I’m having a bath. No, I don’t know why, either. Interesting material for someone with psychological qualifications, I should think. I keep a pad and pen on the toilet for these little moments and twenty minutes later, I’m sitting in cold, scummy water scribbling away, damp and wrinkled. And that’s just the notebook. My idea to keep a whiteboard in the bathroom was subject to serious mockery.
Does anyone know if there’s such a thing as waterproof paper?