21 September 2015

It’s a different world

by SD Sykes From Our Students, Writing Tips

We’ve blogged before about former student SD Sykes, who attended our creative writing courses back in 2012 and went on to see her debut novel, the historical thriller Plague Land, published by Hodder & Stoughton and Pegasus in the US. Now Sykes – crowned the ‘medieval Raymond Chandler’ by The Independent – is back with a chilling sequel, The Butcher Bird, which is out in October. How, we asked her, does she avoid the pitfalls of historical fiction, and include extensive research without making her books feel like a history lesson?

In historical fiction, as with any novel, it’s important to set the scene; to give the book a sense of place – both in terms of location and in terms of the period. And we should never forget that many people read historical fiction to escape into history. They want a well-researched story that delivers an authentic flavour of the times. But, to my mind, this is not carte blanche for the writer to elbow in facts where they don’t belong. I’m not going to name names here, but I recently read a bestselling novel in which the main character stops to recount the tale of a factually correct but narratively irrelevant political feud. The character in question was fleeing for his life. And I’m pretty sure if I were fleeing for my life, stopping would be one of the last things on my mind. The ‘feud fact’ only served to slow down the action. It was clunky and annoying, and gave the impression that the writer just couldn’t stop themselves. We were going to hear about it no matter what.

So, how to avoid this? I tried to be strict with myself when writing Plague Land and The Butcher Bird. I spent hours researching medieval cookery, fashion, religious beliefs, politics and architecture, but I only added a historical detail where it was warranted. This meant that I left out pages of fascinating and time-consuming research – but this research didn’t:

1. Move the plot forward

2. Illuminate an aspect of my characters’ natures

3. Add a vital scene-setting detail

Sometimes, as a writer, you become so enthralled by a piece of research that you work very hard to make it obey one of these three criteria for inclusion. Whilst I was writing The Butcher Bird, I read a lot about medieval London, and what an intriguing, beautiful, but smelly place it must have been. More or less confined to the old square mile, and enclosed within the old Roman wall, it was reduced by the Black Death to a population of roughly 40,000 people. The landmark that fascinated me most was the old London Bridge. Located where the modern bridge stands, this was the only road crossing of the Thames. Built upon 19 stone buttresses, it forced the tidal waters through its arches at enormous speeds, often making boats capsize as they passed beneath. And it was almost a self-contained town – topped with houses, shops and even a church. On the city side there were great gates that sealed London at sunset, and on the Southwark side, crowds were welcomed by the tarred and rotting heads of criminals, poking over the parapets on tall sticks.

As the story progresses, my main character, Oswald, crosses London Bridge to get into the city. There is a very good, plot-related reason for him doing this, but I hope the reader will forgive him hanging around on the bridge a little longer than the story absolutely requires. I just couldn’t help it.

The Butcher Bird by SD Sykes will be published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton on 22 October.

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