Friday, 3 June 2011

On Historical Accuracy (Or, How To Write Like Josephine Tey But Without All The Racism)

I've just finished reading Angel With Two Faces by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in 30s England... which is particularly relevant to me, since I currently happen to be writing a murder mystery set in 1930s England. Obviously, since I haven't personally experienced life in the 30s, I've been worrying about how to get all the historically relevant bits right, and so reading Angel With Two Faces felt a lot like being that person at a party who sits in the corner and says cryptic, slightly rude things about how if I was the host I don't think I would have let those people spike the punch with Windex, but of course that's just my personal feeling and I'm sure it'll work out fine.

My sour little internal monologue on this occasion went something like: "Ooh, Nicola Upson, did people really say shit in 1935? I'm not sure they would have used fucking in quite that way, either. And if it were me I'm not sure I'd have my characters react to the revelation that someone was gay with "Really? Poor man. It must be so terribly difficult to be a homosexual in such a small country community.""

I could go on, but I think it'd just become even more petty than I am being already, and the truth is that as far as actual historical facts go, Nicola Upson has obviously done her research. She's got her car makes and models right, and people look right and talk about the right things - which, speaking from experience, is a lot harder to do than it would seem.

Going into writing this story, I blithely assumed that I knew all about the 30s - but, as I discovered when I actually did some specific reading into the period, what I fondly imagined was the 30s was actually a really fuzzy mashup of 20s culture and bits from crime novels set anywhere between 1923 and 1960. In my first draft, for example, I had two teenage characters talking about Laurel and Hardy, which I realise now is roughly equivalent to a fourteen-year-old in 2011 turning to her friend and saying, "Did you watch last night's Fresh Prince of Bel Air? That Will Smith is so dreamy." In retrospect, I am ashamed of myself.

This brings me to my new theory, though, which is that there are two slightly different ways of being historically accurate. One is to do with baseline facts, and is fairly simple - if, for example, you have two characters leaping onto Concorde in 1927, you are never going to win awards for conveying the period to your readers.

But I think there's another sort of historical accuracy, which is far less to do with the realities of what actually happened, and more concerned with how people think about a period now, and how writers wrote about it at the time. Unless you do what Michel Faber managed in The Crimson Petal and the White, which is to absolutely and brilliantly mess with his readers' expectations of what a novel of that period should be like, a writer does have to, to some extent, be bound by popular conventions. People in 1935 may well have wandered about swearing mightily, but they didn't in contemporary crime novels, and so if you're writing a pastiche of a 1930s crime novel, unless you are incredibly skillful and clever (and Nicola Upson is not, and neither am I), all you will do if you do include swearing is jar your readers out of the story you're trying to tell.

As it happens, I thought Angel With Two Faces was a fairly silly and bad novel. It combined dull writing with a bizarre list of sexual perversions, all acted out by characters who talked as though they were stick-men from a philosophy textbook or extras on Midsomer Murders. Its historical accuracy wasn't its worst crime by any means, but it was one more thing that bothered me about it. It may have been pitch-perfect in terms of facts, but as far as tone goes it was way off the mark. The real Josephine Tey would, I think, have been extremely rude about it and with good reason.

(By the way, a real Josephine Tey novel, notwithstanding the awkward racist bits and her weird little thing about facial features being clues to criminality, could royally kick Nicola Upson's ass in terms of both plot and writing style. All her crime novels have been recently rereleased by Arrow Books, and you should definitely buy them all while you can. They're totally wonderful.)

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