Here’s a question – should I use ‘colourful’ language to convey life in the eighteenth century?
The prologue of Jessie Burton‘s debut novel, The Miniaturist, about to hit our TV screens on Boxing Day, is as rich as an embroidered sleeve and transports you to the affluence and dissipation of her chosen time and place:
‘words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot and the church’s east corner is crowded…guildsmen and their wives approach the gaping grave like ants toward honey… The church’s painted roof…rises above them like the tipped-up hull of a magnificent ship. It is a mirror to the city’s soul; inked on its ancient beams, Christ in judgement holds his sword and lily, a golden cargo breaks the waves, the Virgin rests on a crescent moon.’
Okay, I can’t hope to match that, so would I be safer sticking to plain. twenty-first-century English, which can be equally gripping?
A world away from eighteenth-century Holland is the taut opening of Margaret Kirk‘s psychological thriller, Shadow Man, which won the Good Housekeeping Debut Novel Competition in 2016 and is set in contemporary Inverness.
‘By midnight there are bodies everywhere. Her tiny flat is crammed to bursting, but people are still stumbling through the door, waving packs of Stella or Strongbow and wrapping her in Cheerful beery hugs.
She doesn’t remember inviting them all – doesn’t recognise half of them, when she stops to think about it – but so what. For the last four years, she’s been juggling coursework with her shifts at the all-night garage, slogging away at her degree while it felt like the rest of the world was out getting laid, or legless. Or both.’
Using minimal description, this writing convincingly evokes a student party. There’s also that clever ‘bodies everywhere’, hinting at further – dead – bodies to come.* No wonder the novel grabbed the judges’ attention.
Yet few of us are familiar with Georgian London, so how am I to write my own book, The Maid’s List, without sounding like a pastiche of Georgette Heyer? Dame Hilary Mantel has written of ‘the need to broker a compromise between then and now’. Easier said than done, if you’re neither Mantel nor Burton.
On this blog we write about books, about reading and about writing, but never share our own draft efforts. Perhaps we should, since I believe it helps to see how others struggle to get their stories onto the computer screen. I’m therefore giving you an extract from The Maid’s List, complete with a touch of purple that I’m still working to eradicate.
‘I’m convinced these men are no better than my master, and wonder afresh what they do gathered around that table, with voices that seem to haggle like those of market traders. Silk-stockinged men, with gold-topped canes, sprawled in the worn leather chairs, with their knees spread wide and lace frothing at their cuffs. I rattle the glasses on my tray, to warn them I’m at the door. One of them has taken the pot from the cabinet and is pissing into it. He glances up from the yellow stream and grins as if to say, you’ll have the privilege of emptying this. Which, indeed, I will. Probably while it is still warm.’
As always, I suppose it’s down to the individual write to do the best she/he can. After all, the more variety there is in books, the richer the reader experience.
*Spoiler alert: having recently started Shadow Man, I could be jumping to conclusions here!