Sunday, 25 December 2011

'God bless us, every one!'

I was trying to think of some English writing about Christmas that is not Dickens. Then I remembered that I haven't yet posted about the fact that this year is the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible.

The King James Bible was a translation into English of the original Greek texts. There could not have been a better time to commission it. The English language was experiencing its greatest flowering; Shakespeare's The Tempest was first performed in 1611.

The Bible translation was not the work of one man; there was a committee of about fifty scholars. It was not a new translation; it drew heavily on earlier work such as that of  Wycliff and Tyndale.

It is the most widely published text in the English language. It has given us a great number of phrases and sayings. Until quite recently, almost every English person would have had some familiarity with it.

And it has the greatest piece of writing about Christmas in English.

Gospel of St Luke, Chapter Two

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
([And] this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Work in Progress

I can't write directly on to the computer. Whenever I try, my sentences come out very short and stilted. It's probably because I'm not a good enough typist to be able to type without thinking about it. So everything goes down on paper in longhand first, and has to be typed up later. There have been times when I've carefully tidied my pages awaiting typing away in a safe place and then not been able to find them...

So the novel is under way, but I have no idea of the word count so far, because it's not typed yet. It's not an enormous number, though. I've spent too much time getting sidetracked into different areas of internet research.

I think that something which I'd intended to be an element of the mystery might not now fit in with the plot as it's developed. But that doesn't matter, it was only a side issue.

At the moment, it looks as if this will be written from a single point of view, that of the central female character.  That wasn't a conscious decision, but there's no other character demanding a voice.

In looking for names for characters I've come across some real life names that are almost too improbable to be used in fiction. All these people lived in England in 1881.

Mercy Bright was an eighteen year old servant. She worked for a family that had six sons living at home; I hope the boys were made to tidy up after themselves and not leave it all to her.

Mortimer Tipple was a jeweller, and only 27, but he was an inmate of Holborn Union Workhouse. He is not said to have had any disability; I hope he didn't end up in the workhouse through trying to live up to his surname.

There were several girls and women called Rose Raven. The majority were children, probably because the name Rose was only just becoming popular. One of them must have grown up to be the heroine of a romantic novel.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

This sceptred isle...

... This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house...

I've been dipping into Vanished Kingdoms, a new book by Norman Davies. Dr Davies writes about states which once existed in Europe, but which have now disappeared, remembered only by a few European history specialists. The kingdom of Montenegro was absorbed by Serbia, against the wishes of its government and people, at the end of the Great War. The republic of Carpatho-Ukraine declared its independence from Czechoslovakia in March 1939, only to be invaded by Hungary the next day.

The book reinforces my belief that we do not fully appreciate the difference that being an island has made to our history. We have in many respects been more fortunate than the 'less happier lands' referred to by Shakespeare. There are things we take for granted which people on mainland Europe have never been able to.

We cannot be invaded overland; we have never woken up to find the forces of a hostile nation massing on our frontiers.

Our borders will not change after a war, and again after the next war, and after the one after that. In Central Europe in the twentieth century, someone could have been born in the Hapsburg Empire under the Emperor Franz Josef, spent his boyhood and adolescence in Poland, lived under Nazi and Soviet rule and died in Ukraine - all without leaving his home town. 

The names of our towns and cities will not be changed to reflect the prevailing political ideology, or the language of the current ruling majority. (Streoneshalh became Whitby and Northworthy became Derby, but that was over a thousand years ago.)

For a thousand years up to the twentieth century, we could be sure that in any war other than a civil war, the fighting would take place somewhere else. We would not have bands of mercenaries roaming the country. Our towns would not be pillaged, our crops ruined and our people left starving.

In England, we take for granted that we have a system of law and government that has evolved continuously over 1500 years. It has not been overturned by conquest or revolution.

And in England we have written records going back almost as long. We assume that those records were kept (mostly) by Englishmen, (mostly) in English. We wrote the history of our own country, in our own language; unlike other European peoples, whose records were kept and whose history was written by a controlling or occupying people in a language other than their own; or whose records might have been destroyed in war, or never kept at all.

Being an island has shaped our history, the way we see ourselves, and the way we relate to others. We need to remember that fact when we try to understand ourselves, and also when we try to understand other nations and their histories.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The past is a foreign country -

but do they really do things very differently there?

William Fitzstephen, writing in the late twelfth century:
'The only problems that plague London are the idiots who drink to excess and the frequency of fires.'

Student life in Oxford and Paris is described in a biography of Richard Wych, bishop of Chichester, born in 1197: 
‘Such was his love of learning that he cared little or nothing for food or raiment. For, as he was wont to relate, he and two companions who lodged in the same chamber had only their tunics, and one gown between them, and each of them had a miserable pallet. When one, therefore, went out with the gown to hear a lecture, the others sat in their room, and so they went forth alternately. Bread and a little wine and pottage sufficed for their food. Their poverty never allowed them to eat meat or fish except on a Sunday or some solemn holy day, or else in the presence of companions or friends. Yet he has often told me how he never afterwards, in all his days, led such a pleasant and enjoyable life.’

At Westminster School in the thirteenth century, in the morning the boys were required to say their prayers ‘without shouting and confusion …. Whether they are standing or sitting in the choir let them not have their eyes turned aside to the people, but rather toward the altar; not grinning or chattering or laughing aloud; not making fun of another if he does not read or sing psalms well; not hitting one another secretly or openly or answering rudely if they happen to be asked a question by their elders. Those who break the rules will feel the rod without delay…. Again whoever at bedtime has torn to pieces the bed of his companion or hidden the bedclothes, or thrown shoes or pillow from corner to corner, or roused anger or thrown the school into disorder, shall be severely punished in the morning.

And when John Bond was contracted to build a house for Thomas Bloxwych in Temple Balsall Warwickshire in 1415, ‘sometimes he came to his work around prime (early morning) and sometimes around sext (midday).’

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged -

- that the opening lines of a novel must grab the reader's attention immediately.

Having chosen a name for my central character, and decided exactly when the story is to take place,  I'm now thinking about the first chapter.

Most editors and agents agree that the novel should begin when the action begins. So no long scenes of introspection as the heroine looks back over her life to this point (that's what flashbacks are for, after all). She needs to start her new job/meet the hero/find the body within the first few pages.

It's unlikely that the extended infodump with which Jane Austen began her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, would get it beyond the slush pile today. Nor the long and convoluted sentence with which Dickens began his first published novel:

The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.

Other authors managed to be more concise in their opening lines: 

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.

'Oh damn!' said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the East Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden.

Dorothy L. Sayers managed to compress the most information about character and setting into the smallest number of words. She was an advertising copywriter who knew how to get a message across succinctly.

It's desirable to include dialogue as early as possible, but that means someone has to be provided for the character to talk to.  Lord Peter is speaking to a taxi driver, who is there solely for that purpose and plays no further part in the story. 

I already know that my character will have a friend and what the friend's personality will be.  I think that instead of introducing her later, as I originally planned, she and my central character will bump into each other, and have a conversation, in the first few pages.

Now I need to decide on the friend's name  - and on the opening sentence.