Carnegie blog 7: Research and Accuracy

I’ve had another blog prompt, this one from my supervisor, professor Anna Vaninskaya, who originally nominated me for the scholarship which this project is for. She asked, in a comment on my previous blog:

I’d be curious to know how you manage the speaking voices in the 1822 section – are you going for antiquarian pastiche or something more unusual?

Which is certainly a question worth looking at. I’ll have a quick look at research in general first, and then speak about dialogue specifically.

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One of the things I set out to write with this novella (36k words down, on-track to be a complete draft by tomorrow!), was a researched piece of fiction. This is where the historical angle – the strand set in 1822 – originally came from.

I’ve done research for fiction before; for our ‘Genre Fiction’ piece at UQ, it was a requirement that we give a presentation about the research that had gone into our short story / opening chapter. My piece for that course was an adventure story set on a submarine, so the first thing I did was find a big book called A COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO SUBMARINES (in caps!) in Indooroopilly public library. This may mean I’m a complete idiot, but it was a great place to start; the printed page is wonderful for soaking up background information, while the internet, being searchable, is much better for specific facts. Yes, a book has an index, but even when you’ve looked something up in an index it’s usual, at least for me, to read a couple of pages around the specific fact which you’re looking for. And this is how you learn tangential facts which later you find have slipped themselves into your writing almost unintentionally.

So my first act of research, six weeks ago when I started this project, was to go down to West Port in Edinburgh, where all the excellent second-hand bookshops are, and come back with an armload of books based around the Highland Clearances, which were a pretty big deal back in 1822 Scotland. One of my characters, Ruraidh, is fleeing the aftermath of the clearances, having outlawed himself in Sutherland by fighting against the Duke.

So oddly enough, the one book I don’t think I’ve touched upon has been the one called The Highland Clearances. Another one, entitled Highland Folk Ways, has meanwhile been instrumental, furnishing me with details for everything from weaponry to clothing, and most importantly with all kinds of mundane everyday details to embellish the scenes set on a farm; what people ate, mostly, and how it was prepared, and which livestock was cared for in what manner…and what people drank. Here’s a good extract:

Whisky was very cheap. About 1770 the best whisky, brought from Ferintosh and Glenlivat, cost 1s 10d a Scots pint [a footnote explains that a Scots pint was equal to two English ones. Seems reasonable.]. Large quantities were regularly drunk and whisky was referred to as ‘the drink of the country’. The French traveller, Louis Simond, wrote that a Highlander would drink a quart a day and that to be able to bear that quantity of ardent spirits he must have practised much and often.’

          — Highland Folk Ways, I. F. Grant

Another good grab was a jokey history book telling the chronology of the British Isles through a series of fairly tiresome jokes, which nonetheless helped me pick up the surrounding context – exactly where King George IV was in regard to the history of these islands – much quicker than a dry academic tome would have. Here’s an extract from that:

William, the younger brother of George IV, had ten children by his mistress, but being illegitimate they were not eligible for the throne [after George’s death] Had William’s marriage to his actress friend been permitted by his big brother, there would have been no Queen Victoria, no Queen Elizabeth II and an entirely separate branch of the royal family would have taken precedence, eventually including the couple’s descendant: Conservative leader David Cameron.

          — An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, John O’Farrell.

Other research ‘tools’ have included some fairly good BBC history documentaries on Walter Scott / the Highland Clearances / George IV’s visit to Edinburgh made available for free on the internet by our lovely public service broadcaster, paintings from the era for visual cues, and – I admit it – a whole shedload of Google and Wiki. I actually expected to buy a lot more books than I did; but like I mentioned, when it’s simple facts that you need, like ‘what time of year do you shear a sheep’, or ‘what were common surnames in county X in year Y’, the internet reveals the answers almost disappointingly cheaply. It doesn’t even make you work.

As previously stated, when the opportunity arises I plan on heading north to get a more hands-on feel for the atmosphere of the landscapes of the 1822 sections, before I turn to my first redraft of this material. But for the time-trial, as I referred to this writing project in my previous blog, I found that the above methods were mostly satisfactory in giving me the glue which I needed to pin the story together.

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And now, to turn to dialogue, and that question of ‘antiquarian pastiche’.

It’s a tough one, of course. Do you go all Peter Ackroyd on the past, and try to paint it in outrageous historical accuracy, so that the characters seem utterly germane to their substance (to borrow a wonderful phrase from Mervyn Peake), at the risk of obscuring the reader’s understanding, and potentially also the plot? Or do you take the aforementioned Walter Scott’s approach, and just invent the past as you’d like it to have been (almost accidentally creating the modern iteration of the Robin Hood myth in the process)?

My historical sections are reasonably light on direct transcription of dialogue (where I do use it, I’ve gone for a Joycean dash-and-indent system, rather than quotation marks, as I quite like the way this enables greater interplay between stated dialogue and unstated internal monologue), and 1822 really isn’t all that long ago in linguistic terms, so the hand of history felt reasonably light on my shoulder here. I avoided notably modern-feeling constructions, obviously. My characters neither chillax nor get crunked up, and nor do they think in subtler grammatical formations which feel like the last two centuries. But I didn’t feel the need to plummet with a splash into the murky depths of forsooth, thou hast hast thou, thou knave that thou art?, or even its 1822 equivalent. But there was another issue, overshadowing (and incorporating) the issue of period accuracy: regional accuracy.

My characters are Scottish. All but one character in the 1822 passages are both rural and Scottish. To those of you in far flung lands, this means very different English to ‘received pronunciation’ – even today. In Forfar, where I went to school, there is a boast that the regional dialect of Scotland is so variable that there is a sentence which only makes sense in that town. That may be an exaggeration, but it’s certainly an Angus/Tayside-specific thing to be able to ask for twa plain pehs an an ingin een an a’.

And of course since Trainspotting, Scottish-based literature has been awash with enthusiastic attempts to transcribe the Scots dialect in both dialogue transcription and focalised narration. To me this often feels forced – professor Vaninskaya’s term pastiche is apposite – and my narration is mostly free of these Irvine-Welshisms. But to render the dialogue itself in BBC English would be every bit as false as if it was all och aye the noo.

The Wiki article (them again) for R. L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped states the following:

Some of the Scottish dialogue may be hard going for non-Scots readers, though Stevenson himself admitted that he had applied only a smattering so as not to tax the inner ear of non-Scots.

This is probably an appropriate summary for what I’ve tried to do with my own dialogue, both in terms of its periodicity and its regionality. I’ve tried to pitch it at a level where it is believable as rural Scots speech of the period, without embellishing or overplaying it to the extent where it distracts from the semantics of the dialogue. For readers unused to Scots, it might dip towards the latter, but hopefully – as I recall Kidnapped was when my dad read it to me and my sister as children – it is accessible enough that I’ve managed to retain at least the kernel, if not all the trappings, of accuracy, without turning the dialogue sequences into an exercise in translation, or a tiresome display of look-how-olde-worldey-I-can-be.

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