Everyday stories of country folk? (a reprise)

Excitingly, I’ve just sent my manuscript of the second Meonbridge Chronicle, A Woman’s Lot, off to my editor. Naturally, I’m hoping she won’t tear it to pieces, though I do of course expect some cogent feedback. But I’m hopeful of being able to publish it in the first quarter of 2018. I’ll write more about A Woman’s Lot in a future post, but today I thought it might be helpful to reprise a blog post I wrote earlier this year.

For those readers who are not already acquainted with the first Meonbridge Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel, the post goes some way to explaining what type of historical fiction it is. Because “historical fiction” is hardly a single genre, but encompasses many different kinds of writing including: what one might call broadly “kings and queens”  alternative biography; romance; murder mystery; adventure; war and conflict; time slip and so on and so on…

At the beginning of this year, only three months after Fortune’s Wheel was published, a reviewer described it (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I later discovered) as an “an everyday story of country folk”  At the time, I was rather miffed, feeling that he was somehow denigrating my “literary” credentials by comparing my work to a soap opera.

However, I had in fact (in my own blog) already referred to it as “more the ‘everyday lives of country folk’”, by which I meant that my novel’s plot was based on social history, the stories of ordinary people, and their everyday lives, rather than high-level politics, war, or the lives of the nobility.

TheArchersLogoAnyway, a couple of months after the “soap opera” review, I wrote the blog that I’m reposting most of here. For, by then, I had happily reassured myself that I had no reason at all to be “miffed” by that reviewer’s assessment. Rather, that it was perceptive, and indeed I should be pleased by the prospect that my work might possibly turn out to be as popular as The Archers!

I thought it was interesting then, and I think it is still interesting now – and therefore worth reposting – to consider in what respects the Meonbridge Chronicle might be seen as a form of soap opera.

 

Wikipedia defines soap opera as “a serial drama on television or radio that examines the lives of many characters, usually focusing on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama.”

The Free Dictionary says: “A drama, typically performed as a serial on daytime television or radio, characterised by stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama.

Oh dear – I don’t at all like the sound of “stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama”  Of course, the term “soap opera” is often (invariably?) used pejoratively, to imply something trashy and trivial – which is obviously why, at first, I was rather put out at the suggestion that my work was of that ilk. However, whereas, obviously, the Meonbridge Chronicles don’t exactly fit those definitions, because they are novels and not television or radio dramas, they do have a few of the same elements as such dramas, which I thought were worth exploring.

For example, The Archers has a large cast of characters, and the storylines alternate between them. Not all of the characters appear in every episode, indeed some don’t appear for months before popping up again.

The Meonbridge Chronicles too have quite large casts, which a few readers of Fortune’s Wheel seemed not to care for very much. Some found it hard to remember who everyone was, while others felt there were too many characters for them to identify with any of them properly. But other readers love having lots of characters – or at least don’t find it overly daunting as, said one reviewer, with the “list of all the important characters at the beginning of the novel… I soon acquainted myself with them all.” I too like a large cast in a novel, as well as in a soap opera, as long as it’s not too difficult to distinguish between the characters… And it’s my job, as author, to ensure that every character is an individual.

cast_thousandA major challenge of having a large cast, however, is controlling multiple protagonists, and weaving together their many different story threads. We are often told as writers that we “should” have a single strong main protagonist, one character for readers to identify with or root for (or indeed loathe). But I have three main protagonists in Fortune’s Wheel, four in A Woman’s Lot, seven in my as-yet unpublished novel of the Middle Ages, The Nature of Things… And there are very many protagonists in The Archers, some undoubtedly more significant than others.

So how do readers/listeners cope with such a plethora of people to love (or hate)? Do they in fact fail to find anyone to root for? I suppose some do fail – perhaps like those people who didn’t like the large cast in Fortune’s Wheel? But I suspect that many listeners to The Archers are simply drawn to one or a few characters in particular, and follow their stories with more interest than others. That’s certainly true for me. I often find myself listening eagerly to the next instalment of so-and-so’s story, but switching off my ears for a while when the scene changes to somebody else’s story in which I’m not quite so interested. Even in a novel, with far fewer but still several protagonists, it is likely that readers might be drawn more to one character than another, and a few readers of Fortune’s Wheel have told me this was the case for them.

In both the Meonbridge Chronicles and The Archers, storylines alternate between the protagonists. Stories in soap operas tend to be about relationships between the characters, and the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. Occasionally, a storyline might draw on a topic of national or political importance, and sometimes a story will be full of drama and tension, even horror, as one or more of the characters has to face an extraordinary event that is beyond everyday experience. But these dramatic storylines are interspersed between the more gentle, commonplace incidents of normal life. Some storylines are relatively short and insignificant, while others are major, sometimes harrowing – and authentic-seeming, partly because they seem to be playing out in real time – dramas that spin out over many episodes, sometimes lasting for months.

dscf2268The effect is not dissimilar in Fortune’s Wheel. As one of a series of novels, individual characters’ storylines may not be concluded in one novel, but will (or may) continue in a subsequent one. The stories are also essentially about relationships, some joyful, some troubling, others challenging and even devastating. There are of course far fewer storylines in my novel than in The Archers (if only because its scope is so very much more restricted), but certainly there is at least one, and sometimes more than one, storyline for each principal protagonist. Dramatic events are interspersed between the minutiae of everyday life. Weaving together the different story threads in a way that maintains interest in the storyline that is centre stage, without detracting from those waiting in the wings, is one of the challenges of both a soap opera and this type of novel.

Another of the challenges of having a large cast is, of course, distinguishing between the characters. Obviously, this is relevant to all forms of drama and fiction, but is perhaps of particular pertinence here…

On the radio, it is true of any drama but, I think, particularly so with something like The Archers, that one has to tune one’s ear to the different voices, and there are certainly times when I can’t distinguish between the young men – is that Tom Archer or Chris Carter or one of the Fairbrother brothers? Or indeed, between the young women – is that Helen? Pip? Alice?

For a radio drama, it is especially important – if particularly tricky – to ensure that different characters have different, distinctive, voices. This is partly an issue of actors. But language is also a factor. And this is also true in a novel.

But all writers have to try and ensure that their characters’ voices don’t just all “sound” the same, with the similar vocabulary, turns of phrase and intonations. And I actually think this is quite difficult to achieve, particularly if the novel does have, say, two or three characters of the same gender and age, and from broadly the same social background. In my unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, for example, two of the principal narrators, Tom Godewryght and Peter atte Hyl, are both young men, essentially from the same sort of background – relatively lowly peasant stock – who, in their different ways, go “up in the world”. Although their narratives are decades apart in the novel, so that they never do actually “appear” together, it still seemed important to try and make sure that they sounded like quite different, and therefore more distinctively “real”, people.

In A Woman’s Lot, I have a similar problem with two of the young women, both of whom appeared in Fortune’s Wheel and, in the sequel, are two of the four principal narrators. Emma Ward and Susanna Miller are both cottars and are of a similar age, so how do I ensure each sounds distinctively herself?

A good test of voice differentiation is, I think, when each voice is sufficiently distinctive that the dialogue could be written without attributions. If the voices are adequately differentiated – especially when the characters are talking to each other – you should be able to “hear” which of them is speaking even if their names are not tagged on the page. That’s the theory, anyway. Have I achieved it? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly my aim…

So, there are (at least) three ways in which the Meonbridge Chronicles might possibly be considered similar to soap opera: they have large casts of characters; they include multiple, interwoven storylines, with a mix of everyday and high drama; and they provide the writer with the challenge of creating many distinctive and “real”-seeming voices.

This is hardly a tightly-argued analysis! But interesting, I think.

9781781325827-Cover.inddSo are my novels a form of soap opera? Well, perhaps – a bit. It’s true that I might prefer my novels to be regarded as works of “literature” but, when all is said and done, if they ever turned out to be even as remotely popular as The Archers, why on earth should I object? As long as, I suppose – and this is very important! – they are not simply dismissed as trite or trivial or melodramatic, which has not so far been the case with Fortune’s Wheel. Even the reviewer who sparked off this train of thought certainly didn’t say that!

A Woman’s Lot is another everyday story of country folk, this time mostly about some of Meonbridge’s women. The storylines (for, again, there are several threads) are about marital discord, women’s thwarted ambitions, and the quest for love, but also about the tensions between the poorer in society and the richer, and the ups and downs of rural life in medieval Hampshire. Stories that are, essentially, fourteenth century versions of those that you might hear in The Archers.

And I will write more about the background to A Woman’s Lot in a later post…