An everyday story of country folk?

Today I’m revisiting a blog post I wrote three years ago. Some of you may have read much of this post before. But, for those who are new to my work, or are not already acquainted with the Meonbridge Chronicles, the post goes some way to explaining what type of historical fiction I write. 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 history; alternative biography; romance; murder mystery; adventure; war and conflict; time slip and so on and so on…

Only three months after the first MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLE, Fortune’s Wheel, was published, way back in 2016, a reviewer described it (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I subsequently discovered) as “an everyday story of country folk”. Here is some of what he said:

“‘An everyday story of country folk’. No, not Ambridge but Meonbridge. And not in recent times either, but in the middle of the fourteenth century. A tale covering a single year; one of twists and turns too. The Black Death has recently passed over the village reaping a harvest of dead adults, children, and infants; tearing holes in the fabric of village life, as well, of course, as causing holes in the ground – so many the old churchyard cannot take them all… …Those who tune-in with anticipation to Radio 4 at six-thirty in the evening, will probably love this book.”

When I first read this review of Fortune’s Wheel, I have to confess to feeling more than a little put out. He was comparing my “literary masterpiece” to The Archers – a soap opera, for heaven’s sake!

However, I had in fact (in my blog) already referred to Fortune’s Wheel as “more the ‘everyday lives of country folk’”, by which I meant that the novel’s storylines were 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. Stories that are, essentially, much like fourteenth century versions of those in The Archers. In that blog post, I was feeling positive about the nature of my writing, though I didn’t at the time make the soap opera connection. But I did believe that very many readers of historical fiction longed for stories about “ordinary people” rather than about the privileged and powerful, and I have discovered in the intervening years that I was right.

Anyway, a couple of months after the “soap opera” review, I wrote the blog that I’m revisiting today. For, by then, I had happily reassured myself that I had no reason at all to be put out by that reviewer’s assessment. Rather, 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!

What’s more (I realised once I had climbed down from my high horse), I actually love that everyday story of country folk, and I’m definitely one of those who tunes in eagerly to BBC Radio 4 at six-thirty (or, actually, two minutes past seven!) every evening…

And I am not alone. Even the renowned author John Banville loves The Archers. In an article in the Mail Online, on 4th September 2010, Banville “a lifelong Archers fan, explain[ed] the draw of the world’s longest-running radio soap opera”. But, he said, “soap opera is much too sudsy and urban a term to apply to this awesomely impressive phenomenon…”. He went on to say that the programme was garnering a new crop of younger listeners, and (in 2010) “a listenership of almost five million…a lot of eager ears.

So if my novel proved to be just as wildly popular, what possible reason could I have to feel annoyed? Well, of course, the answer is none.

I thought it was interesting then, and now, three years later, I still think it is interesting to consider in what respects the MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES 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.”

Urgh – I don’t at all like the sound of “stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama”! But, 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 think are 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.

All the MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES have quite large casts, which a few readers seem not to care for very much. Some find it hard to remember who everyone is, whilst others feel there are too many characters for them to identify with any of them properly or, as my “soap opera” reviewer put it, find it “hard to feel particularly strongly about any of them”. But other readers love having lots of characters – or at least they don’t find it overly daunting. As one reviewer said, with the “list of all the important characters at the beginning of the novel… I soon acquainted myself with them all.” I too enjoy seeing 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 the writer’s job to ensure that every character is an individual.

A major challenge of having a large cast 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, five in De Bohun’s Destiny, four again in Children’s Fate, and 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 more important 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 don’t like the large casts in the Meonbridge Chronicles? 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 example, in Fortune’s Wheel, if it seemed initially, from the early pages of the novel, that Alice atte Wode was the “main” main protagonist, in fact it turned out that Eleanor Titherige was the character to whom readers (or at least those who mentioned it) were most drawn, and whose continuing story they were most eager to discover…

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, whilst 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.

The effect is not dissimilar in each of the MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES. As the CHRONICLES are a series, 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 novels than in The Archers, but certainly there is at least one, and sometimes more than one, storyline for each principal protagonist. Dramatic events punctuate 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 that are 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? (Apologies to those of you who are not Archers aficionados and won’t know who I’m talking about!)

For a radio drama, it is especially important – if particularly tricky – to ensure that different characters do 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.

Of course all writers have to try and ensure that their characters’ voices don’t just all “sound” the same, with similar vocabulary, turns of phrase and intonations. And I actually think this can be quite difficult to achieve, particularly if there are, 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 had a similar problem with two of the young women, both of whom appeared in Fortune’s Wheel and, in the second book, were two of the four principal narrators. Emma Ward and Susanna Miller are both cottars and are of a similar age, so how could I ensure that 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, especially when the characters are talking to each other. You should be able to “hear” which person 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 life and high drama; and they provide the writer with the challenge of creating many distinctive and “real”-seeming voices.

So are my novels a form of soap opera? Well, perhaps – a bit. Whilst I might prefer my novels to be regarded as works of “literature”, when all is said and done, if they ever turn out to be even remotely as popular as The Archers, I can surely have no reason to object.

By the way, The Archers celebrates its 70th anniversary of broadcasting on January 1st 2021. Popular for seventy years – that’s a goal to aim for!!

So, what do you think? If you’ve read any of the MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES, do you have any thoughts on the matter? And, even if you haven’t read them… I’d love to know your views!

____________

Addicted to Historical fiction? Intrigued by medieval life?
Have you read THE MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES?

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