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Historical writing can be emotionally tough

Those of you interested in historical writing would have been fascinated by an evening arranged by the Society of Authors recently.

Lady Antonia Fraser and Antony Beevor – two of the most respected historians of our time – were talking about how they approached their work and what emotional impact writing, often traumatic events, had on them as individuals.

I had never thought before about the personal cost of being a historical writer.  Take Antony Beevor. He writes modern history, much of it concerned with the Second World War, so, unlike Antonia Fraser, who specialises in the Tudors, he is able to interview people connected with the events he’s researching.  And not just the goodies.  The baddies as well.  He spoke about meeting a German who’d worked alongside the Fuehrer.  “I found I was shaking a hand that had shaken the hand of Hitler”. A challenging thought.

Some of his interviews – with war criminals, with survivors – have left him sleepless. Some of the things he has uncovered chill the blood. At the time, he said, you just concentrate on getting the material down, the emotional impact of what you have heard doesn’t hit you ’til much later, usually in the middle of the night.  After visiting some of the death camps it was years before he could sit in front of a plate of food and not think that in those circumstances it would have fed 10 people.

For Antonia Fraser the emotional connection was different, but still intense.  Her subjects are long dead, but when you research a life in detail – a life for which you already have a fascination, and often an empathy – when you visit archives and read and touch the letters they wrote, look at the clothes they wore, or walk where they walked; when you immerse yourself in every detail of their lives, the horrors and fascinations of their times, these historical figures become intensely personal to you.

I can relate to that. I remember when I was studying for my PhD, the Swedish monk I was writing about, though he lived in the 13th century, was almost as real to me as my living friends. (Perhaps this says something infinitely sad about historians!).  History isn’t about scientific fact, it’s about emotional events.  And it’s in our DNA. We feel connected. And clearly, when Antonia spoke about Mary Queen of Scots, the manner of her execution still moved her, so real was this Tudor queen to this 21st century Lady.

What both writers made clear from the outset was the difference between writing history – which is what they do – and writing historical fiction.  Historical fiction, or faction, definitely has its place, but if you want to know the difference between the two, look out for adjectives.  Historians would never write “King James smiled at the Lady X as she sauntered past” unless there was reliable, written historical evidence that Lady X did in fact “saunter” past at that particular moment in the days events, and that James had actually smiled.  Unlikely!

Anthony Beevor felt the problem for future historians lay in the fact that reliable written evidence is now on the decline.  How will they find the truth about events in the 21st century and beyond when we rarely write letters or commit thoughts to paper? We email, or text, or use social media. The everyday realities of ordinary people will be lost in the ether. Even politicians are now using their own private emails to communicate so that conversations can be, and are, erased. What written material there is, like published diaries and memoirs – are by their nature slanted versions of real events, coloured by a personal bias, an in any case, reflect the lives of only a privileged few.

But while he feared lack of reliable documentary proof would make it extremely hard for future generations of historians, Antonia Fraser was more sanguine.  Historians, she felt, would always find a way.

This was a fascinating evening with two charming, self-effacing authors whose passion for their work, and utter integrity as writers, was inspirational.

Small is Beautiful

Of all the books we’ve produced at LifeLines Press, there is one that gives us all particular pleasure.  a young man rang us to say his father had died and left a journal.  It was only 9,000 words long.  Could we make a book out of it?

When you think that an average paperback is about 90,000 words long, you realise just how small his father’s journal was.  Books need spines.  How could we turn 9,000 words into enough pages to give us a spine?  Particularly important in this case as my client wanted it hardbound.

A few weeks before I had been browsing antique books shops in Charing Cross Road, trying to pick up design ideas that I could modernise, and I came across a selection of Victorian pocket books.  They were tiny, often no more than three or four inches wide by about seven or eight inches long.  The typography on the inside title page is always wonderfully ornate, and there was a particularly pleasing balance of type to white space.

So many modern books have mean little margins in an effort to cram as many words as possible into the minimum number of pages.  This may be cost effective, but it’s not aesthetically pleasing.  Books should look and feel good, as well as being worth the read.

Clearly when it came to small editions the Victorians knew what they were doing, and so we copied them.  We turned this tiny memoir into a modern pocket book, bound in soft book cloth, the scanty text laid out with generous margins either side. When it was finished and bound it measured 4″ x 8″ and the spine was just one centimetre thick.

To show you how small the book is we photographed it being held.  You can also see our modern version of a Victorian inside title page. The client was delighted – and so were we.

How ghostly is your ghost?

The relationship between ghost writer and client is a subtle and delicate one. For the client, it’s not just a matter of finding someone who can write well, they have to be someone who can write like you sound. You have to be sure that when the text is finished, nobody would guess you hadn’t penned it yourself.

For the writer the trick is to find the right balance between intimacy and professionalism.  Once someone starts telling you about their life – if you know how to listen – then ten to one they’ll be revealing aspects of themselves that sometimes even they didn’t know they had. There are sensitive areas in everyone’s life that have to be negotiated with tact, so it’s important that the client feels in control of the material at all times. This balance between encouraging intimacy and respecting privacy has to be carefully managed.

The most important aspect of ghost writing is that throughout the text the writer has to be transparent, yet ever present, hidden in the background, making the wheels of the narrative go round, but never imposing their own personality.

For me, it all boils down to trust. And magically, with my last client, fun.

I’ve ghosted a few memoirs now – of the famous and the infamous, and lovely people in between – but I  don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun ghosting a memoir as I did when I worked recently with Sir Michael Pickard.  He has led a distinguished life; Chairman of the Docklands Development Corporation (a work for which he was knighted), founder of the Happy Eater, an accountant and company director to a host of prestigious companies.

We were, on the face of it, an unlikely team. He’s a whiz with money, I hanker after the days of Exchange and Barter. His political heroes were my villains, and my heroes gave him the heeby geebies.  But we quickly found a rapport and a shared sense of fun.

He was a ghost writers dream – coming to every meeting thoroughly prepared for the session ahead, but letting me lure him down interesting little avenues of memories that  had somehow got tucked away.

When he had read the final text and his beautiful leather bound books were finally delivered, he paid me the ghost writer’s ultimate compliment – “This sounds exactly like me.”

“Working with LifeLines Press was great fun. They did exactly what they promised. The books were beautifully produced. Very professional.  We were delighted. I thoroughly recommend them.”

Sir Michael Pickard

A fascinating family diary

Just finished designing and printing another delightful book, this time about a young carpenter from Devon who left his home town in 1862 to seek his fortune in London.  Two weeks before he left home he began a diary.

His great-grandson, Crispin Paine, uses the diary to build a picture of life for a young craftsman in Victorian London, augmenting it with his own research. It gives a fascinating glimpse, not just of the booming building trade – but of London life at the time: the music halls and exhibitions, the parks and open spaces, the novelty of the new Underground, as well as the life of young immigrants to the city and what Crispin Paine describes as “their surprisingly modern relationships”. A marked contrast, it seems, from the predictable rhythms of the sleepy little country town he left behind.

Because of the printing press we use, and the very high quality of paper, even the oldest etchings and photographs have reproduced with a wonderful clarity.  It’s been great fun to work on. A real pleasure.

Most of the books we produce are not for retail – they are for family and friends to enjoy, but every now and then a client will make their family history available to the public. I know this one is for sale, so if you’d be interested in getting a copy you can contact Crispin Paine at crispinp@ntlworld.com or phone him on 01730 893750.

“Lifeline’s great strength is their commitment to quality and attention to detail.” Crispin Paine

Some moving writing at the Oldie Writing Course

Just returned from another  writing workshop with The Oldie magazine.  This one was on writing memoir and biography.  There is always something special about these events – partly because Oldie readers are a delightful combination of eccentricity, intelligence and warmth, and partly because every now and then one of them comes up with a stunning piece of writing.

My first workshop dealt with aspects of character.  Its not just people that have characters, of course, places do too, and not just places, but eras. In writing our memoirs we are transporting our readers into a time, and into places, that may have changed dramatically over the past 40, 50, 60 years.  If my young were teleported back to my childhood, they would think they’d landed on a different planet.  So we looked at ways of conveying the atmosphere of time and place, and there were some wonderful pieces of writing from the group.  Some funny, one or two extremely moving.

Two questions instantly spring to mind when writing about our own family and friends.  How much of the truth do I reveal and whose truth do I reveal – mine, or theirs?  So in the second workshop we looked at, not just the way we see ourselves as characters on the page – which is what we become in an autobiography – but also how we get under the skin of the people we know well – family, friends, colleagues. We need to let their character unfold and develop as the narrative progresses. This has to be done layer by layer, as carefully as if we’re writing fiction, if we are to convey the complexities and paradox that make up the human personality, and indeed, our own lives.

The day is always a combination of practical help, interactive analysis and writing.  We usually have a session with a literary agent as well – this time it was the famous Caroline Dawney of United Artists.  Jeremy Lewis, deputy editor of The Oldie, was, as always, hugely entertaining as he talked about writing biography.  Best selling travel writer Sara Wheeler ran a workshop on structure: pace, plot and narrative, and, for the first time, we included a session on e-books.  This was run by Roz Morris, who really knows her stuff.  Do visit her website.

It can be tough, sitting in a room full of strangers and being asked to write on the spot, but initial trepidation soon gives way to a collective sense of creativity and fun. So if you haven’t tried a workshop yet – give it a go.

The other great thing about the Oldie workshops, apart from the people, is the really delicious finger buffets!

Oldie Writing Course

I’m delighted to be running workshops for yet another Oldie writing course.  If you haven’t yet discovered these entertaining, but hugely useful courses, do look on line for the next one.

You’ll meet authors, agents, experts in e-publishing, and some of the most colourful members of The Oldie team. For this one, on September 11th , to be held at the East India Club in London,  I’ll be joined by novelist Sara Wheeler, who’ll be running a workshop on  Structure – pace, plot, narrative – and Jeremy Lewis, our host and deputy editor of the Oldie, who will be giving useful tips on how to write biography. He has to be one of the funniest speakers around.

Literary Agent Caroline Dawney from United Artists will be telling us how to approach agents, and Ian Skillicorn will be talking about e-publishing

I’ll be running two workshops, one on Characterisation and one on Finding Your Own Voice.

The day is rounded off with a private tour of the fascinating London Library.

This course is now full, but keep an eye out for future courses. They’re great value, and huge fun.

LATEST BOOK BY LIFELINES CO-FOUNDER

On October 1st the latest Mike Pannet book – the stories of a country policeman – ghosted by LifeLines co-founder Alan Wilkinson, will be on the book stalls.  “Mike Pannett’s Yorkshire” is a hardback photo book – a delight for those who have followed this captivating series.  A book about his boyhood is scheduled for autumn 2014.

The phenomenal success of this series has liberated Alan to work on his own fiction.  He’s currently writing a sci-fi novel and a thriller about trade in black-market oil, as well as putting together a collection of short stories based on his 30 years of travel in the American West.  Those of you familiar with his travel writing in the broadsheets over the years, are in for a treat.

THE MAN BEHIND A THOUSAND TV SCRIPTS CHOOSES LIFELINES PRESS

LIFELINES PRESS has been delighted to design and print “George and Mildred and Me “ – the “Unauthorised Autobiography” of cartoonist and scriptwriter Brian Cooke – the man behind countless cartoons and author of some of Britain’s best loved sit-coms.

Brian Cooke started off his writing career with Round the Horn and went on to script a host of TV shows including Man About the House, Robin’s Nest and George and Mildred.

He said of LifeLines Press;
‘With LifeLines Press, it’s more a labour of love than
a business transaction. I was delighted with my limited editions.”

SWAN-HELLENIC ADRIATIC CRUISE SEPT 9TH – SEPT 23RD

Rebecca de Saintonge will be one of three writers running workshops on the prestigious SwanHellenic Adriatic cruise this September. Working with her will be the award wining journalist and travel writer Dea Birkett and Jeremy Lewis, commissioning editor of The Oldie and biographer who has just completed a new book on the family of Graham Greene.

RUNAWAY BEST SELLER FOR CO-FOUNDER OF LIFELINES PRESS

Alan Wilkinson is the ghost-writer for Mike Pannett, the former Yorkshire bobby whose memoirs are currently taking the book market by storm. Now Then, Lad (serialised in The Daily Mail and a Radio 4 Book of the Week) and You’re Coming With Me, Lad are selling like hot cakes and are all set to be runaway best-sellers in 2010. Not On My Patch, Lad is due out in July of this year, a more books are planned right into 2012. Reviewers are calling this series ‘a worthy successor to James Herriot’ and ‘a Heartbeat for the 21st century.

Last year Alan mentored Barbara Want through the grueling process of writing about her life with BBC World At One presenter Nick Clarke and his death from cancer. Why Not Me? A Tale of Love and Loss will be published by Orion in March 2010.

See also Tips on Memoir Writing . . .  &  Creative Writing Workshops