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.

For writers, work doesn’t stop with the final draft

There you are in your garret, writing your heart out, month by month, sometimes year by year, and when your baby finally is born, and the publishers take over, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d done your bit. Not so. After publication the amount of marketing you, as the author, still have to do is staggering. There are articles to write, TV, radio, and newspaper interviews, talks, .. blogs! Of course it’s heady stuff, but not always comfortable.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had some good experiences and some bad ones. Radio highlights were definitely the Jeremy Vine show for the BBC and the Andrew Morton Show in Canada. Very different journalists, but both brilliant, empathetic interviewers who gave you space to speak and made you feel comfortable and relaxed. Unlike the ghastly experience I had with Premier Christian Radio!

You also have no control over head-line writers – especially for the newspapers online – and some of these have been pretty scurrilous!

But the really rewarding aspect of all of this has been the number of strangers who have written saying how much ONE YELLOW DOOR has comforted and encouraged them. Writing about your own life is not comfortable, but their emails and letters have made the whole venture worth while.

No 1 on Amazon best seller list

The publication of my own memoir, ONE YELLOW DOOR, has taken all of us by surprise, reaching No 1 in the Amazon best seller list in three categories.  I’m still not quite sure why!  But with articles in The Guardian and The Telegraph, and appearances on the Lorraine Kelly show and several radio shows, here and abroad, with the Jeremy Vine show scheduled for early next month, it’s all been a bit of a roller-coaster.  More articles either by me, or about the book, will be out in the New Year.

The problem now is that I have to get cracking on another book before all the broohaha subsides and I am left with just the allotment to dig.

Thank goodness for the Oldie Writing Courses, which provide us all with considerable fun.  If you haven’t been on one yet, try to.  The punters are an amazing assortment of funny, clever and attractive people.  I hope to encourage them – and you – to look at our new Personalised Memoir Writing Courses online. They’re fun, and will put you in touch with a personal tutor who will give you detailed and careful feedback on your work.  There’s nothing like the encouragement of another writer to help you through those blank patches, which we all get from time to time.

Hotting up for publication

Things are now beginning to hot up as we head towards publication of my latest book ONE YELLOW DOOR, a memoir of love and loss, faith and infidelity – a subtitle we struggled with, incidentally, as this book is all about fidelity.

It’s a nerve-wracking business, having your memoirs published.  Too much information out there.  But there were things I really wanted to say, despite the fact that they will undoubtedly bring me dingbats, as my Dad would say. (“Dingbats” – where on earth did that expression come from….)

Some people may be offended, others shocked, but I hope, over-all, that the book will open the door to some sensitive discussions and maybe offer a window to look through for those who have struggled with conventional theology.

ONE YELLOW DOOR

by Rebecca de Saintonge

Having spent so much of my working life helping other writers with their memoirs, I’m delighted that my own, ONE YELLOW DOOR, is to be published by Dartman Longman and Todd in October.  Although it’s quite a short book – only 50,000 words – it took ten years to live and a further ten years to write.  As you may know, books are reviewed well in advance of publication so that suitable quotes can be printed on the dust covers.  Sara Maitland has already read the text, and this is what she said about it.

A small book about all the truly big things:  love, loss, tragedy, joy, purpose, pain and laughter. It is – sometimes shockingly – candid, often very beautiful and shot through with courage, faith and a fierce heart-breaking tenderness.

More about ONE YELLOW DOOR nearer the time!