Today I welcome poet and author Earl Livings to my blog.
Guest Post: The Tension Between Authenticity and Validity
When I was a Boy Scout, my father took me to a country road so I could map the surroundings for my Compass badge. Small houses and outbuildings hunched on one side of the road. On the other side, near where he dropped me off, a long line of gum trees, with other ones further down, acted as windbreaks. Hills crowded the horizon. I had to draw a map showing everything along a mile of this road, with proper dimensions and orientations. I had a compass, a pencil and pad, a starting point, and an over-developed case of perfectionism. I wanted to show the scout leaders I was thorough and accurate.
The trees defeated me. It took me ages to pinpoint the position of one, then the next, and then the next. I only completed 100 yards or so of both sides of the road by the time my father arrived to pick me up. He saw how frustrated I was by my endeavour to be accurate and gave me a simple solution. I should pinpoint the start and end of each line of trees along the road, count the trees, then arrange them an equal distance on my map. This might not be completely accurate, but it would be enough for the task—the map is not the territory. Acting on his advice, I completed the task quite quickly.
Many years later, I am writing an historical novel and once again am being hampered by the need to be accurate. My novel is set in sixth century Britain. However, there is a reason the period is called the Dark Ages. That is, there isn’t a mass of material a writer can use for understanding the times. This may be a curse but it is also a boon, because I have a freer reign for my imagination than someone writing about a more documented era, as long as I stick to the ‘known facts’. So, I keep researching the ancient texts for snippets I can use in my book. I read scholars of that period. I write a draft of the novel then discover new evidence that I should probably incorporate, even though it may mean I have to change some episodes. Should I keep researching? Should I ignore the opinions of scholars, especially when they conflict? Should I sacrifice accuracy for some other quality? If the novel is a map, what’s the territory?
I realise I have come to that challenge fiction writers who use history (personal or societal) for their story always face: What is the balance between being authentic and being valid? Between keeping to the facts and telling a good story?
My novel is, in some part, about the confrontations between the pagan ways of Britain and the incoming Christian religion and between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons. I am writing not in Old Brythonic but in English, the descendent of the Anglo-Saxon language, so already I have had to compromise between authenticity and validity. However, although I am using the English language, I try to write in such a way as to suggest the Celtic way of thinking, the pagan worldview. I use various dictionaries—Indo-European, Proto-Celtic, and Old Wels—for names of concepts, tribes, places and kingdoms. I mine Celtic myths for character names and themes. I use poetic techniques such as metaphors and kennings. I try to avoid Latinate words, preferring the more earthy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. All these techniques I hope will help validate the story, help create a map for the territory that is a story of the times and the characters living in them.
Then there’s the case of settings. I live in Australia, but have travelled to Wales and Scotland on a number of occasions to check out places associated with the historical characters I am writing about. I have gone in different seasons to gain a sense of the landscape and the flora and fauna. Yet, I’ve probably only touched the vast knowledge a native would have. The rest I must glean from books, the internet, YouTube videos, and discussions with natives. Failing that, I fall back on my imagination and hope that what I write works for the story, even if ‘the facts used’ might not be authentic.
In the end, I have to ignore the nagging feeling that a history nerd or a native of Britain will pick up on a glaring mistake. I can only do what I can with the resources available to me. My job is to make the novel engaging and compelling, even if it means I sacrifice authenticity to do so. And most readers will forgive the occasional blunder if the novel delivers a strong experience.
It is the story that counts.22
About the author
Earl Livings has published poetry and fiction in Australia and also Britain, Canada, the USA, and Germany. He has a PhD in Creative Writing and taught professional writing and editing for 17 years. His writing focuses on nature, mythology and the sacred and he is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection. Earl lives in Box Hill, Victoria, Australia, with his wife and the seasonal owls, bats and lorikeets that love the trees around their home.
You can find out more about Earl through his blog.