The Novelist’s Pen

“The novel, if I may express it so, is the ‘picture of the manners of every age’. To the philosopher who seeks to know the nature of man, it is as indispensable as history. The historian’s pencil can draw a man only in his public roles, when he is not truly himself: ambition and pride cover his face with a mask which shows only these two passions and not the man entire. The novelist’s pen, on the other hand, captures his inner truth and catches him when he puts his mask aside, and the resulting sketch, which is far more interesting, is also much truer; that is the point of novels.” – Essay on Novels – The Marquis de Sade.

What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach. It seems terribly important, doesn’t it? I’m considering this quote from the perspective of one who is researching and writing a story out of time.

I enjoy reading historical fiction. I’m attempting to write historical fiction –a story set in the period during and around the Great War. There are many challenges in writing a story outside the time in which you are living. Of course there are plentiful books of history, analysis of the actual battles and the geopolitical situation that preceded the conflict. But how does a writer put him or herself into the mind of a person who lived through it? Peel away the mask and find the inner truth?

Wouldn’t it be great to have a time machine and go back to see for yourself? Or the next best thing –access to a person or persons who lived through it and could give you eyewitness accounts? In the case of World War One, too much time has slipped away from that massive calamity and the last veteran of the trenches passed away in 2009 at the age of 111! What about a younger member of that generation?

One way ‘generation’ is defined is by all the people whose lives crossed during a particular period of time. Thusly, a member of that ‘generation’ could be the child or younger sibling of the WWI contemporary. Such a person may be able to recount the stories told by another, or to have memories of the time in question as an aware child or adolescent (although they would be getting scarce at this point too). My own father was 7 years old when the Armistice was achieved and he remembers the church bells ringing, bringing everyone into the streets to hear the news. (Incidentally my own father also passed away in 2009 at the grand old age of 97). Nevertheless, valuable information can be gained from talking with the second hand witness.

My point is that the ‘feel’ of a time period isn’t fully realized by simply reading the history books. I find it supremely insightful that the Marquis refers to ‘the historian’s pencil’ but the ‘novelist’s pen.’ The former can be erased and modified while the latter is permanent. You must delve into the arts and culture of the day. Listen to the music, peruse the art, read the popular books of fiction and poetry –there was a time when poetry was popular. If available, watch the films of the time. (Obviously some things are dependent on the advent of certain technologies). Of the things you can read, memoirs can be helpful, however, the opportunity for rationalization, embellishment or self aggrandizing is always there, so take these with a grain of salt.

For Here Lies a Soldier, I researched some material that might seem trivial or picky but I felt was important to my setting. How to clean a Victorian Era home, was one thing for example. I wasn’t about to rely on Downton Abby for my information. Another bit of research I did was on the types of homes a working family would live in –this for the other set of characters in the story. Illnesses and how they were treated, the types of food they ate, the clothing, the weather for the climate and the season –all these things tell you how the people lived.

I came across a series of War Letters in my searching for materials. This collection (available on Amazon) is of the letters of ordinary soldiers writing home to their families. I cannot wait to dig into this treasure. Imagine reading the sentiments of the common man addressing the people he loved. Some of it will be mundane, but there is even much to learned from that: What did they ask their families to send them? Warm socks, new underwear? Did they make friends? Did they pray or lose faith?

As you can imagine, I am anxious to pick up the novelist’s pen and return to Here Lies a Soldier, finish the sketch of my characters both in the past and the present. But first I must finish Breaking Bread. Onward…



“No one forces you to ply the trade you follow. But if you do choose it, then acquit yourself to the best of your ability. And above all, you should not think of writing as a way of earning your living. If you do, your work will smell of poverty. It will be colored by your weakness and be as thin as your hunger. There are other trades which you can take up… Our opinion of you will not be any poorer, and since you will be sparing us acres of boredom, we may even think the better of you.” – Essay on Novels, The Marquis de Sade

On the face of it, that statement seems rather bleak, doesn’t it? Don’t all of us writers dream of being able to write full time, rather than fitting it in around our already busy schedules? That is certainly my ultimate goal. However, that’s not quite what the Marquis is getting at…

Writing has its peaks and valleys, soaring heights and bottomless pits. If you’ve been writing for a while, you know what that feels like. Sometimes the Muse chatters, the words flow and you scribble furiously to get it all down or tap violently on the keyboard as the story unfurls before you. It’s your best work. It’s brilliant, in fact. You read and re-read, carefully editing and correcting your errors. Then you deliver it into the world, whether it be to your blog, as a self published book on Amazon or within a query letter to an agent. You eagerly await a response.

And nothing….

You get a few likes on your blog, maybe some vague praise in the comments. “Nice work.” “Great post.” Your book languishes, sales are weak, nonexistent even. The agents are silent, or worse, dismissive… “Thank you, but your work isn’t a good fit for me. Good luck in your journey…”

It takes some spine and some determination to keep your head above water in the flood tide that is the vast ocean of writing and publishing these days.

Here is where the Marquis’ advice applies. Even if the Marquis and his notorious behavior puts you off, in many he ways his unwavering determination to follow his nature holds for us a lesson. (For some biographical details on de Sade, see The Passionate Philosopher, by Mr Cake). Maintain your artistic vision and integrity. Do not pander to popular trends among current best selling books. The world does not need another 50 Shades of anything, for example. (The irony of using that as an example in a post quoting the father of sadism is not lost on me.) Don’t lose sight of the reasons you began to write in the first place. No one should choose to write or compose solely to make a living. Rather, you must write out of love. You must write because the words would burn you from the inside if you didn’t let them out. That is the stuff we want to read.

Nevertheless, we all want to be appreciated, have readers enjoy what we write. But it is a rare thing to achieve overnight success. Yet we have all come to expect instant gratification. With so much information at our fingertips, we are confused and discouraged if we can’t have ‘it’ right this very moment. Aspiring authors need to have a long view. To continue the ‘head above water’ analogy – it’s like swimming the English Channel rather than doing a lap in a pool. There will be times when it feels like those distant shores are no closer. You may stop and tread water for a while to catch your breath. You need strong steady strokes to keep going. Slowly but surely progress is made. And if you’re lucky, you have lots of friends and family in the support boat to cheer you on.

Don’t let your desire for validation derail your dreams. Whatever you write, for whomever you write, on whatever medium you write, remember that you love to write. And that alone makes it worth it.

Photo via English Channel Swim . com

Paint Me a Word Picture

“Any fool can pick a rose and pluck its petals, but the man of genius breathes its scent and paints its forms: that is the kind of author we will read.” – Essay on Novels; The Marquis de Sade

That is such a lovely quote, I had trouble figuring out how to follow it up!

Unless you are a technical writer, compiling how-to manuals for ‘some assembly required’ projects or writing textbooks for engineers… writing and composing involves much more than just listing facts on a page. Writing is an art form.

Storytellers don’t just recount events in the order in which they happened. No. We attempt to paint pictures with words. To set the scene, we hope to make the reader feel the cold wind blowing off the North Sea or the scorching heat of the desert sun. We use beautiful language to describe the tastes of the food or the taste of a lover’s kiss. Can you smell the smoke from the burning village or of sound of screaming and the clash of swords? Feel the textures of skin against skin in a gentle caress or in a bare knuckle brawl?

Anthropologically, storytelling in the form of song or saga has been used to help the balladeer or the skald keep the oral history of a people alive. It is some of the earliest writing ever discovered. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, dates back to 2000 BCE. Another Sumerian text, The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, may be even older than that. Can you imagine the story surviving if the tale was dull and lacking life? Or if it were just a chronological list of situations and incidents?

Fiction writing is not a roll call.

As writers, we have stories within us just begging to be told. Perhaps they are based on an interesting life full of adventures  or one filled with anguish and tragedy. The Marquis de Sade, for example, was imprisoned for most of his life. (See Citizen Sade by Mr. Cake of cakeordeathsite) His uncontrollable nature led him to behave in a most outrageous way. However, despite the unavoidable outcome, he believed that his desires should not be suppressed, for to do so would go against that very nature. Inevitably, it got him in a lot of trouble. Yet, there is more to the man than his bad reputation. (See Yet Another Effort also by Mr. Cake -he is writing a series of posts on the Marquis)

Alternatively, maybe we are keen observers, listeners -able to conjure a story by watching a couple argue at a restaurant or seeing a child apart from all the other children playing on the playground. We ask why or what happens next? All the joy and pain, the desperate hopes, the unbreakable spirit, the crushed dreams and lost loves pour onto the page. Those strong emotions, however, produce the most powerful writing. Writing that has life…

That is the reward of writing – touching the heart and mind of the reader- to entertain at a minimum, but even better, to stimulate the mind, to stir the emotions, captivate the spirit, shake it to the core. It’s a heady thing– moving a soul. Choose carefully, the words you’re about to commit to paper. Craft them with skill, arrange them just so. Speak them aloud to see how they roll off the tongue. Inhale the scent of the rose and paint its forms.

Header Image: Still Life With Roses – Pierre-Auguste Renoir