Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

Please feel free to post comments--I'd love to hear from you.

The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.


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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Hang on Tight to that Point of View

Many questions that pop up in discussions about writing revolve around point of view (POV). Most novels are told in either first person (“I am the narrator”) or third person (“S/he is the narrator.”) A third less popular option is the omniscient third person—in effect like an all-seeing camera panning across the whole scene and taking in everything.

By nature, first person POV should put the reader closest to the storyteller. The narrator tells his/her own story straight to the reader. Third person moves the perspective back a step. The reader hears the same story, but a third party narrates through a character’s eyes. It can be told as if one character sees the action, or can move back and forth among several characters’ observations.

Recently, in the midst of a discussion among historical novelists, I became aware of a term I had not heard before involving third person POV: called “closely held third person.” It’s not a new idea, I’m sure, but it was the first time I’d come across the term. I believe another name is “subjection third person.”

After mentioning the term in another discussion, this one in a reading group, the following question came up: “What does ‘closely held third person’ look like?” I responded that the reader is taken to a deeper level within the POV character’(s) thoughts and feelings. The group’s moderator asked, “Wouldn’t that be the same as a very good psychological characterization?” Then she requested a brief example.Using the manuscript of my fourth book, I came up with the following:

Simple third person:

Marcus drank another swig of uisge, enjoying the languid feel of being drunk. He sat on the floor, propped against the fire pit's stones, wondering when he had moved there. The house was quiet, and Claerwen's words about the magical grail came back to him. Slowly he straightened up as an idea came to him. He reached across and shook Myrddin awake.

Then closely-held third person—this is what is really in the manuscript:

Marcus tossed back another swig of uisge. Damn, it felt fine to be drunk. The mellowness made his whole body languid. He had dropped off the uncomfortable stool onto the floor and sat propped against the fire pit stones. He didn't remember when he'd moved there.

Except for the hiss of the fire, quiet descended on the house. Claerwen's words about chasing after a magical grail repeated in Marcus's head, an echo in the uisge. Slowly he straightened up.

"Myrddin," he said. Still sitting, the Enchanter dozed, his head drooping. Marcus reached out and shook his wrist. "Myrddin."


"What if we start a rumor?"

Through dialogue and interior monologue, Marcus's thoughts show much more clearly in the second version. The use of active verbs instead of passive, or active verbs with more punch encourages a better sense of the character as well.

To take the notion a step further in the same discussion, I quoted the opening lines from two different novels the group had recently read. This demonstrates the same issue, but in the first person POV.

These are the first few lines in Grail by Stephen Lawhead. Gwalchavad is the narrator:

I, Gwalchavad, Lord of Orcady, write this. And no gentle labor it is. Nor less rough the reading, I fear. Unlike Myrddin, or the brown-cloaked clerics, I am no master of the scribbler's craft.

Then look at the first few lines from Firelord by Parke Godwin. King Arthur is the narrator:

Damn it. I haven't time to lie here. Whatever comes, there's more for a king to do than squat like a mushroom and maunder on eternity.

Dignity be damned, it's a tedious bore.

Even when he was wounded, Ambrosius told me he hated being carried in a litter like a silly bride. Slow, uncomfortable, and wounds open up anyway. Mine are rather bad. The surgeons tell me to prepare for their ministrations—Jesus spare me professional gravity—and that priest looks so solemn, I think God must have caught him laughing and made him promise never again.

In the second example Arthur is lively, even though he’s on his deathbed, and what's going on in his head is very clear, very strong. The first example is bland and the narrator is putting himself down as a lousy storyteller. Why should someone want to continue reading if they're being told this right in the first few lines? To me it sounds like a take-off on writings by Geoffrey of Monmouth or Nennius, two medieval writers, both of whom started their narratives like that. Quite a number of modern Arthurian-based novels start this way—seems to be a trend to imitate the old sources of Arthur’s story—but gee whiz, why sabotage the reader from the start?

I think “closely held” is a great term. Maybe it’s been out there all along. Not having gone through an MFA or anything like that, I’ve relied on observation to learn the craft. And after all, isn’t observation the key to writing good characters?

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