Monday, February 14, 2011

Historical (Mystery) Fiction Done Well--Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Before this, the only historical fiction I'd read was Eco's The Name of the Rose--also a great book.  This one is slightly better: It made me feel like I was physically in every scene.  Really immerses you into the time.  The four different POVs are also ingenuously used.  This one made me want to write an historical novel--a task I am not yet up for.  Maybe someday...Actually, I'm trying to do a couple now.

An ingenuously written book that has much to teach writers--or would-be writers--of the genre.

1.  Totally immerse your reader into the time by describing everything to the point where the reader feels he's in every scene, as mentioned above.  This is impossibly difficult because you don't want to bog the reader down with detail, detail, detail; that'll stop the plot from moving foreward and bore your reader.  Yet, you can't sustain the suspension of disbelief for over 700 pages if you don't.  So how does one toe that line?  I don't know, but I DO know that the answer is in this book.  I'd have to read it again, with the eye of a writer this time.

2.  The time described has to be made interesting, in of itself.  Otherwise, why get immersed in it?  The era here is fascinating: England, Protestants vs. Catholics.  The Papists.  The monarchy.  The spies.  The battle between the starkly divided social classes.  It's all here.

3.  The mystery has to be riveting enough to continue reading about.  Immersion takes work for the reader, too.  The writer has to prove to the reader that it'll be worth his while.  This one is simple: What happened to the girl?  Some guys love her; some guys hate her.  The latter actually hate her because they love her, and the power she has over them.

4.  The writing itself has to be very good, and very interesting.  This one is told from 4 different POVs, each one taking up hundreds of pages, each one an interesting charcater, each one variously unreliable.  You care about each one, even the very unlikeable one.  And the Truth that shuffles them all together is exemplified by the final narrator, in the final pages--with a last, lasting mystery on the last page.

Once again I am seeing more and more that I should be learning from what I'm reading, and not just enjoying what I'm reading.  The Name of the Rose sort of gave birth to Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, and it's difficult--and perhaps unnecessary--to tell which one is better.  They're both great.

Next post will be on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone, and don't forget to check out my previously unpublished short story, and the prologue and Chapter One of my own mystery novel, at my website.

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