The title of this piece comes from a quote by Sir Isaac Newton, who wrote it in a letter to his rival scientist Robert Hooke in 1676. In the letter, he referred to the small steps he and Hooke had made building on the work of Descartes, and likened each step to “standing on the shoulders of giants.” In other words, recognising the work of those gone before, and developing it a little further.
As a writer of historical fiction, I would love to feel that I am ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – and by that I mean those writers in the genre whose work has moved and excited me. I would love to feel that I have developed their work – rather than the reality; that I am doing my best simply to emulate it!
There are a few writers whose work I greatly admire. These are historical novel ‘giants’ like Susan Kay, whose book Legacy is a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabeth I – and makes every moment of the Queen’s life jump off the page and drip with tension. Or George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote a series of action adventure novels about Thomas Hughes’s fictional bully Harry Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. His Flashman books take the character from his expulsion from Rugby School in the 1830s and put him in pretty much every major conflict of the 19th century. The humour, drama, action and intrigue of each of the novels makes them a great read, and I can honestly say I have learned more about actual Victorian history than I ever learned in school. Although as Flashman is a racist, sexist, misogynist coward and bully, it is impressive how MacDonald Fraser makes him such an appealing anti-hero.
Then there’s my action adventure ‘giant’ – Dick Francis. Despite all his horseracing novels being pretty much the same story with the same thirty-something hero (just with a different name and a different secondary skill), the way that Francis weaves in the danger and the hero’s agency in overcoming it, has given me a great model for creating page-turning action in my own novels.
“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” Mark Twain
This quote is something I carry with me at all times – not just when writing, but more particularly, when editing my work. It’s easy to over-write, and I do find myself doing it often, mainly because in my first draft I am really explaining the scene to myself. But I cannot under-estimate my reader’s ability to ‘get it’ – so once I have the scene worked out in long form, I try to edit it down accordingly. I once wrote a scene where my character Lady Mary is hanging by her fingertips from a rocky ledge after a fight with the villain (The Alchemist’s Arms). I initially described her every movement to get back up the rock-face; every swing of her leg and every grab of a tiny outcrop. My editor very sensibly pointed out that I could cut out all but the most important movements – the reader would ‘fill in’ the rest. She was right, of course – and the scene reads much better when I cut around two thirds out. All that was just me working out exactly how she gets back up the rock – the important thing is that she does!
“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” C.S. Lewis
This quote has stayed with me ever since I first started tapping on a keyboard (or thumping loudly, according to those with whom I have shared offices). Whenever I write a scene, I feel good old Clive Staples sitting on my shoulder, reading what I have just written, turning to me and asking ‘yes, yes, but how did that feel?’ It’s an axiom of writing that you ‘show not tell’ – so whenever I use a ‘tell’ word, like ‘X was excited’ or ‘Y was terrified’, I stop, and re-write it as a ‘show’. What did that excitement or terror feel like? Did it knot their stomach? Or make them catch their breath? Or have a small bead of sweat start to roll down their back? It makes the reader feel so much more involved.
As a writer I may never get to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ – and I accept that. But I suppose it gives me something to aim for…
Jonathan writes action and adventure novels set in Tudor England, with fiesty female heroines. He has a trilogy that starts with a modern-day girl time-travelling back to the 16th century, as well as a spin-off series (one book so far, with the next due in 2023), and also a prequel.