As someone hard at work writing a historical fiction novel, I’ve read a startlingly large number of research books.
Not all of them have been nonfiction.
I suspect that conducting research via fiction is something numerous writers do, and not just those writing historicals.
I’m sure almost every writer has consciously studied existing novels to see how others have handled any number of elements of writing craft, from as broad as character development to as concrete as the number of pages per chapter.
So it was, therefore, that I came to Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Reading this book fell under the purview of “research” for three reasons:
- I wanted to study the pacing of such a lengthy (973 pages) novel since my own WIP, though in two novels, will also be a long-ish tale
- I wanted to study Follett’s presentation and accuracy of historical details (for all that Pillars takes place about three-quarters of a century earlier than my WIP)
- I wanted to read the book before watching the Pillars of the Earth miniseries so I could critique the fidelity of the adaptation in preparation for when my WIP is someday turned into a film.
Although, it could happen. Anything could happen.
Pillars is the longest book I’ve read in the last twenty years (I read Stephen King’s It when I was 14). And outside of The Bible, the Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (none of which I’ve read in their entirety), and Mary Gentle’s sci-fi/fantasy Ash: A Secret History (which is technically an omnibus of four separate titles), Pillars is the longest book I own.
It took me two months of obsessive-compulsive reading to get through Pillars. After all, I’m on something of a timeline here with my New Year’s Resolution to read 12 books in 2013. That’s a book a month(ish), and were it not for the fact I got through my last book – the YA sci-fi Shades of Earth – in a weekend, I would’ve been thrown a month off schedule.
Pillars is a story spanning 20 years of construction of a medieval cathedral in England amidst a backdrop of political wranglings, treachery, and war. Finally reaching the end of the book rather felt like a monumental achievement in its own right.
Liking the (un)likeable
I liked Pillars. But then, I was meant to, or at least to like the protagonists. Follett made an obvious point of making the good characters unwaveringly good while the villains were the murdering, raping, backstabbing, despotic gum under your shoe.
Last Christmas, I was looking to buy a historical fiction novel for my dad. The choice was between Pillars and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Uncertain which to choose, I was given the following comparison by the bookseller:
With the characters in Pillars, it’s totally obvious who the good and bad guys are. In Wolf Hall, all the characters are much more nuanced.
In Pillars, after a while, following the villains became a bit much. Their ongoing despicable acts seemed motivated solely by a perverse desire to stick it to the good guy (who himself was very good and virtuous, even for a precocious monk).
I wanted to scream at the villains, “It’s been 20 years. Get a life. Get over it!”
I tend to prefer characters of the sort the bookseller described in Wolf Hall, both in reading and in writing. In my novel-in-progress, I don’t think there is a single “good” character who doesn’t carry out at least one questionable act, and a single villain who doesn’t show a least a glimmer of hope for redemption.
The protagonist is particularly ambiguous and unrelenting, with distorted ideas about the nature of reciprocity and what she should do to achieve her salvation.