Nicola Griffith on Writing Immersive Historical Fiction
"Empathy is a powerful tool, and sharp. Be careful how you wield it."
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As living beings we are our bodies; it’s impossible to separate the physical self from the mental or emotional: the mind/body binary is arrant nonsense. We experience the world, we learn it, through our bodies. As a writer, I bring the reader into my fictional world through the characters’ physical, embodied experience. What a character feels, what they notice of their world—and how they feel about it—tells the reader a vast amount, and it creates empathy.
Imagine an upscale Italian restaurant: polished stone floor, open kitchen with chefs chopping things, one of those central fire pits with the hammered copper hood. Now imagine you’re a woman walking in with two small children. The first thing you’ll notice are those sharp knives and open flames—dangerous for your kids. But what if you’re someone who’s just been assaulted? It’s probable that you’ll immediately focus on men with big hands or loud voices, or who have drunk too much and so seem unpredictable or are wearing something—a particular color of shirt or type of boot—that triggers memories of your assailants. But if you’re running for your life from international assassins all those issues take second place. You dart in off the street and what you’re looking for is a hiding place, or another exit, or someone who looks as though they might shelter you.
Long ago, as a shaven-headed women’s self-defense teacher living in the north of England where being queer was to have a target on your back, if I’d gone somewhere like that restaurant (if I’d been able to afford it) the first thing I’d have done when I walked in is do a visual sweep for exits, defensible positions, and anything I could use as a weapon. And I’d pay attention to the people who represented potential danger. Now that I’m a respectable, married, tax-paying, disabled citizen of Seattle, I don’t perceive the world as always and immediately dangerous. Now when I enter that Italian restaurant (assuming it’s accessible) I don’t look for exits and weapons; my focus has changed. If it’s raining will my wheels skid on that shiny floor? Will my wheelchair fit under the table? Can I get into the bathroom?
As readers, what we learn of a fictional world depends largely on the character experiencing that world, and there’s a lot of evidence that we take the experience—the emotion, the thoughts, the struggles—of well-drawn characters as our own: that immersive fiction triggers the readers’ mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are bundles of brain tissue that fire when you do something—say, stoop to pick up a fallen branch. Interestingly, they also fire when you observe another person picking up a branch. The mirror neurons “mirror” the behavior of the other person, as though you yourself were picking up that branch. In other words, you are literally recreating another’s actions and experience inside yourself: your body’s response will echo theirs. You’ll feel it; you’ll understand it as intimately as though it was you.
When writing my historical novels Hild and Menewood I aimed for the reader to experience, to see, smell, hear, taste and feel the seventh century as Hild does; to gradually adopt her mindset and worldview; to think her thoughts and feel her joys. To be her, just for a little while. My goal was to run my software on the reader’s hardware: for them to recreate Hild inside themselves and know, not just think but know, what the early seventh-century was like. They would not only see the autumn leaf fall but smell the damp earth beneath the moss cool against her cheek, hear the suck and squelch of mud as someone leaves the path towards her position, and feel the sudden trip and stumble of her heart as she realizes they are hunting her. The reader thinks her thoughts and learns her lessons; they dream her dreams. And as she grows and changes so does what she notices about the world.
Certain written words can trigger the memory of touch and scent (the most evocative of the senses). For example, if you read “lavender,” a functional MRI will show the areas of your brain relating to smell lighting up. Similarly, reading “leathery” instead of “hard” or “tough” stimulates your brain in the same way as actually touching leather. So if you describe a character running a discarded leather glove scented with lavender under her nose, the reader can feel the cool-then-warm of the leather against her upper lip, hear the faint creak of the leather, smell that lavender: we are there—not beside her but right inside her, wearing her skin, feeling, smelling, experiencing. And when she’s suddenly punched in the floating ribs, we Ooof, right alongside her. We’re not reading, we’re living.
Once you have the reader’s empathy, though, you must keep it. You must persuade the reader to trust you enough to lower their guard, to let go of the constant low-level self-protection most of us experience in the real world. This means you must be very, very careful how you handle negative experience. Every reader is different, and you can’t please everyone, but my personal bias (and I’m far from alone in this), is extreme antipathy to wanton cruelty towards helpless living things. If you make me empathize with a dog or child or young woman, and then torment them using visceral language, I will experience visceral revulsion, throw the book at the wall, and never read anything you write again. I won’t trust you.
So if your protagonist must suffer (and to a degree we all must), at that point use the reader’s mirror neurons judiciously. Empathy is a powerful tool, and sharp. Be careful how you wield it.
Menewood by Nicola Griffith is available now via MCD.