Friday, August 26, 2016

History in Present Tense

It takes guts to write a biographical novel in  first person, present tense. When I attended the Writers Digest Conference a couple of weeks ago, Jordan Rosenfeld, then offering a presentation on points of view, asked me if I’d ever seen historical fiction written that way. Without really thinking, I said no, only to realize that in fact I had just read exactly such a book: Alix Hawley’s brand-new novel about Daniel Boone, All True Not a Lie in It.

Yes, Daniel Boone, hero of the early days of the US frontier, star of books, movies, and television. I myself, as a kid in the UK who thought New York was the capital of the United States (because it was the only US city I’d heard of as an elementary-school tyke), knew of Daniel Boone, thanks to the series that ran on the BBC (or ITV, the “commercial” station—I can’t recall). Let’s just say, the series seems to have left out a few of the more interesting bits. That happens when a studio aims at Family Hour.

So what’s so remarkable about using first-person present? For that matter, what is point of view—besides one of those terms that writers casually toss around the way dancers talk about being “up on their leg,” a shorthand that blissfully ignores the reality that if you are not “up on your leg,” the solution is not in your leg but in the core muscles of your torso?

Simply put, point of view (POV) refers to how the information in the story is presented to the reader. These days, a novel is most often related by one character (first-person POV, using “I”) or conveyed through the tightly focused perceptions of a given character (third-person POV, using “he”/“she”). In fiction written before the middle of the twentieth century, the most common POV is omniscient, in which a named or unnamed narrator using he/she skips about from character to character and supplies background information at will. There are variations, such as second-person POV (using “you,” as if a character were talking to herself or telling a story to someone else about himself), and rotating first-person, where a series of characters each tells his/her own story using “I”—these can be hard to pull off. Very common is rotating third-person, where individual scenes or chapters reflect the perceptions of different characters, but never more than one at a time. 

Each of these approaches has pluses and minuses, as you might expect—perhaps in a future post I’ll explore them. But each can also be combined with the use of present or past tense (I walk down the street vs. she walked down the street). Some readers detest present tense; others don’t mind it. Past tense dominates most categories of fiction; present tense became more common with the expansion of young adult (YA) literature and has spread into other genres.

Including, it seems, historical fiction. And really, when you think of it, why not? The great advantage of present tense is that it sustains tension. A first-person story in past tense implies that the narrator lived to tell the tale. That’s not a big problem in romance, but in adventure or mystery? Sometimes an author wants to keep readers guessing. A novel, moreover, always takes place in the present, regardless of tense; the author’s job is to recreate the POV character’s experience in the moment, with all the emotions, perceptions, and sensations, the dialogue and actions, that together enrich and impart meaning to a set of events and relationships.

Of course, third-person or second-person stories get around the suspense problem, since someone else must be relating the story, even if that person is not identified. Yet I think the main reason historical novelists avoid the present tense is subconscious: history is “the past,” so we naturally write about it in the past tense. It makes perfect sense until you remember that history exists all around us every day of our lives: we operate in the midst of it, on the ever-moving tipping point between future and past that we call the present. We see the meaning of current events only in retrospect, once we can perceive their consequences and construct a satisfactory chain of cause and effect—not necessarily an accurate explanation, note, but one that coincides enough with our views of how the universe works that we accept it. Just like our characters, we live in the present, experiencing life as it flows by.

So, does it work: the first-person present in a historical novel? I have to say that in Hawley’s case it does. Her Daniel Boone has a freshness and an immediacy that so celebrated a figure sorely needs. He reels from moment to moment, relationship to relationship, crisis to crisis, and celebration to celebration. And in so doing he becomes human again—a boy racing away from tormentors, a young man courting a girl, a new husband, a captive, a hunter.


I don’t know that I’ll imitate her. My characters are not so well known, and the conceit of my Legends series is that these stories have been repeated, expanded, transformed over centuries into something with a core of truth but a good deal of invention. Still, I like to push the boundaries of my craft, and I enjoy seeing something unfamiliar well done. Congratulations to Alix Hawley, not only for trying the unfamiliar but for pulling it off.

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