Thursday, 25 June 2015

Manda Scott on When is Fact not a Fact

Today's guest blog is from author Manda Scott.  As M C Scott she is the author of three crime novels - Hen's Teeth (which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize), Night Mares and Stronger Than Death. As Manda Scott she is the author of a series of historical novels.  Her standalone novel No Good Deed was nominated for a 2003 Edgar Award.  In 2010 she founded the Historical Writers Association and became its Chair.  Into the Fire is her latest novel.

When is a fact not a fact? When does truth stop being truth and become so utterly corrupted as to represent its opposite?  When does our emotional attachment to an idea supersede our search for integrity, authenticity and veracity?

We live in a world of greys. Pretty much every psychological test ever done demonstrates how bad we are at observing things. (If you haven't seen the 'Selective Attention' test, check
out the video here:


and that even when we've observed them, taken part in them, lived through them, we're exceptionally bad at recalling  anything other than a vague approximation of what actually happened.

Rudyard Kipling spent years trying to find out what happened to his son in the Battle of Loos in 1915. He failed, and of his failure said that perfectly decent men, with absolute honesty, gave absolutely opposing accounts of what had happened on the day in September when his son died.

Even when we're not in a life-threatening battle with carnage all around, we layer on our own projections and then pretend they have some kind of objective basis in fact.  And then something comes along to disrupt it all, and the results can be… spectacular.

Twelve years ago, I read an article in The Independent, which described an orthopaedic surgeon who specialised in building faces on skulls, and who thought he had identified the true origins of the Maid of Orléans – known on this side of the Channel as Joan of Arc. 

She's one of the most spectacular vehicles-for-projection ever to have walked on the earth and just about the only thing you could say with absolute certainty is that the myths of the illiterate, mystic-visionary peasant girl are wholly untrue.  She wasn't whom you think.  She wasn't whom any of us thought – at least, not those of us brought up on the Ladybird book of Joan of Arc. She was an outstanding warrior, a trained knight, a consummate horsewoman, and an adept politician.  She wasn't particularly godly and as far as I can tell, her visions were largely a figment of her need to protect her origins.

And yet few people in the past 600 years have dared to question the myth.  In her lifetime, and immediately after, there was good reason: this was a time when questioning the church was a death sentence and if the church said she was a peasant, then you didn't argue. But even then, it's not that easy because how the church actually described her was as 'the woman, Jeanne d'Ay, who consorted with the fiende (sic) that called itself The Maid' so they didn't have to confront anything approaching reality. 

If ever there's an instance of selective attention, of an entire culture's inability to see past their own prejudices, this is it – and not only in 1429 – the effects on modern day France are every bit as interesting as those in the midst of the Hundred Years' war.
We may not burn people at the stake any more, but the surgeon who said he had found her identity was thrown out of France and it's not too big a leap from that to arson and murder in defence of an ideal. 

I sat on the idea for a decade – as Gunnar Staalesen said recently on this blog, ideas can marinade for a long time before they come to fruition, but in the end, the promise of discovery, the idea that it might be possible to turn over six centuries of spin, and to do so in a way that would craft the ultimate dual time-line thriller was inescapable.

And all of that, translated into the present day can be incendiary in all senses of the word. What better starting point for a thriller?   INTO THE FIRE is a dual time line thriller, far harder to write than any single time-thread narrative, but with the possibility of crafting a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  We have the drive of 'Who was she?' in both time frames, but a thriller needs more than that, it needs pace and push and the sense of uncertainty that keeps us reading just to be sure our favourite characters are going to live safely to the end.  And in both the present and the past, the reaction to the radical truth of the Maid's existence is potentially lethal – a perfect narrative drive.

I loved writing this book. As someone said recently, it's the book I was born to write – it brings together everything from my veterinary past, and my (dismally failed) efforts to be a competitive dressage rider, to the battle re-enactments, to the recent Chairing of the Historical Writers' Association.  Everything I've done, everyone I've spoken to has come together to make this possible.  All it needs now are readers ready to come along for the ride. Best if you're not afraid of fire, though…

More information about Manda Scott and her books can be found on her website.  You an also follow her on Twitter @hare_wood or find her on Facebook.

Into The Fire -

There is a secret, hidden within a body, burning within the flames, that will change it all.  A man’s charred corpse is found in the latest of a string of arson attacks in the French city of Orléans. His is the first death. An extremist group claim responsibility but their whereabouts cannot be found. Police inspector Capitaine Ines Picault and her team must track them down before more people die. Their only clue? The name of a woman who has been dead for over 500 years: Joan of Arc.  She is one of the great enigmas of history – a young woman who came from nowhere to lead the armies of France to victory against England. And who died the same fiery death as the man whose body has just been discovered.  As more fires rage in Orleans and the death toll mounts, Picault must look to the past and the secrets which lie buried there to unravel the mysteries of the present. As the clock counts down, she must challenge some fundamental truths to save those closest to her…

Interested in winning a signed copy of Into The Fire then if so retweet the post using #INTOTHEFIRE and @hare_wood.


kk said...

This sounds wonderful. This book and how you came to write it, Manda. I will buy and read it!

Peggy West said...

That whole thing about fact vs fiction! There are actually people out there who stop watching historical tv shows because the shows are not accurate. The only reason I stopped watching "Reign" is because it reminded me of my junior prom. It's Wolf Hall's fault, but we're going to see more historicals. Facts about what really happened can be argued but it is hardly worth it. For a really good time, see "Farewell, My Queen" with Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette.