Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Getting things real enough

I went and saw the movie "The Other Boleyn Girl" a couple of days ago. I liked the movie but there was something about it that bugged me. It wasn't until I got home and had my mind on something else that I figured it out. It wasn't English enough.

I don't mean the actors had horrible English accents. They were serviceable. They certainly didn't stumble over the accents and it didn't interfere with the dialogue. But there was something about the whole film that made it feel like it wasn't really set in England at all. Just somewhere/some when that looked like England. There was an authenticity that was missing for me. It was real, but not real enough.

This made me think of a story I started to write a long time ago that I've since put aside because of some of the criticism I got for it. It's a retelling of the Pygmalion myth set in ancient Greece. I want the story to have the feel that it's actually happening there and then.

I wrote it while taking a community education class that a local agent was teaching. She liked the story but the class thought it was too formal. They suggested I tone down the dialogue and make it more modern. I certainly didn't want a Zena: Warrior Princess feel to the story. Yes, I want the reader to understand and relate but I don't to write a story that's set in another time and place but actually feels like it could be happening here and now.

About a year or two later I was taking a Creative Writing class at a community college and with a lot of work commitments I wasn't able to write something new for a deadline. I decided to pull this story out again and see what the class thought of it. They didn't particularly like it either. They said it sounded too British or formal. When I explained to them that I wanted to create the feel of ancient Greece so you would believe it actually happened then and there the class railed on me.

They said no one really knows exactly what everyday life was like during ancient Greek times. They said I shouldn't try to make it feel that way, but instead make it something that modern readers could relate to. And the whole "formal 'British' type" thing really bothered them. I tried to argue that how many movies have you seen that show "ancient Greece culture" but all the actors speak in a formal British accent? After getting raked over the coals they all seemed to think that the story would be better served and more palatable to readers if it had a Zena: Warrior Princess approach to it.

Enough with the warrior princess already. Needless to say this is not the kind of story I want to write. I put the story away and only briefly took it out again one month to see if I could work on it again. But every time I take it out or even think about it I wonder about the state of historical fiction has come to.

Are we a society that says "we'll read something set in an ancient world but we want the characters to talk and act like I do today?" Are we giving up on that little bit of ambiance that will give a story a real sense of time and place even if we don't know how things really were back then? For me there was something missing from the movie that made me think this was really taking place during the reign of Henry VIII. The costumes were gorgeous, the settings fantastic but there was little bit of atmosphere to the culture of the day that was lacking for me.

Now, I'm not saying I'm right about my story. Maybe I am, but maybe they have a point too. Trying too hard to be something you're not only makes it easier to see the faults. But now I'm left with writing the story my way regardless of what anyone else thinks even if it fails or changing how I approach the story to begin with. I haven't pick up the story since then and I'm not sure I can until I can figure out how I'm going to proceed. Even though I had that quibble about the movie I still enjoyed it. For my story I don't necessarily have to get things completely real, but I'd like to get them real enough.

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