Tag Archives: historical fiction

Review: Michael Collins (film)

Michael Collins.

When this movie came out, more than 20 years ago, it was long before I was in Irish anorak mode. In fact, at the time, I wasn’t even in movie-going mode. It wasn’t until a few years after I’d written Irish Firebrands that I became aware of this film, which is probably just as well, because during my cultural immersion research, what I learned about Michael Collins was based on reasonably well-established historical facts.

Facts are what must underpin historical fiction, which this motion picture fundamentally is, and like all fiction, this story has to find in speculation the fuel to keep moving its plot forward (even if, as in the WWII film Valkyrie, we all go into watching it knowing in advance what’s going to happen at the end). This speculative stuff consists of what could have plausibly happened “off-stage” in people’s lives, and is based on what can be extrapolated from their public behavior and utterances.

I can deal with extrapolations. It’s interpolations that irk me. And Neil Jordan’s decision to revise the facts of the Croke Park Massacre involves a departure from reality that was just big enough to destroy my suspension of disbelief. His justification for that decision (as elucidated in the accompanying documentary-interview video) was that the true circumstances would have been more horrifying for audiences than his fictionalization, but that doesn’t wash, with me. The fact that the armored car in reality did not enter the stadium during the attack impairs Jordan’s credibility. That’s a shame, because I’ve enjoyed reading his other fiction, and I own a few of his novels.

All that aside, this portrayal of a short segment of Michael Collins’s short life does make a riveting adventure film. It’s very fast paced, although that becomes something of a problem when so much of the action takes place enveloped in smoke and dust, half-light, or darkness, conditions which make it difficult for the viewer to follow details. Julia Roberts’s Kitty Kiernan is lackluster enough to be a nonentity, but Liam Neeson portrays a plausible Collins, and Alan Rickman’s own physical resemblance to Eamon DeValera is uncomfortably spooky. The documentary is informative, including much period footage, although there really isn’t anything Tim Pat Coogan can say that can dissuade my personal conviction that The Long Fella personally had much more to do with The Big Fella’s demise (which occurred 96 years ago today).

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Time Flies When You’re Having Fun!

That’s true in the Parallel Universe, too, where time expands and contracts for characters experiencing fictional life, as well as for their author (as narrator), and for readers (as observers). Writers who are pantsers don’t do much, if any, planning, plotting, or outlining when writing, but keeping an eye on the passage of time is important no matter how much or little of it elapses during the story.

For a historical novel set sometime on Earth, in addition to coordinating the plot with important dates, a writer may need to know the phases of the moon, and a calendar will be important for determining the impact of the weather on fictional events as well as the historical ones. Where in time do you need to go? 1066? 1776? 1871? 1914-1918? 1939-1945? A perpetual calendar is the place to start.

The website timeanddate.com offers one that can be customized and printed (PDF). Once you have the information provided by a perpetual calendar, it’s easy to construct your story’s fictional calendar, and then use it to verify continuity when you’re editing.

Time is important no matter what the genre, so if your story involves other-world-building, you’ll need to come up with a method of reckoning based on your planet’s periods of rotation and revolution. How much light, by how many suns, constitutes daytime? Is there more than one moon to illuminate the night? Do the inhabitants of your world use constellations to reckon longer periods of time? Do they use clocks and calendars driven by radioactive decay?

Yes, indeed, time flies, but you can put away your stopwatch, because unless you’re writing a story like The Poor Little Rich Girl (which, among other more ghastly things, explores bizarre alternative meanings for common idiomatic expressions), you probably don’t need it for racing insects.

 

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Another Author’s Insight: Edna Ferber (1885-1968)

ferber“SHOW BOAT” is neither history nor biography, but fiction. This statement is made in the hope that it will forestall such protest as may be registered by demon statisticians against certain liberties taken with characters, places, and events. In the Chicago portion of the book, for example, a character occasionally appears some three or four years after the actual date of his death. Now and then a restaurant or gambling resort is described as running full blast at a time when it had vanished at the frown of civic virtue. This, then, was done, not through negligence in research, but because, in the attempt to give a picture of the time, it was necessary slightly to condense a period of fifteen or twenty years. E. F.
Edna Ferber, Show Boat, Introduction

Most of Show Boat takes place between approximately 1875 – 1899. The book was published in 1926, so the period in question was well within living memory.

Throw a log on the fire: When does artistic license become just fudging with the facts?

 

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