Resources for Writers – #1

A long, long time ago (heavens, it seems an age!), I wrote a post about the difficulties of historical accuracy facing writers.

Really? So kind of you – it’s here: HERE

Gosh, people are so kind.

Anyway, I have a number of books which I find invaluable when I am writing, so just to mention a few:

I have a first edition of Chambers’ Encyclopaedia; two volumes, published 1848, which I got for a song many years ago. Of course, anyone who has ever heard me sing will know that cannot be literally true – the only thing I might get for a song would be a heavy fine or a spell in prison. Or a slap. But enough of that.

001

Referring back to my post on historical accuracy, I argued that even contemporary accounts of history are suspect – possibly even more so than many later ones – but as a snapshot of the world as it was seen by a group of British writers in 1848, my Chambers’ Encyclopaedia is invaluable. It gives me their view of other nations and religions, their understanding of science and commerce, and many other topics. A story set in 1848 or thereabouts, would use much of that information.

And 1848 in Europe was known as the year of revolutions – a good setting for a story or ten.

Equally, I set a long short story in 1920’s England, and many of the travel books of the time (I have a guide book to Dartmoor published in 1920) carry adverts for food, drink, hotels, buses, etc, which give a lot of the detail I needed.

Finally, Lonely Planet. My current novel, for which I still don’t have a title – don’t judge me – is set mainly in the India of 1988-ish. The 1986 edition of West Asia on a Shoestring while not being a great deal of use to the traveller of 2017, is incredibly useful to me when writing my book. I can easily get a sense of the price of everything that my English traveller of the story will encounter, and also a sense of what is available – where buses or trains might run, what sort of facilities are to be found in small hill towns, and many other things.

Obviously, our old chum Google is always at hand to help us out with our queries, but resources such as these are not only more accurate, they save us having to sift through many sites that may provide inaccurate information.

And God help the writer that uses that.

Progress Report

Yes, I know. Could do better. *sigh*

But this is just about the writing…eh? What do you mean, that’s what you were talking about? Do you, by any chance, mean my tendency to skip from one writing project to another before finishing the first? Yes? You do? Well, okay, guilty as charged.

Perhaps I’d better explain.

I’ve got two novels on the go at once. I get a bit stuck on one, so I go and work on the other for a while. I’m making progress with both of them, but…just…not…very…quickly…

At the moment, I am back working on the follow-up novel to ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile.’ It’s not a sequel, since I regard MFWTC as a stand-alone work, so to speak. The new work, which I do not have a title for yet, is set in a fictitious Himalaya Hill Station, takes place in the 1980s (mainly), and is about the remaining British and the Anglo-Indians in this particular small corner of India, although the story naturally references a good deal more than that.

P1050010a

Steam engine…yes, at a hill station in India. But, relevant to this post? No, not really.

It’s a little difficult to say much about the plot without risking spoilers, but the story is about relationships of various kinds – people with other people, with the land, with ideas and ideals. I’m probably about a third of the way through the first draft at around 30,000 words, and currently going strong.

Of course, this could be a really good reason for a trip to a hill station in the not too distant future. Purely for research, of course! Perhaps I could apply for some sort of grant?

Let’s Rid the Internet of Kittens

What is it about the internet and kittens, for goodness’ sake? There are far too many pictures of them.

Okay, that’s too provocative. Let’s move on.

005

She Who Dislikes Being Referred To This Way has been away for a few days. I had presumed that I would sleep better without the snoring, and the duvet being constantly pulled off me, but I was wrong.

For some reason, I’ve not slept particularly well at all.

Perhaps it was the wild parties I’ve no idea why not.

I had intended to begin a painting, maybe even get it finished, but although I carefully planned said painting, even finding a few resource pictures to use, once I sat down in front of the paper, it just refused to happen. My mind went completely blank and my enthusiasm kicked the wall sulkily for a few moments and then ran out of the house sobbing.

Oh well, back to the writing.

I did have a few ideas for short stories and, because I know how to use my time both productively and wisely, immediately started writing two of them, as well as continuing with both the novels I’m writing. That’s what you’re meant to do, right? Isn’t it?

Oh, and a poem.

And, of course, I need to do research for all the various Tales In Process. Isn’t it amazing what a little bit of research throws up?

Here are just a couple of little snippets, a few gobbets of curiosity, that I have come across recently while researching topics in medieval Persia and India, for use in my #1 Novel In Progress, The Assassin’s Garden.

All of the prostitutes in Fatephur Sikri, India, during the short time that it was Akhbar’s capital, were kept in an area just outside the city called ‘The Devil’s Quarter’.

You do get sidetracked, of course, but perhaps that will be an integral part of the plot? Possible spoiler alert?

I wouldn’t like to say.

And at one point, there is a long journey undertaken in my book, by caravan.

‘Caravan’ is a Persian word, I discover. That seems appropriate. In some parts of Persia they would travel by day and rest by night.

In others, the reverse was true. Something to do with the temperature, I expect.

In the nineteenth century, there were caravans that existed just to transfer corpses to holy cities for burial. These disappeared in the early twentieth century, largely due to better understanding of how diseases spread!

And, obviously, I mean the caravans that are chock full of camels and traders and an ill-assorted collection of ne’er-do-wells, not the wretched giant metal boxes blocking ninety percent of our roads as soon as the weather shows even the faintest promise of a few hours of sunshine.

But enough of caravans, for now, I’ve got some words to beat into shape.

Oh, and there are still people who would prefer pictures of kittens?

Pitfalls for Writers – no.6: Historical Accuracy

 

‘Dear Mr. Author.

Whilst reading your book ‘Oh what fun and laughter we had during the time the Black Death wiped out our village’ the other day, I was disappointed to notice that you mentioned July 23rd 1449 as having been a sunny day in your fictitious village. From the descriptions you provide, you have clearly located said village a little to the south of present day Norwich, and my extensive researches prove that July 23rd 1449 would have been a rainy day there.

Yours disgruntledly,

A Pedant.’

How accurate do you need to be, as a writer, with historical facts?

If you are writing a non-fiction book, you have to be scrupulously accurate, no matter what subject it is.

End of.

On the other hand, if you are writing fiction, you have a certain amount of leeway. First of all, though, it is worth saying that if you sell enough copies of your book you will eventually attract correspondents like the fellow above. Is that something to worry about? Only if they get to know where you live, perhaps. Otherwise, send them a nice reply, thanking them for their diligence, and assuring them that you will correct your dreadful fault in the next edition. On the other hand:

‘Dear Mr Author.

The Black Death was actually sweeping the country in 1349, not 1449.

Yours smugly,

A Historian.’

This time, you’ve screwed up.

And yes, it matters.

Very minor inaccuracies are bound to slip through, and very few people will notice them. And if they do, they will not think anything of them.

Except for Arthur Pedant, of course.

The big things are another matter. Imagine reading a novel set in the days around the Russian Revolution, and then the author tells you that the Bolsheviks rose up against the state in 1927 instead of 1917. Or that they were led in the beginning by Stalin. Immediately, the author’s credibility has evaporated, as has their story.

Because the reader no longer believes the author, and they no longer accept their story.

The moral here, then, is don’t skimp on the research!

It is possible to radically change the facts of history, but the difference is that to do this the author must present it as the whole point of the story. In steampunk novels, the whole history of Victorian Britain is altered, but the reader accepts this as it is the premise behind the genre. It is seen not as a mistake, but as a narrative invention.

In many science fiction novels, the premise is a future that is the result of a different history than that which actually happened. For example, the Germans won the Second World War, or of different worlds or dimensions in which history diverges from the accepted version. Again, this is accepted by the reader, as it is the premise that the story is set on.

It is possible to break this rule, but to do so the author has to break it in such a way that it is quickly obvious that they have done it deliberately, and not by mistake.

One might, for example, set a novel in Victorian England that is not steampunk – a detective story, perhaps – but in which Queen Victoria is assassinated in 1860. As this is something that no one could possibly put in by accident, it will be seen as part of the invented narrative and accepted.

Well, probably. Where is Arthur Pedant?

The Past is Another Country…

…they do things differently there (L.P.Hartley )

Almost 20 years ago I was a care-worker, paying visits to support elderly folk who were, for various reasons, unable to cope on their own. I would provide support in a number of ways – cooking, washing and dressing,and cleaning, for example.

One man I visited quite often would talk a lot about his younger days – as is natural. He had a wealth of stories, and I always told him he should get someone to write them down. It is the ordinary person’s stories that are frequently the most interesting, and the ones that we usually don’t hear. Famous politicians, sports stars, movie stars…well, they write autobiographies, or have them written for them, and we hear all about the other famous people they knew and the hotels they stayed in…yawn, yawn, yawn.

But we hear far less about the family in the village 80 years ago, their day to day life and how the outside world impacted upon them.

Below, there is a photo of London Road, just outside of Tunbridge Wells, taken earlier today.

005

My client told me that during his youth, he would walk back along this road after an evening out in town, describing how there was nothing but open fields on both sides for much of the walk. Looking at it now, it is hard to picture that, since I have never known it any way other than how it looks now.

But prior to this, in his childhood, he lived in the village of Groombridge, on the other side of Tunbridge Wells, and he told me how, as a schoolboy during the First World War, he and his classmates ran out of the class one day and across a field, to see a German Zeppelin airship that had just been shot down.

It is stories like this, that are the genuinely interesting stories that come out of the past.

And for my large Work In Progress, the past really is a foreign country. Much of it is set in Persia and India, in a time frame that covers some 300 years up until the late 19th century.

Now, I was about to write that if it is difficult for me to picture the main road near where I live as it was some 50 to 75 years ago, then it is far more difficult for me to picture the places in India and Persia where and when I have set my novel, but then I realised that this is not actually true.

And so this post is now taking a turn that I had not expected when I sat down to write it.

The Indian capital at the time was at Fatehpur Sikri, which today is just the remains of those buildings – it was only occupied for some 22 years, and then abandoned. I have visited the site and walked around it, and it is quite easy to imagine it occupied by Akhbar, his court, and the general population.

I have never been to Persia (modern day Iran), so my impressions are formed only at second hand. And much of what I have read consists of works about the 1500’s, and I am familiar with many of the paintings of the period, so again it seems almost natural to imagine it as it was then.

And then when I have travelled in India, as well as in the Middle East, I have spent a lot of time visiting the old parts of the towns and cities, and many rural areas where life follows the same patterns that it has for hundreds of years, and so, again, it seems more natural to picture the settings for my book in those time periods that concern me.

Finally, researching these areas, I often come across old black and white photos of places of interest to me, and since I have not been there, they are the only impression of these places that I have.

Of course, Tunbridge Wells in the Victorian era is much harder for me to visualise. All of the modern buildings get in the way of my imagination. All of the roads are surfaced with tarmac, the open spaces have largely gone, and many parts of the common that used to be open and windswept are now covered in trees.

On a slightly different note….

As a project, I occasionally take photos in sepia of the area around where I live, as though they might have been taken about 80 years ago – around the time that my elderly client was walking along the London Road, winds blowing across the fields either side of him, and the only light from the moon. Each photo that I take has something in it to show that it was taken recently though, rather than a long time ago, such as a modern vehicle, a modern street lamp, road markings, or modern windows. The shot below is an example.

Holden Pond

Easy to feel that it might be taken in 1930.

Oh, I really can’t be bothered…

Having published ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’, I do feel that I have succumbed to the temptation of sitting back and resting on my laurels. It seems to be quite difficult to motivate myself to write anything, and, strangely, it also seems quite difficult to motivate myself to do anything about publicising said novel.

014

I have tried to galvanise the other Work In Progress; my long novel ‘The Assassin’s Garden’, which already weighs in at some 110,000 words, but I seem to be very dissatisfied with anything that I write. I get too easily sidetracked from the research that I need to do, and everything that I read back seems to be somehow trite and uninteresting.

There are some short stories that I need to edit, one of them almost 15,000 words long. But do I feel like doing it? Nope.

Then there is a poem cycle that was going well…nope.

Even blogging seems to be much harder work than usual.

Is this some sort of reaction from finishing the other novel, I wonder?

But what about publicising ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’? Surely there is plenty of incentive to do that?

Well, I have had a few reviews, and they are all very kind and generous with their praise, and I have the strangest feeling that I am so pleased with them, that they seem of more importance to me than sales.

Obviously, no sales would mean no reviews, so this doesn’t really make too much sense, but I do wonder if other writers feel this way after publishing a book.

Or could it just be because it is my first?

But, something clearly needs to be done.

I had decided to enter NaNoWriMo this year. This is National (Na) Novel (No) Writing (Wri) Month (Mo), which happens in November (No again?) and is internet based (So how come National? Search me…) and is a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel (Gosh) in the month of November (Phew!). This is generally in the form of a first draft, to be edited later at leisure. I thought it would be fun to try, and I had begun to make a few notes in readiness.

But in a similar way to the way that my idea for ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ hijacked my writing last year, held a gun to my head and forced me to write it, so my ideas for this other novel have rapidly snowballed until I knew that I had to make a start on it.

And so, I now have a new work in progress.

Again it is set in India, but this time there are two main protagonists; one Westerner and one Indian, and the story will be written alternately from their Points Of View. I have pretty well worked out the details of the plot, but let’s just say at the moment that they both change a lot as a result of their meeting (I don’t do spoilers, but I do try to do teasers!).

Hopefully, this will goad me into rather more activity than I have managed in the last few weeks, including now thinking up a new idea for NaNoWriMo.

Pitfalls for Writers – 4) Language; a bit of a follow-up

Back somewhere deep in the mists of time, I published ‘Pitfalls for Writers 1’. In this, I discussed some of the potential problems of language in a novel.

If I am to write a story of medieval Persia, for example, I will write it in English. No one who reads it is going to be fooled into thinking that my characters were really speaking in English. But this on its own is not enough. There must be something in the language I use that reminds the reader that the story setting really is medieval Persia.

P1050055

And so I suggested using a flavour of the speech. I might sprinkle the conversation with words such as ‘dirham’ (a unit of currency), or ‘djinns’ (genies). The characters might smoke a ‘qalyan’, which is how they would have referred to what we generally call a hookah. A greeting might be ‘Salām ʿalaykom’.

In the comment stream that followed, I concluded that I might employ a glossary, but certainly not footnotes.

This has now become most relevant to me.

About a month ago, I finished reading Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Folded Earth’. It is a novel that is set in India, written by an Indian writer, yet it uses a glossary, although she is presumably writing in the first instance for an Indian audience. This glossary explains a few words and phrases that many western readers would be unfamiliar with, although I would expect the majority of Indian readers to know them all.

My own novel is being read now by generous beta readers, and some of the discussion is over the use of the appropriate Hindi / Urdu words in the text.

And so, with ‘The Folded Earth’ as an example, I shall definitely use a glossary.

Next, it is important to employ the correct voice.

Speech:

Clearly, if the protagonists of a story are sitting down to a meal, they might complain about the amount of fat on the meat, but they would be most unlikely to refer to it as ‘adipose tissue’. Unless one or both were, for example, surgeons.

Very few people would be likely to refer to two items as being ‘in casual juxtaposition’. They would be far more likely to say something along the lines of ‘oh, they look a bit odd next to each other.’ As tempting as it might be for the author to show off their vocabulary, it is something that should be used most carefully.

Narrator:

If the story actually has a narrator, then this becomes even more important. The country bumpkin relating an everyday tale of rustic shenanigans should not be employing sophisticated and subtle wordplay. He or she should only be employing language that they would naturally use.

Author’s voice:

Even if there is no actual narrator, it remains important to use only language that would be natural to the situation. For example, it sounds plain wrong to describe a group of Vikings ‘computing’ an answer to a problem, even if it is only the author describing it that way.

Generally, of course, and I know that some will disagree with this, it is usually better to avoid all flowery and showy language in novels, and use simple language well.

Finally, a jarring note found in a few modern novels set in older times, is that the characters often think like modern folk. Reading these books as against books written, perhaps, 150 years ago, it is not just the style and language of the writing that are different, but also the prejudices. The hero of a novel set in 1840 is going to have casual prejudices against, perhaps, people of another race, women, etc etc. We tend to be reluctant to set these down in print, nowadays, perhaps as if by doing so we are almost admitting to having these prejudices ourselves.

However, if we want to depict our characters realistically, we need to do so ‘warts and all’. And if the writer is going to depict them otherwise, then he or she needs to have a good reason why they do.

 

Once Upon a Time

046

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

It is a cliché that causes us to smile, yet variations of that phrase will have been used countless times in the distant past, when our ancestors gathered around the storyteller of the tribe to hear whatever tale he (or she) was about to tell.

And research http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645  that was published this week, now tells us that the history of fairy tales turns out to be even longer than anyone suspected, going back to the times of prehistoric tribes. Not that this theory is entirely uncontested, of course.

But I would be surprised if it were untrue.

There have always been storytellers, who performed an important role, especially before the invention of writing. In those days, when all knowledge had to be memorised if it was to be of any use, then the skills of the storyteller in the tribe, someone who was used to organising their thoughts so that they could remember what was important and then recount it to the rest of the tribe, would have been vital for far more than simply entertainment; they would have been essential for the tribe’s survival.

They would have told stories about wild animals; either cautionary tales, or how to hunt them. Stories of skirmishes with other tribes; praising the bravery of their own warriors, and recounting how the other tribe was put to flight, but warning, still, of the danger these other tribes posed.

They must have always speculated on the origins of their world, and come up with the various creation myths. It would be important that all the tribe understood the appropriate rituals they would need to follow to appease the gods and ensure their own welfare.

So these stories would have been a way of sharing information with all the members of the tribe.

Much later, after the invention of writing, these tales began to perform a different function. They would still be used as cautionary tales, but now perhaps aimed more towards children (watch out for cross-dressing wolves and the like), or purely for entertainment.

But in a society where the majority were unable to read, they would remain important.

Throughout history, there has always been a borrowing and reinvention of stories; the myth of a flood that wipes out most of mankind, for example, is found virtually all over the world.

But the difference between a ‘myth’ and a ‘fairy story’ seems a little vague. I suppose the term ‘myth’ does seem to have a little more gravitas.

Many of these stories concern blacksmiths, which might be due to an early awe of those peoples who discovered how to work stronger metal, specifically iron, and fears that they might be using magical or supernatural means to do so. I’ll return to that shortly.

Now let’s take one well-known example of a fairy tale; the story of Snow White plays out both as a royal power struggle, something that has occurred time and again all over the world, and also the classic tale of the wicked stepmother, highlighting the insecurity a child may feel when a parent dies and is replaced by a stranger.

She flees an assassination attempt to find refuge with another people. The fact that they are depicted as dwarves (in the well-known European version) serves to emphasize the fact that they are not her own people.

There are further attempts on her life, but she is finally rescued by a passing prince and lives happily ever after.

Variations of this story crop up across Europe, Turkey, Africa, Asia and America. Whether these tales were passed from tribe to tribe and spread across the world that way, or were invented spontaneously in different parts of the world, it is unlikely we will ever know. It was probably a combination of the two. What is certain, is that they tend to be reinvented regularly.

Stories of mortals striking deals with supernatural beings (i.e. the devil) occur world-wide. What they all have in common is that either the human making it reneges on the deal, and usually finds a way to cheat the supernatural being, or, of course, the devil comes to collect his soul.

It is still a well-used device in literature. There is Goethe’s Faust, and since then many other popular novels on the subject, and we are still happily reinventing this story, as well as all of the other fairy tales, into new stories today.

In Britain, there are numerous folk-tales on this subject, usually concerning blacksmiths who either make pacts with the devil, or who are visited by him in disguise and realise who he really is (the comely maiden with the cloven hooves is often a bit of a giveaway). It usually ends with the devil being grabbed by the nose with red hot pincers and running off screaming. But again, these tales surface from all parts of the British Isles, and are set in times that are contemporary to the story teller. So the fellow telling the tale in an ale-house in a sixteenth century village would mention the blacksmith in a village twenty or so miles away – close enough to be particularly exciting to the listeners, but probably far enough away for there to be no one in his audience who might confidently denounce it as false.

And then, of course, they all lived happily ever after.

Pitfalls for Writers 3

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 3) Spellcheck and Distractions

 

Spellcheck.

There are particular problems with the English language, when it comes to muddling words up, since we seem to be blessed (or otherwise) with a large number of groups of similar words. Within each group, they’re pronounced the same, although their meaning and spelling are different.

Did you see what I did there?

You might alter something, but then leave it on an altar.

Then there are, for example, groyne and groin; although in the US, groyne is spelled groin. Do you know which language your spellcheck uses? The default on my computer is US English, so I had to manually alter it to UK English, since I live in UK.

(This is referring to groyne / groin as in a breakwater, not an anatomical term)

Of course, if I was writing a piece to be published in the US, I would then need to alter many of the spellings to US usage.

Are you still with me?

Naturally, as writers, we should all understand the difference between ‘they’re, their and there’, but when using spellcheck it is perhaps easy, or perhaps lazy, to get them muddled up.

There. That’s what I did.

There is no substitute for a dictionary and a good knowledge of grammar.

P1050065

Distractions

Oh, I’m so easily distracted. When I am spending a day writing, be it on a novel or short story or on a piece for my blog, I turn to the internet to look something up and before I know it, I’m reading something else, which then encourages me to follow a thread somewhere to something I spotted that looks awfully interesting and then…

Obviously, if there is cricket going on, then that is understandable. Everybody needs to keep up with the score, don’t they? But it is just as likely to be an unrelated distraction.

I do understand the importance of a timetable, and I admit that I am hopeless at following my own advice, here. Occasionally I will scrawl down a note in my diary for the day that reads something along the lines of ‘Breakfast, then 9 am writing. 12 noon emails and lunch. 1 pm – 4 pm writing.’

When I do manage to have a working day that is disciplined, I invariably find that I get a lot more done. And one of the most important things, for me, is not to look at emails before lunchtime. As soon as I do, I’m no longer thinking about writing, but answering these various emails, and whatever it is they’re about.

Ooh, hang on, I need to go and check the cricket. No, no, it’s important. I’ll be back in a moment…

The Problem of Historical Truth

In my previous post about the pitfalls of online research, I began by alluding to the unreliability of newspaper reports. If you were to read reports on an important item of news in a number of different newspapers, you frequently might be forgiven for thinking that they were actually talking about completely different events. There will be political bias, of course, and the prejudices and agendas of reporters and editors alike. Are the individuals in an armed insurgency terrorists or freedom fighters? It is a point of view. Are strikers in an industry greedy mischief-making saboteurs, or victimised and mistreated victims of greedy corporations? Again, it is a point of view.

It can be very hard today to see through the fog of opinions and misinformation on any topic. How much more so when we delve back into time?

History is written by the victors. For example, what we know about Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and Britain were written largely by the Roman conquerors, especially Caesar himself. Most of what we know of the reign of Ashoka, in India, comes from the edicts that he caused to be inscribed upon the remarkable number of rocks and pillars that are still in existence.

023 (2)

Even tales written by the vanquished are likely to be inaccurate, of course. The cruelty of the victors, their barbarity; all of their actions will be exaggerated.

The historian understands that information comes largely from primary and secondary sources. A primary source might be, for example, an account written at the time (Caesar, above) or Parish registers of births, marriages and deaths. These sources are considered to be most likely to be accurate, being compiled at the time of the events described, but clearly they might all be deliberately or accidently falsified. Secondary sources might be newspapers, which are largely made up of analysis and opinion, and therefore considered to be an interpretation of information that has been derived from another (hopefully primary!) source.

A primary source is also referred to as evidence, yet I wonder whether a better distinction would be made if ‘evidence’ referred only to unwritten sources; archaeological remains, buildings, pottery, jewellery and coins and their like, which, whilst needing interpretation, are unlikely to be prey to the kind of distortions that written sources might be. Caesar, after all, might have claimed to take ten thousand prisoners when he only took five hundred, yet pottery of a particular type that is found at a particular spot, tells a story that needs to be interpreted, yet is unlikely to be a falsehood.

We need to be careful, though, when it is interpreted in light of contemporary writing, to avoid the temptation of unconsciously corroborating those writings.

Having written the above, we do have to take a certain amount on trust, because it is not practical to question everything in the world that we come across.

Yet, just because we discover that Troy really does exist, does not mean that all of the stories of the Iliad are now, somehow, all true. That would be like an author writing an incredibly impossible fantasy tale, in which the city of Vienna still exists and features, yet claiming it must be true because Vienna is a real place.

During the first year of World War One, a fictional short story ‘The Bowmen’ was published in the London Evening News by Arthur Machen. In this tale, he describes a battle between English and German soldiers at Mons, in France, in which the beleaguered British were aided by the sudden appearance of phantom archers who intervened to keep the British safe. Although this was fiction, the story quickly ‘went viral’, as we might put it today, and was readily believed by many in Britain. Of course, there was a feeling then that the British were good and the Germans evil, and so it was natural that God might intervene to help and protect them. A far stronger belief in God, in those days, also contributed to the feeling that it was natural to find that a miracle had occurred.

Although Machen republished the tale in a book with a long introduction explaining that it was fiction, and examining reasons the public thought it was true, not only did the belief persist, but further reports of angels on the battlefield began to appear. As a child in the 1960’s, I remember reading an account of this in a comic, with it presented as the truth. In 2001, the Sunday Times reported that photographic evidence to support the story had been discovered, although this was proved to be a hoax.

The Sunday Times also published exerts from Hitler’s Diaries in 1983, until these, too, were proved to have been forged.

Memories are notoriously unreliable. I was reading just a few days ago of an experiment where a group of people were encouraged to discuss childhood memories, with selected members of the group feeding in deliberately false information. After an initial hesitation, it seemed that all of them accepted these false memories as real, even to the extent of agreeing that they had taken part in a balloon ride, when they had not, and describing what they had seen from the balloon, and their feelings during the ride. The point being that they came to believe these were their own, real, memories.

How reliable are our own memories, then? And what can we trust? Clearly, there must be a lot of historical narrative that has been honestly recorded, that is simply not true, and we are unlikely to ever know what it is.