Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – Time Travel as Our Voice in Historical Fiction

The hardest thing about writing historical fiction is presenting the past in an understandable way.

It’s easy to describe and explain the past in historical non-fiction. You can say whatever you want, as long as you believe it’s true. The results may be dry, and they certainly won’t be as evocative as great fiction, but there’s no need to explain why you’re explaining.

In fiction it’s different. Especially in modern fiction, where the most common points of view are third person limited and first person, there are limits on what you can explain. A viewpoint character will take their period in time for granted. They won’t wonder why things are how they are, comment on it, or explain it to themselves.

Getting Around the Voice Problem

Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book neatly gets around this.

In its marketing and the framing of the story, this is science fiction. An academic travels back in time to the 14th century. After the transport goes wrong, her colleagues are left trying to retrieve her while facing a modern epidemic. The novel alternates between distant past and near future.

But while this hefty book spends a lot of time in its near future, that never feels like the most important part. What makes it distinctive is the experienced of medieval England. The period is brilliantly evoked, not through great historical events but through everyday life. How people work, live, laugh, love, and sometimes suffer is all shown. Because the viewpoint character comes from the future, she observes details that are important to readers, not those important to the people of the time. She becomes our intermediary, explaining the past and bringing it to life.


The sci-fi construct also helps bring the issues of the 14th century alive through parallels. The challenges and heartbreaks of the epidemic in the 21st century happen in a setting closer to readers’ own lives. That makes them more immediately comprehensible, driving home the point of how people experience such crises. They hit you in the feels.

Those thoughts and feelings are then carried over to the medieval parts, as disease strikes in a very different setting. Differences and similarities are shown by the parallel lives.

Great Historical Fiction

Only half of this book is historical fiction, and even that half is compromised in its accuracy by the presence of the time traveller. Yet once you accept her presence as necessary to enhance our experience, the rest comes vividly to life. This is some of the best historical fiction I’ve ever read – engaging and evocative without needing to use big names or big action to keep readers interested.

As a student of 14th century history, I can get very picky about how the period’s depicted. At first glance, it seems strange that a sci-fi story has become my favourite depiction of the era. But that story does a breathtaking job of bringing a period I’m passionate about to life, without ever breaking the believability of a viewpoint. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all.

If you’re passionate about the medieval past, you like time travel stories, or you enjoy slow, rich work like that of Guy Gavriel Kay, then I totally recommend Doomsday Book.


Oh, but try not to read the back cover blurb. My copy contained a massive spoiler there. It didn’t stop me enjoying the book, but it robbed me of a great reveal.

Writing Excuses 10.17 exercise – different points of view

bookdesign346Doesn’t time fly when you’re writing? It’s May already, and Writing Excuses are a third of the way through their year-long podcast writing course. I still feel like I’m learning a lot from it, and recommend it anyone who’s into writing, especially writing sf+f.

This week’s exercise is:

Pick your gee-whiz, whatever it may be, and describe it in 150 words from ten different perspectives. Yes, that’s 1500 words.

I suppose the biggest gee-whiz factor in my Epiphany Club stories is the steampunk technology, so I’ve picked a moment involving this from the third book, which I’m currently working on. Here’s the emergence of a Prussian tunnelling machine into the streets of Paris, from five points of view (because I only half did the exercise):

Dirk Dynamo

The rumbling grew to a roar, the ground shaking beneath Dirk’s feet. He flung himself to the ground as the road in front of him exploded in a shower of dirt and fist-sized stones.

Out of the hole a vehicle emerged. It was unlike anything Dirk had ever seen before, but it was a moment’s work to see it was built for war. Seven feet high and three times as long, it was covered from end to end in heavy armoured plating, scraped from its journey through the earth. Great wheeled shovels protruded from the front, and small wheels propelled it into the street.

Dirk thought he had seen the future of war in the bloody fields of Gettysburg, but in that single moment he knew he had been wrong. Humans were far smarter than that. Smarter and more terrible.

Timothy Blaze-Simms

As the dirt settled, Blaze-Simms stared at the machine sitting in front of him. His eyes went wide with wonder, a smile lighting his face.

He had considered devices like it in the past, of course. Trackless trains, motorised wagons, that time he’d built a mobile factory. But this was something entirely new.

He pulled out his notebook and started frantically sketching. The armoured plating was clearly thick to withstand bullets, yet streamlined so as not to cause obstructions as it travelled through the dirt. The digging wheels looked to have been influenced by moles’ paws, as well as some of Brunel’s wilder inventions. The engine must be incredibly powerful, and most of the space filled with fuel.

A hatch opened in the roof. A glimpse of its fastening was all Blaze-Simms needed to make a note of the design. Someone was emerging, a gun in their hands.

“Get down!” Dirk slammed into him, knocking him to the ground as bullets whizzed past their heads.

Isabelle McNair

It was quite the ugliest thing Isabelle had ever seen. An ungainly mass of steel, smoke billowing from its rear and dirt sliding from its sides. The roar of its engine was accompanied by the grinding of ridged wheels over cobbles, the clang-clang-clang of its shovel wheels spinning against the street.

Stepping back into the shelter of a doorway, she watched as a hatch opened in the roof and soldiers started pouring out, guns already barking as they opened fire on anyone in sight. Because of course, what else would one do with a spectacular new advancement in transport, if not fill it full of soldiers?

She could imagine the excitement of the men who had made this thing, and of those riding in it. They would be like children with a new toy.

Still there was potential in the thing, if she could just get inside.

Hans the shoveller

Hans grunted as he flung another shovel-full of coal into the boiler. They told him this wasn’t just coal, it was something special, something powerful. Hans didn’t care. It was all just the same when you were the man who did the shovelling.

The floor tilted beneath him. He grabbed hold of the overhead rail as the whole vehicle swayed and then righted itself. The floor was horizontal again. That probably meant they were above ground.

Sparks flew at the disruption, smoke clogging the room and Hans’s lungs. He coughed, a wretched, rasping noise that had only gotten worse through all the weeks of training.

Join the army, they’d said. Fight for the homeland, they’d said.

So much for glory. Hans shifted his grip and kept shovelling coal.

Miura Noriko

The machine crawled down the street, smoke billowing from its rear, soldiers jogging along beside it with guns drawn. They looked ill-disciplined to Noriko, their blue suits impractical, their stances slovenly. Not real warriors.

The machine would be easy prey. It was so European she almost laughed. Bigger, harder, tougher, that was the way of westerners. Cover your machine in enough armour plates and you would make it invincible. Unless you left a hole in the top to come in and out by, or an open pipe to release the fumes. Everything had its weak points, even this.

Still, there was something admirable about it. A thing singular in purpose, all that engineering poured into the single task of digging through the ground. By the standards of these people it was almost subtle, to emerge from the ground beneath your enemy’s feet.


Reflecting on the Exercise

The main thing I got out of this was that I’m not clear on what the biggest gee-whiz excitement factor for these books is, except in the last volume, the climax of a hunt for the lost Great Library. Purely from the point of view of getting people excited about the story, I need to think about that.

Writing a scene from different viewpoints is always helpful though, and adding Hans in particular made me look at this in a different way.

Have you tried this exercise? What did you think?

* * *

On a completely different note, today’s the last day my book From a Foreign Shore is free on Amazon, so if you like historical fiction, alternate history, short stories or just my writing, why not check it out?

Writing Excuses exercise 10.7 – changing perspective character

I’m really enjoying doing the recent Writing Excuses exercises. I used a couple to develop Friday’s story, and with it a whole world for future stories of magic in the Wild West. So, skipping over a wildcard week to let me catch up, it’s time for the exercise from episode 10.7:

Pick one of the dead-drop characters from the exercise two weeks ago, and turn them into a secondary character. Now take one of the characters with whom they interacted, and write the same scene again, but from this new character’s POV.

Of the characters from the previous exercise, I’ve since used the most popular one in a story, so I’m going to use the other character who drew some favourable comments – Sarah the escaped slave. Here’s the original version of her journey through the market:

Rough cloth chafed at the raw skin of Sarah’s wrists and ankles, cheap clothing concealing the places where her manacles had been. Fighting the urge to glance around, to give herself away in her anxiety over not getting caught, she stopped at the third stall along, just like Seneca had told her to, and dropped the note he had written her into a tin cup. The man behind the stall whistled a few bars of a spiritual, and as Sarah joined in she felt her spirits lift.

That leaves me with only two other characters mentioned, one of whom isn’t in the scene, so I’ll move the viewpoint to the stall-holder. Same scene, different point of view, and more words this time…

A contact

Marcus could see the sheriff and his deputies eyeing him across the marketplace. Most white folks didn’t like to see a black man with a business of his own, even if that man’s business was a ramshackle market stall selling cheap pots and pans to folks who couldn’t afford no better. If they’d only known Marcus’s real business, they’d have hated him a whole lot more. That hate made Marcus proud.

A woman walked across the marketplace, huddled in a ragged dress and a heavily patched shawl. Her wrists and ankles were carefully covered, and Marcus reckoned he knew what sort of scars lay underneath. Chains weighed heavy and manacles scraped skin.

Stopping at the stall, she looked at his wares without really seeing them, eyes darting nervously. Then she dropped a slip of paper into a cup at the corner of the stall, and Marcus recognised Seneca’s writing on the outside. Just like he’d thought, another fugitive making for the railroad – not the one of cold steel, but the one of warm hearts and desperate hopes.

The sheriff was approaching, casting a suspicious glance toward the oblivious young woman. As she walked away Marcus whistled a hymn. At this signal, Old Sam and Meredith Brown started again on the game of chequers they had going in the shelter of the stall. As they moved the chipped pieces, folks around the market took sudden sidesteps they’d never expected to. A butcher and a labourer knocked into each other, exchanged angry words, and a fight broke out. The sheriff turned to break it up, as the young woman disappeared from view.

Marcus took the piece of paper from the cup and slipped it into his pocket for later.

Reflecting on the exercise

I originally meant to make this as short as the original scene, but once I started I felt I needed more words to do a different character justice, to show both what was distinctive about him and what’s distinctive about the setting. I can see these two characters taking a story of escaped slaves in very different directions – one putting her effort into escape, the other into keeping things moving while evading the law. And both clearly have a place in that story.

What was also interesting was how this exercise in shifting perspective generated other characters. I needed someone to represent the threat of the law, and someone to work the magic at the end. Showing character required a story, which generated more characters, filling more of the niches discussed in this episode of Writing Excuses.

Did anybody else try this exercise? How did you get on? These are really interesting exercises to do, and if you aren’t already I really recommend giving them a try. You can find all the exercises and related episodes over at Writing Excuses.

Why peasants miss the rapture

Last night the Northern Lights cast their spectacular glow across the night sky above Britain. Thousands of people went out to see it, photograph it, revel in the spectacle and the beauty.

Me, I didn’t even bother stepping out the back door. I live in one of the largest urban sprawls in Britain, on the side of the country that catches all that lovely grey weather drifting in off the north Atlantic. Between the clouds and the light pollution not much shows up in the sky around here. So I stayed warm indoors instead.

I imagine the same thing happened before the Battle of Hastings. Sure, some people saw an omen of change tearing through the night sky in the form Halley’s Comet. But plenty more missed it because the weather was rubbish, or they were short-sighted, or they just didn’t have much time to stare up into the sky.

It’s something that’s easily forgotten when you’re writing a story of epic fantasy, that for one reason or another big events will always pass somebody by. There’ll be peasants who don’t know about the dragon in the next valley over, seers who miss the signs, knights who don’t know the latest sword swinging techniques. In sci-fi as well there will be people who miss the meteor strike or don’t realise that Evilcorp owns everyone’s digitised souls.

However many people gaze in awe at the arrival of the rapture, there’ll still be some folks asleep in bed.

Speaking of which I’m pretty sleepy myself and need to meet some deadlines before I head to bed for a long, satisfying nap. Have a great weekend, and try not to miss its great spectacular features, whatever they are.

Willing ignorance

How far can we allow our characters or our narrative voices to be more ignorant than our readers?

I didn’t think this was a difficult question, but after listening to the latest episode of Writing Excuses I’m not so sure. In this episode they talk about the gap that sometimes exists between what the writer and reader knows of the world and what’s written on the page. I thought they were going to be talking about the dramatic potential in this, but instead they mostly discussed the pitfalls. The fact that, if a character says something inaccurate about science or a historical setting they’re living in, the reader may see this as ignorance on the author’s part and so be thrown out of the story.

True, sometimes this does reflect the author’s ignorance. But a lot of the time that’s not the case. Mary Robinette Kowal discussed a story she’d written in which a character was unaware of prejudices common in her setting. This was a deliberate move on her part as an author, and the book went on to address those prejudices and tensions. But for at least one reader she spoke with it became a block to reading the book. That ignorance on the character’s part seemed so implausible to her that she couldn’t go on with the story – she thought Mary was missing something crucial.

You can get around this sort of problem by lampshading it. Have the character be ignorant of something but have the narrative voice draw attention to that ignorance. But what if the character is providing the narrative voice? And how much lampshading can you do before that too becomes irksome to readers? Then it becomes much more difficult.

Of course this sort of gap can also be a powerful tool. Think of the dramatic ironies in J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, when characters at an early 20th century dinner party talk of the unsinkable of the Titanic and the impossibility of war in Europe. Or the tensions in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books that arise from Katniss’s lack of awareness of her own circumstances.

But writer beware – it seems you can’t just throw those ironies around with glee. Be careful what your readers will think of your writing skills and how that will colour their reading of the book.

George R R Martin and a hundred different viewpoints

George R R Martin isn’t afraid of using multiple viewpoints. If anything, it’s becoming a little bit of a problem in the later Game of Thrones books, as every single character in Westeros screams to have their voice heard. So it’s interesting, both as a reader and a writer, to get some insight into why he does it.

Original photo by Shane Lin via Flickr creative commons
Original photo by Shane Lin via Flickr creative commons

Broadening narrative scope

Martin recently gave some advice for budding fantasy writers. As part of it he talked about choosing PoV characters to broaden the narrative’s scope. He’s telling an epic tale of war, and he can’t show different aspects of what happens without showing a range of experiences – people in the various theatres of war, living through different events on different sides. It’s a much more modern approach than using an omniscient God-like viewpoint, and I agree with Martin that it’s a better one.

Losing focus

The problem with this sort of thing is that a story with so many different viewpoints, such a scattered focus, can lose some of its emotional impact. Momentum and intense atmosphere are sacrificed for the sake of showing it all. Harry Turtledove’s alternate histories suffer from this. They achieve a huge scale through multiple viewpoints, and you get to see every facet of the war, but they often lack a sense of atmosphere and emotional engagement.

Keeping a balance

The more I think about this, the more I realise just how brilliant George R R Martin is as an author. Despite that broad spread of viewpoints he manages to fill every chapter with emotion and tension, to make me care about nearly all his characters. It’s a tricky thing to do.

Of course, if he turned that skill to a more focused and compact story, something like his previous Fevre Dream, then he could build something truly intense. But I’m loving what he’s doing right now, so I shan’t complain.

In fact, knowing why Martin writes the way he does is reassuring for me. Understanding that that approach is a particular tool for a particular job lets me relax into a different approach to viewpoint in my writing, while appreciating both the glory and the limits of what Martin is doing.

Keep it up George, you continue to be awesome. And thanks for the advice.

Changing viewpoints

I’ve just had to rewrite a scene from a different point of view. It was really wrenching. The scene, set at a Roman arena, felt very evocative from the original point of view, that of a jaded ex-legionary seeing the games for the first time. I got to invest the experience with cynicism, to make it about of a connection not quite made, filled at once with nostalgia and alienation. And of course a warrior is well suited to notice and describe the details of a fight.

But ultimately, that wasn’t enough. The scene serves a function within the story, moving on plots, developing characters. And those parts of the scene are better evoked from the point of view of a young Roman aristocrat, showing her triumphs and frustrations, the things that are going on around the games.

My big lesson for this is that what best serves description isn’t necessarily what best serves character and plot. Or maybe that what feels most exciting for one scene won’t necessarily be the best choice for the whole story. Or… I don’t know, I’m just trying to retrieve meaning from my disappointment.

Have any of you had to change the viewpoint on a scene or a story? Why? How did you feel about it? Have you read a scene in someone else’s work that you thought had the wrong viewpoint? Offer me comfort or wisdom or both, people of the internet.