Dorothy Dunnett

reading closely, and closer still

One of the skills that students of literature have to acquire is that of reading closely. This is, for once, as simple (and as demanding) a concept as it sounds. To some people, the very idea is off putting, but my sense is that to write well, you need to read closely at least some of the time. (I’m not going to go into details about the general process, but I will point you to a really good summary, here.)

Some stories don’t demand a lot of the reader in terms of close reading, and then there are novels that are infamous for the effort needed. Joyce’s Ulysses is the usual example of a challenging text but there are many writers and novels that demand a great deal. Lawrence Norfolk and Richard Powers are two names that come to mind. In the end, every individual has to decide for themselves if a given novel is worth the effort required. Sometimes I am in the mood to tackle writers like this, and sometimes the effort is too much.

Niccolo Rising

Dorothy Dunnett wrote wonderful historical novels, the best kind of storytelling, but the books are not easy. On the occasion that I have run across negative reactions to her work, it has been from people who were clearly impatient with story and didn’t want to have to work so hard to understand. She wrote a number of short mysteries and two series of historical novels. The second series — The House of Niccolò — is, in my opinion, the best historical fiction ever written.

So, to demonstrate.

Here are three  paragraphs from Niccolo Rising. The setting is Flanders in 1460, and the occasion is the annual arrival of the Venetian galleys which brought high-end, expensive trade goods.

It was never less than marvellous, every year. To see the sun-glow slide through the silk of the banners, and the blaze as the oars unscrolled every one from the water and stood erect on each side like two combs. To hear the flagship begin to make music: first the drums and pipes with a rattle and chirrup, and then the burping of trumps from the poop. Above the flash of the brass, the fringe would blow and wink on the canopy where you would see, each year different, the thick sprawling embroidery of the commander’s device.

And across the water, you would swear you could sniff it all; the cinnamon and the cloves, the frankincense and the honey and the liquorice, the nutmeg and citrons, the myrrh and the rosewater from Persia in keg upon keg. You would think you could glimpse, heaped and glimmering, the sapphires and the emeralds and the gauzes woven with gold, the ostrich feathers and the elephant tusks, the gums and the ginger and the coral buttons mynheer Goswin the clerk of the Hanse might be wearing on his jacket next week.

It was a trick, that was for sure, like the Duke’s performers at Carnival time. It was no accident that the galleys always downed sails and entered harbour in daylight, with the decks sluiced and the rowers and sailing-masters in livery and the noblemen commanding each ship in a stiffened gown in the crazy Venetian mode, their beards newly trimmed, with perhaps a chained marmoset on one shoulder. ||| Dorothy Dunnett (2010-08-11). Niccolo Rising (The House of Niccolo) (Kindle Locations 1613-1618). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Read the first paragraph out loud, and read it slowly. The first thing you will notice is the rhythm of the sentences. From ‘first the drums’ to from the poop has an almost percussive rhythm. Dunnett may have worked to get this effect or it might have come to her without much effort (she was a musician as well as a writer).

Now here’s the question. The words read with a real musicality, but what the heck do they mean? Unless you are an avid sailor, or familiar with the trade practices of the mid 15th century, the history of sailing vessels and the particular build and use of galleys, some of this has to be unclear. Most readers would just have a vague idea of the images Dunnett is trying to evoke. Most readers would skim on, unconcerned that they don’t know exactly what a poop is (at least, not in the way it’s been used here). What’s a canopy in this context? What’s a commander’s device? What’s a galley, when you come right down to it? (Here’s somebody who can tell you and show you with a lot of very detailed photographs and footnotes, if you’re curious now.)

In the next paragraph Dunnett moves away from the auditory details to visual and olefactory ones and it is at this point that the narrative shifts into second person… you would swear you could sniff it all. This is not an accident, Dunnett uses this as a tool to draw you even further into the scene she’s describing, so you’re in the middle of the crowd.

And then, very subtly, she shifts again so that you are not imagining what’s in the hold of the galley, the riches that are out of sight, but the men who can afford them. Mynheer (mister) Goswin, who is a clerk (a clerk can afford such things?) of the Hanse — whatever that is. And what would coral buttons look like, now that we’re asking questions?

In strict terms, the close reading is nowhere near finished — we haven’t touched on issues of word choice or syntax or symbolism or theme.

While reading, would these questions (or others) occur to you? Would you be able to enjoy the stories if you did not know the answers?  Most people haven’t been taught to read closely and have no interest in the process. Many of them will pass on Niccolo Rising. So who  is interested in the fine points of social hierarchy among 15th century northern European merchants, and in their buttons, too?

That’s the trick Dunnett pulled off.  She means to draw you into the story to the point that you become interested in oars and devices and buttons and a lot more. You might find yourself wondering about things that never crossed your mind before, and if so, she’s done her job as a storyteller.

I confess, this is exactly the kind of thing that makes my mind race and in the best possible way. The mathematician loves those awful cryptic crosswords, and I love annotating historical fiction. Illustrations and footnotes full of detail and explanations and examples. A thorough cyber annotation of Niccolo Rising — now that sounds like a great project to me.

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avoiding language anachronisms

This topic has come up now and again, in posts about Gone with the Wind and more recently, Deadwood. It’s a technical and creative issue at the same time, and quite a tricky one, especially for people writing historical fiction or telling stories from the past on the screen.

The novelist has to find the balance between historical accuracy and the reader’s comfort level. There are extremes. On one end you might say that accuracy is everything, and damn the reader’s comfort; at the other, you might toss concerns about language accuracy out the window, and operate much in the way of Star Trek, where everybody understands everybody else, regardless of species or background, and nobody ever bothers to explain how that might be. Putting science fiction aside for a moment (although I keep meaning to write about language issues in Farscape, and will sometime) everybody has examples to share from novels and films that really stumble on language accuracy. Even really good writers mess up this way now and then; it’s almost impossible not to. Shakespeare had bells tolling in ancient Rome; Dorothy Dunnett once had her character Lymond proclaimed neurotic (in 17th century Scotland long before Freud was ever born). I read a novel (the title of which I’m blocking out) set in 15th century England where the main character tries to calm down a woman in distress by assuring her that the battle ahead of him is a piece of cake. In a comment to one of my posts about Deadwood, somebody pointed out that they used the word trenchmouth, which was coined in WWI.

The problem with lexical anachronisms is that they potentially destroy the fictive trance you work so hard to establish for your reader. It’s like ice water on the back of your neck on a hot day; you can’t not notice.

So how to avoid this mistake? One thing you can do is check idiomatic words and phrases for their place and time of origin. The Oxford English Dictionary is the usual place to do this, although it has some limitations. First, it’s too expensive for most people to own and even if you did invest, the hard-copy version is always out of date; second, it’s too expensive for most people to access on-line ($29.95 a month or $295 annually) unless you have library priviledges at a college or university that subscribes; third, (and most important) it’s limited to written language usage.

A word exists in the OED’s version of language history only once it has been written down. It should be clear that for most of the history of the English language, usage was not recorded anywhere at all, and so it’s hard to know when or where particular coins were actually used. On the other hand, the versatility and utterly amazing scope of the OED’s on-line search engine makes it useful in so many other ways, its limitations seem less important. You can, for example, search for whole phrases and idiomatic expressions. The next time I’ve got access to the on-line version, I’m going to see if they have the earliest citation recorded for ‘bald as an egg’ and while I’m at it, I’ll look up ‘piece of cake’ to see when it was first used, in writing, to mean ‘without problem or difficulty’ (I’m guessing it evolved from ‘easy as pie’ used in the same way). What I know for sure is, none of my characters, who inhabit the early 19th century, would have any idea what it means to say such a thing, and keep those words out of their mouths.

Of course, the more recent the setting of your story, the harder it becomes to check for origin and usage. I’ve got a steel sieve of a mind when it comes to remembering when certain phrases were in use. I know ‘cool’ was used when I was in high school, went out of vogue for a very long time, and then came back in, but I’d be afraid to put it in the mouth of a character in the year 1989 without checking, first. Slang associated with particular social groups has a very short shelf life, and can trip you up badly. There are dictionaries, of course, but they are out of date even before they are published, for the most part, and the OED can’t keep up with the incredible flexibility and creative power of spoken language.

There’s another, far stickier matter having to do with language anachronisms that I’ll look at (briefly) tomorrow.


At a party a little while ago, somebody came up to me to say how much she and her husband liked the Wilderness novels. Nathaniel, she assured me, was the perfect hero. Which is meant as a great compliment, but actually got me thinking, because I don’t think I ever consciously set out to make him a hero, and certainly I don’t think of him as perfect. So I started reading in various places, looking for definitions of heroes and essays that addressed the characterization of main characters. This subject is an old one. Aristotle wrote about it and so has just about everybody else.

The first thing I do when I’m trying to take apart a problem like this is look at the data. I came up with a list of fictional male characters I like tremendously, enough to re-read the novels in which they live. This list is not in any particular order, and of course this is my list; no doubt your list will look different. I’ve put Nathaniel at the end, for comparison.

Fitzwilliam DarcyPride and PrejudiceJane Austen
Phin TuckerWelcome to TemptationJennifer Crusie
Philippe de Saint-ChristopheThe Bride of the WildernessCharles McCarry
Niccolo van der PoeleNiccolo RisingDorothy Dunnett
John CrichtonFarscapedid you really think I could leave him out?
Daniel JosselynHearts and BonesMargaret Lawrence
Nathaniel BonnerInto the WildernessS.D.

Many psychologists make their careers evaluating and categorizing personality types. I could take that approach here in trying to figure out what appeals to me in a hero, and how I ended up with Nathaniel. There are many possible models to use: Myers- Briggs (or the Keirsey temperament sorter, which is pretty much the same thing); the Enneagram approach is also quite popular. But I’m not going to take the quantitative route, not just now. Nor am I going to try to work with the clasic eight-way split you often see discussed in the literature: the Chief, the Bad Boy, the Best Friend, the Charmer, the Lost Soul, the Professor, the Swashbuckler, the Warrior (but there’s a good break down of each by Tami Cowden, here.)Having set up my list, I’m going to go away and think about commonalities and differences, and I’ll be back tomorrow with more on this.


Jill (my agent) has just finished up the deal with Books on Tape for the unabridged edition of Fire Along the Sky, hopefully with the same reader (Kate Reading).

A well read audiobook is a thing of great beauty. Some sentences I have heard on audiotape were so perfect in tone and cadence that they have stayed with me for years. I especially like to have a really good audiobook waiting for a long drive. Some of the best I’ve listened to, books that lend themselves to this format and had excellent readers: Ordinary People (Guest), Possession (Byatt), Niccolo Rising (Dunnett), Wyoming Stories (Proulx), and in a collection of short stories by Stephen King, “Dolan’s Cadillac” read by Rob Lowe.

The wrong reader can turn a good book into a disaster. I tried to listen to one of Dennis Lehane’s mysteries on tape and found that the reader had no grasp of Angie’s personality at all; he read her like a simpering adolescent. I gave up after about fifteen minutes. There are other books I would like to listen to on tape, but they have never been recorded (Magician’s Assistant is one such example) or are impossible to find (Hearts and Bones, by Lawrence).

Right now I’m looking for the right audiobooks for two trips: when I go to teach at a conference in Gig Harbor at the end of this month, and then at the end of May, I’ll be driving down to the Bay area for a workshop. That’s a two day trip, and I can get through a big book.