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Tristan Palmgren. When history and space opera combine.

March 10, 2018

Quietus book cover

Quietus is a book which covers a great deal of ground in terms of history, action and different people’s philosophical standpoints and emotions. The does not give the impression of having been dashed off overnight, but something a great deal more considered. What is particularly interesting is the blending of historical novel with “right out there” space opera. Given that Tristan Palmgren is neither a historian nor a scientist, I wanted to understand how a writer can get to grips with such an extensive palette of ideas and craft a highly readable and absorbing novel out of them.

I would like you to tell me about your writing journey.

I’ve been writing since middle school. I started writing fan fiction when I was in fourth grade and never stopped. I did attempt to write a full novel later on in middle school, but only succeeded in finishing a novel in high school, which wasn’t very good. But it was finished and I could keep working on it. I’ve had about ten different manuscripts since then in various states of completion. None of which had seen the light of day until Quietus. So, I reached well over a million words of junk until I reached something publishable.

It’s interesting that you managed to finish a novel at such an early age.

Finishing at that age is very different to what I count as finishing now. Finishing then was about getting a big pile of words and hitting the word count. Finishing now is not only about getting that first draft done, but also about revising.

How do you know what you need to do to revise your manuscript?

I’ve had about ten different manuscripts before this. By the time I got to Quietus I had figured out pretty much what I needed to do with it. My usual habit after finishing a draft is to leave it alone for a few months, if I can, and come back to it going line by line through it at least three to four times and then some more, if I feel like I need it or if someone else tells me I need it.

I’m still reading bits in Quietus I would go back and change if I could. But what makes a manuscript done is when it’s sent off ready for review. The problem if I am left too long with a manuscript is that I will continue to tinker with it until it’s basically unrecognisable. At some point it feels good enough to send off for someone to look at.

Have you always written in this type of genre? You talked about fan fiction. What genre was this in?

It was science fiction. I almost always wrote science fiction to begin with. Branching into history is something a little more recent for me. I only started it three to four failed manuscripts ago.

My interest in writing history started with fantasy and realising just how much I would learn from researching history and figuring out the type of fantasy I wanted. This is when I decided to bring the real world into my fantasy writing.

Your day job is not as a historian and is very different to that of being an author or an academic. I would like you to talk about how you do your research, because there will be a lot of people out there wanting to add a historical element to their story, but not sure how to go about it.

The closest thing to an academic background in history that I have is as a history minor as an undergraduate. It was only a few classes, so nothing heavy.

I read a lot of history non-fiction for pleasure. That’s how Quietus began. I was reading one of my favourite historians Barbara Tuchman’s book Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. She is a novelist’s historian. She excels at drawing scenes and characters. That book in particular was the history of the fourteen century as told through the life of Enguerrand de Coucy. There were only a few chapters in the book about the Black Death. Most of the Black Death occurred in de Coucy’s parents’ generation rather than his own, but those parts of it were drawn so well and so grippingly that I wanted to research more and find out more about it.

I’ve been lucky enough to have access to a university library wherever I’ve lived, in addition to books I’ve been able to buy and borrow from community libraries. I wouldn’t call what I do academic-quality research, but I’ve been able to find a fair bit of fun, usable material.

You talk about being able to read details in these types of history books and how approachable these books are to a non-academic writer, despite being non-fiction, because they have been written in a story-like manner, rather than dry facts.

That’s why I describe Barbara Tuchman as a novelist’s historian and how her style of writing made it very easy to generate a story.

How do you do your research and pull it all together?

I have big files of notes and quotes. I think my file for Quietus was about 15000 words of random snippets of things I collected during the course of my reading. I used only a fraction of the three or so months’ research I did for my novel. But I’m really happy that I took the time to do that.

How organised are you, in that can you quickly find the different bits of information you need? There’s nothing worse than knowing something might be relevant for your work, but you can’t find it.

I have different files of notes focused on different subjects. For example, I have a file focused on the Black Death and another focused on general lifestyle. I also have a file of quotes in a file on the fourteenth century that’s about life in a monastery. The find function on most word processing software is very helpful for finding details.

Niccolucio, the monk, is a very interesting and appropriate character because of the way he fitted into the developing storyline. I got the sense that Niccolucio may have been the driving force behind the creation of the novel.

He popped up first. He actually has a real-life counterpart of brother Gherardo who was also a Carthusian monk. He was the sole survivor of his monastery. He was alone in the monastery for several months during a hard winter with only his dogs for company. Obviously, his life then took a different course to Niccolucio’s, but he immediately stood out to me the moment I read his story and I knew I wanted to include that story in my writing.

What I felt was so intriguing and made me so immersed in Niccolucio’s life were the details of his world and how his story eventually developed. I also got the impression you really enjoyed writing about him.

Yes. Writing about Niccolucio was one of my favourite parts of the book. For the details I am indebted to Julie Kerr’s book Life in the Medieval Cloister. I had it on the desk while I was writing Quietus because I referred to it so often. It is full of insights into the motives of why people went into monasteries and titbits about their lifestyle and their beliefs. Like Barbara Tuchman’s book, this was another very engaging detail-rich book that made me want to write something about a monk and his monastic life.

Bringing what is essentially a historical novel together with a space opera struck me as a rather daunting task, because finding appropriate points at which to join them without it seeming to be contrived was asking a lot of a debut novelist.

Historical fiction, historical non-fiction and space opera are my favourite genres. So, I wanted to mash them all together, because I’ve never seen that done before.

I wrote everything broadly in the order in which it appeared in the novel. I may have juggled something around, but I wrote Niccolucio’s sections at the same time as I was writing Habidah’s (the transdimensional anthropologist) and going backwards and forwards between them.

My outlining process might be a little unusual because I write it in excruciating detail, scene by scene, listing what I want to happen in that scene and how I want the characters to feel. I pay close attention to them for the first few scenes that I write and then abandon it once I’m a few scenes in. I don’t refer to it from then on because I’ve got into the writing. I effectively use the outline to kickstart things and grease the wheels, but not beyond that.

Would you describe how you managed to bring the historical part with the space opera?

Although I do like reading historical non-fiction, for me to approach my writing purely from the viewpoint of a historical novel can be a problem for me because it’s like watching a prequel. By the time you get to the main part of the novel you know what has already happened and you know things that the characters don’t know, not just about events, but also how their world has worked. Moments of dramatic tension might become moments of dramatic irony in historical fiction because, as readers in the future, we already know the outcome and we can’t eliminate that knowledge.

What I wanted to do with Quietus was foreground that bias and that perspective and give it a voice in Habidah. My initial conception for the novel was that Habidah and her team of anthropologists would come from a background much more similar to our own. Near distant future, rather than far flung space empire in the future, just to give them a voice that was more modern. They still do have that modern perspective on Niccolucio’s world and Habiah is aware of her biases and how that prevents her from understanding Niccolucio’s world. She tries repeatedly to get herself into it by viewing the world without the benefit of her retinal infrared and all of the extra sensors that she has by virtue of coming from a far-flung, transdimensional space empire. She’s not quite able to do that until she needs Niccolucio. She is coming at the world of the fourteenth century from a different perspective to Niccolucio and in a way which reflects my own reading of history. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to write this novel.

I think Niccolucio’s vocation and natural disposition was an excellent choice with regards to how he came to terms with his exposure to the type of technology that would be mind-blowing, even for us.

Niccolucio’s adjustment to Habidah’s world was one of my favourite moments in the writing process of Quietus. He comes from a solitary, almost academic background. He’s spent a lot of time in his head and is therefore more willing than a lot of other people would be to accept what he sees as miracles without standing agog, rending his shirt and screaming into the heavens. This is something we’ve seen too many times and so I think it wouldn’t have been very interesting to read about. I wanted his transition in the things he was seeing and experiencing not only to feel fresh but to happen as quickly as possible.

There is probably a general awareness of a reader about The Plague, but not the details of the fourteenth century, which is very interesting. But there is a line between enabling the reader to become immersed in the historical setting and the plot beginning to drag because there is too much detail in the story.

When I’m writing a draft I don’t know when to stop. Eventually I had to look at what I needed to cut. With Quietus I ended up cutting out a lot from the first draft. For example, there was a long section about the nature of the Flemish cloth trade and how Flemish cloth was more desirable than other kinds of cloth, although it was often plainer, but it had a better texture. I’m the kind of person who gets excited about reading that type of detail, so I got carried away and had to eventually cut it down to the word “Flemish”.

So, in the first draft I just get on with the process of getting words down and then deal with it in the edits where I’m approaching it from a more distant, reader’s perspective. Adopting this perspective means I have a better sense of what’s engaging and what I really need.

Habidah’s nemesis Meloku was another interesting character. She is incredibly manipulative and a real villain on behalf of her masters.

I had real fun with Meloku. One of the generating ideas of this novel was foregrounding that bias that we carry on along with us into historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Meloku is a different form of that bias. It’s tempting for us to think of ourselves as above these historical characters and more all-knowing than the people in that era. I would be lying if I said I did not feel that way sometimes. I wanted to bring that feeling out into the open through Meloku, discuss it and have some fun with it.

Was the space opera part of the book challenging to write because the network and alliances of ruling races is so vast and complex?

It was a challenge, because most of the novel takes place on Medieval earth and Europe, so I didn’t have much chance to show the Unity space empire. I took what chances I could to grab it and to show it. There’s an extended sequence in the novel where Habidah slips into a data stream and witnesses what is going on back in the Unity. She sees not only her own worlds, but also the worlds her colleagues came from and what is going on in them.

I used this section to explore the Unity and the stakes of that conflict to make it clearer to readers, but at the same time wanted to keep the rest of the story grounded in Medieval Europe.

I am working on expanding the universe. The setting has a lot of potential.

Tristan Palmgren

Tristan Palmgren

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