Mary began writing while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction.
Her novel Unravelled was awarded Indie Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing historical fiction at A Writer of History. You can connect with Mary on Twitter @MKTodAuthor or Facebook.
Mary’s previous novels, Unravelled and Lies Told in Silence, were written in third person. Mary tells us why she changed perspective in her third novel, Time and Regret, which is a mixture of mystery, history and romance.
A feeling of intimacy
Time and Regret is the first novel I’ve told using a first person narrator. In other words, the operative word is I. According the Elizabeth George in her non-fiction book Write Away, “When a writer uses this, she stays with one narrator throughout the novel. She’s in that character’s head and no one else’s.”
For readers, a first person narrator creates a feeling of intimacy that doesn’t exist with a third person narrator—the he or she type of narrator. It allows the author to develop authenticity and credibility by explaining the characters motives, actions, thoughts and feelings in a very natural manner. And it allows for a more distinctive voice to shine through.
Consider this example from Deanna Raybourn’s City of Jasmine:
“The desert is a lonely place to begin with. And there’s nothing lonelier than being with someone you loved who stopped loving you first. It ended in the desert, the fabled rocky reaches of the Badiyat ash-Sham, with a man I had already buried once. But it began in Rome, as all adventures should, and it started with a scolding.”
Straight away you have a character with a strong voice and ironic attitude. We know she’s had a painful romance; we know she’s been in an exotic, foreign land. There’s something enticing about the notion of a man who has already been buried and an adventure that began in Rome, and the word scolding suggests the narrator isn’t the slightest bit fussed about being scolded. The paragraph wouldn’t have the same impact in third person.
Here are the opening two paragraphs from my latest novel Time and Regret:
“Divorce is a process, not an event. It takes months to unfold, a barrage of emotional ups and downs as denial is replaced by grief, grief by anger, and anger gradually eases into acceptance. To complete the process, Jim’s possessions had to go, so every Sunday since early February, I had tackled a different room in the house.
At first, removing his things made me cry—the rainbow trout he caught at Medstone Lake, a baseball autographed by Mickey Mantle, a tennis raquet from when he captained our college team, his collection of antique maps. But now the process felt more like scraping off successive layers of skin, raw and painful, a necessary prelude to life beyond marriage.”
Building an immediate connection
What am I trying to convey? I want readers to know the pain my character, Grace Hansen, has experienced and build an immediate connection as a result. I hope they will see her as a strong person, since she’s moved on to acceptance and is clearing her ex-husband’s things away, and a pragmatic, disciplined individual since she’s tackling one room every week. But I also hope readers will see each item she clears—the trout, the baseball, the racquet and maps—and place themselves in Grace’s home with her and I hope they will understand that she’s begun to be optimistic about life after Jim.
But here’s the problem: a first person narrator has to be ‘on stage’ in every scene and, as Elizabeth George goes on to say, “the reader can only see, hear and know what the narrator sees, hears and knows.” There’s no omniscient storyteller giving an outside view of the history behind the characters or the feelings of other people involved in each scene.
A feeling of liberation
How did it feel as an author to write in first person? Actually, I found it liberating. Very liberating. I could give voice to emotions and thoughts more freely. And I found it more natural than third person likely because this is the way we think and talk as individuals.
But I did cheat a bit and that’s because Time and Regret has two timelines, one taking place in the early 1990s and the other—the story of Grace’s grandfather—taking place during World War One. For that second timeline, I created Martin Devlin and wrote most of his story in third person.
Looking back, I’m happy with the choices made and I suspect I will create another first person narrative in the future.
Your thoughts for a giveaway!
Many thanks, Mary, for this insightful post. I personally prefer close third person but may venture into the world of ‘I’ in my next novel!
Mary and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts as readers. Do you prefer first person or third person narratives? Do you have any favorite authors who typically choose one or the other? Leave a comment to go into the draw for a digital edition of Time and Regret! Entries open internationally. Competition closes 31 August 2016. Winner will be chosen by using random.org
Praise for Time and Regret:
“With fluid prose and a keen eye for detail, M.K. Tod takes readers on a decades-spanning journey of wartime loss, family secrets, and, ultimately, redemption.”
Holly Smith, Managing Editor, Washington Independent Review of Books
“Hugely satisfying – impossible to put down.”
Elizabeth St. John author of The Lady of the Tower
When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long buried secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determine to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her.
From her grandfather’s vivid writing and Grace’s own travels, a picture emerges of a many very unlike the one who raised her: one who watched countless friends and loved ones die horrifically in battle; one who lived a life of regret. But her grandfather wasn’t the only one harbouring secrets, and the more Grace learns about her family, the less she thinks she can trust them.