Historic! Finale!

Before I start, I want to let you know that I’ll be at an event for Books of Wonder in New York City on September 22nd between 3:00 and 5:00 pm at 10 Columbus Circle, 3rd floor. There will be a fee for this one, but I’ll have lots of time to chat. As always, I’d love to see you there. Click here for details: https://booksofwonder.com/blogs/upcoming/tea-and-tales-at-bluebird-london-nyc.

Here’s the final installment about writing historical fiction. I’ll be jumping around to pick up the bits that weren’t in the last two posts.

Why write fiction rather than nonfiction, in which we can say directly what happened? Nonfiction is worth considering, especially if we’re writing for children. In nonfiction for adults, the author will be expected to be an actual historian specializing in the period, but for children, the expectation will be different though also demanding: that the author be a thorough researcher and a good writer. It’s an interesting challenge, to write an accessible, interesting history. The writer has to make hard decisions about balance and what to include and what to leave out. When I was starting out as a writer wannabe, I attended a lecture by Jean Fritz, notable writer of history and biography for children, who said that we learn best through being surprised. This stuck with me because it rang true. Can we build into our nonfiction account the kind of surprises that will make our narrative memorable? Can we tell the history in a lively way?

If we’re writing fiction, how much latitude do we have to bend the facts? How faithful must we be? In my first historical novel, Dave at Night, I included a painting that was actually painted a year after the events in the book take place–but I revealed the discrepancy in my Afterword. I think that in historical fiction, though not so much in historical fantasy, we need to stick strictly to the truth unless we have an important reason to stray (as I felt I did in Dave at Night), and then we have to let the reader in on our untruths in an Afterword. We kids’ book writers have an obligation to children to get it right.

How do we treat real life historical figures? In Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926, I didn’t give any dialogue to historical figures, who could appear in scenes, but at a distance. I did invent characters who stood in for real people, but I changed their names. Then I felt free to let them talk. But in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which takes place near the end of the fifteenth century, I did put words in the mouths of King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, Princess Isabella, the duke of Medinaceli, and Columbus. My reasoning was that we know a lot of what was said by public figures in 1926 and very little from the late 1400s, so I felt safe in the second case. You may decide differently.

We can’t really know what people were like way back when. There were even differences between almost a hundred years ago and today, but when I wrote Dave at Night, I knew and had known many people who were alive back then, including my father, whose childhood the book is based on. I wasn’t just guessing. But for the fifteenth century, I was. We have another decision to make here. Do we want our characters to be twenty-first century personalities in period costume? Or do we want, as much as we can (because, ultimately, this is impossible to do entirely), to create characters who belong in their temporally distant world? There are arguments on both sides. Characters with current attitudes and understandings will be easier for a reader to enter and relate to. But characters who belong to their time will take the reader on a deeper journey–you can see what I prefer, though both choices are valid. My MCs are generally strong and independent, but in Loma, the MC of Ceiling, I wanted a girl of her time. She’s put in situations that force her to think for herself, but when inspiration strikes, she never takes credit for it; she says God sent it or her dead grandmother or her absent grandfather. Taking credit would be beyond the way she regards herself, beyond what I believe a girl back then would think.

In one way, writing historical fiction may be easier than writing other genres, especially for writers, like me, who are plot challenged. If we choose a time of conflict, events can structure our plot. This worked when I was writing about the expulsion of the Jews but not for my more personal orphan story, Dave at Night. In my expulsion story, events laid out the rising and falling action.

How long ago is our time period? What’s known about these events? The further in the past, the less is likely to be known. Likewise, the less famous the events, the less likely they are to be known in detail. If there are gaps in knowledge, we have some freedom to color in the empty spaces, but our plot still has to be possible in context. This doesn’t come into my book, but, as an example, between six hundred and two thousand of children of the Jews who went to Portugal after the expulsion were enslaved, baptized against their will and the will of their parents, and sent by ship to an island off the African coast to plant and harvest sugar cane. Little is known of what happened to them, so a novelist who wants to take on this saga will have some freedom to invent–but will still have to stay true to the period.

What are the known biases held by historians about a period? I recently read a historian refer to certain other historians of Jewish life in medieval Spain as belonging to the “lachrymose school,” basically the crybaby school, weeping over the tribulations of the Jews. I understood what he meant, having read some of these scholars, but I wondered if he belonged to the stiff-upper-lip, take-it-on-the-chin school. What biases are held by most people?

Whose history does a writer have the right to address? Do you have to be Jewish, for instance, to write fiction about Jewish history? I don’t think so. A wonderful example is the holocaust novel Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, an Australian Christian. What are the ethics? (This is just food for thought.)

Is the writer of historical fiction entitled to an opinion? Should we slant it? Can we avoid slanting it? More food for thought.

This has been fun to write about, though a little deeper in the weeds than usual, but I’ve reached the end of my workshop notes, just in time for three prompts:

∙ Back to the Salem witch trials. According to Wikipedia, “Overall, the Puritan belief and prevailing New England culture was that women were inherently sinful and more susceptible to damnation than men were. Throughout their daily lives, Puritans, especially Puritan women, actively attempted to thwart attempts by the Devil to overtake them and their souls. Indeed, Puritans held the belief that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of the Devil. Women’s souls were seen as unprotected in their weak and vulnerable bodies.” Your MC, a seventeen-year-old female servant, believes that this is true. When rumors begin to circulate that she’s a witch, she thinks they may be true. Write a scene in which she tries to discover whether or not she’s a witch.

∙ Introduce fantasy into the world of the witch trials. Mischievous imps, who mean no good, do whatever they can to keep the witch accusations going. Your MC discovers them and tries to stop them, which makes her their target. Write what happens–a scene or an entire story.

∙ In ancient Athens, girls and women spent most of their lives at home, going out only for religious festivals. In ancient Sparta, girls were trained to be athletes, just as much as boys were, and they were outside often. Imagine that a girl of Sparta moves with her family to Athens, and that a girl of Athens moves with her family to Sparta. Write a scene in the first week for each of them in their new environment.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historic! Part 2

Here’s the next installment about writing historical fiction, based on my workshop in July at Keystone college. I’ll be jumping all over the place to pick up the points I didn’t cover last time.

If possible, we should read writing from the period we’re writing about. When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926 and features, among other things, the Harlem Renaissance, I read poems and one contemporaneous novel, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay. For A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, I read The Expulsion Chronicles compiled by David Rafael, a book of contemporary accounts written by both Christians and Jews.

Home to Harlem gave me details and the perspective of people in 1926. The Expulsion Chronicles is light on details, but it gave me an idea of how events were understood by people of the time.

Historians are nice! As I researched, I longed to speak to people, or email them, who could tell me if I was getting things right. I reached out to at least half a dozen historians. The only one who failed to help me was David Rafael, who was very ill. One historian, Jane Gerber, whom I mentioned in the last post, became my mentor for the project. She guided my reading, corrected or confirmed my ideas, and even annotated my manuscript. I think the historians were glad to help. If we get the history right, we bring their field to life.

But we can’t rely of their help. We have to educate ourselves, because the focus of most historians is narrow. The writer of historical fiction has to see the big picture. For example, a historian I consulted innocently steered me wrong about something, because his expertise was in the twelfth century, and I was writing about the fifteenth. Things had changed. I had to know enough to realize that he was wrong.

And historians have biases, which we have to know enough to be able to recognize. (This may sound intimidating, and I suppose it is. Historical fiction isn’t for the fainthearted.) For example, many of the books I read were written by historians of Jewish history, but I also read a biography of Queen Isabella, which gave me a different perspective on events. In the books on Jewish history the Jews played a larger role in what happened than they did in the biography–I don’t know enough to say which is more accurate, only that the two perspectives were useful.

A neat trick to know about is Google advanced search. If we’re having trouble finding the information we need, advanced search can help. Just type in “advanced search” and you’ll see what you need to do.

If we’re not sure whether a word represents a concept that didn’t exist at the time of our story, we can look at the word’s etymology in a dictionary.

There is a big annual medieval history conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I didn’t know about it until Ceiling was finished, but I went this year, because I’ve become fascinated with the period. So there are likely to be conferences we can attend to help educate ourselves and to meet enthusiastic historians. (This is expensive.)

For detail, we should go wide for whatever we can find on popular culture–fashion books, cookbooks, magazines. For food, I used a cookbook based on documents from the Spanish Inquisition, because people would be turned in for following Jewish dietary laws. In using the cookbook, I had to be aware of which foods came from the New World and not include them.

Briefly, I hired an assistant, which some of you may be able to afford to do. For me, it didn’t work out. I wanted to see the source material myself, and, frankly, I was afraid that the assistant might miss something useful or critical. But other people do use assistants, and that’s an option.

In the last post, I mentioned my timidity. I was so afraid of getting things wrong that sometimes I was frozen. A beta reader advised me to “be a novelist,” and I had to accept that I couldn’t learn everything. There’s an Afterword in Ceiling. Before I wrote it, I looked at Afterwords in other historical novels, and every one had an apology to the reader and to the past for all the errors in the book. Without a time machine, there are bound to be mistakes. We do our best.

We have to make a choice about scope–large or small. I could have written about, for example, a butcher’s daughter in a village and how her life was shaped by the worsening climate for Jews. That would have been a small-scale approach, and it would have been a fine way to go. But I chose to go big and put my MC in a prominent family, so that she can be on the spot for the major events of the day.

We fantasy writers know this already from seamlessly introducing our world building. Just as in fantasy, we should avoid info dumps.

On a one-to-ten scale of organized people, I’m about a five. A ten would have an easier time writing historical fiction. Sigh.

I wish I’d summarized my reading as I did it. Next time I will.

If we own a book, I recommend writing in the margins, which will make important parts pop out when we go back. If this is sacrilege for you, of course don’t do it. Use post-its.

We can’t expect to know everything or understand right away. One of the books I read about the expulsion was all about who owed how much to whom, who paid how much for something when a family had to leave. At first I thought, This is so dry! What about the emotion, the tragedy? But later, after I’d read more, I understood two things: first, that the tragedy was locked into the accounting, because people were grossly underpaid for their belongings when they had to leave. Not just fortunes were lost, but people arrived at the borders without funds to pay the exit duties. Then they had either to convert or to be executed. Second, I realized that there wasn’t much in the way of records. People didn’t keep diaries. The accounting records were kept and preserved. The historian assembled the big picture out of these little data points.

We have to watch out for our assumptions. For instance, I assumed that banking was primitive in the Middle Ages, but it was surprisingly sophisticated.

I think I have one more post on this, or maybe half a post, so I’ll stop here.

∙ Your MC, an archaeologist and amateur detective, reads this article: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-murder/cold-case-scientists-encounter-prehistoric-murder-mystery-idUSKBN0OC2GD20150527 and is fascinated. (I just noticed that this link and the one below begin with a photo of a skull. Beware!) Conveniently, the time machine has just been invented, although it may be used only for approved projects. Her application is approved, and she’s off, into the very distant past to investigate a murder among an entirely different branch of the homo sapiens tree. Write the scene of her arrival and keep going.

∙ I happened across this very interesting article about a medieval victim of leprosy: https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/26/health/leprosy-medieval-pilgrim-skeleton-study/index.html. You may want to do a little more research–or not. After you read the article, make this young man your MC and have him fall in love. Or his love interest can be your MC. Write a scene or their whole tragic tale, unless you can find a way to a happy ending.

∙ Your MC lives in Salem, Massachusetts, when the witch accusations begin to fly. She’s friends with the chief accusers and realizes with horror that they’re beginning to hint that her beloved aunt–who unwisely tends to say whatever she thinks–is a witch. Your MC wants to save her aunt. Read up a little on the Salem witch trials and write a scene or the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historic!

Last month I gave a workshop, really a talk, on writing historical fiction at a conference at Keystone College, which I mentioned here. The conference was expensive-ish, and I suspect that few of you live near Scranton, PA, so, in a departure from the ordinary, I’m putting my workshop into a blog post–or two or three. There will still be prompts!

My forthcoming historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells is my second historical novel. Dave at Night, which came out in the late 1990s, is the first. And lately I’ve done a little historical research for some of my fantasies. Most are vaguely medieval, though Ever is vaguely Mesopotamian.

Ceiling is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and it was the most exciting writing experience I’ve ever had, because I learned so much. The world of the late Middle Ages is in many ways vastly different from our own–and in some ways just like it. Different, for one thing, because so little science was known, and people came up with bizarre explanations for occurrences like disease. Similar because, among other things, money was at the root of most evil.

We can use history in our fantasies, too, as much history or as little as we like. Even in fantasies, historical research is great for surprising details. If we’re writing fantasy that’s only tangentially historical, we don’t need much in the way of resources. A book on daily life during the period (not hard to find), a book or websites on fashions of the time, an online encyclopedia, and general online searches for whatever comes up, will probably be enough–and we’ll still find surprises that will light up our writing.

But if we’re writing historical fantasy or speculative fiction that takes place at a particular time on actual planet Earth, or if we’re writing realistic historical fiction, we need more. And we need to understand that the project will call for a substantial time commitment. Unless we’re already steeped in our period, it will take us a while even to discover what we don’t know. The process will be enormously rewarding, but we should take a deep breath before jumping in.

The good news is that there’s lots of help and we don’t have to be historians to do this.

We’ll start with a survey book. The book that most directed my research for Ceiling was The Jews of Spain, a History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane S. Gerber, which covers the history of Jews on the Iberian peninsula from Roman times to the expulsion, and their history after they were kicked out, into the 20th century. If we don’t know what our plot will be, we’re looking for times of conflict and for interesting people.

Daily life books will be useful at the beginning and as we continue. Dummy or Idiot Guides can make the difficult simple-ish. Since I’m not religious and had little religious education, I relied on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Judaism. I also attended a service at our local synagogue and asked the rabbi some questions.

When we have an idea for our story and a sense of the times, we can move from the general to the particular. A danger at the beginning and all the way through is that we may get so immersed in our research–it’s so fascinating and writing is so hard!–that we can’t stop. We have to remember to write.

Here’s something I wish I did from the start of my research: write a timeline of events, citing sources and page numbers. I spent unnecessary hours hunting for facts I knew but couldn’t remember precisely. If I’d been more organized at the beginning, I would have saved time.

Our survey book’s bibliography and footnotes will help us continue our research, likewise the bibliographies and footnotes of any encyclopedia articles or book we consult. A nice discovery I made is that some of the citations on Wikipedia can be clicked on, and we can read scholarly research for free. I think this is how I found an undergraduate thesis about caravels, 15th century sailing ships, that the author had posted online.

Since I was writing about Spain, I found it helpful to use the Spanish version of Wikipedia and the online translator, even though the translations were sometimes obviously off the mark–and funny. But mostly, they were good enough. If my story moved to a particular town in Spain, for example, the Spanish Wikipedia had a lot more information and more pictures than the English version.

We can also use an online translator to email people in other countries for information. Museums and tourist destinations, for example, are likely to have email addresses, and we can reach out, politely in their language, to staff for more information. Then we can translate the answers. Knowing that my manufactured communication might not be perfect, I always included my English original.

I didn’t travel to Spain, so I relied on online images to bring my story to life. In fact, the hardest part of writing the book was my timidity. I didn’t want to get the details wrong. For example, what was it like to stand on a medieval wharf? How do I find out?

Turns out Reddit has a handy Ask-a-Historian group. We can type in our question, and it will be screened by people who monitor what comes in. If approved, our question will be opened up to the Reddit universe of volunteer historians, and if someone is interested, it will be answered. My first question (I don’t remember what it was) was never answered, but my second was. This very kind historian not only wrote back, but he also sent me links to reproductions of paintings and murals from the period–of wharfs. The pictures made it possible for me to write two scenes. If you try Ask-a-Historian, don’t mention that you’re working on a novel. Questions from novelists are regarded as frivolous!

Old crafts, as you may know, live on on YouTube. In one of my fantasies I needed to know how to card wool, and I found a demonstration on YouTube. In this regard, we historical fantasy and fiction writers are lucky to live in the age of the internet.

More to come! Here are three prompts:

∙ In a world that’s loosely based on ancient Egypt, the king’s beloved cat Tuttie has died, and the king decides that it should be mummified and buried in style, along with a human, your MC, who will be ceremonially sacrificed so she can care for it in the afterlife. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ On November 9, 1965 most of New York City experienced a power outage, a blackout. At the time I was in college, but I was home with a newly broken ankle–with an enormous cast and crutches. Read about the blackout online. Your MC, who, like me, is on crutches, gets a phone call (mostly, phone service wasn’t disrupted) from a friend in distress, who lives half the city away. Your MC has to go to her friend. Using as much period detail as you can, write her trek across the city in the dark. Decide if she makes it or not. Remember: no cell phones back then, but there were phone booths–and a fifty-fifty chance that the phone would work.

∙ Research a historic battle. Can be during our Civil War, World War I, the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492–or any one you pick. At a critical moment, a dragon lands on the battlefield. You decide what kind of dragon. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what your write!