Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Ingredients of Historical Fiction: Saturday Links

My apologies right off the bat. This first article in my Saturday Links is a little lurid, but it was oh-so-funny to read this decades' old article about writing a historical bodice ripper.
We settled on ''The Barbarian Princess'' and I began constructing a plot. I use the word loosely because not even Aristotle could get a plot out of the fifth century. Besides, I didn't really need one; like the typical sweet savage entry, my novel was a sadomasochistic daisy chain of incidents based on the popular wisdom of the antifeminist hour: ''When in doubt, rape.'' (read more)
Historical fiction author Barbara Kyle had an interview this week over at Mary Tod's blog. I was especially inspired by her writing process which enables her to put out one book a year--it looks like a game plan that would be beneficial for me to imitate in the future.
I spend about three months developing an outline, a detailed document that is eventually about twenty pages and covers just what happens. Research is concurrent with building this outline. For me, the outline is crucial: it’s where all the heavy lifting of creation gets done, the development of the characters and plot. When I teach writers I call this process Storylining, because as writers we can never forget that we’re telling a story. Once I have an outline I spend about seven months writing the first draft, then about two months on the second draft, leaving the last couple of weeks for a polish draft. (read more)
Sam Thomas had a very interesting article about how he transferred from a tenure-track professor at a large university to a secondary teacher at a prep school. The latter provided more of a sense of community and a feeling that what he was doing was really making an impact on his students.
Because my ninth-graders have the basics down, I have the luxury of working with them on more difficult questions: What is the best use of historical evidence? How should they structure their arguments to be more convincing? And I do that knowing that with three or four more years of training, they will arrive at college far better prepared then many of their peers. I go to work knowing that I am making a difference in my students' lives, and that is no small thing. (read more)
And what about the academic research that he kind of misses? He gets to use it in his historical fiction writing. Sam Thomas' first historical thriller, The Midwife's Tale, just came out this month.

One benefit on being a little late to finish this Saturday Links post is that I get to include articles hot off the weekend press. Stephanie Cowell posted a marvelous article today discussing her initial trepidation about fictionalizing history and concern about creating dialogue to put in the mouths of real historical figures--and then sharing her realization that that's the point of writing in this genre.
“But what is historical fiction?” people also ask and I reply, “It’s fiction based on history.” More, it is a dramatic piece and must tell an interesting, hopefully gripping story. To do that it must have a plot and dramatic highlights; it must not be repetitive or meander. Real lives do both. You must trim and shape real life into fictional form. (read more)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Great Debate: Eleven Norman Conquest Sources Duke It Out

Way back when, when I used to teach high school history, one of my favorite projects was the Norman Conquest Debate. I would split the class into two teams, give them a packet of primary sources, and have them prepare to argue that William or Harold was the rightful heir to the English throne. Given the chance, high schoolers can become amazingly impassioned on the subject of history. And one of the best ways to give them that chance is to let them work out history like a puzzle--to let them be a "historian" not just a "history student."

This week on English Historical Fiction Authors, I had the pleasure of doing a two-part post about the Norman Conquest. I shared eleven primary sources about the event and talked about the questions they raise. The first post, which came out yesterday, has generated quite a bit of fabulous discussion. It seems that blog readers can get just as impassioned about this subject as high schoolers. The second post was just added to the mix, but I'm afraid it adds more questions than it does conclusions. Enjoy!

"Harold made an oath to Duke William"
But what were the terms of the oath?
And was it under compulsion?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Spiritual Matters in Movies and Books: Saturday Links

Last year I wrote a post about the difficulties, but importance, of writing religion in the alien past. This week I came across two articles that reminded me of this same topic.

Stephanie Cowell discussed the subject on English Historical Fiction Authors:
It is difficult to write about spiritual matters. They are the most intimate of our feelings and more difficult to express in words than physics, which is most deeply expressed in mathematics. And words are all we have as novelists. Yet a good historical novel can transplant a reader to spiritual places and feelings which a theological book can seldom do. Novels can be a gate to “thing that are unseen.” (read more)
In an application of this idea, Medieval Reader rebuked the movie Brave for including paganism but not Christianity in an obviously medieval setting.
The glaring anachronisms, like castles and ‘cakes’ were forgivable, but the worst aspect, and that which I found most objectionable was the total exclusion of Christianity whilst giving prominence to pagan beliefs and ideas.... Whilst Brave, with its panoramic highland scenes and folk music is clearly intended to celebrate Scottish culture, the seemingly intentional ignoring of the religious ideology which had such a profound effect on that culture is, I believe a travesty of the highest order. Whether secularists like it or not, Christianity left an indelible legacy on the history and cultural heritage of the British isles.... (read more)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Links

I've been a little schizophrenic about historical eras recently. It's bound to happen when you're two-thirds of the way through writing two different books, each set in a different historical era. Middle Ages vs. British Regency, pieces of plate armor vs. high-waisted ball gowns, Crusader castles vs. country manors.

The articles I found interesting this week draw from both eras. E. M. Powell answered some questions about her work in progress--a sequel to her book The Fifth Knight about my college crush, Thomas Becket. Currently, The Fifth Knight is being released in serial format--I'm waiting till the whole things comes out in one volume before I get it.

Another article that caught my attention was a comparison between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester. I'm always been a big Austen fan, and although I enjoy the story of Jane Eyre, I confess Charlotte Bronte's hero has never held much appeal for me. This post helped me to understand why I felt that way.

Mr. Darcy smolders with repressed feelings; Mr. Rochester, by contrast, never seems to hold anything back. Early conversations with Jane Eyre are full of disclosures that seem highly inappropriate, like the history of his mistresses. This would definitely set off alarm bells in a Jane Austen novel; Jane Eyre takes the sordid revelations with an odd calm. 
It’s really hard (though well worth the effort) to imagine Mr. Darcy dressing up as female gypsy to deceive his own houseguests — definitely the craziest moment in a novel bursting with them. 
But Mr. Rochester crosses a line, does something that Mr. Darcy would never do, when he seeks to marry Jane Eyre deceptively. Whatever his justifications, this is clearly not acceptable, something Jane Eyre realizes too. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, at the moment when the chips are down (when Mr. Wickham, whom he hates, elopes with Lydia Bennet) acts with remarkable decision and unselfishness, putting himself to a great deal of trouble on the remote chance that this might eventually cause Elizabeth to change her mind and marry him. He uses his wealth and power for good, something Mr. Rochester cannot really claim.

I already shared the previous link on my author page on Facebook, and a reader directed me to a fabulous comic "Dude Watchin' with the Brontes." (Warning: some coarse language) If you've ever read the Bronte sisters' books, you will die laughing....

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Treasured Tapestry

When I taught high school history classes, I used to let the students borrow my books to use as sources in their research papers. All except one. I remember a student asking if he could take The Bayeux Tapestry home, a coffee table book sized volume with full color plates of the Tapestry edited by David M. Wilson, and my answer was, "Absolutely not!" Then I softened it a little. "You can look at it here in the classroom. But be careful with the pages. And don't rip the dust jacket." That same book currently sits on display on the top shelf of our living room bookshelf. It "faces out", a high mark of favor when bookshelf space is at such a premium in our house.

Today I have a post up at the English Historical Fiction Authors blog about the Bayeux Tapestry. Did you know that Aesop's Fables appear in the margin 12 times in the Tapestry? Are they just decorative or do they have some deeper commentary on the larger narrative? My post hypothesizes the latter with a detailed look at the embroiderers' use of "The Fox and the Crow." I'd love it if you'd head on over and take a look...just be careful with the dust jacket!

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