Beyond sight: Using all five senses to evoke an historical scene

Salvete, readers!

Employing all five of the senses to capture detail about the world is an amazing way to suck the readers in. It’s particularly important for an historical author, as sensory details are your reader’s key to understanding what is basically an alien world. We comprehend reality through the senses. Aristotle devoted an entire treatise to this subject. The senses which your viewpoint character focuses on will show the reader loads about them. In historical fiction, I think there is a tendency toward visual description, and that’s fine, but it’s only one of the tools in your kit. Smell, for example, is one of the most powerful senses and can set up a scene beautifully.

If your characters are, say, on a Greek trading ship with a cargo hold full of spice from India, there is a wealth of sensory detail you could include to construct the scene. For a fun exercise, I’m going to list the sensory details I’d include in that scenario. Can you think of any others? And what kind of person do you think the viewpoint character is? Let me know in the comments!

TOUCH

  • The rocking of the ship
  • Sea sickness in the belly
  • Weak and shivery
  • Roughness of the unpolished wood
  • Heat and humidity
  • Sweat running down the spine
  • The closeness of the air below deck
  • Fresh wind on the face
  • Salt crusting everything

SOUNDS

  • Gulls shrieking
  • Ocean waves
  • Whisper of wind
  • Creak of rigging
  • Clatter of footsteps above deck
  • Shouted orders in a strange tongue
  • Crash of transport amphorae rolling around loose

SMELL

  • Spices in amphorae—strange, exotic
  • Brine
  • Vomit, especially if the viewpoint character doesn’t have sea legs
  • Stale air below decks
  • Pitch used as sealant
  • Pine wood

TASTE

  • The salt on the air
  • Vomit
  • The aftertaste of the character’s last meal

SIGHT

  • The blue-green ocean—or should that be the wine-dark sea?
  • Blinding sunshine
  • Shirtless men climbing the ratlines, loading cargo
  • Details of the ship: mast, rigging
  • Sail billowing in wind
  • Cloud formations
  • Barnacles on side of ship
  • Dolphins/fish in water

I love doing this exercise– it is a great way to get the imagination fired up when dealing with writer’s block and is also a really great way of planning out a scene. Hope you enjoyed it!

Until next time,

Valete

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Becoming an independent scholar and lovable rogue

Salvete, readers!

Normally I post a brief summary of writerly achievements for the week as an accountability exercise, but this has been an unusual week which has given me pause to reflect on where I am as an author and scholar.

Last week, my post-thesis fellowship at my alma mater came to an end. That’s okay. The fellowship served its purpose. The primary intention behind this scheme is to give freshly-minted PhDs the resources they need to publish their doctoral research, and I have achieved that with the release of my book. The difficulty comes in continuing to research afterward. It’s particularly tough as I have several irons in the fire in terms of publications and no longer have full library access at my old institution. This is not an uncommon story for recent PhD graduates, I’m afraid. Unless you are one of the lucky few who lands an academic position quickly, life after PhD can be very tough indeed. I find myself without a formal academic affiliation for the first time since I started my undergrad degree.

But I’m not giving up just yet. Flexibility and adaptability are keys to success.

Long ago, I saw the necessity of building up my career prospects in the world outside academia. The chances of getting a permanent position within academia are pretty dire, particularly in the humanities. Universities churn out far more PhDs these days than there are academic positions available. Once upon a time, I envisioned myself becoming a tenured professor. Yet now that I’m a little more experienced and have responsibilities as a family man, I think staking my future solely upon my academic prospects is a bit like planning to become a rock star. It’s not impossible, but unlikely. A handful of my former classmates have pulled it off, and they are amazing. On the other hand, I’ve also seen people toil in academia for years after achieving the PhD, eking out a meagre existence in the hope that a proper academic job is just around the corner. These are brilliant, talented, and highly skilled people. And yet one can do a lot of things with a PhD in the Humanities outside of academia—it just requires a bit of imagination and a lot of energy, just like with everything else. You don’t have to be an academic drifter if you don’t want to be.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to carve out a niche for myself in the world of curriculum design and support, using my knowledge and skills in unexpected ways. Since finishing the PhD, I’ve moved on to become a professional member of staff at another university. One of the privileges of my position is that I have full library membership. This means access to databases, journals and books. If my new institution doesn’t have a resource, I can request it through an inter-library loan. In other words, I still have resources to continue my scholarly writing career, even if my career is unconventional. I’m very grateful to have this opportunity, and I’m going to make the most of it. This isn’t the end of my relationship with my former institution, either. I maintain ties of friendship with my old faculty, and am still co-authoring a book with one of its members.

A few days ago I had a very productive meeting with a commissioning editor at a major academic publisher. We discussed ideas for future books. All of them are absolutely feasible even without a formal academic position.

So there you have it, folks! For the time being, I’m an independent scholar and lovable rogue.

Until next time,

Valete

Historical fiction: embracing authenticity

Salvete, readers!

In last week’s blog post, I mused (okay, pontificated) about the inadequacies of ‘accuracy’ as a framework for understanding historical fiction. This week we turn to the idea of authenticity. Let’s start by defining the concept.

An historically authentic piece of fiction evokes the spirit of a time period and is sympathetic to the source material. It’s the type of historicity which really gets under the skin of a particular time and place. For me, historically authentic historical fiction is analogous to deep world-building within fantasy fiction. Though the author will always make changes for the sake of the story, he or she considers whether or not such changes are plausible within their imagined world. The world must be internally consistent—this is paramount. Nobody is going to believe in the world you construct if it doesn’t play by its own rules.

In my view, one of the keys to authenticity is to go deep into the characters’ viewpoint and show how the age in which they live influences perceptions of reality. How would their social context shape their decisions? Rather than trying to construct the past in a moralising or judgemental way, the storyteller makes a concerted effort to get inside the cultural and (if possible) linguistic context of the period they seek to portray. Going deep into characters’ viewpoint in an historical setting is an act of imagination, of living in what is ultimately another world. And you have to take up residence in that other world, otherwise your protagonists will simply be modern people playing dress-up in historical clothes. The difference between historical authenticity and inauthenticity is like that between living in another country and visiting as a tourist.

One of the greatest benefits of going deep into an historical viewpoint is that it empowers authors to subvert readers’ expectations about a period. It allows you to defy the stereotypes and tell a fresh story. Often, when striving for ‘accuracy,’ we just perpetuate stereotypes which don’t bear scrutiny but adhere to commonly held views of the past. Let’s look at an example. Say you’re writing a novel about a Roman woman of the Third Century AD. Let’s call her Lucia. She’s a freeborn citizen of the Equestrian order, well-educated. Lucia is in an abusive marriage. Time and again I’ve seen the same story play out in narratives set in the Roman world: Lucia has no way out. After all, everybody knows a Roman woman was her husband’s property… right? Certainly, I’ve marked more than one first-year paper that has argued thus. And so we’re stuck with an old trope, and a tired old story in which Lucia stoically endures a tragic life. Usually it’s male novelists who cling to this trope, but that’s another story.

Lucia’s story is kind of drab so far, don’t you think? Yet if we go deeper into the time period we see just how problematic the stereotype really is. The kind of manus marriage in which the woman was basically her husband’s property was disappearing in the Roman world by the Third Century. Divorce was easily available for elite women of the empire, if the legal texts of the jurists are anything to go by. And of course when we look at the evidence of the jurists really carefully, we find all sorts of interesting tidbits about the rights a woman could enjoy during this period, which make for a much more lively story. For instance, according to Gaius Institutes 1.145.194, freeborn women were freed from male guardianship if they had three children. She’s using her social context of the world she knows to her advantage.

So maybe instead of a story of acquiescence to oppression, this becomes one of liberation—Lucia doesn’t have to be the long-suffering matron we’ve met in a squillion historical dramas. Wouldn’t it be great to make her a carefree character who kicks up her heels and starts her own business? Importing, I don’t know, monkeys? Yep, that was a thing. And if we think about the period a little more deeply, complexities in the characterisation arise. Despite her legal rights, Rome was never anything but patriarchal.  What manner of opposition might Lucia face? What of her birth family? She would in all likelihood be a slave-owner—how would her own experiences of violence influence the way she disciplines them? Also, a bit of further research reveals a papyrus letter from Roman Egypt, in which a woman has to petition the local prefect to be able to enjoy her right to live without a guardian. Ergo, despite whatever rights Lucia theoretically holds, the fact that she’s got to appeal to have her legal rights upheld tells us volumes.

The storytelling possibilities skyrocket when we throw away the shackles of ‘accuracy’ and instead throw ourselves into the period. One of the strengths of embracing authenticity rather than accuracy as a tool for historical fiction is that it lets the writer present a more nuanced viewpoint. Through deep research and critical engagement with primary sources, you’re empowered to tell a story that’s all your own.

In future weeks, I’d like to explore more aspects of historical authenticity—how, for instance, can an author use deep viewpoint to the best effect? Where does anachronism fit? How do we make dialogue sound historically authentic? Can we ever really escape the influence of the present in our constructions of the past? And when the time is right, I’ll share a bit more about how I apply my own principles in writing my novel, an historical fantasy based on Vergil’s Aeneid.

Until next time,

Valete

Julian

My writerly week, ending 17 March, 2017

Salvete, readers!

To all my new subscribers—welcome! It’s lovely to have you here. I’ll get back on my soapbox next week about writing, but for now it’s time for my weekly round-up of writerly achievements.

I’ll be honest, this has been a rough week. It started with my discovery of a nasty setback with my research, which I won’t go into here. After riding high upon the publication of the new book for the last couple of weeks, this brought me crashing back down to Earth, Icarus-style. Dealing with the problem has pretty much been the focus of my week. Well, that and my day job. On the one hand, I haven’t achieved nearly as much as I would like, but on the other, not every week is going to be as amazing as the last two have been. That’s life, and you just have to go with it. This post is all about celebrating the little wins. Kahlil Gibran said it best: ‘In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.’ My silly heart could use some refreshment right now.

Writerly achievements of the week:

Creative and academic writing

  • Gathered a bit more research material for the Centaur project. Came up with another angle. Think I may have cracked it at last. Am going to start drafting material to be shared with my brilliant co-authors this week.
  • Wrote a bit more on my Beowulf story. Not happy with what I’ve done, but that’s what drafts are for. Reflecting on it, I managed to figure out what wasn’t working with the scene and devised a solution. This gladdens me mightily. Hint: the scene will now involve some suspicious meat. And a knife. And two trolls. And the Norse god Baldur.

Contributions to the writing community

  • Read a great novel by a local author. Took it slowly, as I think it deserved the attention to detail. Took lots of notes, as ever. I will post a review—possibly here, though I’ve also been invited to do a guest post at another site and this would fit the bill nicely. I’m firmly of the opinion that writers thrive best in a community where people help each other out, and I’m looking forward to giving this writer a boost.

Online author presence

  • You know what? It might seem vain or frivolous, but I’m going to celebrate a couple of small wins in the online realm, particularly in the blogosphere and social media. These aren’t so much achievements, I guess, just little causes for celebration. This week I published my most popular blog post yet, and I reached out to some authors whose work I love on Twitter. I’m not going to lie, I felt a bit giddy when they reached back. I also discovered a lot of new authors whose work I hadn’t yet encountered, and am really looking forward to reading it.
  • I’m pleased though bewildered that I now have about 114 Twitter followers and it continues to grow, especially as I’ve only just recently joined Twitter.
  • On academia.edu, I was amazed to get an email saying that since I posted the cover and blurb of my academic book I’ve shot to the top 4% of scholars viewed for the month. I’m not going to confuse validation with love, but finding a following online is a new experience for me and I think I’m allowed to enjoy it.

And on a sentimental note…

My copies of the academic book arrived! It’s real, it’s solid, it’s in my hands, and I can finally show it to people. My oldest son, aged seven, watched me open the parcel. He didn’t quite know the significance of the moment; it was exciting enough that we got a package. I asked him if he could read the front cover—when he got to my name, he was apoplectic with excitement.

He clapped his hands. ‘You wrote this book, Dad? Wow!’ Then he frowned and looked at the pile. ‘Why did you get extra books? Are they for a garage sale?’

I smiled. ‘Heh. Hope not. I’m going to give them to a couple of special friends who have helped me to get this done.’

‘Why?’

‘To say thank-you. Because I wouldn’t have gotten the book finished if they weren’t there for me.’

He nodded sagely. ‘Everybody needs friends.’ Then he realised Octonauts was on and moseyed off to the lounge room.

What a nice way to end an otherwise not-so-nice week. After all, I wrote the book for my family.

Until next time,

Valete

Historical fiction: what’s accuracy got to do with it?

Salvete, readers!

My last post ended with a promise (or threat, perhaps) to share my thoughts on the concept of ‘accuracy’ as a framework for understanding historical fiction.

Once, at a conference dinner, an inebriated PhD student flipped the bird at me when I mentioned that I wrote historical fiction as well as academic history. ‘I’m not interested in that reception crap,’ he slurred. ‘Because I’m a REAL historian.’ He then proceeded to try and chat up my wife and throw up on me. We are not friends.

I’m sorry to say that the rejection of historical fiction by historians isn’t an isolated malady, though it is mercifully rare. I’ve heard more than one historian smugly proclaim that they will never consume an historical drama. It’s not to their taste, because it’s ‘inaccurate.’ A minority of historians would rather historical drama vanish altogether. The argument is usually something along the lines that academic historians ought to be the gatekeepers of history, lest historical facts be twisted according to the whims of popular taste. Thankfully, this kind of elitism among historians is rare and growing rarer—I think most historians would agree that historical drama in popular media can be a very useful talking point for academics to bring their work into the realm of public discourse. And, as I’ve mentioned in my very first post, story-telling is among the most powerful means to bring the world of the past alive for the present.

Accuracy is a perfectly legitimate framework for assessing academic work, but there really isn’t much point moaning about lack of ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction. It’s fiction. It isn’t real. By and large, I don’t think fiction writers claim otherwise. For an historian working within the genre of academic history or even popular non-fiction, it is grossly unprofessional to make stuff up. But that’s because the historian whose work is misleading betrays the reader’s trust. Unfortunately, it does happen, and when it does the historian gets called out on it by peer reviewers. Hopefully. An academic historian is obligated to ground their work in verifiable fact. The same isn’t necessarily true for the writer of historical fiction.

Now these points regarding the distinction between fiction and non-fiction might seem self-explanatory. On the other hand, remember how that ghastly journalist felt obliged to expose Elena Ferrante’s true identity because it turned out that her made-up stories were made-up? Ferrante was vilified because the journalist lacked the ability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. In an age of fake news and alternative facts, it has never been more important to distinguish between the real and the unreal. Both have the power to shape the world.

For the subgenre of historical fantasy in particular, I don’t feel that the author is obligated to portray reality. Rather, they are creating an entirely new world, albeit one which evokes the historical past. The following disclaimer appears in every volume of Cressida Cowell’s children’s series How to Train Your Dragon sums it up nicely. I discovered it when I was reading it to my kids:

Warning: Any relationship to any historical fact whatsoever is purely coincidental. You have been warned.

As soon as I read that, I knew I was in for a fun read. The author doesn’t strive to portray real people, events, or places—the world she creates is her own. Cowell’s having the time of her life with her research, and I want to go along for the ride. I would argue that she is playing with history in a very conscious manner. I always remember this quote from her website:

  1. Do you do any research for the Hiccup books?

The Hiccup books are really ‘fantasy’ books pretending to be ‘history’ books. (The dragons are a bit of a clue, here). In real history, the Vikings could never have met the Romans, as they do in How to Speak Dragonese, because they missed each other by about three hundred years. However, even though the history in the Hiccup books is not to be relied on, I still do masses of research. History is full of fascinating facts that give me ideas for storylines. For instance, I found out that in the harsh, snowy winters, the Vikings used skis to get around, and this gave me the idea for the ski-chase at the beginning of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.

That said, the effectiveness of the world-building in an historical fantasy is directly proportional to how grounded it is in reality. It is much easier for a reader to buy into the phantasmagoria and the supernatural if the mundane elements feel like they belong to a real time and place.

When I catch myself griping because of anachronisms, I know that I have lapsed into pedantry. Nit picking is fun, if useless. It strikes me as a very shallow way to engage with a text. It’s much more interesting—and certainly I learn a lot more—when I make a conscious decision to consider how the author has used their research materials to tell a story. Story comes first, always. I’m very much invested in these matters as the author of a YA historical fantasy based on Greek myth.

In my next post, I will share my views on the concept of historical authenticity, as opposed to historical accuracy.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly week, ending 10 March

Salvete, readers! Great to have you here.

It’s been another mad, mad, mad week. Let’s just jump to it.

Writerly things achieved this week:

Creative work

  • Wrote a scene on an audio drama I’m co-writing. The story involves archaeology. And spaceships. And pirates. And ghosts. Things are moving to make the production happen. Recording is going to be a hoot.
  • Made a bit of progress on the current novel based on Beowulf. I wrote draft 1 ages ago, but after some revisions the first chapter is finally taking a shape I like. Bit by bit, the novel grows. I’m not one of those authors who can belt out thousands of words in a single sitting. For me, it’s more like cultivating a plant. It takes patience. And that’s okay.
  • Started reading a new book. This one combines two of my great loves: Greek myth and rural Queensland. Yep, you read that right. Can’t wait to share my review.
  • Surprised to find my Twitter flourishing. Blushed when one of my favourite authors shared one of my tweets. That counts as a little win, right?

Academic stuff

  • Got some superlative news on the publishing front. Thanks largely to the help of my amazing co-author, a new project will be announced soonish. Can’t say too much yet, but we had an idea for a book years ago, which is moving at last from the world of ideas into the world of reality. Watch this space!
  • Gathered together more research materials for that article on Centaurs, roughed out an argument. Remind self how amazing it feels to be writing on Centaurs. Also learned a bit more about the history of rhetoric. I once had a lecturer tell me that normal people don’t enjoy rhetoric… And, um, I really can’t dispute that point.
  • Translated a bit more of Palaephatus’s On Unbelievable Tales and Ps. Nicolaus. Surprised at how much I appreciate Palaephatus’s style, but still not convinced that Centaurs aren’t real. Sorry, Palaephatus.
  • Agreed to write some guest blog posts and contribute to a major international research project on the reception of classics in children’s literature. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Blimey. Honestly, it sometimes feels like I’m not getting enough done, day to day. But when I look back on it like this it doesn’t seem so bad. Huzzah!

Until next time,

Valete

Adventures in anachronism

Last week I took a shot at promoting my first academic book. This week I want to ramble a bit about my other great writing passion, historical fiction. This is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love storytelling.

It happened when I was in my late teens. I was standing outside the mead tent at the medieval fair and feeling weirdly conspicuous. Everyone else was strutting around clad in armour, robes, gowns, tunics. Me? Jeans, t-shirt, jacket. Don’t get me wrong, I’d thought about dressing up. There was a brown cape I’d had my eye on all week. A monk, that’s what I’d be. I could wear my old Rosary beads. After the fair, the brown robes would be reborn as a Jedi costume—at parties and/or running around the house with my toy lightsaber. And yet something held me back. Fear. A lot of teenagers are afraid of standing out or looking silly. Lots of adults too, come to think of it. But that wasn’t it. For a history geek like me, there was another aspect. Fear of anachronism. Fear of getting it wrong.

I’d come a long way from being an odd kid with sock puppets and a love of I, Claudius. Now I was an odd teenager who wanted to be an historian—how could I live with myself if my costume was historically inaccurate? And now I was standing around with my hands in my pockets, feeling like the only clothed person at a nudist retreat. Or so I imagined.

I swallowed and looked around. It seemed like I was swimming in a sea of anachronisms. Sequins on medieval dresses, zippers on trousers. A guy brushed past me carrying what looked suspiciously like a Klingon dagger on his belt. He was wearing a woolly jumper spray-painted silver so it looked sort of like chain-mail. To judge by the fumes, he’d done it that very morning. I think the BBC used the same trick when they did Narnia in the 90s, though they allowed the paint time to dry. Probably.

This is stupid, I thought. I should go home.

Yeah, I was a pretty grumpy teenager. Thank goodness I emerged from the larval stage.

That’s when the guy with the Klingon knife turned around made eye contact. ‘This is great, huh?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. What else can you say to that?

His face creased into a smile. He was missing a tooth. That felt historically authentic, at least. But his smile was so genuine that I couldn’t help returning it.

It hit me like a mace to the back of the head. Trust me, that hurts. This guy had it right, and I had it wrong. It didn’t matter whether any of this stuff was accurate or carefully researched. He was in the moment, having the time of his life, and I bet it wasn’t just because he was high on paint fumes. People at the fair had embraced the past with glee, while I was a stick-in-the-mud who refused to have any fun.

When I write historical fiction, I always remember that day. One of the points of telling stories about the past is to take readers on a journey into another world. In the case of historical fantasy like my novel Ashes of Olympus, the otherworldliness is far more literal. I embrace the spirit of the past, leap into it, glory in all the silliness and splendour of the ancient and medieval worlds. Greek and Roman history have their share of the dour and humourless, but also of the ridiculous. The same age that birthed Thucydides and Plato also spat out Aristophanes. Late antiquity gave us wowsers like Augustine, sure. But when I hear him complaining about early Christians using feast days as an excuse to get drunk and party, the world he lived in seems that much more real. What is the point of interacting with the past, if you fetter the hurly-burly?

Fear of anachronism is very real for a lot of people with a love of history, and probably a lot more pertinent for an historical novelist than a pimply bespectacled boy with an attitude problem. Just as it stopped me from getting into the spirit of the medieval fair as a teen, it can also be crippling for an author. My experience at the fair led me to cross-examine my own preconceptions about history, fiction, and the relationship between them. The man in the woollen chain-mail prompted me to adopt the principle of historical authenticity as opposed to historical accuracy. The framework of authenticity allows the writer and reader a lot more freedom, and with freedom comes joy.

The distinction between accuracy and authenticity as frameworks for understanding historical fiction is something I shall explore in greater depth in the next couple of posts.

Until next time, vale.

My writerly week, ending 3 March 2017

Salve, O Lector.

I’m going to try to keep track of things I do related to my writing and research once a week, as an accountability exercise. This includes all facets of writing, including reading.

Writerly things achieved this week:

  • Started taking my online presence as an author a bit more seriously—established this blog, joined Twitter.
  • Released my first academic book. Try my hand at publicising it. Suddenly find the reach on my author Facebook page has exploded to about 2000 people and I’ve got 139 following my blog. Eeek.
  • Posted off the manuscript to my novel Ashes of Olympus. *fingers crossed*
  • Wrote marketing plan for novel. Was surprisingly fun
  • Translated a passage of Greek for an article I’m working on. Working on a source that hasn’t been translated before is a bit like walking a tightrope minus the net.
  • Just for something completely different, read an Aussie steampunk novel. Wrote lots of notes. Expect a review in a few weeks.

Bit tired. But it’s been a good week.

Until next time, vale.

Julian