LOTR: The Shadow of the Past

Salvete, readers!

I continue on my epic quest to blog my reactions to re-reading TLOTR for the first time since high school. This week we enter the Exposition Zone with Bk. 1, Ch. 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Look, I’m not going to lie. Tolkien’s world-building is amazing, but sometimes his methods of exposition aren’t. And when exposition is done badly, it slows the story down to the approximate pace of running tar.

To give an example, let’s consider the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights, aka The Golden Compass. There are lots of reasons that film didn’t work, but I would argue the biggest is that the story pauses every ten minutes or so to tell the viewer what’s going on. And it adds an unnecessary prologue which consists, more or less, of briefing notes on how the world of Northern Lights works. It’s a light, inoffensive and dull film which utterly lets down its dark, controversial and very exciting source material. In fact, exposition is one of the things which Pullman does really well. He throws the characters into the scenario and builds the pace and tension from the very first scene in which Lyra spies on her uncle. Every little bit of information we gain about the world of Northern Lights feels like a moment of growth for the characters. Know why the novel works so well? Because Pullman is not trying to be Tolkien.

Make no mistake, there’s a large number of oddities in Tolkien’s method of getting important information to the reader. There’s no drama in Chapter 2, no tension. Given that the fate of the world is at stake, everyone’s oddly calm about it. Tolkien actually opens Chapter 2 by assuring us that the story is going to have a happy ending.

‘The second disappearance of Mr. Bilbo Baggins was discussed in Hobbiton, and indeed all over the Shire, for a year and a day, and was remembered much longer than that. It became a fireside-story for young hobbits; and eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.’

From there we get a paragraph which summarises rumours of goings-on in the wider world. The dark lord’s back, the dwarves are fleeing from war and the elves are getting the hell out of Dodge. Tolkien follows up with yet another scene of Hobbits sitting around the pub discussing these very rumours, followed by a quiet scene in which Gandalf monologues about current affairs, relays the history of the Ring, and gives Frodo his mission. In other words, we get the same information conveyed thrice, using different techniques. I get what’s happening here—set the scene, then plonk the characters into it. But honestly, the opening chapters are not the place to test the reader’s patience with a lecture. If I didn’t know how amazing the story becomes later, I’d probably have given up by this point.

There’s a lesson here for any budding author. Tolkien wasn’t writing Tolkienesque fantasy—he was just doing his own idiosyncratic thing, and it works for him because of the authenticity of his voice. Many writers striving to produce the next epic fantasy try to mimic Tolkien in their early chapters. The exposition is usually about the point when the reader struggles to maintain the will to live. Copying Tolkien’s style of exposition, in which everything is told before it’s shown, is a rookie mistake. It’s always better to find your own voice than imitate another author. You’ve got to get to the heart of your story from the very first page.

Moving on, then. Here are a few stray observations from Chapter 2.

  • This is the first introduction of Sam. I find it interesting that Merry and Pippin are Frodo’s closest friends, while Sam is most definitely his servant at this point. This dynamic is largely absent from the films.
  • Sam’s ‘accidental’ discovery of Frodo’s quest seems a little less coincidental in light of A Conspiracy Unmasked, where we learn that Merry and Pippin have been onto Frodo and the Ring for ages and have recruited Sam as their spy. Again, this is a nice little bit of implicit detail which didn’t make it into the movies.
  • Entwives! Sam, sitting in the pub (sigh) mentions a strange story that one of his cousins saw a tree walking. This is brilliant foreshadowing for the Ents, and I think it’s very likely that Sam saw one the Entwives—if so, it’s a real tragedy he never meets Treebeard. But then, maybe the Entwives are better off on their own. Treebeard’s poetry and the responsibility for a forest of half-tamed trees would be enough to drive anybody away.

I know I’ve been a bit critical of Tolkien in this post, but this bit still never fails to move me:

‘I should like to save the Shire, if I could—though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons would be good for them. But I don’t feel like that now. I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.’

For every idiosyncrasy in Tolkien’s story-telling, at its heart the story is beautiful. Reading the books again is like spending time with an old friend, knowing their flaws, but enjoying the familiar presence nonetheless.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly month: May 2017

Salvete, readers!

Well, we made it to the end of May. Queensland is a bit like Westeros at the moment: winter is coming, but it never quite gets here. Remember a while ago I asked readers’ opinions as to whether I should keep up the weekly updates on progress? Well, after thinking about the feedback I got, as well as my current schedule of deadlines, I opted for a monthly update.

On the academic front, my co-authors and I have put together a complete draft of the article we’re working on. We are well on track to get it out this month. Mythography is an amazing, highly technical area of scholarship which requires expertise in a range of disciplines. It’s also a lot of fun because you discover the weirdest and most wonderful things! I don’t know any other area where you’re called upon to consider the reproductive or dietary habits of Centaurs. I wonder if some of this detail might actually work its way into a novel someday. That said, typing in Greek is pretty much the opposite of fun. My poor word processor hates me right now.

Aside from that, I’ve finally figured out a fiction writing routine that seems to work. Huzzah! When you sit in front of your keyboard and your aim is to bang out a novel, that can be pretty daunting. The challenge seems insurmountable. Know why? Because it is! Especially when you’re working on an academic career and working full-time and raising a young family. Even among full-time writers, very few are capable of producing a novel quickly. Those who pull it off may very well be in league with the devil. The trick is to focus on one chapter at a time, one scene at a time. I’ve also set myself a weekly task—no matter what, I need to do one chapter per week, minimum, with a set word limit. This method of ‘chunking’ the tasks makes the weekly goal is very achievable. My eyes are still on the prize of having a finished novel, but week to week I’m no longer agonising about my productivity. Which, ironically, drives up productivity. Chunking is good for the story too. The pace remains high. Without room to waffle, every scene counts. It also provides a sense of rhythm. Things have been rocking and rolling since I adopted this method, and I’ve got a substantial portion of the manuscript down.

I’ve also been doing a lot of research into the publishing industry and where it’s headed. Listening to podcasts, talking to other authors about their experiences. In particular, I’ve been investigating the world of indie publishing. For now, my plan is still to seek a traditional publisher for my trilogy based on the Aeneid. But I’m also open to the possibility of publishing independently. No matter which way I go, the idea is to get better as an author. Connecting with even a small cohort of readers would help me to grow. And getting a behind the scenes look into the industry would be an amazing asset no matter what. Commercial writers can also learn a lot from indie authors, given that even in commercial fiction so much of the onus for marketing falls on the author.

The world is changing, isn’t it? We may be heading toward a time when writers need to show they’ve got the chops to make it on their own before a publisher will pick them up—especially when I see that Macmillan—one of the Big Five—has acquired the ebook distributor Pronoun.

Anyway. Work is progressing on the script for the audio drama, bit by bit. Writing for radio is really peculiar, but I’m enjoying the challenge. Will tell you more about that when it’s ready to go into production.

Anyway. I’ve signed up for a local authors’ event in a couple of weeks, which is thrilling. If funds allow it, I’m heading to the CYA conference in Brisbane next month. Really looking forward to meeting up with some like-minded people. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Until next time,

Valete

Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1

Salvete, readers!

Welcome to the first of my series of blog posts in which I analyse The Lord of the Rings novels chapter by chapter. We begin with the first chapter, A Long-Expected Party.

 

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Bilbo’s birthday always struck me as an odd place to start the story—it has caused more than one reader to give up on the novel. They were promised adventure and epic tales of good vs evil, not detailed descriptions of Hobbits sitting around hobnobbing at the pub. It’s worth bearing in mind that TLOTR received no structural editing from a third party at all—though his publishers were very much of the opinion that it needed to be cut down, Tolkien resisted what he saw as interference. You can do that when you’re an established author, though I personally am not sure it’s ever a good idea. It takes a village to raise a novelist. I suspect that if Tolkien submitted his novel to an editor today, they would advise him to open with a more gripping prologue, preferably something violent.  Perhaps Isildur slicing the ring from Sauron’s hand? If I were writing the story, I’d probably start with Smeagol taking the Ring from Deagol. But, you know, I’m not the one telling the story, and that’s absolutely okay. I’ve decided on quite a conscious level to let Tolkien take me on a journey with his characters. Readers, on the whole, were more patient in the post-war period. I can be patient too.

So why start with the birthday party? At first glance, the party seems somewhat extraneous to the larger story. The closest thing we get to a narrative hook is that Bilbo has lived an unnaturally long life and seems not to be ageing: ‘”It will have to be paid for,” they said. “It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’” Here Tolkien seems to be very much reliant upon the audience’s investment in the character of Bilbo. Fair enough: it’s a fair bet that anybody who picks up TLOTR will have read The Hobbit first. And yet the narrative purpose behind the birthday party doesn’t become obvious without close reading.

For me, it didn’t become clear why Tolkien would start with lengthy descriptions of the birthday party until I got into Chapter 2, where we hear the sad story of how Gollum stole the Ring and murdered his best friend—on his birthday. He felt he was entitled to possess the Ring for no reason other than the fact it was his birthday. The Hobbits of the Shire, on the other hand, celebrate their existence by giving, not taking. Tolkien speaks at great length of Bilbo’s generosity and the lavish and helpful gifts he bestows upon his poorer friends and relatives. Throughout the novel, Gollum will refer to the Ring as his ‘birthday present.’ Frodo too receives the Ring upon his birthday. After all, he and Bilbo share their special day. Even at this very early point in the story, Frodo and Gollum share a connection. The difference is that Frodo received the Ring in the spirit of kinship. He didn’t take the ring, it was given to him freely and willingly—more or less. And I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that Bilbo explicitly tells us the purpose of the party:

‘“After all that’s what this party business was about, really: to give away lots of birthday-presents, and somehow make it easier to give it away at the same time.’”

Gollum, on the other hand, would never have dreamed of giving away the Ring; certainly not on his birthday. Embedding this sort of parallel between Gollum and the Hobbits is brilliant, especially given how intensely the story will revolve around Gollum’s capacity for redemption under Frodo’s guidance.

The long-expected party, then, is absolutely integral to the characterisation of the protagonists and to the resolution of the central conflict.

Here’s a few stray observations from Chapter 1:

  • Tolkien shows a surprising amount of meta-humour. One of the first things Bilbo tells us is that nobody is going to read his book, of which TLOTR and The Hobbit are supposedly translations. You’re reading that you’re not going to read what you’re reading.
  • It’s interesting that Merry is introduced as one of Frodo’s close friends, while Sam is all but absent from the opening chapter.
  • Did Tolkien invent the word ‘tween?’
  • Tolkien the stickler uses the British ‘connexion’ rather than the Americanism ‘connection.’ I’m really glad the editors haven’t seen fit to ‘correct’ this archaism.
  • One of the highlights of the chapter is the quarrel between Bilbo and Gandalf—I really got the sense that these were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and one has gone down a bad path. There is a sense that each speaker is working under the influence of a higher power yet to reveal itself. Gandalf hints at his true ability as a supernatural creature and ring-bearer, while Bilbo shows signs that the Ring’s influence is starting to bend his mind.

The reasons will be revealed next week, as we move into the Exposition Zone with The Shadow of the Past.

Until next time,

Valete

An Unexpected Blog Post

Salvete, readers!

I’ve been feeling the urge to re-read The Lord of the Rings books for a while, now. Real life has been giving me a rough time lately, and I find that picking up an old favourite is a wonderful consolation. Sort of like nestling under a blanket with a hot cup of tea. Not coincidentally, I often do this very thing while reading.

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Picking up the book again is exciting!

The last time I read TLOTR was in junior high school, and I desperately tried to convince my friends it was cool, and nobody believed me until the movie came out. After that, folks couldn’t get enough of my Gollum impression.

Who knows what I’ll find on my journey back to Middle Earth? Odds are that Thirty-Year-Old Julian will react to the story a bit differently to Teenage Julian. I’d like to think I know a bit more about story-telling and criticism than I did back in those days. Present Julian loves the Aeneid and Beowulf and Norse myths a lot more than Teenage Julian did. And certainly my values have shifted a bit since I was a kid. If they hadn’t, then I would be worried. Will I be at all sympathetic to Tolkien’s portrayal of women, or of race? I wonder. Acknowledging Tolkien’s limits doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t appreciate his achievement, does it?

Does it?

Starting next week I’m going to blog my nerdy reactions, chapter by chapter. I’m not stopping my writerly posts, but once a week or so I’ll share new insights, favourite quotations, and reflections on how Tolkien engages with story-telling traditions from medieval and classical literature. As a story-teller and writer of fantasy, it will be interesting to think about Tolkien’s impact on the genre. I may just take a crack at trying to understand some of the languages of Tolkien’s world. I never really tried that before, as I thought that was too nerdy. Sorry, Past Julian, but I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed.

What am I saying? I’m not sorry at all.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey, folks.

Until next time,

Valete

Book review! Runestone: Book One of Viking Magic

Salvete, readers!

This week I’m reviewing the first book of the Viking Magic series by Anna Cidor, Runestone. It’s a middle grade historical fantasy based on Norse mythology, so it’s kind of my thing.

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Historical fantasy occupies a unique space in the world of genre fiction. You’ve got to deal with the unreal world of the supernatural, but within the constraints of historical authenticity. Writing for children brings its own set of challenges. Where do child protagonists fit in a world whose concept of childhood was so different from our own? How do you forge a connection between past and present? And if you’re writing about Northern Europe of the Middle Ages, you’ve got to deal with the Tolkien factor as well—so many features of the Norse sagas have become fantasy tropes via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Anna Cidor deals with these challenges well by side-stepping many of the clichés about Viking society.

The newborn Thora’s father has no interest in raising a daughter. He wants a strong young boy to help him out on the family farm. Oddo, meanwhile, is born into a family whose children learn magic before they can walk. To save Thora from being abandoned in the woods, the village midwife switches them at birth. Years later, Oddo shows no aptitude for farming, but constantly has to suppress his talent for magic. Thora loves working with her hands and making things grow, but has no magical ability whatsoever. When their paths meet, Thora and Oddo embark upon a journey to discover where they fit into this world.

It’s a simple story, well told. Oddo and Thora are charming characters who inhabit a world rich in detail. In the construction of her setting, Cidor pays as much attention to the natural world as the artificial, from the soapstone crockery to the alder wood trees. Her research into Norse social history really shows. The rhythm of the characters’ lives is determined by the seasons, as it should be for an agrarian culture. The characters live on the land and occasionally play at being warriors, not the other way around. If you wanted a story of axe-wielding sea-raiders or horned helmets, you’ve come to the wrong place. The system of magic is thoroughly embedded in medieval folklore and thus integrates nicely into the setting. I can’t fault Cidor’s research or her dedication to world-building.

That said, I question a few of the decisions in terms of authenticity. At times, the dialogue jars as it veers from the quaint to the modern. On the one hand, I think it makes sense for the dialogue to be idiomatic and casual. There’s nothing worse than highfaluting old-timey speak in historical fiction. On the other hand, well, the word ‘okay’ in a medieval setting just doesn’t feel right. While I appreciate that this world is essentially the author’s own, I never really got a sense of the geography or historical period. We get a fairly generic Northern European landscape, and the characters don’t seem to identify with any particular clan group. Anything resembling organised religion is notable by its absence. We get a kind of paganism minus gods—not one of the Asgardians rates a mention. This seems particularly odd when the story is about Viking magic. Surely Odin should at least be referred to, given that he was so closely associated with magic? I think adding a further layer of historical detail would have helped the story to feel less like a medieval fantasy and more like a fantasy novel which happens to be set in the middle ages.

Yet for every quibble there’s a stroke of genius. For instance, I love the use of ‘seethe’ as a verb for using a spell, rather than the more usual ‘casting.’ I’m guessing this is a transliteration of an Old Norse word for sorcery, seidr. If I’m right, this simple word-choice shows real sympathy for the historical past. Touches like this outweigh any drawbacks. With its likeable protagonists and compelling narrative, Runestone is an excellent first volume of what promises to be a thrilling series for children.

Until next time,

Valete

The essence of the story

Salvete, readers!

Last weekend I watched Moana again with my kids. This was no hardship, as I love this movie. Heck, I love the direction Disney is going right now—they really seem to have figured out what makes a story tick. As the credits rolled, my oldest son turned to me.

‘Dad, I think I know what this movie’s about.’

‘Oh, aye? What?’ Now, my son’s not long grown out of Thomas the Tank Engine, so I’m not expecting a particularly sophisticated answer. Probably he’s going to tell me it’s about a girl who goes on an adventure with a shapeshifter and fights a giant lava monster at the end. Nope. His next words staggered me.

‘It’s about being who you are.’

I blinked. ‘That’s interesting. What makes you say that, buddy?’

‘Well…’ He frowned. ‘They talk about it lots. Especially in the songs. Moana loves the ocean, and that’s who she is. But she needs to be brave to be a sailor, because the ocean’s scary and her dad doesn’t want her to go. So she has to be brave to be who she is.’

I smiled. ‘Go on.’

‘Maui, he’s really nice, and that’s who he is, but he acts mean and tough because he thinks that’s how everybody will like him. And the island lady at the end…’

‘Yes?’

He shrugs. ‘That’s what it’s about. Being who you are.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I would agree with you. That’s what it’s all about. Well done.’

He gets it. At heart, whatever the details of plot or character, stories are about something. And when you’re writing, that something isn’t always clear. Sometimes you don’t figure out the theme until you’re deep in the editing phase. But once you realise it, you hold onto it and never let go.

I’d say it’s really important to know what your story is really about before you start trying to sell it—to the reading public, agents, publishers, whatever. It should be implicit in your elevator pitch, even if you don’t beat readers over the head with it. Once you can distil the essence of your story into a simple phrase, it’s your first step toward getting others to understand what it’s really about.

Until next time,

Valete

Review– Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

Salvete, readers!

In my last post, I mentioned that I finally cracked and got Netflix. What did I watch first, you ask? Did I go to Stranger Things? The Crown? The Expanse? A Series of Unfortunate Events? Daredevil? Jessica Jones? One of the many shows which demonstrate we are living in the golden age of television? Oh my, no. Me being me, I typed ‘Roman’ into the search box, and this led me straight to Roman Empire: Reign of Blood. Ooh, I think, Netflix takes a shot at Roman historical drama! Netflix has a Midas-like effect on TV shows, right? They can tell any story they want, free from the constraints of network television. Surely this was going to be a different take on Commodus’s story? They wouldn’t just repeat a bunch of lazy Hollywood tropes, would they?

Heh, heh, heh. Silly Past Julian.

Basically, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood follows the Roman emperor Commodus from his boozy adolescence to his rise to power. Comparisons to Gladiator are inevitable; it features many of the same historical characters. The show is a ‘docudrama,’ alternating between scenes of fictional dramatization, interviews with various talking heads, and sequences in which vast swathes of story are narrated by the venerable Sean Bean. Given that Sean Bean dies in every movie, I can only assume the narrator was crushed by a vending machine on his way out of the studio. It’s an interesting idea to merge documentary and drama, but by trying to appeal to fans of both genres it fails to please either.

The problem is that by relying on narration and interviews to carry so much of the story, the viewer never really gets the chance to get to know the characters. The series doesn’t show us who these people are so much as it tells us. We’re told in the narration, for example, that Marcus Aurelius is a great philosopher. But we never see this—not in the pilot at least. As a piece of historical fiction, I have my issues with Gladiator, but the way the writers worked lines from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations into his dialogue was a clever way of telling us he was a philosopher. Here we’ve just got to take Ned Stark’s word for it. The drama scenes feel unfinished. Just when we might get sucked in, it cuts away to somebody talking at us. It would have been far more effective to do either a documentary or a drama, but not both simultaneously. Of course, I’m not sure they had the budget to tell the story as a drama. I can’t help but admire the tenacity of the film-makers as they to make everything look bigger than Ben-Hur, but there’s no getting around the fact that the sets are tiny. Seriously, don’t try to tell me that Commodus is fighting in the Colosseum when it looks smaller than a college amphitheatre.

Any shortcomings in the production values would have been overcome by deep characterisation. I, Claudius had a budget not much greater than old-school Doctor Who, but still was absolutely riveting. Roman Empire is content with sword-and-sandals clichés. We’ve seen this story a million times. It’s basically a bargain basement version Fall of the Roman Empire, with gratuitous sex and violence thrown in for fans of HBO’s Rome. You know what made HBO’s Rome great? It wasn’t the boobs or the blood. The show worked because it subverted stereotypical portrayals of the Romans and invested so heavily in the characterisation. You won’t find that here.

It might seem like I’m venting my spleen at the show, and that’s probably because I am. As a classicist invested in historical fiction, I get frustrated when the same stories get trotted out over and over. Greco-Roman antiquity is such a vast, rich, fertile place for the imagination. There’s a world of stories out there. Did you know that the Roman empire gave us the first romance novels in history? There’s got to be more to historical epics set in antiquity than a bunch of sweaty dudes shouting and swiping at each other with sharp bits of iron. There’s got to be more to Roman female characters than maternal figures and scheming manipulators, more to their sexuality than simply performing for the male gaze. I love Agora not because it’s particularly faithful to the primary sources—it’s not—but as an intellectual character study of Hypatia. I love Centurion because it’s a survival thriller that just happens to be set in antiquity. Novelists have done so many interesting things with the Roman world—detective novels like those Lindsey Davis, children’s adventures such as Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries. Tansy Rayner Roberts goes so far as to invent a whole new subgenre in Love and Romanpunk.

By and large, TV and movies just haven’t caught up yet. This is a crying shame. I would argue that Greco-Roman antiquity is uniquely suited to long-form story-telling, as it allows writers the time and energy it takes to get readers to invest in what is essentially an alien world.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need another Gladiator rerun.

So there.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly week, ending 5 May, 2017

Salvete, readers!

This week has been very much focused on academic writing. Good news, though! I finally knocked out my contribution to an article and sent the draft to my co-authors. It still needs some work, but it feels great to see a research project that started twelve months ago come to fruition.

I’m now going to focus on blogging and my fiction for a couple of weeks, before turning to the next academic project. I’m ecstatic about this next novel– it’s based on one of my favourite epic poems, Beowulf. I’ve written a draft of some early chapters, then realised I didn’t like the direction it was going down. So I decided to take it back to the drawing board and let it simmer for a few weeks while I worked on an academic project. In the meantime, I downloaded a series of recorded lectures on Beowulf and Norse history. This is one of the things I love about writing. It’s a fantastic vehicle for self-education and growth. And now, after a bit of cogitating on it (read: daydreaming), I’ve got a much clearer sense of where the story needs to go and who my characters are.

And we’re off to a flying start!

The only thing which could impede my productivity at this point is Netflix– I just joined and am slightly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of shows on there. On the one hand, it’s a bit of a time-sucker. On the other, good writing tends to inspire good writing, and by golly there’s some amazing writing in television right now. And then there’s Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, which is… not so amazing. In the meantime, I’m absolutely open to recommendations about Netflix shows.

Oh, and another thing I’m really looking forward to: I’m beta reading a good friend’s script! I love beta reading– I always learn so much, and it feels great to help out fellow writers.

In the meantime, O faithful reader, I have a question for you. Yes, you! How are you enjoying these updates on my writerly weeks? I’ve been contemplating the idea of dropping back to doing one per month. I find them a good way to keep myself accountable and it helps me a lot to look back and realise I have actually accomplished things. And yet I know it can get a bit repetitive to read what amounts to ‘wrote stuff, read stuff, thought about it a bit’ every single week. Let me know in the comments if you’re enjoying these posts, and I’ll let you know what I decide.

Until next time,

Valete

 

 

 

 

Historical howlers

Salvete, readers!

I’ve written a few posts now which talked about the ideas of historical authenticity vs historical accuracy. Here’s the long and the short of it. Basically, I don’t think the concept of ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction is all it’s cracked up to be. What’s important is that the story feels real and remains sympathetic to historical sources. Anachronisms are a problem insofar as they undermine the reader’s ability to buy into your world. In fact, there are instances where careful and conscious employment of anachronism can result in strong story-telling.

Good gravy, it reads like a manifesto, doesn’t it?

That said, I do want to stress there are definitely instances in which anachronism can have a disastrous effect upon the sense of authenticity. I’m not talking about the decision to, say, invent a scenario in which two historical characters meet when they couldn’t have. I’m talking about silly mistakes that make it glaringly apparent that the author hasn’t thought about their world deeply or done a lot of research. For a lot of readers of historical fiction, that can be a deal-breaker. On a deep and fundamental level, historical howlers can undermine an author’s voice. The illusion that this story could be true falls away to reveal an author who is visiting the past like a tourist. When anachronism undermines the world-building, the entire story is going to fall down. Let’s have a look at a few examples.

For whatever reason, food is one of the most common places where howlers occur. I don’t know why descriptions of meals are so galling when the author gets it wrong—maybe it’s because sharing a meal together is such a universal human experience, and because it is a classic setting for character development. So when I read stories of, say, peasants in early medieval Ireland tucking into potatoes… well, suddenly the story doesn’t feel real any more. Potatoes, after all, come from the Americas and were hence unknown in Europe until after Columbus. But they quickly became common fare, so I guess they’ve become shorthand for peasantry. Gosh, I remember grinding my teeth when I saw peasants hurling tomatoes on Merlin for much the same reason.

Leaving the middle ages aside, howlers like this really grate when the author is writing about historical experiences within living memory. Kathryn Gossow (author of the contemporary fantasy Cassandra, which is really good and I recommend it highly), pointed out on one of my previous posts that it doesn’t make sense for a story set in 1950s Australia to feature a working class family sitting down to a hearty meal of mac and cheese. Really it should be meat and veg. A really clear sense of world history is your best friend when it comes to writing about food—not just the nitty gritty details of a particular time and place, but a clear sense of the ‘big picture’ of history around the globe.

I think howlers become a serious problem when they undermine characterisation. I’m going to use another example from a very popular historical fantasy series set in ancient Rome—I’d rather not say which one. It’s a first-person narrative. We are inside the protagonist’s head for the duration of the novel, and so I’d argue that it is extra important to keep the story feeling authentic. One of the subplots revolves around an infected wound. And that’s fine, infection was rife before the age of antibiotics. You could die of a broken bone in antiquity. The issue is that the protagonist describes it in terms of ‘infection.’ As in, he seems to be aware of bacteria. Now, the Greeks and Romans were well aware of the process of corruption. Aristotle devoted an entire treatise to the subject. And yet to have the character diagnose himself using the modern medical term has an effect like crunching gears on a car. It’s unpleasant to the ear and bad for the mechanics. The protagonist doesn’t sound Roman anymore—it’s become a generic fantasy with Romanesque costumes. Sometimes historical authenticity comes down to something as simple as word choice.

To avoid howlers, I always recommend digging into the primary sources for the period—newpapers, diaries, and especially novels from the time you’re depicting. Not just to mine for details, but to get a sense of the voice, the way people talked and thought.

And you know what? I’m also going to recommend a resource: Susanne Alleyne’s Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders. It’s an awesome little reference guide. The examples used in this book do tend to gravitate strongly toward a European and American context, which makes sense given the author’s historical interests. However, it also gives a really good, solid grounding in the methodology for avoiding historical howlers. And, you know, if you want to know a bit about medieval undies, it’s a great place to look.

And on that lovely note…

Valete

My writerly week, ending 28 April, 2017

Salvete, readers.

I’ve crawled across the finish line this week, and I’m weary. And yet I do have a few things to celebrate.

  • One of the highlights of this week was when a friend of mine showed me a photo he’d taken at the Classical Association’s annual conference– my academic book was on sale at the Routledge table! And another written by a colleague which I had proofread. I’m really happy that Tertullian and the Unborn Child is reaching people who will find it helpful, and that my efforts do make a difference in this world.
  • After a very intense month in my day job, I decided to carve out some time this weekend to focus on my creative pursuits. I decided to add a few key details to my novel based on the Aeneid, added a new scene to the radio play I’m co-writing, and pushed the next novel forward another few steps.
  • By the end of this weekend, I aim to have my contribution to an academic article done and dusted. It’ll be so great to have that Centaur off my back– hoofs hurt more than monkey paws!

I listened to a podcast this week–The Bestseller ExperimentHave you heard it? It is kind of brilliant. Basically these two guys (whose names, confusingly, are both Mark) have set out to write, publish and market a bestselling novel in one year. Every week they interview somebody from the publishing industry. Whether it’s an author, publisher, editor, agent, or a number-cruncher, the guests share their secrets to success in the world of book publishing. I wish the guys who run the podcast loads and loads of luck, though I suspect that the aim to produce a ‘bestselling’ novel in just a year may be an exercise in hubris. That said, the podcast is really informative and entertaining. I did a literal spit-take when they interviewed Ben Aaronovitch, and the interview with Bryan Cranston is amazingly insightful. Not only am I learning a lot about how the industry works, but I love the sense of connection with all these people who love books and contribute to our literary culture. At the end of the day, whether as big-time mainstream novelists or as indie authors, we’re all in this together. And, yeah, I can dream about being on the show someday. Well done, Marks, you’ve inspired me.

I’d love to talk about building upon one’s academic cred to make a career as a novelist. And compare and contrast modern and ancient means of storytelling. What can we learn from the ancients? How have we progressed? In some ways, have we come full circle?

Or, you know, I could just write a blog post about it.

Well, that’s about that for this week. Thanks as ever for sticking with me, folks. Building a community is one of the main functions of story-telling, as I see it. The writer’s journey can be impossible if you go it alone, but it gives me courage to know that my words reach others, and it’s so heartwarming to hear of others’ success.

Until next time,

Valete