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

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

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

Depictions of Troy in Historical Fiction

Salvete, readers!

After a couple of weeks of posts concerned with WWI, we now return to our regular programming to discuss historical fiction. Anachronism can be a dirty word when it comes to evaluating historical fiction. By and large, I would agree that blatant anachronism can be dangerous when it undermines the story. However, I would also argue that when used carefully there is a place for anachronism in historical story-telling. I’ve written previously about how complaining about anachronism sucks the fun out of everything. But anachronism can also be put to good use, if used in a conscientious way. I’m going to use examples from the Trojan War, simply because it’s a topic in which I’ve researched pretty thoroughly.

Numerous novels set in the Trojan war run with the Homeric tradition that the Trojans were more or less the same as the Greeks, eg. Colleen McCollough’s Song of Troy and David Malouf’s Ransom. In these stories, Greeks and Trojans speak the same language, worship the same gods, and share the same material culture. The power structures in Greek and Trojan society are organised in more or less the same manner. The idea that the Troy was a mirror image of Greece is in no way historically probable, and if we are trying to understand the novel using the restrictive framework of accuracy, it will fail dismally.

In fact, the historical Troy was in all likelihood a Hittite colony. Eric Shanower picked up this idea and ran with it to great effect in his magnificent Age of Bronze comic book series. His depiction of Troy was hugely effective in that it subverted the reader’s expectations. Another great example of a novel which honours the historical Troy’s Hittite origins is Judith Starkson’s Hand of Fire. Shanower and Starkson deserve kudos for their detailed research and the dense, richly layered depiction of Hittite culture.

However, even as I acknowledge the power of historical verisimilitude in these narratives, I would argue that the traditional depiction of Troy as a kind of Greek polis still honours the story’s historical roots in that it reflects the cultural milieu which produced the Iliad and Odyssey, the primary textual sources for the Trojan War. In this context it can be very effective for the historical fiction author to evoke a sense of time and place rather than to rigidly adhere to the facts, archaeological or otherwise.

Sometimes we imagine that archaeology is an impartial science which provides unquestionable fact. Problem is, there’s no such thing. Archaeology is just as much influenced by the vicissitudes of historical circumstance as any other discipline. Here I think it’s useful to consider the thoughts of classical archaeologist (and spy!) Jerome Sperling is illustrative. When he wasn’t relaying information to the allies, Sperling participated in Carl Blegen’s pivotal excavations at Troy. Blegen’s interpretations of the site were strongly criticised by later archaeologists, who argued that he allowed his experiences of seeing cities levelled by enemy bombing in WWII to influence his interpretation of the destruction of Troy. Questioned about it decades later on Michael Wood’s documentary series In Search of the Trojan War, Sperling responded:

To me it doesn’t have any great significance, this criticism, because everybody’s Troy is different from everybody else’s Troy. It depends on what blend you make of the poetry you’ve read or how much of the archaeology and you care about it, and how much you use your own imagination… I don’t see the need for identifying Agamemnon, say, as being the person there at the end of Troy VIIA. I mean I’m thrilled by, I’m overpowered by Homeric poetry, and I think everyone is who reads it carefully. It’s an over-powering experience. But that doesn’t make it, doesn’t have to make it historical, because you see poetic truth comes in the people that he talks about, their hopes and despair and problems and conflict. That’s where the truth of it is.

So there you have it. I think that if a renowned archaeologist (and puncher of Nazis) can recognise that the power of the Troy lies as much in story-telling as historical veracity, then surely novelists can too.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly week, ending 15 April, 2017

Salvete, readers!

And so we come rumbling to the end of another week. Let’s jump right into it.

  • Progress has been regarding my current academic project.
  • I gave one of my old essays a polish and posted it here, and it seems to have gone down well. Can I just take a second to express my gratitude at its warm reception? This essay has particular significance for me, as it was my first stab at researching my own topic independently when I was a wee undergrad! It’s more than that, though. The history of mental illness is a topic very dear to my heart, and my great grandfather’s PTSD following the First World War affected my family for several generations. Next week in honour of the ANZACs I am going to post some of the historical research I’ve done about my grandparents: how they met in WWI, and how the war affected them throughout their lives.
  • I’ve made a few minor tweaks to the novel which has a full manuscript, but nothing major. I should probably leave it alone now and just focus on the next project. Then again, I always remember a quote from George Lucas: ‘Films aren’t released. They escape.’ Perhaps its the same for all forms of storytelling.
  • The next novel has crawled forward a few paces. I had a bit of a brainwave on that front– the going has been slow, and that’s okay, but maybe I’m overthinking the first draft. My last novel was an historical fantasy set in a world which evoked the Greek bronze age. This next one is a first person narrative set during the early middle ages, and I’m working really hard to make the voice sound authentic to the period. The conceit of my current story is that it’s a lost historical source from a medieval author. Creating an authentic-sounding medieval voice is a greater challenge, which means very deliberate word choices. But you know what? Maybe I just need to give myself permission to write garbage and then edit, rather than agonising over every word. It’s important that I’ve got the voice down pat, as it’s really important. It doesn’t have to be perfect, though. That’s what first drafts are for.

I want to press forward on my writing projects, but it’s the Easter weekend and I think I owe my children some time. There will always be things to do, but my kids won’t be young forever.

Until next time,

Valete

 

Dear Twenty-Year-Old Me

Dear Twenty-year-old Me,

Right now, I’ve just turned thirty. Everyone assures me this is a huge milestone. Folks these days talk about turning thirty the way they used to talk about turning twenty-one. Apparently this is when real adulthood begins—when you settle down, get serious about your career, start a family. It sometimes seems like my generation spent its twenties lounging on the couch watching Spongebob and washing down fruit loops with vodka. That’s not going to be you. Sorry. In terms of life achievements, you’re going to pole-vault right over your twenties and land square in your thirties. It won’t be long now before you’re married and have two little people in your life who will argue with you on the correct way to use a lavatory.

And you know what? It’s going to be awesome. Your kids will teach you to see the world through new eyes, to appreciate just how amazing life can be. You’re going to read them Narnia and Roald Dahl, and they’ll applaud when you do the funny voices. Don’t misunderstand me, it won’t be easy—basically, you’re going to get signed up for a fulltime job where you are on call twenty-four hours a day, get no sick leave and no holidays. Sometimes, when the kids wake you up at four in the morning because they can’t find their damned Pokémon cards, it’ll feel like this will never end. But you’re doing something amazing—building a life together, teaching and nurturing them to become the best they can be. You wouldn’t trade the feeling of having your children fall asleep on your chest for anything.

Right now, at twenty, you’re working two jobs to get yourself through uni. You didn’t achieve stellar academic results in your first year, and you wonder whether it’s really worth it, especially when all you want to be is a writer. Don’t worry—you’re going to start hitting your academic goals in second year. Uni is a learning curve, so don’t beat yourself up. Your parents assure you that an Arts degree is going to be your ticket to stability in life. Don’t hold that against them. Mum and Dad are just passing on the wisdom of their generation. They didn’t realise that they came of age in the heyday of the liberal arts, and they couldn’t have known. Don’t fret about the value of an Arts degree. In about eighteen months, this thing called the Global Financial Crisis is going to happen, and it will mean the end of stability for your generation, regardless of what you study. Economic neo-liberalism will come to be taken for common sense, and most of the jobs will be casualised. It sucks, but you’ll make the best of it. Getting out of poverty is going to be an incremental process, and it isn’t going to be because of your education so much as your willingness to work hard and take opportunities as they come along. In this, you will be no different from anybody else.

But, um, if you want to invest in these things called Facebook and Twitter, I wouldn’t object.

At one point, after finishing the PhD, you’re going to convince yourself that being a school teacher is the best and only use of your knowledge and skills. The bad news? This is going to be the biggest mistake of your twenties. The good news? This is going to be the biggest mistake of your twenties. Anybody who can make it in the secondary education system will forever have your respect and admiration, but a job which involves reprimanding kids about their socks isn’t for you. Luckily, it’ll turn out that you’re good at other things too, and you learned a lot from your experience working in schools.

Oh, and that ambition to become a writer? It’s going to happen, but not until you figure out why you’re doing this. You’ll turn your PhD thesis into a book and advance human knowledge by a micron or two. Go you, but remember it’s not the Nobel Prize. The real test is whether your research is going to make a difference in people’s lives and have an impact upon the world. Let’s see what happens there, eh? The greatest thing you’ll gain from your education is comprehension of how little you really understand, and how much of the world there is to see.

It’s much better than it sounds right now.

I also happen to know you’re working on a novel. You’re far too scared to show it to anybody, but you’re convinced it’ll be the next blockbuster. Hate to say it, Twenty-year-old Me, but the one attitude cancels out the other. And it’s not going to be a bestseller, and that’s fine. That poor, unfortunate, half-formed novel is going to be valuable as a learning experience. You’ll gain the confidence to experiment with language, hone your storytelling ability. Most of all, you’ll learn how far you’ve got to go. Don’t be downhearted.

You’ll apply what you learned from your first attempt when you put pen to paper on your next novel. In hospital on the day your son is born, you’ll start scratching out a first chapter while your wife sleeps. You’ll keep scratching at it until it becomes a first draft. By the time you get to draft four, you’ll show it to other writers, and learn how to deal with criticism—both constructive and otherwise. Eventually you will tally of your drafts and feel like a gunslinger notching his rifle. At writing conferences, you will make like-minded friends who want your story to succeed just as much as you do and give you thorough critiques. It’ll be strange and a little intimidating, but you will repay the favour in kind. That’s how it works in the writerly world. With every stroke of the red pen, you become stronger as an author.

And on the bestseller thing? Sorry, Twenty-year-old Julian, you’ve got it wrong. As much as you might love JK Rowling’s work and hope to walk in her footsteps, her career is the exception rather than the rule. And Rowling didn’t write with the intention of becoming a bestselling author. She had a story which she wanted to share with the world. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to know we’re not alone. The flip side, of course, is that we write to reach out to others. It shouldn’t just be about selling books. It’s about contributing something to the community, giving people something to enrich their lives. Achieving sales matters far less than reaching the people who need your story.

By the way, it won’t be long now before you see second-hand bookstores flooded with unwanted copies of this these books called The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Learn well from this: you can sell a story to millions and reach nobody. Far better, I think, to reach a few to whom your story means a lot.

Over and over, you’re going to be absolutely bamboozled by the human instinct to tear each other down over differences. You’ll figure out over the next ten years or so that story is the answer: to have the courage to speak, and to listen. Story brings people together, binds us. Sort of like the Force.

Also, right at the tail end of your twenties, Disney is going to purchase Star Wars and release the sequel trilogy, and—don’t look at me like that, it’ll be loads better than you expect. Remember when Disney started making Marvel movies? Oh wait, that hasn’t happened yet. Disregard.

Read, Past Me. Read stories from as many different perspectives as possible. I know you love fantasy and historical and science fiction, and that’s cool, but even within those genres there’s a lot more diversity than you choose to see right now. You’ll go through periods where you choose to read only novels written by women, or by people of colour. The ones by women of colour will teach you the most! As you discover more stories grounded in the here and now, you will find the world is more fantastic than you ever realised. Hear other people’s stories, the stories of strangers you meet in the streets. When you develop the capacity for patience, you will discover every human being is on their own hero’s journey. Learn how complicated and wonderful and strange the world is, and be willing to acknowledge the limitations of your understanding. That is the first step toward growth.

Just a couple more messages, Twenty-year-old Me. Over the next decade, you’ll start to learn how to take care of yourself. I don’t just mean how to pick out your own clothes and cook your own meals. When you’re there for people, you throw yourself into their wellbeing and care for them with your whole heart. And that’s good, that’s fine, that’s a part of who you are. But sometimes you’re going to get hurt, and sometimes you’re going to get exhausted. Once in a while, your caring will get thrown in your face. A handful of others will care for you as much as you do them. Nourish these relationships, but be mindful of your own needs also. It’s true that love is not a finite resource, but time and energy are. Don’t waste them on people who treat you as though you’re a complication in their life story.

In the end, there’s going to be one person who sticks by your side, and she is the love of your life. Right now, Twenty-year-old Me, you’re thinking about asking Kelly to marry you. There’s plenty of folks who will tell you it’s a mistake. Don’t listen to them. Getting married is the best thing you’ll ever do. Cherish Kelly, adore her and love her with all your silly heart. That’s what’s important. You already know it, I think, though you don’t quite know what it means yet.

I’ll close with a timey-whimey wibbly wobbly quote from your future and my past: ‘We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?’

Until next time, vale.

Thirty-year-old Julian

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

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

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