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Writing Women into HistFict: How-to Book Has Great Advice

Writing Historical Fiction: a Writers and Artists Companion by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott, (Bloomsbury) 2014 is an interesting book: part how-to manual, part history of the genre, part fascinating opinions by best-selling and best-known authors of the historical fiction genre, with a reasonable amount of space spent on the unique challenges of writing about women in the past. Here's what struck me about the book:

 

How Women Are Written and How to Correct That

The headless woman (shown from the neck down) "is a visual cliché on the covers of historical novels…" (pg. 50) but the trivialization and downright erasure of women in history goes much further.

 

"Women, especially women not from a ruling class, are the largest group to have been marginalized, or even deleted from the record, in historical terms. So the first challenges [in writing about women in history] will not only be a lack of records to research, but a consensual understanding that is thoughtlessly misogynistic. Royal blood has been no protection against the sexism of generations of historians and dramatists, who even today celebrate queens in European history as victims rather than rulers. Cleopatra and Boudicca are famous for their deaths rather than their lives; and Mary, Queen of Scots has been celebrated for her victimhood, while her incompetence was overlooked until Jenny Wormald published Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure in 1991. If a female ruler was unquestionably successful, historians and writers alike have argued that she was in some way deficient as a woman, claiming that Elizabeth I's approach to her rule was founded on romantic disappointment, or holding up Queen Victoria as a bad mother to her 13 children. "Page 52

 

"It is hard to find unbiased records, to find any records at all in many cases, and hard to combat enduring portraits of women as impotent victims. Many writers are concerned to reimagine the events of the past with women as active protagonists but encounter these forces as an undertow that is constantly dragging their imagination towards the stereotypes." Page 54 "For a writer, especially a writer who wants to respond to the challenges of being a woman, there is an uncomfortable sense that archetype is working against you and that the industry is more willing to back the archetype than innovation." Page 102

 

"A writer who wants to create a heroine in a work of historical fiction needs to consider that:

  • historical records may be meager and biased
  • the consensual image of a prominent female figure will almost certainly be at odds with the historical record, and also with contemporary expectations of the woman
  • powerful stereotypes will distort your imaginative process
  • you will need to balance historical accuracy and current understanding of a woman's role and behavior. " Page 57

 

The Difference Between History and HisFict: The Story of the Heart

At the same time, though, Hilary Mantel reminds us that you "mustn't express ideas [the characters] couldn't have had, and feelings they wouldn't have had. They did not draw metaphors from a scientific worldview but from a religious one. They weren't democrats. They weren't feminists. The past doesn't respect the sensitivities of the present. The reader should be braced by the shock of the old; or why write about the past at all?" Hillary Mantel, page 136

 

"Edmund White has written, "The job of the enlightened historical novelist is to show that the sun never sets twice on the same human sentiments. Each period has its own character, and no sentiment is natural, uninflected by the prevailing social forces. White says that if historical fiction is to be given the same weight we admire in the best novels of modern life, we must kick out the picturesque and trace out the consequences of moral choices – but only those that were genuine options at the time. We must forget modern ideas of fairness and of sexual erotic appeal, and happy marriages between sharing and loving partners of the same age and station; we must dig up the buried shapes of long-forgotten values and social arrangements. He says, "the new historical novel must not sanitize the past for contemporary tastes." We want to know what it was really like, and it is not difficult to reconstruct how it was." Page 28

 

Other Pearls of Wisdom

  • "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history "– Novalis (1772-1801)
  • On research: "First build your iceberg, then use the tip of it. Some icebergs are bigger than others." Page 224
  • "Margaret Atwood has said, "all novels are historical novels – the present never really exists in fiction." Page 18
  • "The fact is that we know far too much about the present.... The paradox is that the past, about which we know much less, is more manageable: there's less information to plow through, it's easier to research, easier to grasp. " Page 18
  • The very best historical fiction presents to us a truth of the past that is not the truth of the history books but a bigger and more important truth – the truth of the heart.
  • "To paraphrase Edmund White (who is talking about autobiography): History shows us formal long-shot panoramas of crowds – especially armies – historical fiction gives us the individual in all his [or her, sic] glowing detail." Page 18

"So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past." (F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby. Page 29) calling on Clio, the muse of history. Page 35

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Do You Have the Courage to Write?

I'm about to box up the remnants of the research and outlines for a book that got to 47,000 words and was the most fun I have ever had writing anything. Ever.

 

Unfortunately, a major pivot is required for this piece of work and, after rescuing about 20,000 words, I have to call it quits on the project. I've been moping around about it, in mourning. Adrift.

 

And then I am reminded of something I have been wanting to tell a young writer friend: nothing in writing is ever wasted.

 

Dear Friend:

First and foremost, congratulations and welcome to the world of writers. You may be thinking "she doesn't know if I'm a good writer" or "I don't know if I'm a good writer" but that's beside the point. You have found your way of relating to the world: through the written word, through your imagination. It's a wonderful gift to know this about yourself when so many around you don't and having a passion like writing can give your life a purpose and direction that can keep you going even when almost everything else seems pointless.

 

But when we spoke last, you were throwing away all copies of your writing and I want to encourage you to hang on to them. Here's why:

You say that you throw them away because you don't want your parents to find them, but you can put a special password on the folder filled with your writing materials so that's not really an obstacle. I think just as daunting is that, in a way, you don't want to look at them yourself.

 

And I get that! I totally get that!

 

The best part of writing is the daydream, the invention of the imaginary world. The second-best part of writing is trying to translate that imaginary world into words, in the first draft.

 

Then comes the most difficult time of all: the incredible courage that it takes to sit down and tackle the second draft.

 

And writing takes more courage than most other things (speaking someone else's lines in a play; performing music you haven't written) because there are few things more personal than writing.

 

Facing a second draft, you have to give yourself permission to be imperfect; the editor inside you has to be kind to the writer inside you; you have to put yourself through the inevitable disappointment when you realize that all the giddy excitement and pride that goes into the imaginative first draft hasn't succeeded in creating perfection.

 

Some say that writing is rewriting because in rewriting you tap into the structure and craft of writing. But rewriting is harrowing, most definitely!! It's an act of self-acceptance, of compassion toward oneself, to muster the courage for the second draft. Courage is not the absence of fear, as they say, but the strength to proceed in the face of fear. It takes courage every day, every page, to write, and the sooner you develop it, the better off you'll be because...

 

Writing will always require courage, no matter how many books you publish or awards you win.

 

Of course, there are practical reasons to hang onto your work: you can use it in your schoolwork. Let's say you write five pages of a story set in the undersea world. Next week in biology class you take what you've written and create a little synopsis for a cover sheet that says, "Life Under the Waves is an excerpt showing the importance of tackling climate change blah blah blah." It doesn't matter whether the piece is finished or not, it's an excerpt. By tying it back to classroom schoolwork you can get extra credit which might bolster your grades on the rest of your class work. Now that you know writing is your favorite tool, think of ways it can help you with other things that you're not as fond of.

 

But I think the most important reason to hang on to everything is because nothing is ever wasted in writing. A phrase, an idea, the way the light looks through a certain window, all of these ideas and explanations are things that can be used in another setting, another piece. I keep a document called Fragments on my hard drive where I am able to put snippets of descriptions or story ideas that I want to get down. I prefer this to putting them in my personal journal because I don't want to slog through a bunch of whining about the state of the world when I'm looking for a story idea. And when I'm working on a particular piece, I have another document called Outtakes which is where I put all of the things that I've stripped out of the first draft so that it's handy if I want to reinsert some things. It also comforts me to know that while I have taken it out, I have not lost it altogether.

 

So please, have compassion for yourself, muster your courage, and welcome to the harrowing world of fiction.

 

Now, bolstered by my advice to my young friend, but with a heavy heart, I will box up the project, take a deep breath, and begin something new.

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Segmented Sleep: Great for the Creative Mind

We take pills, potions and vitamins, get special pillows and now have beds that will tell us whether we have achieved that sought-after thing called a good night's sleep – eight uninterrupted hours. It's a multi-billion dollar industry but evidence is mounting that prior to the industrial revolution, we slept in two shifts with a period of activity between them. We can thank our pituitary gland that makes it a hypnotic time, a creative time.

 

In the pre-industrial past, it went like this: the "first" sleep started after dinner and sunset, which was close to 8 p.m. One slept about four hours, woke up at midnight and then spent two or three hours stoking the fire, playing music, making love, checking on food, telling stories, even visiting friends. Then, back to bed for the "second sleep" until dawn. In modern parlance, it's called segmented sleep.

 

A Hypnotic, Creative Time of Night

 

"Back when segmented sleep was common, this period between "first" and "second" sleep inspired reverence. The French called it dorveille [pronounced 'door-vay'] or wakesleep, a hypnotic state. English speakers called it 'the watch,'" says Jesse Barron, in "Letter of Recommendation: Segmented Sleep."

 

Wakesleep for creativity! For all those hoping for a little solitude and silence for creative pursuits, the middle of the night,  Read More 

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Chicken or Egg? Hobby or Character Development?

Where can I learn to be a blacksmith, I muttered to myself last week, as I decided to put a blacksmith in a new book/project. Might be fun to learn, I thought.

The night before I had packed away my (at this point fairly extensive) collection of chocolate molds and tools, having recently sold my new novel, Straight Uphill: A Tale of Love and Chocolate to Fireship Press.

So it made me wonder: which came first, the desire to learn something like confectionary, or the desire to have a character work in a trade that, for the sake of verisimilitude, I need to learn. I don’t necessarily need to master the craft, but I need to know the smell of it, the heat, the feel of the tools in my hand. One can learn the process from a book but there’s so that you have to actually experience.

So, which came first?

I wrote the chocolatiers in Straight Uphill because I was taking on chocolate as a hobby. (I’ve never actually had a hobby. Work, writing, motherhood, relationship, house; that was all I could handle. I had never even asked myself what I might want to do as a hobby, that’s how remote the prospect was.) Chocolates moved from a temporary pastime to a dedicated hobby when I realized that I had just spent hours, transfixed, as I worked with the stuff. The ‘languid quality’ described in the WWII section of the book is how I felt making my first ganache. So, in the case of Straight Uphill, the hobby came first.

I learned to ride a horse for two reasons:  Read More 

New Book Club Discussion Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Book Club Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Description of the book: A historical novel set in Europe 1465 – 1540, The Mandrake Broom dramatizes the courageous fight to save medical knowledge during the witch burning times and answers the question “what if the witches had fought back?” Based on extensive research of historical sources, herbal remedies and the medicines of the time, this novel has been called “is "stunningly good...tremendously involving and impressive." Meet:

Luccia Alimenti, daughter of a medical professor at the University of Salerno, Italy, destined to carry ancient texts and herbal lore into the dangerous and groundbreaking future.

Fiona, her Irish godmother  Read More 

Differences Between Fiction and Non-fiction: More Complex than Just True or Imaginary

I am preparing to teach a new class entitled to “From Daydream to Story: An Introduction to Fiction” – a class specifically designed for nonfiction writers and journalists, or people with story ideas but no experience in fiction. In the process, I have discovered that most explanations for the difference between nonfiction and fiction have to do with the reality of the material in nonfiction. Nonfiction is true and fiction is from the imagination. I would suggest, though, that there are a number of other distinctions:

Fiction is a close-in view of life. Think of going from nonfiction to fiction like the process of Google maps as it zooms in from a position in the stratosphere, zooming down into your backyard. And even closer than your backyard, zoomed in to the exact expression on someone’s face  Read More 

The Writer's Life and the Allure of the Keyboard

How many arggghs are there in arthritis? What a drag – the thing I love to do most in the world is now so painful that every time I think of something to write I ask “is it worth the pain?” Every task around the house is judged according to its impact on my hands. (A friend called it ‘wrist cycles.’) Do I really want to spend my now limited wrist cycles on pulling weeds, untangling that extension cord, chopping  Read More 
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Six Ways That Setting Can Drive Plot

Setting is not simple backdrop, like a green screen on which a film is shot. Setting in fiction plays an important role in plot and characterization. Whether you write sci-fi, historicals, or modern fiction, your setting can make or break your story. So, what are some of the keys to a well-drawn fictional world?

Four Major Mistakes with Setting
Setting is frequently considered the easiest and most fun part of writing. A writer seems happiest when describing rooms, clothing, smells in the air, the look of the lights, the weather. This focus makes sense, since we’ve spent a lot of our lives deciphering objects and their meanings. As fiction writers, we’re focused on the close-in vision of things. Big-concept people write essays. Fiction writers know that it says a lot when the curtains are torn versus curtains festooned with gold thread.
But I’m finding that there are at least four major mistakes with setting. Many writers:
1. Over-do it with too much explanation and description, getting lost in the wallpaper and descriptions of the light < Read More 

The Mathematics of Fiction

I have seen it so many times: the look of a young writer who is calculating the odds that they will ‘make it’ in literature. They are checking the ranking of their book on Amazon.com, the hits to their blog, books sold, hours clocked, word count checked daily, tracking shares and likes or any other mathematical measure to give one solace, or some faint indicator that they are approaching their goal of success, at the same time that they practice an art that always raises the bar on quality and holds many in obscurity without reason.

It is akin to using a ruler to judge the taste of cake.

Since we do these numerical calculations while we know that the quality and impact of art cannot be measured with mathematics, I would like to offer some additional math about fiction and the writing life:

First, the math of the art:
• You will have 10 ideas for every story you complete
• It will take up to 20 published stories to discover the thematic thread that runs through your work  Read More 

Good Storytelling Techniques are Required for Family Stories

The key elements of good storytelling apply to writing the story of your family. I teach a five-week course or one-day workshop that focuses on the material above and the keys to storytelling below:
• concentrate on the place where the action is greatest
• be very clear about the catalyst for change– the pogrom, the famine, the opportunity
• begin on page one with as much of a punch as you possibly can
• evoke many if not all the senses
• make sure that all characters are nuanced. Even villains must have redeeming qualities or flaws that can be understood.

The Personal Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
Anyone who writes, and anyone contemplating writing knows that it can be a daunting task. The New York Public Library article also reminds us of the personal advantages of writing this story: a better understanding of  Read More