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

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

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

 

 

 

 

My writerly week, ending 7 April, 2017

Salvete, readers!

First, I must apologise for not doing one of these posts last week—I fully intended to, but Cyclone Debbie had other ideas. Fear not, though—aside from having to wade home through flood waters, the worst of it I experienced was losing broadband access for a few days. If the flooding Queensland experienced in 2011 was a punch to the gut, Cyclone Debbie was a slap in the face with a rubber fish.

Right, then. Things achieved for the week:

Creative writing

  • Acting on some advice from a manuscript assessor, I’ve been working on the dialogue in my current historical fantasy novel. I’ve had multiple readers point out that my Bronze-age characters speak in a manner so casual that it feels anachronistic. Making the revisions was a tough decision, as I had opted to have the characters converse in a very casual way for a reason. If there’s one thing my studies of ancient history and languages has taught me, it’s that people have never spoken in the stilted manner we hear in period dramas. However, that’s what readers of historical fiction expect, so upon reflection I think it might be best to bow to the conventions of the genre. This does raise the question, of course, of what kind of English they would have spoken in ancient Greece. And also, how do you balance readers’ expectations that dialogue should ‘feel’ authentic with the need to make the story flow? I think this topic merits a blog post, don’t you?
  • I submitted my novel to yet another publisher. Trying not to think about it, to be honest. Nonchalant. I can do nonchalant. Once, in high school, I was even breezy.
  • I am almost finished the Song of Ice and Fire books! Reading contributes to writing, yeah? *eyedart* I’ve barely seen HBO’s Game of Thrones and am relatively unspoiled, so I am on the edge of my seat. Though I think George R.R. Martin’s writing is… well, uncomfortable in certain respects, I can’t deny that it’s engaging. And I’m learning so much about world-building from seeing how carefully Martin has constructed Westeros.
  • You know what? I’m rather proud of the blog post I published a few days ago. I wrote the hell out of that thing. This is the first time I’ve ever published a personal essay online, and it is gratifying to see that the response has been so overwhelmingly positive. My thanks to everybody who liked, commented or shared.
  • I received some really helpful notes from a good mate on the first chapter of my novel. Glad to find the draft was well-received.

Research/ academic writing

  • After the delays I’ve experienced on my current research project, I’m happy to say that things are back on track and I’m swimming in ancient Greek once again.
  • After some deliberation, I raised my hand to do an academic book review on a subject which I know back to front. No word yet on whether my application to review the book has been accepted—let’s see.
  • Oh! And I had a couple of very pleasant surprises this week related to my first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child. I found that the university where I work has already purchased the ebook! I didn’t even have to prod the library to buy a copy—somebody else did that for me. I have always dreamed of seeing my name in a library catalogue. It’s a new experience for me.
  • I also was thrilled to discover that my book is now on the Bryn Mawr Classical Review’s list of books available to review. This is one of the best-disseminated sources of book reviews in my field, so this is delightfully terrifying.

Think that’s it. Cheers for sticking with me—I really appreciate it.

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

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