My writerly month: June, 2017

Salvete, readers!

It was a tumultuous month, to say the least.

One of my old friends passed away a few weeks ago. Dealing with this ended up being a large focus of my month. I had planned to attend a local writer’s event, but the funeral was organised for that afternoon. Theoretically, I guess I could have attended the event in the morning and then gone to the funeral, but I thought it was better to focus my energies on helping out my friend’s family that day. Then I delivered a eulogy at the funeral. That’s one of life’s less pleasant story-telling exercises, but really vital. Stories can help people heal. The important thing, as always, is to speak from the heart and make it real. This person was an important character in your life, so you want it to be as genuine as possible. A few people came up to me afterward and said how much they appreciated my speech, so I guess I did okay.

I decided to take a week off from blogging after that. Sorry about that. I needed some head-space.

In the end, finances prevented me from attending this year’s CYA Conference in Brisbane, but I’m really thrilled to see that some of my writer friends have experienced such success this year in the pitch sessions and learned so much from the panellists. And gosh, I’m particularly happy that somebody to whom I gave some encouragement at last year’s conference did so well in the competition! Well done to everybody, but particular congratulations go to the organisers for making this conference as special as it is.

Things are steaming ahead on my current novel. It’s going in a rather different direction to what I initially envisioned, because the characters aren’t quite who I thought they were. Initially I had intended to retell the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf from the viewpoint of a teenage girl. Beowulf was going to be a love interest. However, after spending about 10,000 words developing the female protagonist, I realised it would be a real disservice to her if Beowulf came sweeping in. She doesn’t need a male love interest to be a well-defined character. If anything, adding a male protagonist was in this instance going to undermine her characterisation by robbing her of agency. The solution, of course, is to remove the Beowulf framework and let the story stand on its own. It’s inspired by Beowulf, but is no longer an adaptation. The novel is an original historical fantasy whose heroine is a Viking girl. Stepping away from the canonical text is absolutely exhilarating. It has given me the freedom to create something wholly new, and to take my characters to places they never could have otherwise.

Meanwhile, my amazing co-authors and I are pretty much ready to submit our article for peer review. I’ll keep you posted on that one. I also got some good writerly news last week, which could lead to some better news in the future… But that’s all I’ll say for now.

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.

runestone-book-1-of-viking_262

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

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 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

 

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

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: 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