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.
My favourite Father-in-law informs me that salvete is not only for Latin for, ‘Hey folks!’ but is also Latvian for serviette. I can only assume that any Latvian readers who stumble across my blog think I have a weird fixation upon serviettes.
This week has been very much focused upon my day job as I am entering a period of intense workload. That’s life. I’ve done a few cool writerly things though.
Chipped away at a bit more on the big translation project I’m working on, and finally finished another smaller project. I take back everything I said about Ps. Nicolaus being readable.
I can give myself a bit of a pat on the back for sharing my research on how the Great War affected my great grandparents. Hint: it wasn’t that great.
I did some research on marketing fiction and looked into some discussion of where the publishing industry is heading. This is, alas, just as important as actual writing these days.
I carved out some time to work on an article whose deadline is looming. This comes as a relief, as it’s been hanging over my head for a while.
I’ve been reflecting a bit on my author platform. As a creative writer, I produce historical fiction with a heavy mythological bent. This is a fairly natural extension from my existing platform as a young scholar of Greek and Roman history. But this also means that effectively I’m building two writing careers simultaneously, working in two related but very different genres. They complement each other quite harmoniously. Still, balancing the two can be a challenge sometimes. But it’s a challenge I love to meet, week by week.
Thanks for sticking with me, folks. I really appreciate it.
A couple of years ago I decided to do some research on the lives of my maternal great grandparents, Harold Moses Horne and Marion Gordon Horne (née Taylor). I thought I would share what I found, and my reflections on the ANZAC legend and what it has meant for my family.
It was relatively easy to find information on Harold in old newspapers and the national archives, as he was a soldier in World War I. Marion was more difficult to trace. I managed to find three photographs of Harold. I’ve included one above. There are only two existing pictures of Marion, as far as I know. One is their wedding photo, taken when she and Harold were young. The other is of them in their fifties, worn and unsmiling. Both pictures are lost in a box somewhere. For both of their lives I am dependent also on the oral tradition handed down to me by my Mum. What really strikes me is how profoundly the war affected both of their lives. These people were not legends, as such, but genuine human beings with all the strengths and frailties that come with being human. I hope nobody minds if I share some of what I’ve found, and some of the thoughts I’ve had trying to piece together their lives.
Our story begins with Harold. This is by necessity, because information about Marion is scarce. His war record says he was born in 1895 to Charles and Miriam Horne, both of them farmers. That’s not too surprising. The overwhelming majority of Australians were farmers in those days. He was a Baptist, and from what I understand pretty devout most of his life. Most of his life he lived in Rosewood, Queensland. What really hits me is that he was a promising kid. According to the Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser, he won an academic prize at Ashwell State School. I guess he would have been twelve. After that, he took up an apprenticeship as a mechanic at the Ipswich Rail Works. He would have just finished the apprenticeship when he signed up with the army in March of 1916.
Why did he sign up? The same old stories get trotted out around this time of year. The stereotypical story of the ANZAC recruit is that he had a craving for adventure, or an ardent desire to defend the Motherland, or (God help us) wanted to help forge the Australian identity. Honestly? I have no idea, but I am willing to speculate that there were more prosaic reasons he might have joined the army. The Ipswich Rail Works ceased operations less than a year after he joined. Government subsidies had been redirected to the war effort, and most of the company’s labour force had volunteered. Perhaps Harold saw the writing on the wall for the company, and decided to try his luck with the army as many of his mates had? Certainly he and his family had never been well-off, and Australian troops were paid a princely sum of six shillings a day—more than three times as much as their British counterparts. In any case, we do know that he enlisted in February of 1916. At the age of twenty-one, I don’t think he could have known what he was in for.
A few months later, he boarded a ship for Alexandria to undergo training. I don’t think he could have had much training or experience. Five months after he embarked from Australia to Alexandria, he was shipped off to Marseilles, and from there to the Somme. Harold was part of a machine-gun division. Perhaps he had been assigned there because of his experience with heavy machinery. Who knows? All I know is that what he experienced changed him forever. We can read of the Somme, but I don’t think any of us can really understand the pointless, empty brutality of the battlefield—young men cut to ribbons and left to rot in no-man’s-land, and for what? To gain a few feet of land which would be lost the next day? Whatever empty sentiments we hear on ANZAC Day, I have difficulty seeing anything noble or glorious about such pointless loss of life. As a machine-gunner, his role would have been defensive. He likely never went over the top, but rather defended his trench against enemy attack. I can’t imagine the horror of it, to have to kill or be killed. He would have let loose a hail of fire that would have decimated row after row of enemy soldiers. What does that do to a person? I’m glad that I’ll never have to know.
Harold served in France until November of 1917. On a cool Autumn morning, his unit was hit by an enemy mustard gas attack. In the confusion, he was snared in some barbed wire. He managed to get his mask on, but the damage was done. His lungs were shredded. He was relocated to a military hospital in Aberdeen with acute laryngitis. It is at this point my great grandmother Marion comes into the story.
Marion had been born in 1898. Her dad was a blacksmith, and she had lived in Aberdeen all her life. When they met she was a munitions worker, and volunteered by night as a nurse’s aide. Here the oral tradition diverges somewhat from the documentary evidence. According to my mum, her grandmother always said they fell in love gradually as she tenderly tended his wounds. He was the tragic hero, an exotic foreigner fighting for freedom. It was like a scene from a romance novel. Perhaps that’s genuinely how they remembered it, and I don’t doubt that they were immediately attracted to one another on some level. No, what I find myself doubting is the timeframe. Harold was admitted to hospital on the Eighth of November, 1917. He and Marion were married on the Thirteenth.
Crikey. They didn’t waste time in those days.
Most marriage certificates tend to be printed on cream paper with gold embossed writing—or the ones that are meant for display, at any rate. This one is pretty grubby, with military typescript and scribble. Whoever made the record got her name wrong. The paper says she was ‘Maria.’ I’m willing to bet Marion lied about her age. While other records show she was born in 1898, the marriage certificate says she was born in 1895. Or perhaps it was a clerical error.
I can speculate all sorts of things that might have been going on at this point. It was probably clear to them that Harold was going to be rejoining his unit soon, and chances were that he wouldn’t have made it home, especially with his wounds. Did either of them expect this to be lifelong commitment? Nobody knew when or how the war would end. Maybe they felt they had to live in the moment. Or maybe they were just silly kids who didn’t think things through. I expect they saw it as terribly romantic to get married so soon, in a flurry of passion. There could have been any number of reasons. I honestly don’t know. There’s only so much a scrap of paper can tell you, and only so much a grandmother is willing to divulge to a child. Don’t forget, one of my main sources is what my mother tells me her grandmother told her when she was a kid. I suspect we’ll never know the full story. It would certainly cause his proper English Baptist parents some consternation when he brought home a girl who was not only Scottish but Presbyterian!
Harold and Marion only had a few weeks together before he was sent back to the front line, where he was reassigned to another machine-gun division. A few months later he suffered a relapse of laryngitis, and was sent back to the UK to recover. I haven’t been able to figure out where, and I haven’t found any evidence of communication between Harold and Marion at this point. Then he was deemed too ill to return to fighting, but was not discharged at this point. The war ended in 1918, but he couldn’t go home just yet.
After four years of bloodshed and with millions dead, Harold was reassigned to the Burials Division. This was a common fate for a lot of soldiers in his boots, I think. Too sick to fight, not sick enough for a medical discharge. They called Australian soldiers ‘Diggers.’ The word ‘Digger’ evokes mateship and bravery in Australian parlance. It features heavily in the bellicose rhetoric of the tabloid, the trite warmongering of the political speech. In Harold’s case, I don’t think he would have found anything to cheer in the name.
At this point we find something a little unexpected in Harold’s war record. In May, 1919, he was admitted to yet another military hospital, this time seeking treatment for syphilis. When did he pick it up? How did he pick it up? Actually, you know what? Never mind how. Let’s go back to when, and from whom? When I mentioned the disease to Mum, her eyebrows raised. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Well, you know. These young blokes, they thought they were going to die any day. I guess they had to try it.’ It is entirely possible that he contracted syphilis from a casual encounter or through the services of a sex worker. Once more, we’ll never know.
And I’m okay with that.
What I’m more curious about is whether he had it before he and Marion were married. If so (as seems likely) then she would have caught it too. Mum thinks that would have explained a few things about their marriage. I cannot blame him for passing it onto her. After all, syphilis only becomes detectable to the naked eye in its later stages. I just feel terribly sorry for both of them. Treatments for syphilis in those days did little and had horrible side-effects. It must have seemed like a miracle when penicillin was discovered when they were in their thirties. Shortly after undergoing treatment, Harold was placed on indefinite leave, and returned to Aberdeen. I can only assume she was treated too, as both would still have been carriers.
Some months later, they embarked aboard a ship to Australia. By this point, Marion was pregnant; the baby was stillborn en route. He was Christened ‘Allan’ before being buried at sea. Marion always blamed him. Now I guess we know why.
Harold came back to Rosewood a hero. The local paper ran a photo of him on the front page. His name and picture were included in a commemorative book, Queenslanders in the Great War. Incidentally, you can still download a copy of this book via the University of Queensland library. But inside I think both of them were dealing with a world of hurt. They had both seen things that nobody should have to see. They had just lost a child. And I can imagine that each was suddenly realising the consequences of marrying a stranger. Marion was far from the only home she had ever known, and trapped living with her in-laws, who never lost their distaste for her. She spoke with a heavy brogue, and never quite fit in with her husband’s family.
The next decades are a blur. Times were lean. The roaring twenties largely bypassed the young couple, and indeed much of Queensland. Harold didn’t qualify for a pension, as the government did not deem him grievously injured enough to warrant one. But his health was permanently affected, and he was so frequently ill that he could never hold down a steady job. There are a few reports of him being fined a few shillings here and there for driving without a licence or public drunkenness. Their marriage was never easy. Before he left, Harold had apparently been easy-going and likeable. Now he was surly and easily provoked. The war had changed Marion too. As a girl she had been naive, energetic. Over the next years she nursed a deep resentment for the hurts she had endured, and a regret for the life she had left behind. They had three more boys, Jack, Gordon, and Allan. The last boy was her favourite, named after the baby she and Harold had lost.
Their marriage, always tense, seems to have reached breaking point during the Great Depression. I was startled to discover a 1937 article from The Queensland Times. I don’t know much about the context, but certainly the clipping is suggestive of deep problems in their marriage. I shall reproduce it below.
STIR IN COURT
Woman Leaves Witness Box
A stir was caused in the Summons Court yesterday when the complainant in a case became somewhat excited and rushed from the witness box before she had completed her evidence. Appearing before Mr. G.A. Cameron, P.M., Marion Horne, Ipswich, claimed that of February 20th, 1937, she had been unlawfully deserted by her husband, Harold Moses Horne, and that she had been compelled to leave her husband’s residence under reasonable apprehension of danger to her person.
The complainant, in evidence, stated that she had been married to the defendant for 18 years. Her present address was Bremer flats, but she had lived with her husband in Roderick Street until a year ago. She was not living with him now, as he had made her life a “hell.” On February 20th she was compelled to leave her home because she was afraid he would do her an injury. Her mind was a complete blank regarding the events that led up to the incident on February 20th, because every day was the same to her. She had gone through a lot and her nerves were bad. On one occasion he had thrown water over her, and he ill-treated her frequently.
With an outburst of emotion witness declared that she was happy to go to her own home, and she would never go back to live with him again.
‘Witness began to talk very fast, and after being continually advised by the Police Magistrate to tell her story calmly and coherently she shouted hysterically: “That is enough! You can do what you like with me!” She then left the witness-box and made for the Court-House door, but was recalled.
‘The case was dismissed, Mr. Cameron observing as he turned to the defendant: “You had better make arrangements to keep her.”
What conclusions can I draw from this? First, that the situation for women in the 1930s was pretty lousy, if that’s the best the judge could come up with when presented evidence of domestic abuse. Next, my great grandmother had considerable courage to testify against him in the first place. And finally… Look, I don’t want to absolve my great grandfather of blame, but my mind cannot help but make a connection to the war. It is possible that post-traumatic stress could have been a factor in the domestic violence. The war made her life hell as well as his.
This is one of the legacies of war, that it tears apart the lives of generations. She did go back to him, and that they never separated again after that. I’m not sure she had much choice in the matter. But when Harold passed away in 1955 at the age of sixty, I know she remembered him with fondness. She would sit by the window in the afternoons with a pack of cigarettes, and remember. Sometimes she would tell her grandchildren something of her life, and that of the blue-eyed boy she fell for in Aberdeen.
I have mixed feelings about ANZAC Day. Most of all I hate the way the legend silences the Anzacs themselves. I hate the way it has become commercialised like Christmas, with scented candles and slogans, biscuits, campouts and all this khaki rubbish. Is it nothing more than an excuse to get pissed and play two-up? Why do we mask the human dimension of conflict behind sanctimony? Harold and Marion’s was not the war to end all wars. A hundred years have passed since Gallipoli. Do we have the right to use the ANZAC story to encourage today’s young people to take up arms for God, gold, and glory?
No. I don’t think we do.
But you know what? I too am a part of the war’s legacy. So are my parents, my siblings, my children. I’m rather glad Harold and Marion jumped into their relationship head-first. I owe my present existence to a very rash decision two young people made around a hundred years ago. And now as an historian I can do my best to ensure that their legacy is remembered and not misused.
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.
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:
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.
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?’
Normally I post a brief summary of writerly achievements for the week as an accountability exercise, but this has been an unusual week which has given me pause to reflect on where I am as an author and scholar.
Last week, my post-thesis fellowship at my alma mater came to an end. That’s okay. The fellowship served its purpose. The primary intention behind this scheme is to give freshly-minted PhDs the resources they need to publish their doctoral research, and I have achieved that with the release of my book. The difficulty comes in continuing to research afterward. It’s particularly tough as I have several irons in the fire in terms of publications and no longer have full library access at my old institution. This is not an uncommon story for recent PhD graduates, I’m afraid. Unless you are one of the lucky few who lands an academic position quickly, life after PhD can be very tough indeed. I find myself without a formal academic affiliation for the first time since I started my undergrad degree.
But I’m not giving up just yet. Flexibility and adaptability are keys to success.
Long ago, I saw the necessity of building up my career prospects in the world outside academia. The chances of getting a permanent position within academia are pretty dire, particularly in the humanities. Universities churn out far more PhDs these days than there are academic positions available. Once upon a time, I envisioned myself becoming a tenured professor. Yet now that I’m a little more experienced and have responsibilities as a family man, I think staking my future solely upon my academic prospects is a bit like planning to become a rock star. It’s not impossible, but unlikely. A handful of my former classmates have pulled it off, and they are amazing. On the other hand, I’ve also seen people toil in academia for years after achieving the PhD, eking out a meagre existence in the hope that a proper academic job is just around the corner. These are brilliant, talented, and highly skilled people. And yet one can do a lot of things with a PhD in the Humanities outside of academia—it just requires a bit of imagination and a lot of energy, just like with everything else. You don’t have to be an academic drifter if you don’t want to be.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to carve out a niche for myself in the world of curriculum design and support, using my knowledge and skills in unexpected ways. Since finishing the PhD, I’ve moved on to become a professional member of staff at another university. One of the privileges of my position is that I have full library membership. This means access to databases, journals and books. If my new institution doesn’t have a resource, I can request it through an inter-library loan. In other words, I still have resources to continue my scholarly writing career, even if my career is unconventional. I’m very grateful to have this opportunity, and I’m going to make the most of it. This isn’t the end of my relationship with my former institution, either. I maintain ties of friendship with my old faculty, and am still co-authoring a book with one of its members.
A few days ago I had a very productive meeting with a commissioning editor at a major academic publisher. We discussed ideas for future books. All of them are absolutely feasible even without a formal academic position.
So there you have it, folks! For the time being, I’m an independent scholar and lovable rogue.
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.
To all my new subscribers—welcome! It’s lovely to have you here. I’ll get back on my soapbox next week about writing, but for now it’s time for my weekly round-up of writerly achievements.
I’ll be honest, this has been a rough week. It started with my discovery of a nasty setback with my research, which I won’t go into here. After riding high upon the publication of the new book for the last couple of weeks, this brought me crashing back down to Earth, Icarus-style. Dealing with the problem has pretty much been the focus of my week. Well, that and my day job. On the one hand, I haven’t achieved nearly as much as I would like, but on the other, not every week is going to be as amazing as the last two have been. That’s life, and you just have to go with it. This post is all about celebrating the little wins. Kahlil Gibran said it best: ‘In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.’ My silly heart could use some refreshment right now.
Writerly achievements of the week:
Creative and academic writing
Gathered a bit more research material for the Centaur project. Came up with another angle. Think I may have cracked it at last. Am going to start drafting material to be shared with my brilliant co-authors this week.
Wrote a bit more on my Beowulf story. Not happy with what I’ve done, but that’s what drafts are for. Reflecting on it, I managed to figure out what wasn’t working with the scene and devised a solution. This gladdens me mightily. Hint: the scene will now involve some suspicious meat. And a knife. And two trolls. And the Norse god Baldur.
Contributions to the writing community
Read a great novel by a local author. Took it slowly, as I think it deserved the attention to detail. Took lots of notes, as ever. I will post a review—possibly here, though I’ve also been invited to do a guest post at another site and this would fit the bill nicely. I’m firmly of the opinion that writers thrive best in a community where people help each other out, and I’m looking forward to giving this writer a boost.
Online author presence
You know what? It might seem vain or frivolous, but I’m going to celebrate a couple of small wins in the online realm, particularly in the blogosphere and social media. These aren’t so much achievements, I guess, just little causes for celebration. This week I published my most popular blog post yet, and I reached out to some authors whose work I love on Twitter. I’m not going to lie, I felt a bit giddy when they reached back. I also discovered a lot of new authors whose work I hadn’t yet encountered, and am really looking forward to reading it.
I’m pleased though bewildered that I now have about 114 Twitter followers and it continues to grow, especially as I’ve only just recently joined Twitter.
On academia.edu, I was amazed to get an email saying that since I posted the cover and blurb of my academic book I’ve shot to the top 4% of scholars viewed for the month. I’m not going to confuse validation with love, but finding a following online is a new experience for me and I think I’m allowed to enjoy it.
And on a sentimental note…
My copies of the academic book arrived! It’s real, it’s solid, it’s in my hands, and I can finally show it to people. My oldest son, aged seven, watched me open the parcel. He didn’t quite know the significance of the moment; it was exciting enough that we got a package. I asked him if he could read the front cover—when he got to my name, he was apoplectic with excitement.
He clapped his hands. ‘You wrote this book, Dad? Wow!’ Then he frowned and looked at the pile. ‘Why did you get extra books? Are they for a garage sale?’
I smiled. ‘Heh. Hope not. I’m going to give them to a couple of special friends who have helped me to get this done.’
‘To say thank-you. Because I wouldn’t have gotten the book finished if they weren’t there for me.’
He nodded sagely. ‘Everybody needs friends.’ Then he realised Octonauts was on and moseyed off to the lounge room.
What a nice way to end an otherwise not-so-nice week. After all, I wrote the book for my family.
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:
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.