Writing Historical Fiction versus Fantasy

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I have all the admiration in the world for historical fiction; especially my own, which has the advantage of always being about the periods and people I am most interested in. (Not too badly written either; although I admit they could still stand to improve in that regard.) But—and I hope I’m not out of line here—I expect the historical fiction I read to be reasonably historically accurate. As far as I’m concerned, authors may invent all the characters they like; but where they include actual, genuine historical figures, I think they ought to stay pretty close to the facts of those people’s lives as we know them. —And the “facts” I’m talking about include the absolute certainty that all people, in every age, who have principles or points of view that are not in line with the ones usual for their period had to pay a price for their non-conformity. A medieval person who said, “No, really: We shouldn’t be punishing these people! Homosexuality is really perfectly natural!” would probably have been castrated along with the homosexuals he was trying to protect; and a 1930s American housewife who said, “Honey, I want to go back to work. Let’s put the kids in day-care!” not only would have found no good day-care, she’d have found no sympathy for her desire to have a career, either.

Since social history is my very favorite subject, I’m particularly offended when it appears that an author has done almost no research into the manners and customs of the time s/he writes about. Medieval people only ate messily with their hands and threw the bones over their shoulders in old movies; and unless they died alone and unexpectedly, they were invariably offered shrift (confession), and Extreme Unction. I won’t name the book (because I didn’t like it), but I read one recently in which an actual historical king was depicted as refusing the final offices of the Church when he was dying because he “preferred to make his own peace with God.” Furthermore, his entire family went along with the plan.

Right. Sure.

It’s bad enough when, in television period pieces, men wear their hats indoors and remain seated while shaking hands;  women who are supposed to be ladies eat and drink while wearing gloves; and—okay, this one was actually in an opera which I otherwise enjoyed—ladies attend church (Catholic; pre-Vatican II) bareheaded. TV is TV (and opera is great and you should try it), and I don’t expect any better from it.

But an author ought to do better, and I’ll tell you why: Because an author who doesn’t want to study up on, or conform to, historical fact can always write fantasy instead.

Fantasy is great. I recommend it. In fantasy, people can have modern view-points and wear flowing gowns and shiny armor too. They can be kings wielding actual power (rare as hen’s teeth these days), and yet still be Sensitive Guys who bathe. Women can put on men’s clothes and ride into battle like Joan of Arc without getting burned at the stake like Joan of Arc. (As evidence that one of the charges against her was true—that she was “headstrong in speaking out on matters of faith”—it was pointed out to Joan that she had taken Communion dressed as a male.) Fantasy is fun; fantasy is freeing; and no matter what historical liberties or social anachronisms you introduce into a work of fantasy, even cranky old people like me cannot complain that you have gotten it all wrong, dammit.


Image: P.S. Krøyer: Hip, Hip, Hurrah! (1888) [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing Dialog If Your Character Is a Scientist

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I talk with scientists a lot, as I’ve mentioned before. But until this last weekend, when, due to the fact that it was time for us all to March for Science (and I hope everybody did), what I’ve mostly thought about when I talked with a scientist was what words I would use if I needed to translate what the scientist was saying into Regular English. Translating Science, after all, is my job.

But I’ve been writing fiction for some time now, and a writerly mindset seems to be taking over my brain. Instead of doing as I usually do, and mentally translating the March for Science speeches into the common language of most of the crowd, I found myself analyzing them for the specific characteristics of Science-ese that really define the way a scientist speaks. I was trying to figure how to subtly incorporate those characteristics into dialogue in such a way as to give the impression that a character is a genuine, bona fide scientist.

Early on, I learned that in writing dialogue, it’s sometimes little things that make all the difference. One of the first novels I ever wrote was set in the very early nineteenth century, and though I naturally wanted the dialogue to sound convincingly early-nineteenth-century-ish (or at least not jarringly modern), I also didn’t want to try to reproduce actual speech from the era. I guess some writers can pull that off, but when I do it, it always sounds fake. So I immersed myself in period literature for a few months, trying hard as I did so to pick out some stylistic detail that I thought nicely defined the difference between early nineteenth-century and modern style.

I found it in the old rule that I was taught in high school English class: “Don’t split infinitives.”

This is a stupid rule, and no one has obeyed it for the last two hundred years. But briefly—very briefly—it was an absolute; and that brief period happened to be the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

So the characters in my novel never ever, in speaking, split their infinitives; and friends who read it said, “Oh, your dialogue is so good! It really evokes the era!” They were friends, so mostly they refrained from pointing out the hundred other things that I’d done wrong.

Scientists, of course, split their infinitives.

They also sprinkle a fair number of scientific words into their conversation, and you would probably think that mimicking this (annoying) tendency would work well to make a character sound like a scientist. Somehow—I don’t know why—it doesn’t. It is, however, unbeatable as a device for making a character sound pretentious; so keep it in mind.

Scientists also talk about their research a lot; and if, in a novel, every conversation involving a particular character somehow wound up back on the topic of, say, neutrophils, that character would sound convincingly like a scientist who studied neutrophils. However, this is tricky to write for the author who is not also an authority on neutrophils. You may believe me when I say that if you get one picky little word wrong, you will hear from every neutrophil-loving scientist in the world about it. There are a lot of them. Not all of them will be tactful.

Looking back over the texts of some March for Science-day speeches, what jumps out at me most is the fact—it is a fact—that scientists are never certain. Somehow they never forget, even for a moment, that nothing can ever be definitively proven. They know that even something as well-established as gravity may actually be wrong. One day we may penetrate to the earth’s core and find that dropped things fall because there’s a giant Stuff-magnet in there, pulling everything toward the center of the earth with its powerful Stuff-attractant Rays. You don’t believe me? A scientist at our local March was asked by a heckler if she believed in the theory of evolution (the questioner emphasized the word “theory”). After gently correcting her interrogator’s terminology (he meant “natural selection”), the scientist replied—not “yes”, although natural selection is a cornerstone of biological science—but “So far, that is the theory that best explains the evidence.”

Since I know that the shortest and best way to define a character is with one or two lines of really trenchant dialogue, I’ll write a book with a scientist in it when I’ve come up with something as brilliant to write as “the theory that best explains the evidence.” Or better still, I’ll aspire to something even more brilliant; something on a level with the exchange between Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) in the original Ghostbusters movie.

Winston asks Dr. Stanz if he believes in God.

Says Dr. Stanz, “I never met Him.”

That is the perfect scientist answer.


[Image of the March for Science at Portland, Oregon from Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

A Story with a Sad Ending

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As I’ve said before, family stories are the easiest ones for me to turn into novels. The plot is fixed, the outline pre-written (can’t work without an outline!), and a plausible number and realistic variety of characters already exist, eager to be set in motion. My favorite part is that I don’t even have to think up names for them. I hate coming up with names for characters.

I’ve got a family story in mind right now that I think needs telling—one of those historical fictions that could easily be a multi-volume epic (although at my age I think maybe I’d better aim for something more like a novelette). It’s an old story, but a good one; about how one branch of my family came to this country from Ireland and made good. I think a lot of people would find it very relatable.

The family’s progenitor was the son of poor Catholic farmers—I’ll call him Paddy, since I don’t know his real birth-name—and he left his native land alone, in the midst of the Great Famine. I can’t decide whether or not to get deeply into all the reasons that my Paddy’s family, like so many in Ireland, were utterly dependent on the potato (and specifically on the commercially non-viable variety called the Lumper). The socio-political situation in early nineteenth-century Ireland is absolutely fascinating, but to discuss it might slow the narrative flow.

Putting politics aside, then, I’ll just get on with the story; which is that my progenitor—still Irish, and not yet Irish-American—took advantage of a British government-sponsored subsidized fare to sail to North America.Canada_immigrants

Naturally, the British government didn’t send Paddy to the United States. Why would they? His ship was bound for Canada, of course—a large, fertile member of the British Commonwealth that needed a larger population to fully exploit its potential to produce and export wheat. Britain needed wheat, and viewed Ireland’s “surplus” population as a convenient means to get it.

A parallel government plan was to undermine the Francophones by planting a lot of English-speakers among them, so Paddy’s ship landed in Quebec.

Unfortunately, in Ireland Paddy had practiced nothing but the spade-culture of the potato. In common with most poor Irish, he knew absolutely nothing about wheat-farming, which generally requires the use of tools like plows, harrows, disks and other mysteries. Therefore, along with most of his young, male shipmates, Paddy took the first opportunity he got of BETRAYING HIS PROMISE to the British government to stay in Canada in return for his fare, and slipping TOTALLY ILLEGALLY over the border into the United States.

(One imagines that the Québécois made no difficulties about this. In fact, they probably pointed Paddy south themselves, and wished him a hearty “bon voyage!”)

Going on with the story, I would then describe young Paddy’s initial struggles in the New World; where, in an atmosphere of hibernophobia and “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply) signs, opportunities were few for displaced Irish potato farmers. But when he got to New York, Paddy modified his accent and his name (to the frustration of his genealogy-minded descendants), and landed a job with the fire department. Soon, he was married (to an Irish-American girl whose lack of any clear trail to the United States suggests that she was also in the country illegally), and had a bunch of children. These children did well; and their grandchildren did even better. Paddy’s adopted name has spread far and wide across the country, into nearly every state, and every trade and profession.

And some of them have now turned Nativist, and cast their votes for the candidate who most stridently vows to deny other would-be immigrants the chances Paddy had.

I don’t think poor Paddy would approve.

Rationalizing Your Way to Virtue

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We now know for sure that it isn’t the ability to use language or tools that sets man apart from other animals; and the jury’s still out on whether, if there even is such a thing as a capacity to contemplate the divine (huh?), man is in exclusive possession of it. But nobody’s shown to my satisfaction that any other species but humans so consistently and imaginatively rationalize. Our ability to conjure up exculpatory reasons for what we do seems to be our great defining characteristic.

I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind when writing fiction. Any character who isn’t meant to be a certified psychopath should not only have clear motives for what he does, but should consciously (and—to be authentic—continually) rationalize his misdeeds.

In stories I’ve written, based mostly on people I’ve actually known, the rationalization often turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the work. This is because many times humans don’t just want to convince themselves and others that some unkind or unfair thing that they’ve done isn’t really so bad after all, or should be excused because of some extenuating circumstance. People often rationalize their behavior all the way from bad to good; even from positively evil to virtuous.

Take, for example, an elderly aunt of my mother’s, now long dead. According to Mom, this woman’s perennial state of simmering rage was likely genetic. She was apparently just born hating the world. But after being raised in the same tepidly Methodist household that produced my grandfather and several other perfectly normal people, Auntie embarked on a quest for a rationalization for her inner rage; which, after some early experiments with radical—really radical—politics, eventually led her to a small church which preached that to hate your neighbor was a sure sign of Salvation. Like the members of Westboro Baptist, the innate anger of the members of Auntie’s church was righteous anger; and intolerance of not only the sin, but the sinner, too, was virtuous and good. Everybody who ever met her disliked her; but Auntie was—in her own mind, at least—sure of Heaven.

I’m seeing the same thing in certain Trump supporters. For years, some of the ones I know personally kept their bigotry and sexism quiet (at least in public), though the rest of us were all more or less aware of what they really thought. Then along came the Trumpkins, relabeling political correctness (otherwise known as an effort to screen overtly racist and blatantly hurtful language from public discourse) as hypocrisy; and bad manners and aggressive self-promotion as authenticity. Some Trump supporters are simply delighted—beyond delighted—to see hatefulness and prejudice redefined as “virtues”, because they like to be virtuous as much as anybody. Now, without having had to abate their hate and prejudice in the least, they can tell themselves that they—like Auntie—are so full of virtue that they’re sure of Heaven or at least a tax cut.

Of course, the problem Auntie had with being actively disliked is a problem for some Trump supporters I know, too. And if I were writing them in a piece of fiction, they would definitely see very soon that real virtue, practiced properly, doesn’t alienate you from your friends and relatives. In the meantime, I’m getting a lot of good information on how to write about families torn apart and old friendships destroyed by ideology, which is useful, I suppose; though sad. It remains to be seen whether I’ll also one day be provided with many examples of happy reconciliations and tearful resolves to try, in future, to come to some better understanding.

Age of Innocence?

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A few days ago I was telling a writer friend about a story I was working on, in which the protagonist was a child growing up in the 1920s—an era I characterized as more “innocent” than our own. My friend objected. People weren’t more innocent then, she asserted. They were just more hypocritical about pretending to be innocent. Neither of us had any data to support our positions, but I did offer this anecdote (which I did not include in my story, by the way).

In 1924, my maternal grandfather was employed by the railroad, and one of the perks of the job (it may have been the only perk) was that he got free rail passes. They were for travel anywhere in the US; but only for the “day-car,” meaning seats, not berths, and they didn’t cover food, of course. But unlike most married women of her day, my grandmother had a part-time job. She supervised a team of women—mostly housewives like herself—who supplied fancy-work to order for Marshall Field’s department store. My grandmother spent the money she got for teaching the women to make beaded purses and embroidered baby layettes to bankroll a family trip to relatives in California.

Even with rail passes and my grandmother’s savings, the five-day journey was an extravagance, and economies had to be made. My grandmother packed a basket with enough food to last the first two days (the diner, my mother always remembered, charged the shocking price of ten cents for a single boiled egg in the days when a dozen eggs cost twelve cents at the grocery store). For the first night, my grandparents and my mother’s baby sister shared a berth (it must have been snug), while my mother and her older sister were supposed to sleep stretched out on seats in the day-car. (On subsequent nights the family would be able to afford two berths, because one day out of Chicago, ridership on the train diminished, and the price went down.)

The train left Chicago at dinnertime, and at ten o’clock the family went to bed. The day-car was still fairly crowded, but luckily my mother and her sister each got a seat to herself—though not, as they had anticipated, facing one another. Instead, my mother was on one side of the aisle, and my aunt on the other.

And on the seat facing my aunt was a man. He was already asleep, with his arms folded and his hat pulled over his face.

Next morning at breakfast, my aunt looked terrible. Eyes ringed with blue, she could hardly hold her head up. When my grandmother questioned her, she admitted, shamefaced, that she hadn’t gotten a wink the night before; but wouldn’t say why until her mother—probably fearing the worst—took her aside. In private, it all came out: The man in the seat opposite had slept soundly, never stirring—but the only “fact of life” my aunt knew was that if a girl slept with a man, she might have a baby. My aunt was eleven years old.

My writer friend and I eventually compromised on our positions: She agreed that there was a time in human history when the so-called “innocence” of young people was more “protected,” and I conceded that this era was very short (the approximately one hundred years or so between the time when ubiquitous barnyards ensured that the means of mammalian reproduction was on regular display, and the time when popular media took over that function).

On the other hand, we weren’t able agree on whether this kind of “protection” was a good thing or not. My friend did find the story hilarious, however. She said I should use it some time.

So now I have.


Image by Charles O’Rear, 1941-, Photographer (NARA record: 3403717) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why I Don’t Write Novels about Scientists—and Why, If You Knew Them, You Probably Wouldn’t Either

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People who know me are sometimes surprised that I don’t write about scientists. “A scientist would make a great character,” they tell me. “People are interested in scientists; they’re colorful; and you know all about them.”

Even without asking, I know the people who say this all really enjoyed the Back to the Future movies.

Heck, I enjoyed them myself; and the character of Dr. Emmett Brown did, in certain key ways, actually resemble some scientists I have known. Just dial Dr. Brown’s eccentricity and flamboyance waaaaaay back, preserve (or enhance) his single-mindedness and drive, increase the Brown family fortune that he spent up doing his research to at least twenty million dollars* (it took him—what? thirty years?—and doing research is very expensive), then load him up with a lot of teaching duties and administrative responsibilities and the fictional inventor of the time-traveling DeLorean would make a perfectly plausible researcher.

But—and this is the critical part—not a very good character in a movie, or book.

While it is true that a lot of scientists are a bit eccentric (some quite charmingly so), to be successful they have a lot of other traits that are the opposite of colorful. Doing research, as I mentioned, is expensive and most real scientists don’t have a family fortune to spend. Therefore, they must secure grants, which requires, not flamboyance, but an organized and linear thinker who can marshal past research successes, the present research status, and a coherent three-to-five-year plan for advancing the field into a forty-page document that will convince a panel of competing researchers and at least one cold-hearted government agency that any large chunks of money they throw his way will be well spent. I’ve known researchers who sported flying hair and flapping lab-coats à la Dr. Emmett Brown, and even ones who, like Einstein, eschewed socks. But believe me, when it comes to getting funding, they are as practical and business-like as any CEO, and just as uptight.

And then, if Dr. Brown is a scientist, then why isn’t Marty McFly more educated about time travel? Hang around scientists for long (five minutes) and what you find is that they can’t stop talking about what they do. They’re used to talking about their research, because that’s a huge part of their job; and since they mostly talk to other researchers who find what they say riveting, they’re used to thinking that everyone wants to hear all about it. Scientists teach everybody, all the time. Even scientists in research institutions who have no classes to teach still have to educate their graduate students and post-doctoral fellows; the public (funding again!); and—through seminars and symposia—their peers. Marty was Dr. Brown’s friend and didn’t know about the flux capacitor???? He’d have heard all about the flux capacitor nine million times!

In my experience your average scientist, far from being a wild-eyed loony, is much too serious, driven, single-minded, analytic, practical, deeply but not widely knowledgeable (there are exceptions), and naturally skeptical for me to want to write about.

Also—and this may be the real reason they don’t come up in my novels—despite all this practicality, etc. etc., an incredible number of them love the Three Stooges. I just don’t think my writing skills are up to making that seem believable.


*Question: Are we supposed to deduce that Dr. Brown burned down the family mansion to get the insurance on it to fund his research? Because this has been suggested to me by several people in a “duh! Of course he did” tone of voice when I totally did not see that at all. Not that don’t believe that there are real scientists—a few—who might do this if all their other funding sources ran out; I just didn’t see it.

Ant-Lands — Free for the Holidays!

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You’re probably bored by now, right?  Too much holiday cheer; too little time to yourself?  Here’s a thought:  Read a book.  My book.  In honor of the holidays, you can download a free copy of my post-apocalyptic novel, Ant-Lands, from now through January 10, 2017. Go to Smashwords and use this coupon code: ZJ72E

You may enjoy it. Let me know if you do.

Here’s the blurb on on Ant-lands.  Keep in mind that I HATE writing these things: Centuries after civilization was destroyed by genetically engineered workers called Ants, a small girl, victim of an Ant-raid, is rescued by a melancholic soldier; while in a town nearby, a schoolteacher struggles to build a new life. A horrifying revelation uncovers an unexpected bond between the three, which—provided they work together—may at last make it possible to defeat their common enemy.

And here is the first chapter:

on a night of no moon

A woman lay fully dressed on a straw-stuffed pallet on the floor of her hut in a tiny farming settlement and stared into the darkness of its single, dirt-floored room. Beside her, her small daughter was sleeping curled up like a kitten with her doll in her arms, but the mother lay rigidly alert to every soft night-sound. Life in the village of a dozen or so sod huts and barns was generally promising and secure. The early spring weather was pleasant and dry; the crops were greening the fields; and the Ants in the Ant-lands—as the woman reminded herself—were said to be going about their work nearly naked and wholly unshod.

This reassured her. Men who had nothing, having nothing to lose, might be driven by desperation to acts of aggression. But Ants judged that the time was right to make war on their neighbors when the harvests had been sufficient to feed workers to ret flax and weave linen for clothes, and cattle were plentiful enough that there were hides available to make shoes. A bare, hungry Ant worked passively all day in his colony’s fields, and Men in their own countries had nothing to fear from him.

The Ants were not insects, of course, despite their name. In fact, it was said that very long ago they had been man’s own creation, made to labor for him. Physically, they resembled man; though the Ancients had by some means no longer understood made every Ant entirely like every other one, so that all were identically short-statured, blue-eyed, and fair. But in that past age something had somehow gone desperately wrong; and man’s creation (made in his image), was now man’s feared enemy.

It was because the night was one of no moon that the woman was afraid. The watch in the watch-tower had been doubled, of course; but if one pair of eyes could make out nothing in the blackness, twice nothing was no improvement. In another hour or two, perhaps (she had no clock to tell her how many), the sun would rise and all would be well again. But while the dark persisted the mother lay without sleeping, and almost without breathing. She knew that the villagers were so few that their only hope in the event of an Ant-raid lay in the Ants finding them wide awake and forearmed.

A sound outside the shuttered window: A footstep. An early-rising neighbor? The woman sat up, and willed her heart to beat more softly so that she could hear. No second step followed the first, and she had lain down again and drawn a breath of relief when the unmistakable metallic whisper of a knife being drawn from a sheath brought her bolt upright again. More footsteps, a grunt, and the jostle of one body against another; and then a sound like heavy raindrops pelting to earth. When a head is struck from a body the heart does not immediately know to stop pumping, and blood spurts from the severed neck in a gory fountain. The sound was that of great gouts of a watchman’s blood falling from the watch-tower where the Ants had surprised him onto the ground below.

“Anne,” the woman whispered urgently, shaking the little girl awake. “Up, up.”

The child stumbled sleepily from the pallet. She knew instinctively not to speak.

Dragging the rough mattress aside, the woman felt for the hole dug in the earth beneath it.

Into her daughter’s ear she breathed softly, pushing her down into the cavity, “Here. Lie here: That’s right. Make yourself as small as you can.”

The child still clutched her doll. “Mama…” she whispered—just that one word.

Dawn was breaking at last—too late!—and mother and child could just see by it the gleam of one another’s eyes.

“Stay here, stay covered. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, don’t move. All right? Not until you’re sure it’s safe.” But how would such a little one know? “I’ll come for you, if I can,” the woman whispered.

Another glint than her mother’s tear-bright eyes caught the little girl’s attention—that of the knife, a big one, in her mother’s hand.

The noises outside were growing louder and more frenzied. Gods! A child’s cry!

“Stay here, stay still; all right, Anne?”

The little girl nodded soberly.

A scrape at the door—

With a mother’s hungry eyes she devoured her child’s face one last time. “You must live,” she murmured, touching small Anne’s cheek. “You must try to live.”

The pallet in place again, the woman ran to the door and listened. She was waiting for the Ant who had tried it to move aside. She had already decided that she must not be taken inside the hut. She must get out somehow, clear of the door, and then run and run as hard as she could; and at last, when she was caught—she knew she would be caught—she must fight. Every step she ran led the Ants further from her child; every Ant that she tired by running was an Ant who would search the hut less carefully. And any Ant that she killed was an Ant who wouldn’t kill Anne.

In one swift movement, the woman threw aside the bar to the door and burst out.

She made it as far as the clearing surrounding the watch-tower, twenty steps or so from where her daughter lay shivering with fear, huddled in a hole in the ground with her doll in her arms. Eyes closed, the child kissed the doll’s face repeatedly, seeing in her mind as she did so her mother’s loved one—but she made not a sound. She was trying to live.

As she lay hugging her rag-baby, an Ant whose feet were bare and who wore only the ragged remains of what had once been a roughly-sewn shirt caught her mother by her long hair and flung her to the ground, and her mother, making good on her promise to herself, sprang up again slashing wildly with her knife.

She was not, in the end, able absolutely to kill the Ant. His own comrades performed that service for her later when the injuries she had inflicted festered, and he could no longer keep up with the common pace back to the Ant-lands. She fought him until another Ant, coming behind her, struck off her head with his great iron sword.

As soon as he had done so, both Ants immediately lost all interest in the woman. A dead Man was neither a threat nor plunder. As her body fell, Anne’s mother’s head rolled a little way, to the feet of another Ant. He kicked it casually aside.