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

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.

Welcome to My World That I Just Made Up

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I made up a new maxim. It is, “Those who don’t learn from the mistakes they make in picking what kind of book to write are condemned to keep writing the same kind of book.” It’s not very catchy, it’s grammatically a little obscure, and it probably won’t catch on generally; but I hope that pinning it up over my desk and looking at it every day will stop me from making another literary foray into applied sociology.

Like most writers, I think, one of the reasons I started writing stories in the first place is because I’m interested in human psychology. I try to figure out the answers to my questions about how people’s minds work by making up characters and moving them through the various life situations that constitute my plot. But outside of people, my greatest love is history, and I keep seeking insights into history by creating whole societies, and moving them through the various historical situations that constitute my plot. For me at least, this is really tough.

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to write an original—and yet believable—character, because individual personalities vary so much. Any being with opposable thumbs is plausibly human. Ever known a Heathcliff or a Cathy? Me neither—but I’m perfectly able to believe they might exist. And to write an original society is pretty easy, too—but not to make it convincingly stable, or lasting.

This is because societies are like dogs. Breeders can work hard and create animals as different as Great Danes and Chihuahuas; but let them relax their vigilance and in a few generations they find themselves with a bunch of very similar medium-sized, flop-eared, saber-tailed mutts. (–Nothing against mutts, by the way. Mutts are my favorite breed.)

Similarly, put a bunch of humans together, and however they initially conceive their society, eventually they evolve one that has similar rules; norms; authority groups; social, familial and religious structures and institutions; and exhibit the same degrees of cooperation and conflict as every other human society.

I won’t say that I’m a contrarian, but the fact that this homogenization is so general annoys me. So I keep writing fantasies in which the characters are human, but the societies they have evolved are different. Then I spend the whole book trying to figure out why, and how to keep them that way.

It’s hard work. I’m crazy to do it. One of the societies in Ant-lands was a bit on the utopian side, and what with all the extra research I had to do on how utopias are created (and why they never last long), the damn book took me at least an extra year to write. And now I’m writing about the first encounters between different societies, and researching how long, in general, it takes people to realize how superficial their differences, and how deep and innate their similarities are. Do you realize how many books have been written on this topic? And I have to read a bunch of them.

Hence the un-catchy little aphorism pinned up over my desk. If I read it daily and take it to heart, my next protagonist will be a loner, an outcast from all societies. –And not the kind of loner who goes around making friends with the little woodland creatures, either. It wouldn’t be an improvement for me to have to research woodland creatures.

Writing in the First Person

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I’m deep into writing another book—a sequel to Ant-Lands.  This is by popular request.  “Honey, write a sequel to Ant-Lands,” was a popular request of my husband’s.  I don’t usually read sequels myself, having formed an unfavorable opinion of them when I was six years old and wasted a week of my young life on the insipid Heidi Grows Up; but I feel like I owe my husband something for being my most faithful and supportive reader.  He once compared my work favorably to that of Joseph Conrad, his own preferred author, and though I don’t believe for a moment that he really thinks I’m in Conrad’s class, the memory of his heroic attempt to sound sincere when he said it is something I will always treasure.

Just to make a change from Ant-Lands, which was written in the third person, I’m writing the sequel in the first person.  I admit to feeling a certain hesitance about this—not because I don’t like writing in the first person (witness this blog), but because I’m haunted by a remark from a friend concerning the first-person point of view.

Her name was Julie, and Julie had given up reading a novel written in the first person because, she reported, it confused her.  She said, “The book kept saying, ‘I did this; and then I did that’; and I kept thinking, ‘no I didn’t!’”

Now, I have never had this problem.  In the same circumstances, if my brain says anything, it says, “Yeah, I totally did do that, and lots more!”; but are there many Julies out there?  By writing in the first person, am I taking a chance on limiting my future sales?

Julie and I are eager to hear from anyone who has more information on this important topic.

The Devil’s in the Details

fish-GrimmsI may have mentioned that I’m no longer young, but believe me, it doesn’t follow that I’m nostalgic for The Good Old Days. Sure, forty years ago I was better-looking. My skin was smoother and I had fewer stomachs and chins. But I also had only my own hands and brain to rely on, whereas now I have robots to do my work, computers to think for me, and Ebay on which to buy back my childhood.

I’m currently waiting, with all the patience of a six-year-old, for a boxed set of books: Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairy Tales, published in 1945. They’re the versions I grew up with, beautifully illustrated with copperplate engravings, and—possibly because the world seemed an especially harsh place in 1945—honestly and accurately translated from the original languages with no accommodation to a child’s fragile psyche. In 1945, apparently, children’s fragile whatevers were to be hardened up, not accommodated. Sensitive child? Cod-liver oil shots and Grimm’s Cinderella were just what the doctor ordered.

The theme of the Grimm’s Cinderella is basically the same as Disney’s: Abused step-child triumphs. The difference is in the story’s plot details. There’s no fairy-godmother, for one thing. Cindy finds her three ball-gowns (one for each of three successive nights of dancing; even a prince wasn’t expected to pick a wife in only one night) lying on her mother’s grave. Disney either thought a grave was too morbid to mention in a children’s story, or that by leaving open the question of whether Cindy’s mom was absent due to her death or a messy divorce, more children could identify with her. I can see his point. My father died when I was very young, and I had a grave to visit, too. I saw myself every time I looked at the illustration of Cinderella at her mother’s graveside.

I also identified with the fact that she had two older sisters. My own two sisters weren’t step-, and they weren’t (very) evil; but we had our issues. I got a big thrill out of the part of the Grimm story in which in response to their mother’s urging, the step-sisters make their big ugly feet fit Cinderella’s little lost shoe by cutting off their toes and heels. “When you’re queen,” Wicked Step-mother reassures them, “you won’t have to walk anymore.” I was a little disappointed in the prince for being such a dim-wit as to fall for the ruse (twice); but luckily for him, some talking birds nearby alerted him in time to the blood-trails the sister’s mutilated feet were leaving. The talking birds also made sure to peck out the step-sisters eyes once Cindy was happily settled in the castle.

In the Andersen book was the delightful The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, in which a very vain little girl who bridges a mud-puddle with a perfectly good loaf of bread to avoid soiling her shoes gets sucked straight into a Hell that makes the Biblical lake of fire look like Club Med by comparison (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t waste food); and The Red Shoes, in which a vain little girl lies about the color of her shoes to her half-blind benefactress and is danced to death by them (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t lie).

Now, those were some stories!

In contrast, my grandson’s current favorite book is one in which Superman uses his various super-powers to determine that Mr. Grocer’s missing bananas were stolen by a gorilla. Superman gets the gorilla to confess to this transgression by assuring him that he (the gorilla) will feel much better once he’s got the whole ugly story off his chest. (The bananas will still be gone, though. No word on who compensates Mr. Grocer for the bananas.) Same basic fairy-tale-type plot, with Superman filling in for fairy godmother; same basic moral set (lying, stealing, and wasting food are bad); but what a difference in the details! I read Grandson this story at bed-time and then we both fall asleep from sheer boredom. I’m not allowed to read him Cinderella, or The Red Shoes. I’m not allowed to read him The Girl Without Hands, in which a father cuts off his daughter’s hands to escape being taken himself by the Devil. But I’m looking forward to re-reading them myself; and who knows? Maybe one day my daughter will change her mind. Maybe one day she’ll reason, “After all, Mother read them as a child; and look how great she turned out.” Maybe one day Grandson himself will figure out that he’s being cheated, and demand better entertainment. Honest: Grimm and Andersen will harden his little psyche right up.

No cod-liver oil for him, though. That stuff’s just plain nasty.

The Once & Future Character

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I’ve read a lot of stories with fantastical elements—magic, time-travel, telepathy, kindly mothers-in-law—and I’ve been dissatisfied with so many of them that I’m about to give up on the genre entirely.  It’s not the fact that they can’t be taken seriously that annoys me, although most of them can’t.  Carefully examined, time-travel (just as an example) doesn’t make sense unless there’s no such thing as causality in the universe, but that’s all right.  I’m willing to believe in time-travel for the sake of a good read.  What annoys me is that, the fantasy elements aside, so many of the stories don’t meet my usual criteria for a “good read.”

Making an incompletely-drawn character a warlock or time-traveler doesn’t complete him.  If a witch is depicted as altering present realities by means of spells and hexes, I still think the author has an obligation to provide (or ideally, to inspire the reader with) insights as to how being able to alter reality has impacted—possibly defined—the witch’s character.  Does she revel in her powers, or does she take them for granted?  And if she’s all “Bwoohahaha-die-my-pretty,” then—why?  A flat character is a flat character.  Even one who has a magic wand, a time-machine, or the ability to read minds needs a good backstory and convincing motivation.

I don’t always want to be reading so-called “literary” fiction.  For one thing, there’s less and less of it being published; and for another, there’s usually not a lot of action in a work of literary fiction.  Mostly, somebody realizes that something isn’t quite as simple and straightforward as they imagined it would be, and though they’ve already spent more than half the pages of the book thinking, they end it by resolving to think some more—only in a new, more mature way.  But please, will somebody recommend something with some real action—a battle or two; maybe a dragon or some werewolves; but not vampires.  I’m sick of vampires—in which the characters have, but are not obsessed with, an actual interior life?  Because so far all I’ve got is T. S. White’s The Once and Future King, and my copy is just about worn out.