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

Giving Evil a Toe-hold

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My parents were middle-aged when I was born, and interestingly, their parents were middle-aged when they were born, too—although the middle of life came a little earlier in those days than it does now. In fact, all of my relatives were old. (Most children think all their relatives are old, but in my case, I have the dates—many of them beginning with an 18—to confirm my impression.) While this meant that I didn’t have any grandparents alive to spoil me when I was growing up—which I regretted—the situation also had its positive aspects. My friends’ parents looked at the manners, music, fashion, and morality of the Younger (i.e., my) Generation and saw the decline of Western Civilization. Mine saw—more of the same things they’d seen before. Short skirts? My mother had worn them in the twenties. Long hair on men? My dad had long hair in the thirties. Rock ‘n’ roll? In her youth, my mother had ditched choir practice to sneak off to a concert of what was known as “race music”; a euphemism for jazz before white men started playing it.

Mom got caught because she fell down a flight of stairs as she was leaving the performance, and her mother (who was the first married woman in the neighborhood to bob her hair, by the way) told her it was God’s judgment on her for lying. But my grandmother didn’t object to the music itself. Her three brothers were all musicians, and they liked all kinds of music. In fact, her youngest brother, who played the oboe with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, even liked that awful Stravinsky fellow, whose “Rite of Spring”, when the orchestra played it, caused half the audience to walk out in disgust. When Uncle Oboist heard about the concert he thought he saw a kindred soul in my mother, and for a time, they became quite close.

My mother never traveled much herself, but her uncle opened her eyes to the world beyond the Chicago suburbs. The orchestra went to Europe, of course; and European symphony orchestras came to America, too. Musicians are a tight group, and my mother’s uncle knew hundreds of them—especially the ones from Germany, since the conductor of the Chicago Symphony at the time was Frederick Stock, who was originally from Germany himself.

In the nineteen-thirties, long before she heard it anywhere else, her uncle told my mother that there was going to be another war in Europe, probably very soon. His German musician friends had told him that the new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, wanted war; and the mood in Germany was such that what he wanted, he would probably get.

Some of the musicians actually supported Hitler; but many more (at least, many more of the ones who shared their thoughts with Uncle Oboist) were simply resigned to putting up with him for a while. They thought Hitler himself was a very bad man, with pernicious ideas; and that he was supported by the worst kind of people. But the Bolsheviks, they assured my mother’s uncle, were the real threat; and the Nazis were taking a hard line against the Bolsheviks. They said that once the Nazis had taken care of the Communist menace, the “better sort” of people in Germany would in turn “take care” of Hitler.

Of course, there was that distasteful National Socialist anti-semitism thing; but there had always been anti-semitism in Germany. When the Bolsheviks were gone, Uncle Oboist’s friends said, National Socialism would blow over, and things would get back to normal. Even some of the Jewish musicians agreed with this. They thought that it might be worth putting up with Hitler for awhile, too—but just until he’d cleaned out the Bolshevik nest, of course.

Some of the other Jewish musicians weren’t so sure. The first thing they asked when they saw my uncle was whether the Chicago Symphony had any open positions, and how they could get an audition. I don’t know if the orchestra acquired any new players this way, but they certainly could have.

My great-uncle wasn’t so sure, either. He told my mother that he didn’t think one evil could be used to cure another evil. Once a weed has taken root in a garden, he said, getting rid of it usually involves the death of every growing thing around it, including the rose you’d rather nurture, and keep.

As we all know, Uncle Oboist was absolutely right about this. In support of what many people thought was a noble goal—thwarting communism—evil was given a place to grow in Germany; and millions of roses had to be sacrificed to root it out.

—And if anybody thinks they see any modern-day parallels with this story… Well, so do I.

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.

As We Go Marching, Marching

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The March for Science is scheduled for Earth Day. Please join me there.

In the meantime, stop telling me that there’s no point to marching in support of science or anything else because it’s not going to change Trump’s mind. I’m not (entirely) stupid, you know. I already know that. Nothing is ever going to change Trump’s mind about anything—unless maybe a large and aggressive brain-tumor.

All the marches against the Vietnam War never changed Lyndon Johnson’s mind, either—although they did make him sick of the presidency (something to consider). They didn’t change Richard Nixon’s mind, either. I’m sure that to the end of his days Tricky Dick was just fine with having sent thousands of young men off to die in a pointless, fruitless conflict. But after spending his first term as president bombing the shit out of Cambodia, Nixon got himself re-elected on a platform of Peace with Honor, and then he did, indeed, end the war.  (Not with any particular honor. Nixon—a man who, like Trump, would have actually been improved by a large and aggressive brain-tumor—threw the Honor part of his pledge straight out the window. As it turned out later, he was a man who didn’t actually know what the word honor even meant.)

So what made the difference? Why did Nixon suffer a change of—not heart—but policy?

The answer, I think, was simple mathematics. Nixon could count. During his first term in office he counted the protestors marching in the streets, but though they numbered in the tens of thousands, a lot of them weren’t voters, so he didn’t care. Then, in 1971, just when he was running for his second term, the voting age in the United States was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. Nixon and his minions suddenly remembered all those young marchers, noted all the young people (like me; a senior in high school at the time) who were flocking to register—not for the draft, this time, but to vote—and so-called Peace with Honor was the result.

My point is that while Trump will never be a reasonable man, or in the least responsive to the wishes/demands/pleas/anything of the people who—nominally—elected him, most politicians are more like Nixon, and value their offices (and the perks that go with them) a lot more than they value any of their so-called “principles”. If we stand up in our numbers and insist that, to get our votes, they must respect our rights and the constitution, some—I hope many—will see where their interests actually lie.

—Just please, when you write to your congress-people, or attend one of their “Town Hall” meetings, don’t tell them that you would never, under any circumstances, vote for them anyway. Even if it’s the truth. Maybe especially if it’s the truth. This is the equivalent of writing a letter of complaint to a business and leading with the statement that you will never patronize their establishment again. Why should they even try to please someone whose vote/business they’ve already lost?*

I believe the present administration’s policy of “every day, another outrage” is deliberate, and comparable to the car-thief’s strategy of repeatedly triggering the alarm of the car he wants to steal until its owner gets tired of running to shut it off, and stops setting it. Trump’s people are hoping we’ll get tired of protesting and go home and just let them have their way.

Well, I, for one, am not going to. See you on Earth Day.


*Town Halls are a particularly effective means of registering our concerns, I believe; and the one that I’ve decided to adopt. If your congressperson won’t hold a Town Hall, consider joining Indivisible.


(image source:
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/March_for_Women%27s_Lives_1.jpg)

Meet You on the Barricades

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A long time ago, I used to wear a peace sign suspended from the love-beads around my neck, knew many verses to “We Shall Not Be Moved”, and kept a pair of good walking shoes handy for marching in support of civil rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and against American involvement in foreign wars—specifically, in those days, the one in Vietnam. In the days before the internet and social media, getting together and marching was the only way people knew to counter the widely-disseminated official government position that the American people didn’t really want civil rights to be more broadly extended, or the Vietnam War to end. Thousands of people in the street singing songs and carrying signs was proof for anyone to see that yes, indeed, vast numbers of the American people certainly did want those things, and weren’t going to be stopped from saying so.

The results of our activism were somewhat mixed. The war in Vietnam finally ended and I ceremoniously threw away my peace sign; but then other wars came along. Women lost the fight for a constitutional amendment to guarantee our rights; but we resigned ourselves to the longer, harder road of securing them piecemeal and kept at it. Though we’ve made progress at it, the struggle for civil rights in general has sometimes seemed endless. But along the way, I stopped marching, because our elected officials seemed, finally, to realize that people who marched on behalf of a cause also voted for candidates who supported that cause in Washington, and that if they ignored the marchers, it would be at their peril.

Now that it appears that we’re going to be governed—not through our elected representatives—but by executive orders and fiats imposed by people whose positions are outside of our traditional system of checks and balances, and implemented immediately and preferably when no one is looking.* Many of the elective officials I counted on to be our bulwark against this kind of tyranny are, instead, either indifferent or complicit in it.

Clearly, they need to be taught the lesson again that as we march, so do we vote; so I’ve hung a new peace-sign on a chain around my neck; crocheted myself a pink pussy-hat, and got a sturdy new pair of walking shoes. I’m going out to demonstrate again.

Some things will be very different this time. In the old days, the police hated the demonstrators. Honestly, I always had the feeling they were just looking for any excuse to beat us up. Nearly every police force in the 60’s was made up overwhelmingly of white men. The idea of allowing non-white, female people to have equal rights with men like themselves, who represented the pinnacle of human evolution, seemed to strike them as a personal affront.

But my daughter, who participated in the Woman’s March on Washington, tells me that this time, the police were on the marchers’ side. To prove it she sent me a picture of a man with a sign identifying himself as a Muslim being embraced by a (non-white, female) police officer who was wearing a pink pussy-hat pulled over her regulation one. I’m thinking of having it enlarged and framed.

The police have gotten smarter about demonstrations, too; and probably feel safer, which doubtless contributes to their improved attitude toward the crowd. In my day, we used carry glass bottles to drink from, and elevated our signs by attaching them to dowels and yardsticks. Do I need to point out how easily weaponized glass bottles and sticks are? Sometimes the police got so nervous that they confiscated them, leaving thirsty, cranky marchers whose arms ached. If you’ll notice in the picture above, the person carrying the “I’m with her” sign has come up with an ingenious way to calm the nice police officers’ nerves and elevate the sign so that the cameras can see it, too. S/he’s made a tube of an extra piece of poster-board (permitted by the police), cut a slit in the tube, and put the sign in that. This is such a brilliant idea that I wish I’d thought of it myself. Also, water comes in thin plastic bottles now. I’m going to take a couple extra with me on my marches, and if I see a police officer, I’ll offer one.

Other things haven’t changed at all, it appears. If you should happen to take part in a march, keep in mind that no matter what the organizers tell you, there will not be enough porta-potties at the demonstration site. Not half enough. Possibly not even one-tenth as many as are actually needed. Be proud of this—it means you have a good turnout—but be prepared. In the old days, experienced marchers sometimes made a quick stop at the camping-goods store before the march, for what I’ll just call “emergency supplies”. Nowadays I think the old-folks section of the drug-store might have a better selection. I know you get my drift, so I’ll say no more.

If you demonstrate, take snacks to the demonstration. Share them.

Chanting slogans is fine on a march; but singing is much, much better. But in any crowd, there are more people who want to sing than ones who know the words to the songs. In my young days I heard “This Land Is Your Land” sung by both the demonstrators and the counter-demonstrators at the same demonstration, so I made sure to learn the verses as well as the chorus. It hasn’t lost its popularity since I was young.  It was sung by the women in Washington, too.

Also, I noticed early in my marching days that lots of people will join in on songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” because the only words with which the whole crowd must be familiar are “we shall not be moved”. Verses can be handled solo.  You can keep people singing this one forever, since anybody with half a brain and a cause they believe in can make up a verse on the spot and sing it solo.

Also at any protest demonstration,  “We Shall Overcome” should be sung. I have known even hard, bitter people to be moved to tears by a chorus or two of “We Shall Overcome”.

Just say it’s a hunch, but I kind of suspect that something—some catchy jingle—with a chorus along the lines of “Super-callous-fragile-ego-Trump-you-are-atrocious” will catch on soon, too.

Although the exact date hasn’t been set, there are going to be Marches for Science in Washington and around the nation soon. I’ll be there, of course. I almost have to be. If you should happen to attend too, let’s meet. I’ll be the one under the “Science, Not Silence” sign, wearing comfortable shoes and a pink pussy-hat; and I’ll be singing: “We’ll take back the Congress! We shall overcome! We’ll take back the White House, too! We shall overcome!”

Also, all the verses of “This Land is Your Land”.


*And please don’t bother to tell me this is justified because, “Obama started it”. I have never subscribed to the notion that two wrongs make a right. As far as I’m concerned, people who believe that former president Obama was wrong to issue so many executive orders have less excuse for supporting those of Trump; not more.

Adieu, Apostrophe!

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Maybe this is a strange thing for someone to say who spent as much time as I did learning to use apostrophes, but I won’t miss them when they’re gone. It seems clear to me that they will go. Like the hyphen, we’re quickly learning we can live without them; and texting, I think, will be the apostrophe’s death-blow.

I always found apostrophes a little equivocal anyway. The rule—as I learned it—was that an apostrophe had three functions: One was to indicate a dropped letter in a contraction of two words, as “don’t” for “do not”, for example; and “sha’n’t” for “shall not”, which—to be correct—actually requires two apostrophes. (So does “foc’s’le” for “forecastle”, even though “forecastle” isn’t actually a contraction of two words at all, but one word that sailors pronounce very badly.) A second use was to indicate possession (“Jack’s book”), although this rule was just a refinement of rule one, since “Jack’s book” was originally a contraction of “Jack, his book”—a usage that has been obsolete for so long that a lot of people don’t realize that it was ever the “correct” way, and “Jack’s” would get you points off on your English paper. To make the rule regular, “Mary, her book” would have to give us the form “Mary’r book”, which you’ll notice doesn’t exist.

The third use of an apostrophe was to pluralize individual letters, as in, “all the a’s and b’s”, which I still think is useful but I seem to be the only one who remembers it.

Do we need any of those? The extra apostrophes in “sha’n’t” and “foc’s’le” went the way of the Dodo and we still recognize those words when we see them—which in the case of “shan’t”, we hardly ever do anymore. As indicators of possession, apostrophes seem to cause more confusion than clarity. I’m so tired of seeing “it’s” used incorrectly (it can only be a contraction for “it is”), that I’d rather just never see that word with an apostrophe ever again. And “Jacks book” seems intelligible enough to me.

But anyway, love ’em or loath ’em, in twenty or thirty years I think apostrophes will be gone. In 1978 the Colorado State Legislature decreed that the only acceptable spelling of the name of the mountain is “Pikes Peak” without the apostrophe; and as goes Pikes Peak, so goes the nation. Remember that you heard it here first.