Writing Historical Fiction versus Fantasy


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

Science as a Plot


I’ve written before about why, even though I know them well, I don’t make scientists protagonists in stories. Here’s why I don’t make scientific research a plot, either.

Many years ago, my husband made his first big splash as a scientist when he published the complete sequence for a gene that causes blood to clot. How big a splash? The research institute for which he worked issued a press-release, the local television stations sent news-crews, and an item about this discovery appeared in the News of the World, directly below an article headlined, “CHOCOHOLIC MOM GIVES BIRTH TO SUGAR-COATED BABY!!!” *

Hubby was briefly a minor celebrity; his hat-size increased by a full half-inch; and honestly, for a few weeks there was no living with the man.

Then it all passed off and he got back to work in the lab.

The cloning of that gene sequence was far from being the most significant work my husband has ever done. So why was it the thing that got the most attention? It was because the cloning of the tissue factor gene had a plot. It followed an arc from Young Scientist Embarks on Quest; through Difficulties Along the Way; through Gamble On Using Last Available Sample for Final, Risky Experiment; through Triumphant Moment When Final Risky Experiment Yields Desired Result. There was pathos: At one point Young Scientist was putting in such long hours at the lab that his two-year-old announced, “Daddy doesn’t live here. Only Mommy and I live here.” The press particularly loved it that the effort to clone and sequence the gene turned out, in the end, to have been a race. Two weeks after Husband’s lab published the sequence, another lab published the same gene-sequence in another journal; and a third lab published a slightly different sequence a month after that. The press made much (much more than there actually was) of the “rivalry” between the labs.

Science—real science—that makes good fiction is a once-in-a-career event. Most science makes terrible fiction.

For one thing, the path of scientific discovery meanders. A lot. Everybody knows from high school that research starts with a hypothesis, of course. What people sometimes forget after high school, however, is that the point of the experiments that follow are intended—not to prove—but to disprove the hypothesis. Trying to disprove something doesn’t lead to any big dramatic moments—the ones where the scientist turns to the members of his lab and says, tears in eyes, “That’s it! We’ve proven it!” because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will subsequently uncover that crucial missing bit of information that means that everything the scientist postulated is wrong. The most the scientist can usually say is, “Well, our second-choice journal says if we do a few more experiments, they’ll accept our paper.”

Not much drama there. Just sighs of relief.

Even life-saving new medical treatments don’t generate drama—at least not for the scientists involved. By the time a new discovery makes it into the clinic it has gone through so many steps—promising result, to confirmation of result by subsequent researchers, to further research, to—and I’m simplifying here— tentative treatment, to hand-off to other scientists who do appropriate animal studies, to small-scale clinical studies, to many major and minor modifications to treatment, to licensing to drug company, to wider-scale clinical studies, to finally entering mainstream medicine—that any drama has been dissipated to the point of non-existence.

So, I don’t write about scientists as scientists (the scientist-type—and there is one—makes a great character, though); and I don’t write about real science, either.

On the other hand, I think the scientific community is long-overdue for “exposure” in some sort of modern Peyton Place-ish fiction (remember Peyton Place?), and if anybody wants material for something like that, contact me for some very juicy stories!

* Husband’s work was also covered by the New York Times; but I think we can all agree that the News of the World piece was the really important one.

Image source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Biochemistry_laboratory_MPI-CBG-panorama.JPG



Age of Innocence?


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

Have a Little Respect (for your readers)


Long ago, just at the time that I was nervously considering submitting my first work for publication, I happened to come across an article (in a magazine I respected), called something like, “My Life as an American Gypsy.”* I was interested. Growing up, I’d seen groups of Roma sheepherders near where I lived (in the days before RVs became standard, they’d adopted large Cadillacs in place of their traditional caravans), and I was curious about their lives.

The piece was purportedly written by a contemporary Romani-American woman, but when I read it I discovered (to my annoyance) that it was nothing more than a slightly reworked series of incidents lifted straight out of Jan Yoors’ memoir of his life with the Lovari Romani in 1930s Europe. My annoyance stemmed from the fact that Yoors’ The Gypsies (I highly recommend it) is a standard work on the subject, and not only I, but lots of people, have read it. I felt totally dissed by the assumption that I wouldn’t know the work.

I was insulted—but I learned a good lesson. Readers read. Some of them—like me—read a lot. With this in mind, I never ever directly recycle anything I read into something I intend to share.

Other people’s personal experiences are great source material, though. I’ve praised family stories for this before, and I’ll say it again: If you listen carefully, Granny’s got some good stuff there. And if you look around, Granny’s granny—or at least, somebody’s granny—probably kept a diary or wrote a memoir way back whenever. Whatever historical period you want to write about—and without borrowing any one specific incident—you can mine primary sources for all sorts of period detail.

Project Gutenberg is my new favorite source for historical tidbits. For instance, I’d never considered the inconvenience—even danger—that colonial New Englanders subjected themselves to by observing European fashions in a rough new country with lots of snow and not many Old Country conveniences until I read Anna Green Winslow’s account of how a broken axle one Sunday forced knee-breeched and daintily shod neighbors (no trousers or boots at church, please) to abandon their carriage and struggle in silk stockings through three feet of snow. Keeping in mind all those voracious readers I mentioned, I’d never plagiarize Miss Winslow; but I could easily come up with a story of my own in which it’s a significant point that, in Ye Good Olde Dayes, there was no Gore-Tex. Anna Green Winslow’s Diary, written in 1771 and first published in 1894, is a treasure-trove of all kinds of historical material, in fact; and it’s free to download.

Another good one—which in my opinion ought to be required reading in American schools—is Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, which pretty much knocks the stuffing out of Gone with the Wind-type ante-bellum fantasies of the Old South. This one was a forehead-slapper for me. The reality of plantation life becomes obvious when you keep in mind that plantations were intended to be money-making (preferably, lots of money), and not humanitarian-or even humane-endeavors. Again; the book’s free, convenient to get, and contains information not only about ante-bellum America, but also things like women’s issues. Ms Kemble left her husband, but spent years afterward feverishly placating him so that he would refrain from invoking his paternal right to take their children away from her.

And then there are the periodicals…

Ah, nothing like a good Victorian periodical to remind us that it isn’t just tight stays that can constrict women.  One year of “Godey’s Ladys Book” is packed with enough articles written by male clergymen about a woman’s duty to shut her mouth and please her menfolk to precipitate clinical depression in any normal female.

On the other hand, “The Prairie Farmer”, full of no-nonsense articles written by farm-wives to advise other farm-wives on how to increase cash-flow in the butter-and-egg sectors happily makes it clear that, whatever the folks at “Godey’s” thought, a lot of women were getting right out there and making something more than household ornaments of themselves. And with the full support of their men-folk, too.

All of which makes me wonder why would anyone plagiarize one book (and risk offending the subset of their readers already familiar with it) when right at hand are a thousand good sources of material on every subject. –Of course, I admit it’s really easy to get so interested in reading those thousand sources that you have no time to write at all. That can be a problem. It’s certainly mine.

*I should point out that this was in the days when “gypsy” was the accepted name for people who now prefer to be called “Roma” or “Romani”, and I certainly intend no offense by using it.

Where’s the Beef?


I don’t know what they’re teaching young people in other countries about American culture, but whatever it is, I think it must be wrong. The international students that I tutor all appear to be suffering from a high degree of culture-shock. As soon as I’ve worked with them just long enough that they’ve begun to feel comfortable with me (which, coincidentally, is just about the time that I introduce them to the indicative perfect, “have begun”) they announce that America is not at all what they expected it to be, and the questions start pouring out.

These questions, like the students’ difficulties with English verbs, are specific to their particular home cultures. Students from more authoritarian countries want to know why Americans are so lawless; the ones from the Netherlands ask me why Americans are so excessively law-abiding. Honestly, that one makes me wonder how the Netherlands even continues to exist. A lot of them are stunned to find out—often the hard way—that things like the “No Parking” signs around campus are meant to be taken seriously. I’m asked the same things over and over again, year after year, except that in the past decade the sheepish inquiries about how Americans signal sexual attraction have really tapered off. I guess I must look too old now to be a good source of information on that topic.

There are three things about Americans that all of the students, from every culture, want to know—and one thing that only one student has ever wanted to know, which was if I was afraid of Mormons. Yes, Mormons; and yes, afraid. Never did figure out where that came from.

Anyway—as I mentioned, there are three characteristics of American culture that preoccupy all my tutees, and the first one is:

Why do Americans eat so much meat?

So far I’ve been asked this question 4,652 times, and never once, as far as I can tell, in a disapproving manner. In fact, the point is most apt to be raised at one of the semi-annual lab barbeques my husband and I host at our house, where the foreign students watch, awestricken and envious, as the Americans heap their plates with beef, pork, and chicken, and afterwards never have to wonder whether they made the right choice among the meats.

“How do they do it?” the international students ask, and the correct answer to this question (which I supply) is that it’s genetic. America was settled by people who loved meat, and we are their descendants. If you have ever read—as I have—the letters early immigrants wrote back to their various Old Countries, you will have noticed—as I have—that aside from a little family news, they’re simply catalogues of Meat the Said Immigrants Have Eaten; Meat They Are Currently Chewing; and Meat They Happily Anticipate Eating Very Soon. It’s like a sick obsession. Meat was apparently available in American in a way that it just wasn’t elsewhere; and meat-lovers couldn’t stop talking about how good—in regard to meat, at least—they had it here.

And then those letters motivated other meat-lovers to immigrate to America too; and pretty soon the whole continent was filled up with humanity’s most avid carnivores.

(I also tell the students that quite a lot of the meat the immigrants bragged about eating was game that they’d shot themselves, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why Americans are gun-crazy, too.)

The next time I write a novel about early America, I’m going to put a lot more hunting and meat-eating into it to provide that nice little touch of historical veracity that divides the ordinary historical work from the one an editor is going to demand big changes to. Editors are not interested in history; they are interested in sales. I wrote a novel once about the 1830s wife of a Congregationalist minister, and an editor informed me that the book was basically great, but would be much more commercial if she wasn’t religious. I’m not bitter or anything, but this is why I self-publish.

After we’ve dealt with the meat issue, the students and I then move on to the two other burning questions they all have about America; but I’ll leave those for another time.  The only thing I’ll say for now is that, happily, questions two and three have nothing to do with food.

Simplify, Simplify


Sometimes when I need cheering up, I remind myself that I’m one of the lucky few in this world who is able to make my living doing what I love—writing.

Of course, it’s stretching a point to refer to what I make as a “living”; and it’s also not absolutely true that, in the course of an average working day, I actually get to write very much.  Mostly my job consists of re-writing what other people have written.  I also fill out a lot of paperwork, because much paperwork must be filled out before anything, from a major scientific breakthrough to changing a lightbulb, can take place at a university.  But still, I like my job, and I wouldn’t change it for anything that paid less than three times as well.

Okay; two times as well.

I work with biochemists (and biochemistry trainees), and, as I think I’ve mentioned, I’m also married to a biochemist, so I think I may state with some authority that the reputation biochemists have for being highly intelligent beings is generally well-deserved.  Their reputation for being incurably nerdy and somewhat absent-minded is also well-deserved; but I’m not going to get into that now.  My point is that they’re as bright a group of people as you will ever find, and like most really intelligent people, they usually write pretty well.

But as English becomes, more and more, the international language of science (and I think it could be argued that it is becoming simply the international language), a new, sub-dialect of Scientific English is evolving, and part of my job—my favorite part—is to translate regular Scientific English into this new dialect.

I learned this dialect in part by doing another of my little jobs around the lab, which is to correct the written English of the international students.

The difficulties the students have are specific to their nationalities.  Chinese students have terrible problems with verbs.  In speaking, some of them actually try to avoid them altogether (not recommended), or consistently use a single, particular verb-form—usually, for some reason, the present participle.  Nearly all of them have trouble distinguishing between an actual verb and a noun derived from a verb.  I let “we mixing the reagents,” or “I rotation the test-tube,” pass in conversation, but when the students bring me drafts of scientific papers they intend to submit, I know I have a duty to do.  Luckily, clarity is everything in a scientific paper, and style is nothing, so I’ve decided the Chinese students can live without the pluperfect.

Europeans have difficulties understanding the fine differences in meaning conveyed by the use of the definite rather than the indefinite article; students from the Middle East resist using articles at all.  “Such thing have no purpose,” an Iranian gravely informed me.  (She had trouble with her verb endings, too.)  The entire French nation apparently nurses a stubborn conviction that the word “information” should be plural.  “This informations was new to the investigator,” French students blithely write; and then they resist me when I demand that they change it.  (I avoid arguments by endorsing the use of alternate terms, such as “fact”.)  To a Russian, a double negative makes, not a positive, but a particularly emphatic negative.  (Russians also like the word “informations” a lot, though not as much as the French.)  All of them mistake slang for Standard English, which gives their papers a casual breeziness that reviewers absolutely hate.

Then after I’ve worked on the international students’ papers, I take what I’ve learned and apply it to the scientific papers written by the lab’s native speakers of English.  World-wide, many scientific journals are now published in English only.  Consequently it’s necessary, when writing papers for submission to these journals, to keep in mind that English isn’t the first language of most of the people who will read it.  Years ago, when I first started at the university, I combed draft papers principally for slang, idiom, and (in those pre-Spell-Check days) typos.  Now I flag unusual words, and simplify complex grammatical structures for the benefit of non-native speakers.

I haven’t quite resigned myself to changing my own writing style, though.  I probably should.  With the decline of the corner bookstore and the rise of Amazon-style world-wide book distribution, the more generally comprehensible a book’s style and vocabulary, the more likely it will be widely read.  Unlike many other writers, I have the experience necessary to take advantage of this.

I’ve been thinking, in fact, that given that there are over one and a half billion people in China, I should probably write specifically for the Chinese market.  I’ll write a book with a suitably Socialist plot—comrade gets girl; comrade studies Mao’s aphorisms with girl; comrade loses girl—and without any verbs at all.  It’ll be a smash.