I was invited to be a second round judge for the Sarton Prize for 2020. The winners were just announced and you can find them at https://www.storycircle.org/contest/story-circle-womens-book-awards/. It was a privilege to read three of the finalists and to see these wonderful books get the recognition the authors have earned. If you’re looking for a good book to read, I recommend any of these titles–official winners and finalists.
For various reasons, I’ve been largely offline for the last month or so. I’ve been working on my novel, but I also write poetry and spend time on sending out work and marketing and so on. I find that I don’t do enough of sending out or marketing, both of which frustrate me considerably. That said, I’ve had successes this year, winning a contest for my poem “Ephemera.” You can read it at http://www.yuleloveitlavenderfarm.com/p/poetry-contest.html, at least for the next few months until the next contest, when it will be supplanted by next year’s winner. I also wrote a short ekphrastic piece, “Forever Dali,” which you can read at http://www.ekphrastic.net/ekphrastic/forever-dali-by-aline-soules.
All of this sounds like a distraction from writing my novel, but it’s not. I start every day with poetry, which I consider one of the highest forms of wordsmithing (among other characteristics). I find starting my writing day with poetry gets me “set” in some way for working on my novel. Sometimes, I spend only a few minutes on poetry; other times, I might spend an hour or two on some poem that’s either in my head wanting to get on the page or already on the page, but pushing me to craft it into a better poem. Regardless, when I turn to my novel, I’m in my mental “writing place” and can work on my novel more effectively.
The other benefit of writing short poems or prose pieces, sending them out, and, if lucky, getting them published is affirmation. A novel takes a long time–at least, it takes me a long time–and I need to know that my work can be “out there” and read by someone, even as I spend months, even years, on a novel.
When I retired to write last year, I found that my novel to that point was too fragmented because I would promise myself that I wouldn’t get subsumed by the academic term (I worked in a university) and, every term, I got subsumed by the academic term. Three weeks into the term, I’d find myself working from 7 a.m. to midnight every day, even weekends. At the end of the day, writing on my creative work was impossible. I was spent. For the last year (I retired in Aug. 2018), I’ve been able to work on my novel almost every day and it’s brought consistency to my drafts, for which I’m grateful.
I had hoped to finish the novel this year and I may still do that, but I think it’s better to say that I will finish the novel in 2020 and move on to my next one.
Finding the time to write consistently and engage in BIC (butt in chair) has been a real gift. I hope all you writers out there can enjoy the same sense of focus that I’ve found in the last year. It’s so much fun to see your work emerge out of the fuzz into the light, to shape that work, and to create a piece of writing (of whatever length or genre) that satisfies you and, in turn, satisfies your reader.
Next month: Back to Historical Fiction and its language.
Image: Courtesy of Jan Kahánek, https://unsplash.com/photos/g3O5ZtRk2E4
In an article in The Writer, Todd James Pierce offered eight rules for writing historical short stories. One of them was that “small details matter more than large ones.” His example was about a story that led him to think he’d “need to know how the mechanics of animation worked in the 1940s and 1950s, the tasks of an inbetweener or an inker.” While acknowledging that “the information was useful,” he concluded that it wasn’t the “dreamy material” that leads to compelling stories. He discovered that the small details were more important: “the weight of a pencil in an animator’s hand when held the right way, how images ghost up through a stack of drawings when pegged onto a lightboard, the sound a moviola makes when a reel of new film stutters across its screen.” He used these “small daily details” to build a “believable historical setting.”
While I fully support his premise that the small details matter, I am convinced that his understanding of the larger world of the mechanics of animation in the 1940s and 1950s also informed his work, that knowing which small details to use may have been helped by knowing the broader subject matter thoroughly.
This brings me back to the issue of research, which I seem unable to leave (see previous couple of blog posts). How much is enough? How much is too much? (One comment on my last blog post suggested that while conducting research, it’s important to remember actually to write–a valid point.) I have found, however, that the small details that stand out in my own research and which I wish to use in my story only stand out because I know their importance from the larger context. I don’t disagree with Pierce, but I wonder how much his broader research into the period helped those small details jump off the research page as “musts” to include in his story. For his full article, see https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/historical-short-stories/ It’s well worth a read.
On two recent occasions, I heard different authors talk about the amount of research needed for a novel. Both of them argued in favor of doing enough research to ensure that what they wrote would be possible, but no more. Their perspective was that they were writing fiction, not history.
Other authors believe that you must “know” your background material so thoroughly that what you write is fully founded. This requires extensive reading, both general and specific, and absorbing as much as you can, whether or not you include all the information in your novel. This gives authenticity to your work.
As I write my historical novel, I have come to the latter belief. For my current novel, I began by reading extensively about the areas where my novel is set. Since then, I have discovered the need to read extensively in areas I could never have imagined, from mores to explosives.
As I think back on novels I’ve read over the years, particularly historical novels, the examples that stand out in my mind are the ones where I know the author is fully conversant with his/her/eir subject matter, and those examples come from all types of genres.
Consider The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer, a romance novel based on the true story of Harry Smith and Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon Smith. Heyer knew the period and the story completely. Or the bestseller, The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, which sent the main character, Homer Atkins, to Southeast Asia to advise the fictional country of Sarkhan. Atkins challenges what he finds and exposes U. S. foreign policy as dangerous, on the wrong track, and losing.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker (May 27, 2019), Mark Singer profiled the television writer, David Milch. While the article’s purpose is to address Milch’s dementia and Milch’s thoughts about his dementia, the article naturally discusses his writings, one of which was Deadwood, considered one of Milch’s best works. To quote Singer: “He [Milch] began writing the pilot episode only after having spent two years digesting biographies and historical accounts of mining, the Indian wars, territorial politics, whorehouse and gambling protocols, rudimentary systems of justice, and criminality mundane and monstrous.” Milch is clearly not a proponent of “just enough.” Authenticity is part of the show’s success.
Consequently, I respectfully disagree with the concept of “just enough,” even if it has worked for some authors. Thorough research and the success of the well-researched and well-understood works I’ve specifically mentioned come from the in-depth, no-short-cut approach of the authors. No matter how time-consuming, the investment is worth the effort. The author can be confident in the details of his/her/eir work and allow the “fiction” to shine through.
Until I retired to write, I spent my formal working life as an academic librarian. As part of that job, I engaged in research and writing, along with helping others in their research and writing work. I regularly faced this question: If I don’t find what I’m looking for, is it because it isn’t there or did I miss it?
This dilemma is less intense for fiction writers, even historical fiction writers, because we aren’t conducting original research that must be complete and accurate or where results will affect life and death decisions, but we still face the same dilemma. If our work doesn’t come across to the reader as ‘authentic,’ the fictive dream is broken and the reader’s gone. That requires extensive and intensive research.
There are also certain historical periods that are fanatically known and researched by professionals and amateurs alike. Examples include the American Civil War and World War II. If a devotee disagrees with the tiniest fact that we’ve researched and swear is correct, he/she/ey can pillory us in a review that goes viral. Readers will accept fictional characters, but any real characters, the setting, the details must be as accurate as possible.
One of my adult students wrote about his favorite books by Mary Renault. She wrote fictional novels set in ancient Rome and Greece, a period he enjoys and he’s a fan, partly because she wrote good stories and partly because she conveys the authenticity that comes from a deep knowledge the period. Her main characters were fictional, the rest was not.
I can think of other fiction writers who carry that same authenticity. I am not a huge fan of historical romance, but I’ll read a book by Georgette Heyer anytime. She knew the manners, the culture, the diction of the historical periods where she set her books.
I was born in Scotland. Well-meaning acquaintances will draw my attention to historical fiction set there. Once, I was offered a book set in 16thcentury Scotland. I began reading, but gave up when I encountered dialogue that included the phrase “No problem” in response to a favor one character had bestowed upon another. I found this so egregious, I couldn’t continue.
When I get discouraged about my research—just one more fact, just one more book to read—I remind myself that my goal is to transport my reader to another time and place, as well as tell the reader a story. I think about the phrase “no problem,” and I return to my research with renewed vigor.