Squeezed onto a hard bunk, high up the compartment wall, she settled into the night journey. She would not see the countryside slip past the black window below. But she was alone, on a train, and headed to a far-off city that only three years earlier had been forbidden.
On Christmas Day, 1989, after crackers and pudding, she had gaped with others at the TV screen – BBC images of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, bullet-ridden.
Now she lay in the dark, the ceiling so close her breath circled back to her face; aware of the other women in the cabin – crinkling paper, digging about in baggage, whispering in an unknown tongue. The piercing whistle. The ka-chunk, ka-chink, ka-chunk, ka-chink. The shush. Shush. Shush. The steady rocking of the bunk – so began the long night.
She did not sleep but lay in adrenalin fueled alertness, absorbing every metal-on-metal screech, every curve in the track, the way her center of gravity shifted on the vinyl and pressed against the compartment wall.
Through the mesmerizing rhythm a new sound broke. Stomping, clapping, fiddling. Young men’s voices singing patriotic folk songs built to a crescendo as the train reached a station; the celebration fading into the distance as it moved further east.
Throughout the night the same pattern: mid-night celebrations, rising and falling, as new recruits set off to join the army in a changed world.
Our train won’t make it from Mombasa to Nairobi in time to greet some important visitor at the airport. How could a guy who’s lived in Africa for five years keep getting this wrong?
What does he do? Come to my compartment before light and tell me we need to get off. I slide out of the dark upper bunk, hoping I won’t disturb the other passengers.
Get off where? Where are we? Not sure? Just need to get off? Oh, walking to Nairobi will be faster? Hush, hush. You’ll wake the sleepers.
He’s spoken to the conductor. There’s a village coming up. They’ll stop the train so we can get off.
He grabs my bags. I follow down the narrow corridor stumbling side to side through broken florescent light. What else to do?
We drop into a sleepy village; earth and huts amber in the rising sun. People stare. They’re drawing water, washing, building fires for breakfast. A Korean guy and a white girl with packs are traipsing through their world at dawn.
We reach the main road. Dead straight and empty – both directions. Just scrub, asphalt and sky. In the middle of Kenya. But we’re late. So, I guess walking makes sense.
When the western horizon becomes a large, dark sedan, he sticks out his thumb.
We climb in. Two men. I’m thinking – we’ll never be heard from again.
Turns out, they are headed for Uganda. Returning home from a business trip. Will be going right through Nairobi.
Since my main writing projects are historical novels, I’ve been longing to explore another form – something at the opposite end of the spectrum. Work that I could finish short of decades! And, needing no research. Wouldn’t that be grand?
Flash memoir is about as opposite as I can get. And gives me the chance to record personal experiences—no interlibrary loans!
So, I’m using my travel adventures to toy with words at a level I can’t yet apply to my fiction. (Those endeavors aren’t ready for close word-crafting).
I’m experimenting with tone, voice, rhythm, point of view, etc.
Starting with a series based on train rides – I’m just throwing them out there – wondering how they feel to anyone outside of my own head.
The post that follows will be my first effort. Further flash memoir posts will be linked to this one as explanation.
I’m supposed to be editing my novel for story. (This is only the second draft.) But I can’t help tinkering with the words and it’s causing me a great deal of anxiety. It seems that I need another 30 years of practice before I can hope to have sentences that are either lyrical or, at least, expressive and the proper tone for the piece – words that flow with the same rhythm and feeling as their intended meaning. To improve I’m trying to deconstruct the flowing words of others. They say you should copy passages you love – and thereby absorb skills via osmosis. I still need to do this. Maybe it will help. In the meantime I see patterns of sentence construction that I use over and over in my attempts at fiction.
This is a code need to crack. It’s one I understand logically but I can’t seem to break through with my own writing.
Scenic artists are often tasked to apply visual or physical textures randomly – so that they appeared natural, not manmade. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to keep from falling into a repeated pattern.
Property insurance adjusters can usually tell when wind or hail damage has been faked on a roof because the “damage” shows an evenly spaced pattern when looking at the entire field. Nature doesn’t do that. But humans fall into it no matter how hard we resist.
Back to words – this bent for repetition is embedded in my writing. I’m using the same syntax in nearly every sentence whether long or short. I have ProWritingAid software and the Sentence analysis shows I could do with more variation. So, this is my next step with words – copy words I love and do some structural analysis of my own.
I do believe fine writing can be learned. But I sometimes question why I would abandon 50 years of visual art experience in order to write. After all that painting, I could still do with another lifetime to conquer it.
How do I get up to speed with this new skill fast enough to create my stories before I die?
Two years from my last post – a sensible time for an update!
Yes, I’m still here. In fact, I am still pursuing that same 3:30 a.m. rising time mentioned in my last post. 3:45 a.m. seems to be my sweet spot. I’d like to make it earlier. I have other responsibilities which begin at 5:30 a.m.
Last year the Day Job consumed me – 77 hours/week for months on end. Meanwhile, my aging parents need increased assistance. Even so, many days I got up and at it before dawn. In July I made a change to my Day Job which means a lot less money but – sanity!
But, the big news is:
I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY FIRST NOVEL!
(Yes! I’m shouting!)
That happened sometime in September. Odd thing was, there was no parting of the clouds. No heavenly choir. I simply came to a stop and thought – right, I believe that’s all I’m going to do here. Time to start back at the beginning. Then it dawned: End of First Draft.
So, that’s what that is like. Huh.
Since then I’ve been clarifying character backstories and nailing down research details – all with the aim of starting back at page 1 on January 1st, 2019.
Early October had me leaving Atlanta with the clothes on my back to reach Jacksonville in time to evacuate my parents from what was supposed to be a Cat 4 hurricane grinding up the coast. Two hours south of Atlanta I received a call asking me to be a Team Lead for a different company – a gig that would put working me in Jacksonville for a while at least. So, I said yes. After a crazy evacuation, I began that assignment, only to have it finish two weeks later. However, by then, I’d had another offer for a long-term opportunity that would allow me to sleep in my own bed for the foreseeable future. I took it.
Then we launched into the endless holidays. All the three and four-day weekends filled with either a backlog of chores not done while I was constantly away or holiday preparations at my house and my parents’. This was the first holiday season for them in their “new” house and the first for me at mine for several years.
All good stuff but meant none of my “free time” got me any further on my writing projects.
I was so long-term exhausted after months of running full-tilt and then the 12 hour/7 day Team Lead phase that I was falling asleep at 7 p.m. – which meant I was waking up around 3 a.m. Once mind and body had recovered, I realized that, with my new job and new life at home, getting up to write at 3:30 a.m was really my only option AND completely DOABLE!
And so, that’s exactly what I have been doing. It’s still nothing like enough time. And my weekends continue to fill up and not provide the larger chunks of time that I need to make this all happen. However, it’s a lot better than nothing and I keep thinking if we can get beyond the extras (backlog of tasks and holiday stuff) I might finally GET an additional 3-4 hour session on Saturdays, and/or Sundays.
Striving for authentic language is all very well when you are writing historical fiction that takes place in an English-speaking context – even going as far back as Shakespearean times.
But, what if you are writing about a time from which we have very few written sources, the ones available are in four or five languages, and each of those would require a PhD to be readable?
Written resources for my story’s exact period are few – there was too much upheaval for scribes to be writing it all down. I am thus limited to extant documents from the prior century, a few in my target century, and the rest written one hundred or more years on. And, they have to be available in English translation – because my pre-Quranic Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, Latin and Greek are a bit rusty.
The other difficulty is: people don’t always speak the way they write. Does anyone really think the Elizabethans spoke in iambic pentameter? Formal Roman speeches probably did reflect written rhetoric because both were highly valued and intertwined skills. But, did they speak that way to their children? What about the speech of commoners? Soldiers? How do we know? We mostly don’t know.
(I once had a critique group member insist that people during my time period would not have used nicknames in dialogue. REALLY??? — Sorry, that’s still a sore spot.)
However, any good translation attempts to capture the style and syntax of the original. Since a direct translation of my period’s speech is impossible, and would be unreadable, my fiction efforts will focus on capturing hints of the cultural hierarchy in language, and some sense of rhetorical style, vocabulary, expressions and worldview. I will have to trust that my translated resources retain something of the original flavor.
But what I really want to know is: what English term do we use for “gunwale” when writing about pre-gunpowder times? Seriously, I can’t find a good substitute. I’ve seen other pre-gun era books use the term. If those writers even considered it, they probably decided to use “gunwale” rather than have to repeat over and over “that topmost strake of the boat”. I have found “saxboard” but no good etymology for the word – and would my readers know what it means? It sounds northern to me. I’m sure there was a term for the topmost strake in Aramaic, but, whatever it was, it would be meaningless to me and there seems to be no good English substitute.
I’ve recently read several blog articles about language use in historical fiction. These writers take great pride in their efforts to use vocabulary, sayings and syntax to establish their story’s manners, mores and customs. They delve into novels, letters, news articles, chronicles, public records, anything they can find from the period in order to provide an aural immersion experience for the reader.
“The manuscript should not offer a single word, phrase, or description inconsistent with the era, or the illusion of time displacement will be compromised.”
In his Royal Literary Fund article titled, “No Pastiche: Re-voicing the Past“, James Wilson explains that he goes as far as actually learning the (English) language of the time:
“I learn the (or an) English that’s appropriate to the world in which the novel is set, and then use it – exactly as I would my own present-day English – to describe the characters’ experience as vividly and authentically as I can.”
These are high goals. And, of course, few of us have the patience to read Old English. I haven’t read works by either Mr. Colton or Mr. Wilson but I trust they have learned to balance today’s reader expectations and pace with their immersion research.
My next post will address my own challenges in this area.
Meanwhile, what are your favorite examples of historical fiction that best reflect the language of the period without getting bogged down for today’s reader?
What are your favorite #Histfic reads that best reflect that period’s #language usage?
And added a blog post to the Long Ago & Far Away site. (The blog for Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path).
I’d love to hear how you are using Twitter these days. Have you been at it for a while? Has it changed for you? Do you use it to interact directly with people? Or just participate in the big shotgun fest?
That makes it past time I complete this post that’s been simmering in draft mode for months.
I finally read Water for Elephants last winter. I know I’m swimming against the tide – again – but I didn’t really get the excitement over it.
I’ve not seen the movie, but I imagine the potential visuals were a strong driving force for the project. But the main story? Meh. Sorry, I didn’t find it that interesting. It was just a love triangle set in a circus environment. The lesson here might be that great word-crafting and an exciting context still requires a compelling story with compelling characters. Of course, the book received endless 5-star reviews. So what do I know? But I find it interesting that the critical movie reviewers complained that the two lovers lacked chemistry on screen. There might have been any number of causes: the acting? the directing? the screen play? the editing? But, I found the same problem in the book. The characters didn’t make me care and so I wasn’t convinced all the drama was worth it.
However – really big however – the circus story is narrated by the main character, now a nursing home resident. This character – present-day Mr. Jacob Jankowski – made an immediate, deep and lasting impression on me.
At 90+years-old, Jacob is fighting for self-determination. His nurses are kind and do their the best for him. They are trying to keep him out of trouble; keep him from danger. But he longs for freedom and he proves that he is capable of much more than they are comfortable with. No doubt they have residents with varying abilities, and so, like all institutions, they must standardize and systematize, reducing everyone to a lower commonality or else they would be undone. But Jacob clings to every last bit of control he can grasp.
The Take Away – I am helping my parents make the continuous adjustments that come with growing old: Dad no longer drives. Mom got rid of all their glassware. Throw rugs are gone – taken up to prevent falls. And now we are working to get them moved from ten hours to ten doors away. Water for Elephants sent up all sorts of flashing lights for me – not circus lights, warning lights. And they continue to flash every time I am about to make a decision that affects my parents’ lives: Am I making a decision for them based on my own preferences? Is this choice something they can and should still make for themselves? What do THEY want?
Jacob constantly reminds me: Let them have a say in every possible decision. There will be enough, and increasingly, fewer choices for them. Stop first and consider: Is this a question of danger in any way? If mom wants her new walls painted marigold when I would use a cooler color – what’s that to me?
Find every opportunity to let our elders retain their self-respect and determination.