I thought #NANOWRIMO would never work for me. Historical fiction doesn’t lend itself to blasting out any old words and hoping they make a story. So far, my HistFic efforts have required some degree of research for nearly every sentence. Writing in an unfamiliar period means zero assumptions.
However, while waiting on Alpha Reader feedback on my first novel, I’ve been planning several other projects. The research all overlaps, meaning I have a much better foundation without having to search through twelve interlibrary loan tomes before moving to the next bit.
As it happens, I’m just about ready to rough in the text of two projects. As such, I’ve decided to use #NANOWRIMO to jack me up and see what develops.
I will start with one novel but allow myself to shift to the other when I get stuck. And I will get stuck. If I run out of steam on these two, I have two others waiting in the wings. If I end up with an enormous pile of random scenes for any of these projects, I will consider it a “win”. With everything else in my life, I can’t imagine getting to 50K words, but shooting high will go farther than shooting low.
I fully expect all hell to break loose now that I’ve put this out here. Besides, it’s still 2020, so anything can happen.
Risking my ego and sanity, I’ve placed the first 120 pages of my historical novel into the hands of several volunteer readers. (Gulp!)
Having finished the 2nd draft, I need feedback. I’m writing in a difficult period—few readers will come to it with any knowledge of the context. Why not let some smart friends see it and learn whether my initial efforts are working?
I’m still waiting on about half of the responses. Once received, I will study the areas of consensus and use the results to guide future drafts.
In the meantime, I’m brainstorming and outlining four other stories. Much of the research overlaps with the first book, so hopefully these won’t take another ten years to complete.
After decades of digging through Late Antiquity, I’d be foolish not to use the same material for other projects. Besides, it remains my passion.
I’m still rising early, usually between 2:00 and 3:30. My caregiving responsibilities start at 5am, so I do what I can before then.
Meanwhile, Covid. Not much to report from here. See my personal blog for that status. We’ve been tested twice—after possible exposure from healthcare providers. So far, so good.
I like to scan prize lists for potential Long Ago and Far Away reads. I’m happy to report that this year’s Booker International Prize nominees include the following historical fiction – four of the five are from off the beaten path:
Red Dogby Willem Anker, translated by Michiel Heyns from Afrikaans (Pushkin Press). From the publisher:
At the end of the eighteenth century, a giant strides the Cape Colony frontier. Coenraad de Buys is a legend, a polygamist, a swindler and a big talker; a rebel who fights with Xhosa chieftains against the Boers and British; the fierce patriarch of a sprawling mixed-race family with a veritable tribe of followers; a savage enemy and a loyal ally.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Treeby Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous from Farsi (Europa Editions) – from the publisher:
Set in Iran in the decade following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this moving, richly imagined novel is narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a thirteen-year-old girl, whose family is compelled to flee their home in Tehran for a new life in a small village, hoping in this way to preserve both their intellectual freedom and their lives. But they soon find themselves caught up in the post-revolutionary chaos that sweeps across their ancient land and its people. Bahar’s mother, after a tragic loss, will embark on a long, eventful journey in search of meaning in a world swept up in the post-revolutionary madness.
The Adventures of China Ironby Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh from Spanish (Charco Press) – from the publisher:
…charts the adventures of Mrs China Iron, Martín Fierro’s abandoned wife, in her travels across the pampas in a covered wagon with her new-found friend, soon to become lover, a Scottish woman named Liz. While Liz provides China with a sentimental education and schools her in the nefarious ways of the British Empire, their eyes are opened to the wonders of Argentina’s richly diverse flora and fauna, cultures and languages, and to its national struggles.
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin from German (Scribe UK) – from the publisher:
At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste …
Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin from German (Quercus) – From the publisher:
Daniel Kehlmann masterfully weaves the fates of many historical figures into this enchanting work of magical realism and adventure. This account of the seventeenth-century vagabond performer and trickster Tyll Ulenspiegel begins when he’s a scrawny boy growing up in a quiet village. When his father, a miller with a secret interest in alchemy and magic, is found out by the church, Tyll is forced to flee with the baker’s daughter, Nele. They find safety and companionship with a traveling performer, who teaches Tyll his trade. And so begins a journey of discovery and performance for Tyll, as he travels through a continent devastated by the Thirty Years’ War and encounters along the way a hangman, a fraudulent Jesuit scholar, and the exiled King Frederick and Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree doesn’t really quite qualify as historical fiction but it still feels like a good fit and one I’d love to add to my TBR pile. It currently has one Amazon review but 221 on Goodreads.
Red Dog (two poor reviews on Amazon but 83 with a respectable 3.6 stars on Goodreads) also intrigues me especially as I am just now finishing up my blog post on Wilber Smith’s Monsoon (coming soon).
Like all the best historical fiction, reading The Ten Thousand Things, is a tactile immersion into an unfamiliar time and place leaving a lasting impression of an atmosphere and culture.
Looking through this blog I was appalled to find that I never wrote up any notes on this book. I must have read it several years ago and it continues to circle back to me—which is the best of signs. So many otherwise good books are easily forgotten.
Set at the demise of the Yuan Dynasty (14th century China), the story follows Wang Meng as he wanders the land on various personal errands and is gradually drawn into the cataclysmic events of his era.
There is not a lot of action until our refined artist/philosopher becomes a war strategist for a group of rebels and eventually endures the hardship and loss of a siege. But we also experience the complexity of this medieval Chinese society and a deep dive into the philosophical world of Chinese fine arts. As a painter I could almost see the paintings through Spurling’s descriptions.
Here’s an example:
He hung up several more recent vertical paintings which were further developments of his dialogue between fullness and emptiness. The emptiness became gradually more and more beleaguered. The distant mountains grew higher and craggier; the space setting out, as it were, from its home in the foreground—where a scholar, as often as not, sat writing in his study—picked its way from clearing to clearing in a winding upward progress, impeded by rocks and trees, to a grassy slope, a pool below a waterfall, a broad stretch of river, or a field where a man was ploughing. But when the eye reached the top of the painting the high crags which had dominated its ascent seemed to draw aside like curtains to offer a final clear passage to the sky.
Not all the descriptions are this detailed. But can’t you see the work in front of you?
One aspect of particular interest to me, beyond the life of the painters and their artistic philosophy is the tenacity of artists who continue to create while their world is in the midst of upheaval. This is a subject I’ve often thought to explore further.
I cannot comment on the story’s accuracy as I was ignorant of this period beforehand. But, once again, historical fiction serves as a bridge to new curiosity and knowledge. It gives us a place to start.
I was shocked to see that the book—winner of the 2015 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction—has only 20 reviews on Amazon. Does this mean readers of historical fiction don’t review on Amazon? Goodreads shows 154 ratings. Maybe that’s where they hang out.
Spurling has been writing since age 11. Despite his long career as a playwright and art critic, 44 publishers rejected The Ten Thousand Things. Oops. Their loss.
Highly recommended for a Long Ago and Far Away experience.
You can find reviews of The Ten Thousand Thingshere and here.
I imagined I’d complete the second draft of my novel by the end of June. Nope. Not even close. The picture above shows three colors of tabs noting areas needing factual or language research or just plain missing text. This image shows only 60 pages of manuscript.
This next photo is more recent and shows the markup of about 70 pages. Each color has a purpose—beyond research and pending text, most track the unfolding of information, backstory, or characters’ progressive thought. The intent is to weave a thousand threads—gradually building without repeating.
I need one more go-through of this section and I’ll likely move on. I think that will put me at around 40%.
I must complete this draft in 2020 or I will despair. The goal is to make sure all of the story/information is complete but resist word-crafting. The next draft will first be read for story, then I will start smoothing and refining.
As I noted in my prior post, The Night Tiger, I enjoyed that book so much that I committed to reading Ms. Choo’s earlier debut novel, The Ghost Bride. Here she also spins an enchanting yarn inspired by multiple streams of history, folklore, religious worldview and mystery.
Although set in 1898 British Colonial Malaya, much of The Ghost Bride takes place in a mythical afterlife.
Of the two novels, I prefer The Night Tiger. However, I come away from The Ghost Bride in awe of Ms. Choo’s imaginative storytelling skill.
The Ghost Bride has a stronger fantasy element—spends more time in unearthly realms. At a few points the plot nearly lost me. But I hung on and am glad I did.
The Night Tiger felt more like magical realism; anchored in the physical world but with excursions into the afterlife and folklore. The telling felt tighter, the story clearer.
Most importantly, I am now officially a fan of Ms. Choo. I will anxiously await anything she produces. As noted, her imagination makes me want to cheer.
You can find full reviews of The Ghost Bride here and here.
In The Night Tiger, Ms. Choo intertwines dreams, folklore, mystical creatures and in-between places with physical-world events in the lives of five vivid and compelling characters. Every answer leads to a new question. You feel the connections but you can’t guess where it all ends. She immerses you in 1930s multi-cultural Malaya without the story being about multi-culturalism—there’s no time to dwell on it. Too much is uncertain. Along the way, Ms. Choo blends the concrete and surreal with such finesse that you never doubt the truth of it.
Readers of Long Ago and Far Away stories will love the whirlwind journey through dance halls, rubber plantations, jungles and train rides, dark shophouses, hospital wards and English tea in a colonial bungalow. Ms. Choo effortlessly infuses her complex tale with rich texture and detail.
It’s been ages since I found a novel I couldn’t put down. For the first third of The Night Tiger, I kept trying to figure everything out. I finally relaxed and went along for the ride—and what a ride!
This book is highly recommended for lovers of Long Ago and Far Away!
Some Random Observations (Caution Minor Spoilers):
Ms. Choo builds the narrative around three point of view characters. (Two additional key players are not given a point of view). Ms. Choo uses 1st person past tense for Ji Lin, the main character and 3rd person present for Ren, the Chinese houseboy and his new master, William Acton, an English surgeon. Although somewhat jolting the first time the tense changed, I think it did help separate the characters once the pattern was set
Each character left me with their own thematic impression.
For Ji Lin – self-determination. She struggles against her culture’s assumptions about women, work and marriage.
Ren’s loyalty to his prior master drives much of the plot. That loyalty transfers to his new master and plays into the hand of Fate.
William’s character, though surprisingly sympathetic despite his obvious flaws, finally succumbs to ironic Karma.
As part of the setting’s immediacy, Ms. Choo sprinkles the text with snippets of Malaysian language. Since I can still read it, it made me giddy and kind of smug—as if I could be deeper attuned to the story than the average reader. I couldn’t possibly know whether it contributes or distracts for other readers—but she does clarify the meaning each time.
I won’t spoil the ending for you—but it felt a bit rushed. I would like to have seen a little more resistance from Shin in response to Ji Lin’s final decision. That decision felt right but I would like there to have been more conflict in their resolution.
In summary, I am thoroughly enchanted. I can’t wait to double back and read her first novel The Ghost Bride.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Night Tigerhere and here.
Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese-born author, began as a newspaperman in his native Beirut then moved to France at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war.
The Rock of Tanios:
This book led me through a time and place for which I had no prior knowledge even though part of my Work in Progress moves through the same geography. Twelve hundred years pass between my subject and the world of Maalouf’s novel and yet I enjoyed the immersion into 1830s Lebanese mountain village life. This story of personal passion, murder and fateful decisions slowly expands to involve the wider political context—when Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, England and France vied for control of the region. All new territory for me.
My old interest in early medieval Central Asia drew me to this book. How could I pass up a story set in 11th century Samarkand? More, please!
As with The Rock of Tanios, this dual time-period novel introduced me to epochs of history to which I’d had little prior exposure: the life of Omar Khayyam during the Seljuk Empire and the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907.
Again, some of my Work in Progress is set in Persia but five hundred years before any of the events included here.
But this is the attraction of reading historical fiction from off the beaten path. It opens up new adventures and the chance to see the world through another’s experience. Some say that stories help us develop empathy. They also help us understand ourselves.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Rock of Tanioshere and here.
You can find summaries and reviews of Samarkandhere and here.
Afterward—Long after I’d read these two novels, I realized that the author is one and the same with that of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes—the book I read way back in the early ‘90s which had such a strong effect on me. It was, in fact, one of the sparks which ignited my own slow movement towards my Work In Progress.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Crusades Through Arab Eyeshere and here.
I felt honored when M. K. Tod offered me the chance to read the prelease of her latest historical fiction novel, Time and Regret.
I’ve been following M. K. Tod’s blog, A Writer of History, for several years. In the crowded blogosphere I have found hers so dependably useful that it is one of only a few blogs I read faithfully.
Having never read her fiction, I began with anticipation and hope that it would meet my expectations. I was not disappointed.
In Time and Regret Ms. Tod weaves parallel tales from WWI and the 1990s into a mystery, a memoir and a love story. Her writing produces a visceral experience of WWI horrors — the brutality and futility of the freezing, muddy trenches — and leads you through the protagonist’s journey of love lost and love found. The work is well crafted in plot and prose, unfolding the juxtaposition of the past with the present and entwining connections from one to the other.
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.