Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Dilemmas of Historical Fiction

How important is accuracy within a fictional work? This is a point which almost all the writers I know argue. Views range from "not at all" to "it must be as accurate as possible." While I disagree that it is unimportant, I'm well aware that complete accuracy is probably not possible, nor desirable.

Let me state now that this subject tends to be controversial, and what I'm about to write is obviously colored by my own opinions. Nonetheless, I'm hoping to break this down in a way that might help other writers—and readers—make up their minds about what is and is not important to them.

And the good news is that there are published books along the entire continuum. They range from: the only "historical" elements are long dresses, candlelight, and horse-drawn carriages; to "as completely accurate as possible."

That last goal: "to be as completely as possible" is more difficult than you might imagine. Even a writer such as Steven Saylor, who writes mysteries set in ancient Rome, cannot be entirely accurate and still create popular fiction. He often adds notes indicating where he had to "modify history" in order to make it understandable to a modern reader. For example, one of his challenges is time. Up until around the 4th century, B.C., they formally divided day into only two parts: before midday—ante meridian (A.M.); and after midday—post meridian (P.M.). So it's difficult for his characters to talk about time, particularly using modern units of time such as an hour or minute. And yet readers expect some sort of time reference to know how long things take, e.g. did he stand there 5 minutes or 2 hours?

By Seneca's time, 4 B.C. – 65 A.D., the Romans had divided the day into 12 units, "hours," but the thing is, that time was elastic. The day always had exactly 12 hours of daylight no matter if it was a long, summer day, or a short, winter day. So "summer hours" were longer than "winter hours". And that concept sort of hurts my head.

The bottom line is that there are many basic concepts we accept and pretty well believe are "self evident." We think things were "always this way" when in fact the notion may be a relatively modern invention.

But, if you are writing for modern readers, you're going to have to accept a certain amount of anachronisms just to make sense and keep the story moving.

Like a hour being a relatively fixed amount of time.

So, I break this subject—and therefore decisions I make when writing historical fiction—into the following categories:

* Environment. Also called into "world building." This consists of architecture, clothing, furniture, and general props. Even in the most egregiously inaccurate fiction, there is really no excuse for getting these things wrong. There were no steel-and-glass skyscrapers in the 19th century. There were no flying buttresses and Gothic cathedrals in ancient Rome. Unfortunately, there are actually a great many stories where even the basics are just…wrong. This makes me very sad. Because I consider this to be the "minimum" set of things you need to get right to give your historical a sense of being, well, an historical.

* Society, mores and customs. The milieu of the character. This is where even the most fanatical historian can start to drift. Some readers may not even notice errors in this area. And many time periods, such as the Regency, have become so stylized that you may actually be considered to have written a historically inaccurate book if you do not follow the "popular perceptions" of this period.

For the Regency, this includes things like the importance of Almack's to a Regency Miss' social acceptance, or the ease with which a damsel may become "compromised" and forced to marry some hapless male. So this is definitely a grayer area, but note: the more accurate this, the more layers or interest your book can have. And you will often find that this layer forms the major "difference" between mid to lower tier authors and higher tier (esp. literary) authors. Presenting a realistic, complex view of the Society during a specific era can be the thing that makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary fiction.

* Characters. This is the area where authors not only have more freedom, but probably should make the major anachronistic changes. Hero and heroines who find a hanging, disembowelment, and wild animals vs Christians to be great entertainment, or believe they have a God-given right to anything they want because of their birth and wealth are probably not going to be very sympathetic in modern eyes. I think it safe to say none of us would be particularly attracted or sympathetic to most of the upper class people before the 19th century, and probably not to most people before that time, either. And when writing popular fiction, you need to get the reader to identify and/or sympathize with your hero/heroine. That character, more than any other, will by necessity, be a modern person thinly cloaked by the trappings of their time period.

However, you can't just write yourself into the story and be done with it. Many inexperience or unskilled authors go a little too far with this to the point of turning their characters into a person that is so modern that she (or he) just seems bizarrely misplaced into the past.

So those, in a nutshell, are some of the factors you need to consider when writing, or reading, historical fiction.

Given that, why do I write so many stories set in the Regency period?

I am fascinated with the paradoxes in that Society, particularly for women within that culture. The period hasn't crystallized into the "hard and fast" rules of the Victorian age and you have wonderful, brilliant and yet proper women like Jane Austen in contrast to courtesans like Harriette Wilson or Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey. Everything was undergoing massive change with the sudden explosion in the sciences and exploration. New plants, new cultures, and huge changes in things even as simple as the rose. By mid-century, roses from China were hybridized with European varieties to create reblooming roses that eventually became the Hybrid Teas of today.

So much of what we have and know today grew out of that period.

And for me, it is the conflict of the individual within the turmoil of that Society that attracts me the most. How would an intelligent, articulate woman fit in and attract a man when one of the "rules of polite Society" was the advice "Do not speak until spoken to?" If you flouted the rules, what would the consequences be? How would you deal with them?

I have always been fascinated by those who did not quite fit in. I am intrigued by social outcasts and the desire or possibility of re-integration into Society—if you even wanted to be integrated.

That is what draws me to that period.

And I'd be fascinated to know what draws others to historical novels and how important accuracy is to them as readers or writers.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Writing and News

Today I was working on a project to upgrade 550 domain controllers--oops, sorry, wrong blog.    Couldn't resist starting out in left field.

Anyway, lots of writing activities going on now that my puppy, Molly, is on the mend.

First and foremost, my publisher has an absolutely FANTASTIC promotion going on.  Several of us authors at The Wild Rose Press are sponsoring it and the prize is a brand new Sony e-Reader!  How cool is that?

For details on the contest, visit The Wild Rose Press site (Oh, and if you want an easy way to enter, just purchase the Regency romantic mystery, I BID ONE AMERICAN, by Amy Corwin.  Totally shameless, I know.)  Of course, no purchase is necessary to enter.

On July 12th, I'm going to be signing my Regency book,  Smuggled Rose, at the Barnes & Noble on Brier Creek in the Raleigh/Durham, NC, area.  If you're in the neighborhood after lunch, around 1-2pm, come and stop by!  We've got other notable authors there, too, including NYT Bestselling author Sabrina Jeffries, so it should be a lot of fun.

SMUGGLED ROSE is about a lady rose smuggler who can't resist French roses any more than she can resist an English earl who has all the wrong ideas about her.

On the writing front, I'm a regular work-a-holic:

Here's what I have going on at the moment.  Just note that the titles may change upon the whims of the publishers…

Regency romance short story:  "Outrageous Behavior" is under consideration at The Wild Rose Press.  A Regency Miss decides that OUTRAGEOUS BEHAVIOR may be her only alternative to marriage with the wrong man…

Regency romance novella for Christmas:  "Christmas Mishaps" is due at Cerridwen Press mid-July for consideration and possible inclusion in a Regency Christmas anthology.  Sometimes, getting back into the good graces of your family can lead you even further astray…and into the arms of a younger man. 

Traditional Regency romance:  "Love, The Critic" is in my writing queue.  I'm doing some revisions requested by Cerridwen Press and hope to submit it to them again by the end of July.  Elizabeth Tate finds to her dismay that her enemy and most hardened critic may be the only man for her!

Regency Romantic Mystery:  "The Vital Principle" is under consideration at a publisher.  Pru may be a fake spiritualist, but she's no murderer—and she's determined to prove it.

Regency Romantic Mystery:  "The Bricklayer's Helper" is under consideration at a publisher.  Sarah survived a devastating fire that destroyed her family, but the killer is not about to let her escape a second time.  So Sarah enlists the aid of the far-too-handsome inquiry agent, William Trenchard, hoping to expose the murderer before he strikes again.

And I've got a few more stories "under construction" so with luck, something may be contracted and move into the "to be released" queue soon.  Or at least before I lose my mind completely.

So...I guess I'll get back to work.  I have to polish up the novella to send in to Cerridwen Press and then finish my edits on LOVE, THE CRITIC so I can send them that, too.  And then...I think I may actually work on polishing my vampire story and trying that at The Wild Rose Press.  Gosh, I didn't even mention that in the list above, but I'd sort of like to get back to it.  It just needs a wee bit of work...

Have a wonderful evening and take time out to smell the roses!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Be warned--this blog is long and confusing.  And it talks about absolutely nothing of importance.

There.  You've been warned.

Frustration is...very frustrating.  I don't handle frustration very well, particularly when I don't understand something.  Today was just filled with frustration and petty annoyances.  Turning this blog into a forum to blow off steam about the idiocy of the people I work with would be a bad thing, so I'm going to take a few more long pulls of an alcoholic beverage and try to turn it into something more positive.  Or at least more interesting. 

No.  I lied.  There is no amount of alcohol that is going to let me gloss over today.

One of the things that really, really irritated me was the need many people have to turn something that should be simple into a complex, rampaging beast. 

And irony, thy name is Amy.  Amy should listen to herself about making things hard.

Let me explain in a very circuitous manner. 

At work, my fellow team members took information that could have been presented in one simple spreadsheet and split it up among various spreadsheets saved all over the place.  You can't go to one source and get everything.  They further decided that even though they assigned me one region of the country, they would assign a few small sites to others and not tell me.  And they only documented this in an obscure spreadsheets I've never seen.

And our field folks get a different spreadsheet containing no assignments, so they don't know who to contact.  Since they all know me, naturally, the field calls me.  And stupid me, if they are in the region I *thought* I managed, I start working with them.

Only to be slapped upside the head because, well, oops, I didn't check that internal, obscure spreadsheet I didn't know about.  So I didn't see that this one, single site out of the entire region happens to be assigned to someone else.

Well, ex-cuuuuuu-se me.

I told them to put everything into one spreadsheet.  Make that the same spreadsheet we and our field folks view.  Then everyone knows who they should work with.

But no...that would make it too easy.  We can't do that.  So, being the stubborn little cuss that I am, after a long, fruitless discussion, I decided to heck with it.  I'm just going to work with my assigned regions, regardless of site, and if I get into trouble, well, so sue me.

I thought the point was to get the work done. back to reality.  As I mentioned, it's ironic that I can recognize this at my day job, but fail entirely to recognize that I'm making my own life as a writer excessively difficult because I won't do things the easy way.

Actually, I do recognize it.  I'm just unsure what to do about it.  It all comes down to commercial fiction versus...writing what you love to write.  If what you happen to love to write fits more-or-less into the current market, wow, you've got it made.

When I first started seriously trying to get published, I was in a critique group.  One of the ladies wrote very, very erotic material.  And all of a sudden, erotic is "in".  All the big publishers are scrambling to open new, erotic lines.  So she's got all kinds of contracts and books coming out.  Amazing.

But me...that's where the irony comes in.  My mom always said, "If there's an easy road and a hard road, you'll always take the hard road."

"But the hard road is the right road," I replied.  "Because the easy road takes you into the valley where you see nothing and the hard road takes you to the top of the hill where you can see everything.  And I need to see everything to know which road to take next."

I always had a logical reason for that hard road.

This time, I'm not so sure.  Am I just being stubborn in refusing to give up much needed scene and page space to long, explicit sex scenes?  I don't know.  It sure annoys me when other authors do that--particularly if it ends up they give short-shrift to the mystery or other sub-plot(s).

Of course, I could do that.  But, I'd have to give up a lot of sub-plots, complications, and much of the mystery.  Of course, I'd be much better compensated for being such a "good sport" about it and toeing the line.  I'd probably be a heck of a lot more popular.  I could be on that easy, smooth road to fame and fortune, heading down into that nice, green valley instead of up that rocky, steep hill.

I could be a NY Times bestselling author.

Well, maybe not--I mean a lot of it also depends upon the quality of your writing, your imagination, and your mastery of the writing craft in general...but...  If you are writing with the expectation to sell, and the market you are targeting is the commercial fiction market, how far do you go to fit in?

(Interesting that a lot of my stories concern people who simply don't "fit it".  I wonder where that theme comes from?)

What if what you love to write isn't commercially viable?

Do you say, "To heck with it, I'm a writer so I'll just write this commercial stuff because it will sell, even though I personally wouldn't--and don't--read it."

Wonder if pretty much everything you read tends to be from rather obscure authors, or authors from the last century?  And what does that say about you?  Do you need a mental evaluation?

Do you go to smaller publishing houses, knowing the trade-off is fewer sales and almost no pay?

How do you know when you are just being stupidly stubborn and need to learn to "get with the program" and write the popular stuff?

What if writing in a more popular style with more popular content makes you want to weep and slash your wrists?  (It probably means you really do need a thorough mental evaluation.)

What if writing in a less popular style makes you glow with excitement and gives you the drive to get to that keyboard and start typing?

Should you go to a psychiatrist and ask for drugs so you aren't depressed anymore when you have to give up the scenes crucial to solving your mystery sub-plot so you can insert sex scenes and still stay within the page limits?

When are you traveling that hard road out of sheer, cussed stubbornness?

(When will I learn to spell?)

And should a writer really put out a blog like this one?  Would a good writer like Jenny Crusie put out a blog like this one?  Methinks--not!

On the other hand, I'm not Jenny Crusie, although I often wish I was.  Sadly enough, even more often I wish I was H. H. Munroe (better know as Saki), but he was a guy and he died in a foxhole, and that's not my "thing".  I like being married to a guy, sure, but I don't really want to be one.  Especially not a dead guy.

But he was a fabulous writer.  

So, I sure don't have any answers.  I wish I did.

And if I've left you confused and wandering around in the weeds, I'm sorry.  But rest assured, I'm just as lost as you are.