Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why I Keep Doing This

by Suzanne Morgan Williams

This recently came across my feed on Facebook:

The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.” The Dali Lama.

I believe that by being storytellers we have the possibility of becoming peacemakers, healers, and restorers. Sharing stories, at its best, is a manifestation of love. Deciding to share stories is as simple as pouring a glass of wine for a friend and saying, “Let me tell you something.” Or it can be as complicated as creating a manuscript, finding a literary agent, and crossing fingers hoping for the enthusiasm of an editor and the commitment of a publishing house. But the outcome can be the same – shared experiences that bring out the best in each other.

As for sharing history, the primary form is oral history. Generations have passed on their family, tribal, and religious stories by word of mouth. They have danced to them and set them to music. They have painted them and later, carved some in stone, set pages in type, sped them through high speed wireless connections. We keep telling stories. They are the basis of culture. Our cultures can divide us or delight us. They can cause wars or set the stage for peace. They can inspire, empower, heal or create hatred, prejudice, and cruelty. The stories we tell matter. What stories we tell matter. Who listens matters.
So today, I recommit to being a storyteller. And I hope someone will listen

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Oldies But Goodies by Mary Louise Sanchez

If you're like me, you're constantly reminded of the Oldies on the radio—the music we grew up to. Our daughter says even her music of the 80s is now considered "the Oldies." 
Google image
Last summer I was reminded how great the times were when we grew up, as my high school classmates and I celebrated a milestone high school class reunion, and my husband celebrated a milestone birthday. 

For the past five years or so, I've been reading the newer historical fiction books about the time period I grew up in. Those stories put me back in the time and informed me of the ideas I was too busy to learn about then. Plus, as a youth I wasn't exposed to any historical fiction books of my era—much less any era.  How I wished my teachers had bibliographies of great historical fiction books for youth then.

This summer I read accounts of seventieth reunions of the Greatest Generation who reminisced about participating in the Battle of the Bulge and freeing Holocaust survivors. Imagine the emotional and learning experiences the Greatest Generation's great grandchildren could have if they read good historical fiction that showed them the experiences of their family members.

 These events remind me that there were many things that happened in the past that should be remembered and discussed today; and thankfully, many of the events are taught in the history curriculum.  Another thought is that many of the school libraries or school book rooms may still have class sets of some of the best of the oldies of historical fiction. Even if there are no class sets in your school, the librarian can help secure a class set for you by asking other schools to borrow their books through the interlibrary loan process. 

Your school librarian is your friend. Be sure to collaborate with him/her and find out if your school has some reference books in the professional collection to help you look at bibliographies of literature you can connect to your history curriculum.

My posts for much of this school year will be centered on some of the best "Oldies" of historical fiction in various time periods of American and world history—as I see them. In a way, my list will be akin to David Letterman's top ten idea.
 I will also try to add some of the more recent historical fiction books I've read, although I may tend to zero in on my favorite eras. What "Top Ten" would you include?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Robert Lee Murphy: The Homestead Act and MG Historical Novels

US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Homestead Act

The Homestead Act of 1862 has figured prominently in many novels about the settlement of the American west by the white man and the freed black slave. This giving away of “government” lands accommodated the westward expansion embodied in the Manifest Destiny doctrine; but, it also stimulated more conflict with the Native American inhabitants who, as a result, were stripped of their traditional use of the land.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, the first book in her Great Plains trilogy, follows the life of Alexandra Bergson who, as a young lady, assumes the responsibility for her mother and brothers following the death of her father. She struggles to maintain the family cohesiveness on land her father had homesteaded in Nebraska.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake, the fifth of nine books in her Little House on the Prairie series, covers the period of time when Laura’s family files a homestead claim in De Smet, South Dakota. The Newberry Honor was awarded to this book in 1940. In the 1970s, a popular television series based on the book series starred Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert.

Jack Shafer’s Shane is currently listed on Amazon as the number one best selling western for teens. Shane, a reformed gunslinger who initially refuses to carry a revolver, comes to the aid of the Starrett family and saves their homestead from a ruthless rancher who wants to drive them off the land. The 1953 movie Shane, starring Alan Ladd and Jack Palance, is frequently rated as one of the ten best western films.

In my frontier, historical novel, Eagle Talons, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book One, Will Braddock would have been aware of the Homestead Act as he follows the building of the first transcontinental railroad west on his quest to determine his own destiny. Although Will grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa in the late 1850s and early 1860s, his father would not have acquired that farm under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862.

Over the years, there have been several acts to encourage settlement of portions of the expanding United States and the ownership of land by individuals. During the Civil War, Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862 following the secession of the southern states, whose politicians had opposed earlier attempts at such a law. Leaders in the South wanted the opportunity for the west to be settled by slave owners, and they feared that anti-slavery advocates would grab the land grants and oppose the expansion of slavery. The Homestead Act enabled any citizen, or person who declared the intention of becoming a citizen, who was at least 21 years old to file a claim for ownership of 160 acres of government land if they built a dwelling and farmed and lived on that land for five years. The original act precluded any one who had borne arms against the United States from eligibility. In 1867,Congress amended the act to permit Confederate veterans to participate if they signed an affidavit of allegiance to the government.

The railroad companies were supportive of the Homestead Act and benefited from it because it brought settlers who populated the new towns they created along their right-of-ways and provided purchasers of the land given to them by the government as part of their incentive for constructing the railroad. “Homesteading” was discontinued in the United States in 1976, except for Alaska where it continued another decade.

In an early draft version of Eagle Talons, I included a discussion between Will and Jenny about the purpose of her family's intention to migrate to either California or Oregon, wherein she said the McNabbs were taking advantage of the Homestead Act. I could have written that Jenny’s father, a former Confederate officer, would have to sign the government’s affidavit to comply with the law. However, I decided it was an "information dump" that did not advance the story about the family’s destination. Therefore, I deleted specific reference to the Homestead Act from the book. This is an example of a historical novelist developing a plot point and spending time on research, then abandoning the knowledge as unnecessary for the work in progress.

The Homestead National Monument of America in eastern Nebraska was created in 1936 on the site of the homestead of Daniel and Agnes Freeman. Freeman filed the first claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. It is interesting that their last name epitomizes the intention of the Homestead Act—that free men should be allowed to own property. Here is the website for the Homestead National Monument:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Sara K Joiner: On the Origin of After the Ashes

Once upon a time, a young girl sat reading a book.

Perhaps it was only 2009 and the girl was, in reality, a woman, but the part about reading the book was true. The book was a work of nonfiction for children—The Day the World Exploded: The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa by Simon Winchester.

While she read this book, a vague image of a girl exploring a wondrous jungle popped into her head.

"What if…?" the woman, who had written several unpublished novels, thought.

And she began to research.

Books about rainforests. Books about volcanoes. Books about tsunamis. Books about Java. Books about Dutch colonialism.

The woman scoured the Internet for historical photos. She used Google Translate to understand captions written in Dutch or Indonesian.

When the woman took a cruise to Belize, she stood in the jungle and let the feel of it sink into her—the light, the heat, the sounds. Even though the rainforest in Belize and the rainforest in Java were not terribly similar (she knew this from her research), it helped her feel more like that girl the woman saw in her head.

strangler fig in Belize
photo by Sara K Joiner
She saw strangler figs, which the woman had learned were in Java, for the first time. Awestruck, she studied their roots and the way they wrapped themselves around another tree.

The woman took her time writing the story. She wrote and revised and wrote some more.

Three years after that first spark, she decided she could not make the story any better. Then she began looking for an agent. After a short search, she found an agent, and that agent knew how to make the story even better. So the woman wrote and revised and wrote and revised some more.

In 2014, the agent sent the story to an editor. The editor loved the story, but she, too, knew how to make it even better. The editor and the woman worked together. Once again, the woman wrote and revised and wrote and revised some more.

Finally, the story was the best it could possibly be. After six long years of research, writing and revising, the story is coming to readers in October.

That's the story of the origin of the idea for After the Ashes—the story of a girl who explores the jungle and the volcano that destroys everything she holds dear. You can enter a drawing for a free galley copy of After the Ashes from GoodReads.

In addition to writing, Sara K Joiner is a public librarian in Texas.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Historical Novel in a Month? by Louise Spiegler

Every November at least a few of my college students will ask me if I want to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). 

My response is usually incredulous laughter (the expression of the woman in the mosaic to the right is incredulous enough to express my feelings). November is a month when I am typically teaching three to four college classes with about 120 students and, no, I don’t have a teaching assistant to correct papers for me. Even finding time to write a blog post is a challenge!

However, I usually turn around and encourage those students to take part in the novel-writing challenge themselves.

And, mostly, they respond with incredulous laughter.

As well they might, since they often also work substantial jobs as well as being college students. Some of them work, are college students and parents. 

However, summer is my writing time, so this summer, I decided to take up the challenge and  try writing a first draft novel in month. A historical fiction piece, mind you, set in Ancient Rome.

Writing a first draft is usually is a slow and laborious process for me. In fact, I’d say it’s like clearing a garden of enormous rocks, pulling them out of the ground one by one. Does that sound dire? It’s not supposed to. But there’s a feeling of excavation, of unearthing or uncovering a story. And also a strong feeling of hard lifting. 

And a historical novel is, as many on this blog have pointed out, a massive undertaking of research and fact-checking.

So writing a historical novel in a month seemed crazy.

And yet, I’ve just finished my first extremely messy draft! (Feel free to cheer.)

I feel somewhat shocked, and, as usual when I finish a draft, I have no idea whether the goose has laid a golden egg or whether it has laid… what geese normally lay. No one has even read more than three chapters of it, so I have no sounding board. And that’s unusual for me as well, but I think that’s necessary if you want to write an initial draft so quickly.

The title, at the moment is Anaktoria Across the Waves. If you are an ancient history geek, you’ll recognize that as the title of a poem by the wonderful Greek poet, Sappho, a woman poet, actually, and even more interestingly, a lesbian poet. 

The image to the left is meant to be a portrait of Sappho, but read a little of her poetry and it will be hard to believe she would ever look this stern. (see below for a fragment of her work).

 So here’s how I did it.

I had a strong idea: a girl in ancient Rome, who is the daughter of a surgeon, and who is getting trained to follow in her father’s footsteps, as a doctor. (As I've mentioned elsewhere, this was a possibility for some women in the empire.) But her father disappears and her uncle takes over the surgery. And he is not a fan of having his niece become his apprentice --not least because he has a son of his own to whom he wants to hand down the position. The main thread of the story concerns Anaktoria’s freedoms getting taken away one by one, and how she turns the tables to eventually win back her rights.

For me, this reflects a dual social reality in ancient Rome: women, as in other ancient societies, were restricted in many ways, and to read men's writings about women is to be plunged into a sea of misogyny. And yet, if you dig (and I recommend Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser’s book, A History of their Own, as a good introduction to the complexities of women’s history) there were certain freedoms that women had. For example, they had the right to divorce their husbands, to keep their own dowries and sometimes, to control their own finances. And  that gave them wiggle room.

And professional women, though a small minority, certainly existed, not least in the medical field. There are actually tombstones and memorial plaques commemorating women doctors.

So, what about the research? What about the painstaking hours of research? How can that meld with writing a very fast first draft?

Here’s the thing: You can only write a historical novel in a month if your research is already pretty much solid.

I’ve taught ancient history with an emphasis on Rome for more than ten years. So the era is very familiar to me, even the small details of everyday life. And now that I have a draft, I know which very specific details I still need to look up to make sure I’m accurate and to add depth and flavor. 

Another thing that helped was that I have already completed another novel, entitled The Healer’s Yew which involves Anaktoria as a secondary character. (My heroic agent is currently trying to place it).

Healer stars Anaktoria's best friend, Gaius Petronius Felix, the baker’s son who dreams of being an artist, and Titus, an escaped slave who knows the emperor’s murderous secret, and therefore is being stalked by the emperor’s spies.

So I have a very specific period which I have already extensively researched for another novel.

However, my new novel has a different focus, so I did more research on women’s lives in ancient Rome during the empire. This, again, is fairly familiar territory for me.

What is new and I continue to read up on is Roman medical knowledge and practice. Very surprising stuff! I can now tell you something about antiseptics, something about humoral theory, something about surgery, and perhaps more than I’d like about ancient gynecology. 

So now that I’ve got the story sketched out, I’ll be launching back into deeper research.

Now, if only I could get to visit Rome! If anyone hears of a fairy godmother who grants time and cash-strapped writers tickets around the world, let me know.

I don't know if I will ever try to write a novel in a month again, but I certainly am happy to have a draft to work from, as I get ready to plunge back into another busy school year.


Here's a taste of Sappho's poetry:

The moon is down
And the Pleiades
And yet
Alone I lie.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ingredients of Good Multicultural Historical Fiction: Psychology

One of the hardest things to get right in historical fiction is period psychology. How did people at a particular time and place think about their world? What were the underlying assumptions? What color were their glasses?

What Color Are Your Glasses?

This is hard to get right because we live and breathe the constructs of our day, with assumptions so deep we don’t often recognize them unless we are lucky enough to have an international friend who asks, “Why are you so achievement oriented? Can’t you just be for a while, and what’s with all the extreme sports and conflict? (If you are from outside the United States, please fill in whatever your cultural tendencies may be.)

Johnny in a Toga

Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld
For middle-grade historical fiction, parents, teachers, and librarians can be on the alert for what I like to term Johnny in a Toga, that is, contemporary personalities dressed up in historical costume. Characters in historical fiction, multicultural or otherwise, must be authentic--a true Marcellus or a Marcella, or as close as one can get.  
Our modern day Johnny would have a deep sense that slavery was wrong, might even advocate the abolition of slavery. Roman Marcellus, however, assumes slavery is just part of the social order; everyone has a place. It is the way things are, even should be. This does not mean he lacks empathy or that he may want to stop abuse, but he sees slavery as part of his world.

Original Sources

Very rarely, you’ll find a story that quotes the original words of a character.

"Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/
Wher the oven bakes & the pot biles///
July 13,1840"

Andrea Cheng does this in her outstanding novel in verse, Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet (Lee & Low, 2013).

"I wonder where is all my relation
Friendship to all – and every nation
August 16, 1857"

In addition to Dave’s own words, Cheng employs multiple voices from the period. The following quote is from the point of view of Dave’s first wife, who is being sold to another owner in Alabama.

 "I ask if I can say
Good-bye to Dave,
But Master Drake just laughs,
'No need, Eliza.
They’ll find you another man
Real quick.'
He winks—
And I cry." (p. 23)

In this short verse, Cheng portrays the belief of the slave owner that black slaves do not have feelings like the white people do, that they can be quickly satisfied with another mate. Within the same stanza she shows that this is the furthest thing from the truth.  

The Period Creates the Conflict

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare
The wonderful result of getting cultural psychology right is that it often creates the main conflict in the story. It is also a great jumping off point for discussion for comparing and contrasting our times with the past. Many authors, for example, place a female character in a proactive role. Yet often in history their lives were circumscribed. They could still act, be brave and heroic, but they had to do so within certain bounds, or they would be ostracized, perhaps even endangered in, say, a culture where witches were burned at the stake.

May B, one of my favorite fictional heroines, by Caroline Starr Rose, (Yearling, 2012) is another example of the period creating the conflict. May dreams of becoming a teacher, but she also has dyslexia, a condition not yet understood or diagnosed in her day. This issue remains unresolved, but her identity shifts from a focus on what she can not do, to what she can—survive alone on the wide prairie in a dugout.

Finally, as recommended in my last post, pairing historical fiction with biography, wherever possible, is a good way to reinforce psychological accuracy. When I am writing, I always try to read a biography at the same time to keep me living in the period.

In the end, it is impossible for us to see the past with one-hundred percent clarity, but I believe we can get close, close enough to barely see the tint in our glasses. I wouldn’t be a fan of anthropology if I didn’t believe that.

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.