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.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on writing this novel in a month and thanks for sharing how you accomplished this great feat. The novel sounds intriguing!