Friday, June 28, 2013

Forward or Back?

Clipart.com, no. 14702038
I’ve spent the last few weeks pushing forward on The Winged Horse. My hope is to finish the rough draft by midsummer, so that I have a couple of months to fill in the missing sections and pull the plot into a single, more or less coherent thread before editing for clichés and style and all that good stuff. With luck, I’ll have the book in press by late fall, although as the days fly together and coalesce into weeks, that hope seems increasingly illusory. Still, it’s not (yet) impossible. I can dream.

But eighteen chapters in, it’s not always easy to remember exactly how I set up the story in the beginning. Did the bey join his son in drinking wine, or did he hold out for the nomadic favorite—fermented mare’s milk (koumiss)? Was the heroine present when her father stumbled? What, exactly, did they say?

Those questions sent me back to the beginning of the book looking for answers. I read it in the ePub version, as a reader would, to get the overall flow of the story—only to discover that after a rollicking if incomplete start, my hero and heroine came to a screeching halt in chapters 2, 3, and 4. I could feel my eyelids getting heavy, like the hypnosis patient in an old film. I became itchy, then annoyed, at these people who spent pages lost in thought.

I know, of course, why that happened. Nor need my readers fear that I ever intended to send the book to print with thirty-five pages of nonstop telling. My characters don’t (usually) emerge full-blown; instead, they play a kind of peekaboo, darting out to drop a line or three before ducking back behind the grilled screen, where they hover vaguely while I pound my head thinking of something for them to do that will reveal their souls to me. One option is just to let their thoughts flow, so that I can see what really moves them when they are not buffing their images for other people. Then, when I understand who they are and what they want, I can begin to write dialogue for them that both reveals their surface concerns and hints at those secrets they don’t dare share with the world because, like all of us, they fear mockery or humiliation or opposition.

After eighteen chapters, I have a good sense of Ogodai and Firuza, even Tulpar. I also have a better sense than when I started of nomadic society and how it functioned. Many things need to change in those opening chapters, some of them fundamental.

But should I go back and change them now or press on, as I originally intended, to the ending before returning to fix the beginning? It’s not as easy a question as it appears. Fundamental changes may alter the ending, so I may benefit from fixing the underlying plot line first. Yet rewriting—however necessary—can also be a form of procrastination. It’s so tempting to go back to the safe and familiar, the already written, rather than push on to a still murky future.

In the end, I went back: in part because I could see the solution and didn’t want to lose track of it; in part because my writing schedule at present, which allows about a day and a half of free-flow concentration plus whatever revisions I can cram onto my iPad in the evenings, doesn’t really provide the space for moving forward; and in part because I realized that at least one of the changes I had come up with would alter the story’s final resolution. So I will stay with revisions for a while, knowing that I still have two weeks of vacation (plus the July 4 long weekend) to push the plot to its conclusion.

What do you do, fellow writers, in the same situation?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Crossing the Line

I would guess that everyone reading this post has, at one time or another, made a choice that to some extent violated his or her moral principles. Not necessarily a criminal choice: a lie told to avert some unpleasant consequence (or spare someone else’s feelings), a cookie filched too close to dinner, a rule broken or a speed limit exceeded, even an error made by a store clerk and not pointed out because it operated in the customer’s favor—small transgressions like these are part of the fabric of life.

Everyone makes mistakes, and most of us try to justify them—at least up to the point where their costs become impossible to deny. Fictional characters, too, must make mistakes if they are to appear human. Indeed, they get to make the big mistakes, the ones most of us don’t dare attempt. By reading about the characters’ bad choices, the ways they rationalize those choices, and the harm they suffer as a result, we the readers experience the joys of giving into temptation without paying any greater price than the cost of the book. Writers get a similar shot in the arm from imagining themselves, via their villains and heroes, crossing the moral lines, entering forbidden realms.

This deeply human experience forms the backbone of The Art Forger, whose author, B. A. Shapiro, I interview in the latest addition to New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF). All the characters cross at least one moral boundary; most push past several. Some grow from the experience; others don’t. But their individual paths blend and overlap like Claire’s art, and the results are fascinating. It’s not hard to see why this book is moving steadily up the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperbacks.

The rest of this post comes from the NBHF site, where you can find the podcast interview itself.

Claire Roth can’t believe her luck when the owner of Boston’s most prestigious art gallery offers her a one-woman show. Of course, there’s a catch: he asks her to copy a painting. A small price to pay to revive her stalled career, Claire thinks—until she discovers that the painting in question is Degas’s After the Bath, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as part of the greatest art heist in history.

But as Claire wrestles with her conscience and tackles the Degas, she begins to suspect that the painting is no more “original” than her reproduction. Who forged it, and how has the imitation defied detection for so long? The answers depend on another moral line crossed more than a century ago.

The Art Forger has as many layers as one of Claire’s paintings. Join us as B. A. Shapiro  talks about boundaries and choices, forgery and art, celebrity and value, the viewpoint of a visual artist, the trials of publishing and the joys of writing a bestselling novel—and “Belle” Gardner, who once walked lions down a Boston street and shocked the stuffy Brahmins with her low-cut gowns.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reining In

Despite my admiration for steppe heroines, I can’t help noting how quickly their strength can dissipate, leaving me wondering how much is culture and how much, for lack of a better word, necessity. This point intruded on my thoughts when I read, after many delays, Rumer Godden’s Gulbadan: Portrait of a Rose Princess at the Mughal Court (London: Macmillan, 1980) for the Dead Writers Society, a GoodReads group.

I already knew about Gulbadan—the daughter of Babur “the Tiger” (1483–1530), the descendant of Emir Timur (Tamerlane) and Genghis Khan. Babur was the only foreign ruler to conquer and hold Afghanistan and the founder of India’s Mughal dynasty, which remained in power until ousted by the British in the mid-nineteenth century. He set the stage; his sons and grandsons built on it, eventually bringing most of Hindustan under their sway.

I first encountered Gulbadan in Ruby Lal’s Domesticity and Power in the Mughal World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). From there, I hunted down and read Gulbadan’s memoir of her brother, the Humayun-nama, perhaps the first autobiography ever written by a woman and available in English as a public-domain e-book. I picked up Rumer Godden’s version because I thought it was a novel; the author had been a novelist, after all. I was looking for the kind of emotional insight and sensory information about harem life—especially in the peripatetic environment depicted by Lal—that I expect a good novel to provide.

I did not find it. Instead, I discovered a paraphrase of Gulbadan’s own memoirs, enlivened by numerous instances of the gorgeous Mughal/Persian miniatures typical of that time and place. The speculation about how harem life felt to someone involved in it is so anachronistic and, well, speculative that it is effectively useless. For a while, I couldn’t decide how to approach this blog post: the book seemed such a waste of time.

But when I thought about Gulbadan’s life—as she describes it, as Godden describes it, as Lal describes it—it struck me how constrained it seems compared to the lives of her contemporaries on the steppe. Gulbadan was born in 1521 or 1522, which makes her three or four years younger than my fictional Nasan and six years younger than Firuza. Little more than a decade had passed since the death of Manduhai the Wise. Yet Gulbadan spends most of her life going where she is told and staying there, whether she likes it or not, until a shift of power among her menfolk permits her to travel to some preferable destination. She marries and produces children but does not record the date of her wedding, her feelings for her husband, the birth of her sons. These things are irrelevant to her record of her brother Humayun’s life. So, too, are harem politics. The minutiae of women’s existence remain unexplored. Men go to war; women remain behind, to be captured or left to await their fate, placidly or otherwise.

I don’t mean by this description that women in early Mughal India had no power. Quite the contrary. In the accounts of Gulbadan and others, older women wield considerable authority as advisers, even ministers. They demand that the emperor visit them and pressure him to marry. Women warriors guard the harem, itself a fluid concept in a world constantly on the move, but these women are already, for the most part, lower-class. Women ride out on picnics, clad in “head-to-foot” dresses one step away from today’s Afghan burka. Prospective brides have opinions about the husbands selected for them, even if that husband turns out to be the reigning emperor. Some brides are beloved and travel everywhere with their husbands, like Hamida Banu Begum, Humayun’s favorite wife and the mother of
the emperor known as Akbar (the Great). Gulbadan herself urges Akbar, her nephew, to permit her to make the hajj—not a trivial undertaking for a woman living in northwest India in the late sixteenth century —and stays away for years, completing the pilgrimage four times before she chooses to return.
Hamida Banu Begum
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This picture is in the public domain.



And yet … a few generations away from nomadic life, and the dream of the warrior heroine appears already lost. If Nasan represents one end of the spectrum of medieval Eurasian women’s lives, and Gaukhar, Hocha, and Firuza sit somewhere in the middle, then Gulbadan anchors the other end, not yet completely subservient but well on her way to becoming so. Can the role of harem beauty lie much farther down the trail?

Power takes many forms, some more effective and more visible than others. What is won can be reversed—and reversed again. I’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rule by the Strong

Or the Joys (and Perils) of Research

Ottoman Dagger
© Özgür Güvenç
Shutterstock no. 42791878
This week I took a writing vacation, by which I mean a vacation where I could write, not a vacation from writing. I’ve done this several times in the last few years, and it’s absolute bliss. The usual perks of vacation still apply: time to relax, time to fritter away on the Web looking for cool pictures, time to spend with friends or linger over a meal, no need to bolt out of bed just because the alarm clock has gone off, and so on. And although it took my coworkers until Friday to stop e-mailing me, they eventually did. I’m hoping the silence lasts until Monday, when the deluge is set to resume.

Of course, since I haven’t left home, the small annoyances of life—bills, chores—remain. Still, I have time to deal with them. Because on a writing vacation I don’t, in fact, sleep in. I leap out of bed, eager to find out what my characters will do and say today. If I could afford it, I would spend every day in just this way. Sell about 500 more books per month than I currently do, and I’ll be there.

Until that glorious day arrives, I have the writing vacation. Which makes it rather strange that seven days into my precious nine, I have written not much more than I do on a normal weekend. Did I have so many unpaid bills? Should I have skipped the lunch or dinner party, stayed out of the grocery store, left the clothes unwashed?

No. I have written less than I planned because I realized three days in that the vacation offered a perfect chance to do some research. At the end of six to eight hours of editing, I cannot read a serious article or book and expect anything to stick. These relatively stress-free days offered the perfect occasion to finish that half-read dissertation on steppe politics and revisit various books and articles—all of which have significantly improved my understanding of life in Kazan, Crimea, and the steppe in the 1530s.

Fortunately, nothing I discovered requires major changes to my story. On the contrary, the new information fills in missing pieces (my other big project for the week), explains certain decisions that had not made sense to me before, and firms up the plot’s political spine. It also supplies some much-needed terminology and suggests a possible resolution—more accurately, two possible resolutions—to the central story problem.

Which leaves me wrestling with the decision as to which solution works best. Leadership on the steppe operated according to a fairly simple principle: strength ruled. Khans had to descend from Genghis, but beyond that, most of the time, the strongest candidate eliminated or subordinated rival candidates until he established a personal power base. At that point, he sent his new army on one campaign or raid after another, to secure booty and keep them happy and united. The whole time, the tribes watched him for signs of weakness and, if they found them, tried to figure out who the next victor would be so they could switch sides at the right moment. When the khan died, the struggle resumed among a new set of candidates. The Mughals and Ottomans, also former steppe peoples, used similar tactics.

This much I had known. But I had not fully grasped what that tradition meant for my hero, Ogodai, whose job in life is to separate himself from the learned wisdom of his father, grow beyond the role of competent second-in-command, and make his own decisions—as any leader must.

The antagonist who pushes Ogodai to grow in this way is his older half-brother, Tulpar (named after the Winged Horse of the book’s title). Their father has cast Tulpar off and declared him dead to their family for committing the ultimate steppe sin of disobedience. Tulpar, not surprisingly, has built up a ton of resentment that he’s ready to dump on the first family member unlucky enough to cross his path: Ogodai—who before he has even assimilated the idea that his older brother is not literally dead finds himself locked in a life-or-death struggle for his girl and the tribe he hopes will name him khan. Like any good antagonist, Tulpar represents the risk Ogodai runs if he changes, the part of himself that he has suppressed, and the road that he must take if he is to reach his destiny.


So far, so good, but at some point the life-or-death struggle has to result in a decisive victory for one side or the other. Can both men survive, or does Ogodai sign his own death warrant if he fails to kill his brother? And if he just sticks with the old ways, has he really grown up?

Guess I need another writing vacation to find out.

One more fun fact: The Golden Lynx appears on the Swarthmore College 2013 Summer Reading List.