Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Party All the Time

Or, The Joys of Writing Historical Fiction


First off, my thanks to Joan Schweighardt for coming up with this idea and to Anjali Mitter Duva and Kristen Harnisch for agreeing to take part. The essence of the plan is that each of us writes a longer blog post on her own, as well as a 250-word summary that we will publish as a group. Normally, I would post my entry on Friday, but this Friday is April Fool’s Day—and when it comes to writing historical fiction, I’m not fooling. Hence the atypical Wednesday post.

So what are the joys of writing historical fiction, from my perspective? I see many, but I’ll focus on three: familiarity, research, and escapism (mine and the readers’).


“Write what you know”—it’s a cliché. But it doesn’t always mean write about your home town or the life you experienced as a child, never mind thinly disguised versions of your current friends and office mates (who may not remain friends and colleagues if they read your fictional take on them). History is what I know—Russian history in particular. Long before it became my profession I loved to study it, to read novels based on it, to write essays of my own. For decades, I did not intend to write fiction of my own, but once I did stumble onto the idea for a novel, the lure of my chosen historical field—so rich and so foreign to most people in the West—made it the logical choice for my novels as well. Noblemen and peasants, bandits and warriors, blood feuds and raids, coups and invasions and arranged political marriages: was there ever a place more naturally dramatic than Russia? Half the time, I don’t even have to make things up (although that’s fun, too)!


Of course, research is work. Many authors don’t like it—although more do than you might expect if you have never attempted historical research yourself. For me, it’s what I do, even when I’m not writing novels. And research for a novel is different from researching an academic article. I don’t have to master (or appear to have mastered) all the existing literature or spend years in the archives; I dont need to produce an academically defensible position that gives due credit to those who came before while sketching out an argument that is uniquely my own. But I do need to create a plausible world filled with characters who belong in that world, which means immersing myself in all kinds of details of everyday life and—more important—learning about the specific ways in which different types of people thought about the world, themselves, and their place in the universe. Researching a novel can be frustrating—even in the Age of the Internet, a novelist can’t always uncover essential details of clothing or utensils or even food and drink, never mind smells and tastes—but it can also be tremendous fun. When I stumbled over the tale of Abbot Trifon of Pechenga’s bandit past, for example, I couldn’t wait to include it in The Swan Princess. I had to redo the entire plot of my novel in progress, but I wouldn’t have missed that opportunity for anything.


Here I have in mind several related meanings of the word. Most obviously, escaping into a previous century in a distant place offers relief from everyday worries and troubles for both readers and writers. But the escape into history also opens up possibilities for fiction that our technologically sophisticated modern world has closed down. Yes, human emotions have not changed for millennia; only the cultural constraints that provoke specific emotions vary from one place and time to another. And placing oneself in another’s shoes, whatever the time period, holds out the potential for enjoyment; the modern world is not uniform, and even today we see many different philosophies in play, have many chances to experience the viewpoints of fictional people unlike ourselves. Contemporary life contains plenty of space for rage, resentment, grief, agony, and that life blood of fiction, misunderstandings.

But strip the world of cellphones, computers, DNA tests, police and fire protection, NSA-type security, and even basic literacy—never mind such things as respect for women and minorities—and a writer acquires many more options for spreading confusion and stoking the fires of conflict. Characters can disappear into the woods, take justice into their own hands, lie about their paternity (or even maternity), raze cities to the ground, retire to monasteries, force their children into marriage, impersonate dead rulers, consult witches and sorcerers, poison their enemies with untraceable toxins, leave fingerprints that no one knows can identify them, and much, much more. Letting one’s imagination roam free is cathartic, and so long as it remains on the page, it does little harm.

I could go on, but those are three great pleasures of writing historical fiction for me. What makes historical fiction special for you?

For the others’ posts, see Spelunking from My Desk, Or Why I Love Writing Historical Fiction” (Joan), “Reaching the Pinnacle of Joy and Wonder in Historical Research: A Six-Part Swimming Metaphor” (Anjali), and Writing the Past: The Devil Is in the Details” (Kristen). And while you’re there, don’t forget to check out their books!

Friday, March 25, 2016

First, but Not Equal

Empresses, regents, royal mistresses, twentieth- and twenty-first-century politicians—the life of women in power has seldom been easy. Whether we have in mind Elena Glinskaya, ruling as the mother of Ivan the Terrible (then aged three through seven); Sophia, regent for her younger brothers Ivan and Peter (later self-styled the Great); the eighteenth-century Russian empresses from Catherine I to Catherine II (another “Great”); Catherine de Médicis, Diane de Poitiers, and Mmes de Pompadour and de Montespan in France; Mary Tudor and her sister Elizabeth as queens of England; or Hillary Clinton on yesterday’s news, authoritative women have been viewed as bossy or shrewish, immoral or murderous, manipulative or inclined toward witchcraft, depending on the time period.

This uncomfortable truth holds even when the men who were the lovers or husbands of these female rulers were corrupt, insane, or otherwise incompetent. Our modern world may be more comfortable with women in power, but the double standard still exists. Imagine, then, the obstacles that faced the Tang Dynasty concubine Wu Mei (Wu Zetian), who defied every Confucian principle and restriction to become the only empress in Chinese history to rule without a husband as figurehead. Under her guidance, women achieved property rights and an education, and the kingdom flourished, buoyed by the silk trade with the west. She died in 705, and the Zhou dynasty she founded died with her, becoming a mere interregnum in the longer arc of the Tang.

It is a compelling tale, and it makes for a fitting entry in my blog series on women in history, revived two weeks ago in “The Divine and the Disrespected” (note that last week’s post also discusses women in World War I). But for the full story of Empress Wu and her times, listen to my interview with Weina Dai Randel and, most of all, read her novels. You can find links to them below.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

In four thousand years of Chinese history, Empress Wu stands alone as the only woman to rule in her own name. She died in her eighties after decades of successful governance, but her sons could not hold the kingdom she established for them and the dynasty she founded soon fell from power. The Confucian scholars who recorded her history—outraged by the idea of a woman ordering men—depicted her as a murderous, manipulative harlot, an image that has ever since obscured her achievements. In The Moon in the Palace (Sourcebooks, 2016), Weina Dai Randel seeks to polish Empress Wu’s tarnished reputation, offering a new look at her and her times, the obstacles she faced and the gifts that enabled her to overcome them.

Wu Mei is five years old when a Buddhist monk predicts her future as the mother of emperors and bearer of the mandate of Heaven. By thirteen, she has already entered the Imperial Palace as a Select, one of a small group of maidens chosen to serve the Taizong Emperor. But the palace is a vast and complex hierarchy, and Mei one untried girl among the two thousand women it contains. Her first friend betrays her trust, her emperor has little use for her, and his youngest son seems all too willing to pay her the attention that his father withholds. Meanwhile, intrigue within the palace threatens the emperor and all those who depend on him. In this poisonous atmosphere, even a junior concubine may find it difficult to keep her head. Mei, capable and smart, is not easily daunted, but she worries that she will soon find herself out of her depth.

Mei’s story continues in The Empress of Bright Moon, due for release in early April 2016. In both novels, Randel paints in rich and compelling prose a wonderfully believable and nuanced portrait of a long-vanished court and the young woman who must navigate its treacherous paths.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Remembering the Great War

 Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War is one of several great books sent to me for potential interviews that I just couldn’t fit into my schedule. I was delighted when the editor, Heather Webb, agreed to a blog interview instead. The results are below, with my questions in bold and her answers following. But don’t stop here: the stories, too, are well worth your time.

Want to be sure? You can read a sample story on your Kindle, if you have one, for 99 cents: Lauren Willig’s “The Record Set Right.”

What is the impetus behind this project? Where did the idea come from?
I noticed an upswing in anthologies and it got the wheels turning. Why couldn’t there be one based on a historical event or theme, I asked myself. As a big Downton Abbey fan, I kept thinking I’d like to read more set during the Edwardian era, so I began brain-storming ideas and eventually wrote the pitch, which is the cover copy you see.

The goal of the stories was to portray the various forms of love—and loss—of citizens of Europe who suffered through World War I and, above all, tie these themes to a sense of hope. Ultimately, people need nothing more than hope in this world; to carry on, to get to the other side—to achieve, even. I thought the contributors did a terrific job of illustrating this basic human need.

How did you select authors for inclusion?
I did a little research on historical authors who had published novels or were currently working on projects that revolved around WWI already. A couple of the authors said, “Hey, I’d love to, and can I ask my friend XXX, too?” I agreed readily after taking a look at their biographies. The authors were eager and excited to try a new type of project. 

Each of the stories deals in some way with the moment when the Armistice in what was then known as the Great War (World War I) took place. Some occur years later, others in the hours leading up to the battle—and a third group does both. Why pick that moment as the common thread for the book?
Armistice Day—the end of the Great War—paved the way for the modern world as we know it. Before the war, the western world had grown at a rapid rate with new transportation infrastructures and mechanization, thereby expanding the middle class and creating a working poor. All were living in a time of romanticism, in which all seemed possible and beautiful. The Beautiful Era or Belle Époque in France. The vast majority of society had gone a little soft around the edges. It had been one hundred years since the last major war. When the war began, men went off to prove their honor, to “become men again,” and not these metropolitan fellows, saturated with plenty of food and diversions. But so many things happened they didn’t expect—advancements in weaponry, including chemical warfare, barbed wire, and machine guns; and vacancies in the job sector at home, bringing women to the forefront of society, as well as triggering the collapse of the class system. It was a new world, for better or worse. This was the beginning of the world we live in today.

I can hardly think of a more interesting, and still relevant, topic to explore.

Tell us a bit about your own contribution, “Hour of the Bells.” Where does the story come from and how does it fit into your work as a whole, if it does?
As a cultural geographer and former military brat, I find myself perpetually fascinated by the idea of “the outsider” within a culture not their own, what it means to belong, and how our values and ideals can shift as we assimilate. Beatrix is a German-born woman who married a Frenchman and their only son is ridiculed for being a dirty “boche,” spurring him to join the war efforts. When her son perishes, she can’t forgive herself for who she is and how she has failed him—and sets out on a quest for vengeance, to prove her love. The story has a very cinematic quality to it, ultimately, which I was aiming for as I plotted the themes. I couldn’t think of a more powerful motivation than a mother’s love and grief.

The anthology focuses on themes of love in its various forms from lovers to friends, to parents and their children. In “Hour of the Bells,” I explore the love between mother and son as well as woman and country. 

Thank you, Heather!

Heather Webb is the author of Becoming Josephine and Rodin’s Lover, as well as the editor of and a contributor to Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War. You can find out more about her and her books at her website.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Divine and the Disrespected

Back in 2013, I wrote a series of posts on women in history. It began with “Women of Steel” and continued through “Taking the Veil,” with a brief follow-up in “The Kremlin Beauty Pageant.” That last post looks at marriage politics, a crucial feature of my Legends of the Five Directions novels—indeed, one of the reasons for the existence of that series, as the Muscovite elite’s use of marriage politics has become generally accepted within my field but remains largely unknown outside it. (For the other posts, start with “Taking the Veil,” and you can follow them back, one by one.)

Ancient history, you may think, both literally and figuratively. But when I wrote about Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain, followed in short order by Mary Doria Russell’s Doc and Epitaph, I realized I had left out one major path by which women found their own way in the world when other means failed them: the option of servicing men without marriage. There is a reason why prostitution is called “the world’s oldest profession”: it’s been around since the time of Sumer, at least, and began under circumstances not unlike those described in Faint Promise of Rain. Even the Old Testament mentions it.

Nevertheless, the world that Adhira enters in Faint Promise of Rain is quite different from Doria Russell’s Wild West. Adhira becomes a devadasi, a temple dancer (in an unexpected coincidence, the Western term for a devadasi is bayadere, as in the ballet that forms the backdrop to my Kingdom of the Shades—more on that soon). The devadasis are married to the god to whom their temple is dedicated. At the same time, powerful male patrons pay for their support, and the devadasis are required to satisfy their patrons’ sexual demands. As a result, these women are simultaneously revered for their connection with the divine and victimized. When the British arrive on the scene, with their Victorian sensibilities, they cannot see the difference between the temple dancers and the “loose” women they left behind in London, and the dancers’ status quickly declines.

One might say that it declines to the level of the saloon girls in the Wild West, so richly portrayed in Doc and Epitaph. But their situation, too, turns out to be more complex than it first appears. Kate Harony, Doc Holliday’s long-time if inconstant lover, and Josie Marcus, who married (or did she?) Wyatt Earp, both spent time in the brothels of Dodge City, Tombstone, and elsewhere. Josie’s stint in prostitution was short, but she lived with one Tombstone politician before taking up with Wyatt Earp, who was living with another woman at the time. Kate practiced the oldest profession for decades, including during her relationship with Doc, before marrying someone else after Doc’s death. She had little choice, despite speaking numerous languages and possessing a classical education; when she was orphaned at fifteen, she had no other means of support. Yet Josie and Kate and the other Earp women moved in and out of the sex trade, alternating with periods as common-law wives and mistresses and sometimes legal spouses.

This is the seamy side of women’s history, long brushed under the rug except for the royal favorites who enliven any history of medieval and early modern Europe. But Kate’s story shows why we ignore it at our peril. For so much of history, women have depended on husbands and fathers for their support. Prevented from acquiring professional skills, often forbidden to work except in certain low-paid and low-status occupations, and despised for using what they have, should they be so unlucky or so unwise as to fall out of the socially approved nest, they have done whatever they could to make ends meet. There was no state-supported social welfare program, so the alternative was the poor house— if it existed, which it did not in the Wild West—or starvation. Alms from churches and monasteries did little to offset the reality of poverty and in any case ceased after the Reformation to be a significant source of aid.

Yet society’s condemnation was harsh. The “whores” who trailed in the wake of the early modern European armies were, for the most part, women who remained faithful to one soldier—who washed his clothes, prepared his food, bore his children, and fought for his interests—but who lacked a wedding ring or a church record confirming their relationship. We are fortunate to live in a time and place when our options, if not infinite, are much greater than our foremothers’. Let us not forget how difficult a woman’s life can be, even today.

All images from Wikimedia Commons. Friedrich Schoberl’s drawing of the devadasis (1820s) and the photographs of Kate Harony at fifteen with her sister (Kate is the one seated, ca. 1867) and Josie Marcus at twenty (1881, taken in Tombstone by C. S. Fly) are in the public domain in the United States because they were produced before 1923.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Gray Hats and Troubled Heroes

Last week I wrote about finding the characters for my next novel in the Legends series. My latest interview with Mary Doria Russell—the author of two renowned science fiction books, The Sparrow and Children of God, as well as the historical novels Epitaph, Doc, Dreamers of the Day and A Thread of Grace, the last nominated for a Pulitzer Prize—explores how even real people whom we think we know require rediscovery and compassionate understanding if they are to become viable characters.

The thirty-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, exposed the social and political tensions in a town where cattle ranchers rubbed elbows with thieves, nouveau riche mine owners, gamblers, drunks, and saloon girls a bare two decades after the outbreak of that great conflagration called the US Civil War. Tombstone’s two rival papers leapt on the story, which soon became national news, leading to exaggeration and the vilification of both sides. Only much later, under the influence of Wyatt Earp’s wife, did the story jell into the familiar narrative of one incorruptible lawman, loyal friends at his side, fighting a gang of incorrigible criminals determined to bring him down.

As with most morality tales, the reality is more complex and thus more interesting. As Doria Russell mentions during our conversation, Wyatt Earp was both a law-abiding teetotaler and a self-appointed executioner, an abused child who fought for years to restrain the rage inside only to lose that battle for a few crucial days. His friend Doc Holliday, consigned by history to the dual role of gambler and ruthless killer, was in fact a tubercular dentist who adored a good book, had a classical education, and played the piano with skill. His goal in life was to fix teeth, but gambling paid the bills—a reality that shamed him so deeply that he denied it for years. Thomas McLaury, who ended up on the wrong side of Holliday’s pistol, was a peaceful farmer who grew alfalfa for the cattle ranchers and may not even have carried a gun to the fatal shootout.

“The less you know, the more you can be sure,” Doria Russell says. In Epitaph, she notes, “Who tells the story and why … That makes all the difference”—a comment as true of history as of historical fiction. And then there is the opening of The Sparrow: “The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went [to outer space] for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.” And yet in every case great harm results, whether the characters intend it or not. It almost has to. Otherwise, as writers say, there is no story. In the hands of this gifted teller of tales, the foibles of human nature are, more often than not, the source of both the harm and the intense poignancy of its effect on characters we have come to know, to appreciate, and even to love.

But don’t take it from me. Listen to the conversation. You can find it, as always, at New Books in Historical Fiction, where you will also find the rest of this post.

The Wild West of Zane Grey and John Wayne movies, with its clear divisions between good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians (never called Native Americans in this narrative), bears little resemblance to the brawling, boozy refuge for every Civil War-displaced vagabond, seeker of gold (copper, tin, silver, oil), and would-be financier that once constituted the US frontier. In two novels about Doc Holliday and his friends the Earps, Mary Doria Russell pulls back the curtain to reveal the social, economic, and political divides that in the 1870s and 1880s kept the land beyond the Mississippi a hotbed of lawlessness and vice mixed with occasional acts of heroism. Doc begins the story in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1878. Epitaph continues it a few years later in the Arizona Territory, focusing on the events leading up to and the aftermath of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Tombstone, Arizona, is an example of everything right and wrong on the frontier. The silver mines have made huge fortunes for the businessmen and speculators who have flocked to town, especially in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873—a recession as, if not more, dramatic than that of 2008. The flood of money into politics has had its usual corrupting effect, and tension is brewing between those from the postbellum South seeking a better future and entrepreneurs arriving from the North. Cattlemen and gamblers, miners and ladies of the evening, thieves and lawmen—Tombstone has them all. So when the Clantons and their friends the McLaurys decide that the Earps and Doc Holliday are the source of their troubles and, after a long night of drinking, set out to even the score, thirty seconds of violence become a touchstone for both sides of what is wrong with the other.

But that was not the end of the story. Tombstone had “legs,” as journalists say, becoming a symbol of the Wild West at its wildest. Here, in Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell recovers the story behind and beyond the gunfight, with compassion for those who saw their lives changed by it, whether they stood with the Earps or against them.