Friday, April 30, 2021

Someone Else's Universe

Fan fiction has something of a bad rep in the writing and reviewing community. People wonder: Could you not come up with your own ideas? Why borrow someone else’s creative universe?

At the same time, the publishing industry loves a certain kind of fan fiction. How else can we explain the endless progression of novels featuring the various Jane Austen heroines,
Sherlock Holmes, and fairy tales? The larger the publisher, the more dependent it is on titles that will sell in the millions, not the hundreds, and the more attracted its editors are by the “sure thing.”

But the part that often gets lost is what writing (as distinct from publishing) fan fiction can do for an author just getting started. My first novel—excruciatingly bad as only the first drafts of a first novel can be and never published because of copyright constraints—was based on a Star Trek story I had told to myself for years. Not exactly an original story, because it could be classified as part of a category stuffed to the gills by other aspiring fan fiction writers, but all mine in its particulars.

I learned a lot while laying down that execrable prose, and more as I crafted it into better versions of the same, then rewrote it from scratch (more than once) while transitioning it to a new book set in a world of my own creation. Even then, I let it sit for almost two decades before giving it one more thorough overhaul and allowing Five Directions Press to publish it with every trace of the original, borrowed universe removed.

My second novel, the first to see the light of day, is an even more explicit example of fan fiction, evident in the title: The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. Again, it originated in a reworking of Baroness Orczy’s classic tale that I amused myself with at odd moments, then wrote down—only to realize that by resolving the original conflict I had run out of story within fifty pages. I learned a lot from that, too, and because The Scarlet Pimpernel was published in 1905 and is thus in the public domain, I was able to bring out my version with explicit acknowledgment of and thanks to Baroness Emmuska Orczy (less than 30 percent of the finished novel draws on her original, blended with a BBC production based on her work).

Even before I finished The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, I had abandoned fan fiction entirely and moved into my own Russian-inflected historical world, now represented by eight novels in print and two more in the works. But the point is that I would never have written any of them had I not decided on that long-ago summer day to type out one scene from my highly unprofessional Star Trek story to ensure that I didn’t forget exactly how I wanted it to go.

So if you have a great idea for the perfect solution to Marianne Dashwood’s romantic problems, don’t hesitate. Writing is not the same as publishing (although if you can land a publishing contract, more power to you), and in the beginning it’s best not to get caught up in fantasies of publication anyway—first books are seldom good enough right off the bat. But writing fan fiction beats not writing at all. And I can promise you, even by roaming around in someone else’s creative universe, you can learn a lot about what it takes to bring your own to life.

Images: Old man surrounded by imaginary beings purchased on subscription from Clipart, no. 314581; photograph of Baroness Emmuska Orczy (1920), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Agony Aunt for the Ages

As someone who’s kept a weekly blog for coming up on nine years without interruption, I’m always looking for good ideas for the next post. The New Books Network interviews help fill the void, as do the increasing number of written Q&As that I host for authors I can’t fit into my podcast schedule. I have bookshelf lists once a quarter, updates on my own books or comments on the craft in general, discussions of historical research and its place in fiction, and occasional posts about individual books or series that I enjoyed.

Even so, there are some weeks when I wake up on Thursday morning desperate for good ideas. I wish I had thought of this one, but the credit goes to my friend and fellow Five Directions Press member Claudia Long, who has created a time-traveling advice columnist willing to read and answer questions from fictional characters. Meet Madam Mariana.

So, what kind of questions does Madam Mariana field? Not surprisingly, the first two in the series (it only started a few weeks ago, so this is definitely one to revisit—and worth signing up for the author’s updates) address issues raised by characters in Claudia Long’s own books. Another Mariana from a work in progress, fifteen and living in Cuidad de Mexico in 1586, seeks advice on how to deflect her mother’s marriage plans. A widowed journalist in San Francisco, heroine of Long’s The Harlot’s Pen, wants justification for her pursuit of an artist in 1933—and writes back two weeks later revealing that perhaps she’s not a widow after all.

Most recently, a young woman in Ancona, Italy, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Mirelle, the heroine of Beyond the Ghetto Gates, by Michelle Cameron, whom I interviewed for New Books in Historical Fiction last year) has watched the man she loves head off for Egypt with Napoleon’s army and fears he may never return. Like Lucy of The Harlot’s Pen, Mirelle gets into a back-and-forth with Madam Mariana. It’s all tremendous fun, as well as a convenient way to find out about titles you might like to add to your reading list.

 And yes, Darya Sheremeteva,  heroine of Song of the Sisters (2021), will be seeking advice a couple of Thursdays from now. So if you don’t check before then (and you certainly should), do go to the blog on May 6. I don’t know what Madam Mariana will say, but I suspect that Darya may be quite shocked at the advice she receives!

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, Noblewoman Stitching (1890s). Public domain because the artist died in 1915.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Stepping Back in Time

There’s a reason why most of my novels so far have featured aristocrats and even royalty. We may not know much about the day-to-day lives of Russian nobles in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—especially the women—but a few sources that track their doings and even their marriages have survived. There are annals, religiously and politically biased but somewhat reliable in terms of dates and sequences. And there are official records, scarce in 1400 and even 1500 but becoming more extensive as the central government slowly develops a basic structure, including offices devoted to foreign affairs and military musters and other aristocratic (male) pursuits.

Some of those sources also mention, if only in passing, the small number of men who staffed the government offices—men like Anfim Fadeyev, who first appeared in my books as a suitor for Grusha’s hand in Song of the Shaman and reappears as a secondary character and almost-friend of Darya in Song of the Sisters. Anfim will be back as the hero of Song of the Sinner, the next installment in the Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and will continue to lurk in the background of future books.

So far, so good. But step down one rung on the social ladder to merchants—even splashy international appointed-by-the-tsar, top-of-the-tier gosti (the word also means “guest”)—and you might as well take a nose dive off a cliff. Even the scholars who spend years of their lives studying merchants and trade in Muscovite Russia tend to focus on the seventeenth century, where they may not have much information to work with but they at least have some, or on the influx of English, Dutch, and German traders who left records that didn’t get burned up every time Moscow caught on fire, which happened every 20–30 years.

Can we extrapolate back from the seventeenth century to the sixteenth? To a degree, I’m sure we can. In a time before computers, television, radio, and public education, when information on how to live passed directly from father to son and mother to daughter, change happened more slowly.

But it did happen. The government consolidation I mentioned above got off to a slow start but mushroomed under the Romanov dynasty (1613–1917), and that development affected commerce as much as anything else. The arrival of the Muscovy Company in 1553–54 introduced new ideas and new ways of doing things. Russia’s conquest of Kazan to its east in 1552 and Astrakhan, near the Caspian Sea, in 1556 opened up a direct if still dangerous route from Moscow to the Silk Roads even as it angered the Ottoman Empire, a development that eventually imperiled the traditional trade route across the steppe to the Black Sea ports of Caffa and Surozh. And we haven’t even gotten to the fifteen-year civil war known as the Time of Troubles (1598–1613), which caused a general upheaval that swept up merchants along with peasants, nobles, and the dynasty itself. None of that had yet occurred in the 1540s, where the next few books in my series are set.

And that poses a challenge, because Anfim comes from a merchant family, and his brothers engage in commerce with both east and west. What that means for their everyday lives, their view of the world and their place in it, and their attitudes toward all kinds of things, I have to either find out or imagine. At moments like this, I wish I could book a seat on a time machine, even for a few hours, and observe firsthand the many details that bring fiction to life but don’t appear in the records. I’d love to buttonhole one of those Surozh silk traders and pepper him with questions or watch him from behind a screen as he talks to his family and his colleagues, then goes about his daily chores.

Fortunately, novelists—unlike historians—only have to give it their best shot before taking a chance, filling in the gaps of what is not recorded, and hoping that the results are somewhere close to the truth. Even so, to the historian in me the thought of that time machine is awfully tempting....

Images: Alexander Yanov, A Chancery in Moscow (1880s); Ivan Bilibin, Gosti, illustration from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1905); Alexander Litvichenko, Ivan the Terrible Shows His Treasures to the Englishman Jerome Horsey (1875)—all public domain because of their age, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 9, 2021

World Conquest, Take Two

As a historian of medieval Russia, I have often encountered portrayals of the Mongol Conquest as an unmitigated disaster, a break in continuity vast areas of steppe and forest. This perspective—never so prevalent in the West, which endured brief invasions and climactic battles but not centuries of domination, assimilation, and coexistence—has been modified in recent years as scholars have moderated their views of both Russian history and the Mongol impact on the lands they conquered. Outside the realm of academe, however, it remains as prevalent as ever.

But a question less often asked is the effect of the conquests on the Mongols themselves. What happened as a result of the influx of foreign cultures and religions imported by artisans, slaves, and concubines? How did the women captured by khans and beys influence the sons and daughters they bore?

That is the focus of my latest New Books Network interview with F.M. Deemyad, whose debut novel, The Sky Worshipers, appeared last month with History through Fiction. Through the overlapping stories of three stolen princesses—Chinese, Persian, and Polish—she traces the history of the conquest over three generations and charts the gradual shifts in the approach taken by Mongol khans toward the cities and civilizations they conquered. From the lives of these fictional women, we gain a unique perspective on a segment of world history that is too often oversimplified or ignored.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

There have been more than a few contenders for the title of “World Conqueror,” but eight hundred years after the fact, Genghis Khan’s claim to the title remains unmatched. Over the course of four decades, he and his heirs built a realm that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the plains of Hungary and from northern Siberia to India. And unlike the conquests of Hitler and Bonaparte, the charismatic authority of Genghis Khan endured long after the initial union fractured into warring khanates.

Tackling even the establishment period of such a massive undertaking within the covers of a single historical novel poses a challenge for any author. In The Sky Worshipers (History through Fiction, 2021), F.M. Deemyad approaches the problem by focusing on three foreign princesses, captured in different places (northern China, Central Asia, and Poland) by Genghis, his son Ogodei, and his grandson Hulagu. These three women, each for her own reasons, together create a secret eyewitness account of the Mongol rise and expansion.

The female perspective allows Deemyad to avoid extended discussion of wartime atrocities and focus on the human cost of conquest and battles. Yet the atrocities are there too, reflected in the permanent scars left on survivors who must deal with disruption and loss even as they struggle to avoid being coopted into a world they neither created nor chose. In often haunting prose, Deemyad brings to life a slice of the past that, although not forgotten, has receded from view, obscured by the more recent disasters and tragedies of the twentieth century.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Bookshelf, Spring 2021

Yes, I know, it’s only six weeks since the last bookshelf post. But with the pandemic dragging on and spring finally on the horizon, I have lots of time to read and a new reason to record the latest set of books.

As you’ll see, for some reason I’ve been reading a lot of historical murder mysteries lately. But despite varying degrees of gore, none of these books is only a puzzle about who killed whom. What makes them memorable is a combination of richly envisioned historical settings, complex characters, and stories that have more to do with tangled networks of interpersonal connections than the specific circumstances that lead one person—sometimes the least interesting in the book—to tackle his or her problems with so unimaginative a solution as murder. So with that said, here we go—as usual, in alphabetical order by author.

Anne Louise Bannon, Death of the City Marshal
(Robin Goodfellow, 2019)
I ran across this author on social media and purchased the first book in the series, Death of the Zanjero, out of curiosity. I don’t know too many books set in Los Angeles when it was still little more than a pueblo (ca. 1870—yes, California is young!), and the main character sounded interesting. I soon found myself rooting for the heroine—Maddie Wilcox, a widowed winemaker with medical skills. And I thoroughly enjoyed the twisty plot—which revolves around the murder of a water overseer (zanjero) whom almost everyone in town, including Maddie herself, has reason to want out of the way. In this second novel, the victim is Maddie’s self-appointed nemesis from the first book, so I can’t wait to find out what’s happened to him.


Lucinda Brant, Deadly Kin (Sprigleaf, 2019)
Another book acquired more or less by chance, through an Amazon recommendation. The time period—Georgian England, in this case not long before the American Revolution—hooked me, because it’s the era when my favorite Georgette Heyer novels take place. So I downloaded and read the first one, Deadly Engagement. The author really knows her stuff, and I was impressed both by her grasp of historical detail and her richly layered characters.

These books explore deep and often disturbing themes of eighteenth-century (and modern) family life: spousal abuse, infidelity, rape, incest, and the complicated effects of primogeniture and its absence, to name a few. That’s in addition to the usual motives of greed, revenge, and mental imbalance. I’m planning to interview the author for New Books in Historical Fiction in early summer, so stand by for more information when that podcast episode goes live.

Emily Hourican, The Glorious Guinness Girls
(Grand Central Publishing, 2021)

This one came to me by way of a publicist, but because I was already booked for May and June, it’s been shifted to a written Q&A on this blog. The three daughters of Ernest Guiness (the beer guy), all blonde and blue-eyed, were a sensation in 1920s London society. Here Hourican explores their childhood and youth through the eyes of a fictional heroine—Felicity, known as Fliss—who is brought into the family at the age of ten. She experiences herself as somewhere between a charity case and an unpaid servant, but sharp and observant, she makes the perfect narrator for this tale of Anglo-Irish wealth, threatened by an emerging Catholic drive for independence, and the restlessness that drove the Roaring Twenties, a response to the devastation of the Great War.

Hourican, a former journalist and editor, has a keen appreciation of social and political conflict and a clear, compassionate writing style. Come back next month to see her answers to my questions.

Jeannie Lin, The Hidden Moon (Jeannie Lin, 2020)

This self-published author hit the jackpot when one of the New York Times Book Review contributors picked her Jade Temptress for a historical fiction column. I read book 1, The Lotus Palace, and have almost finished The Jade Temptress (now snapped up by Harlequin). So I look forward to this one. Set in Tang Dynasty China (late ninth century), the series follows the adventures of two women, Yue-ying and Mingyu, who live in the Pingkang li, the notorious pleasure quarter of the then-capital of China, Changan. Mingyu, a high-ranking courtesan, falls under suspicion of murder in the first book; her maid, Yue-ying, and a handsome lord, Bai Huang, work together to solve the crime. They fall in love, but marriage is impossible because of the difference in their status and Lord Bai's prior contract. Or is it?

Despite her popularity and the wealth she earns, Mingyu cannot leave the quarter because she is owned by her “foster mother,” the woman who runs the Lotus Palace. In The Jade Temptress, Mingyu receives a summons to the house of her protector, where she finds him headless, so recently killed that the blood is still wet. Only the constable she detests from book 1 can help her clear her name.

This third novel features Bai Huang’s younger sister, Wei-wei, and a criminal associate of Lord Bai’s who, if the previous books are anything to go by, will almost certainly turn out to be more than he seems. But what I like about these novels is not the murders themselves, interesting and revealing of Tang Dynasty culture as they are, but the focus on women who, rich or poor, find ways to circumvent the many restrictions placed on them and achieve a measure of freedom.


Julia Quinn, Bridgerton Collection, vol. 2 (Avon, 2021)

This one’s a bit of a cheat because, in effect, I cited it last time around. More accurately, I picked the first book in this collection, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton. But the two collections (books 4–6 and 7–8 plus a prequel) are now out, so if I’m to read them all and be ready for Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron in July, I’d better get cracking!