Saturday, February 25, 2006

Ten More Rules for Writing Historical Fiction

A series of rules for writing various sorts of historical fiction has been circulating in the blogsphere. Here's a link to the original list, created by Alan Fisk and posted on Sarah Cuthbertson's blog: Sarah's Bookarama: The All-Purpose Rules for Writing Historical Fiction/Writing Ripping Yarns

The list is quite amusing, as are some of the other lists that followed in its wake, several of which can be seen on the same blog.

As I've got time on my hands now that there's no more figure skating/pratfalling to watch on the Olympics, I've come up with Ten More Rules for Writing Historical Fiction:

1.     No matter how prevalent the practice at the time or how wealthy or high-born the heroine is, she must be shocked and appalled at the idea of having a marriage arranged for her.

2.     If a woman is beautiful and a man handsome, their first sexual encounter must be ecstatic and multi-orgasmic for both, no matter how inexperienced, intoxicated, or tired one or both parties are or how inhospitable the setting is. Any children born of the encounter will be wild and free, like Nature herself.

3.     If one party to a sexual encounter is ordinary-looking or plain, the result must be tepid at best and miserable at worst. Any children born of the encounter will be dull or just plain mean.

4.     If both parties to a sexual encounter are ordinary-looking or plain, you've mistakenly picked up a work of highly experimental literary fiction, which should be read only by Ph.D.'s in English and only then with extreme caution.

5.     If an older man marries a beautiful younger woman, he cannot possibly fulfill her sexual needs, a fact of which she must become well aware when a handsome man of her own age appears, thereby triggering Rule 2 above.

6.     If Richard III is the hero of the novel, he must have been deeply affected by the deaths of his father and his brother Edmund; however, his siblings, particularly Clarence, must have been virtually untouched emotionally by the same events.

7.     Elizabeth Woodville must be grasping, scheming, and totally without heart, even in the rare novel where Richard III is not the hero.

8.     When a messenger appears, the recipient must ask, "Have you news?" evidently in the belief that a mud-splattered person riding a lathered horse and waving a letter in his hand might be there merely to make a social call.

9.     Midwives must be earthy, warm-hearted founts of wisdom. Physicians must be stiff, cold-hearted quacks.

10.     If a female character has visions, she must be psychic. If a male character has visions, he must be psychotic.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Fan Fiction versus Historical Fiction

I posed this question on a group I belong to, but got no response, so I thought I'd post it here in hopes of getting one.

There are many novels featuring characters who first appeared in classic novels. Jane Austen's works, particularly Pride and Prejudice, seem to have spawned the most progeny. John Updike tried his hand at this in Gertrude and Claudius, which ends immediately before the action of Hamlet begins, and Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities has his own book, A Far Better Rest, by Susanne Alleyn. I've enjoyed the Updike and Alleyn books, and I've also enjoyed some of Joan Aiken's Jane Austen sequels. In fact, I've tried my own hand at this with Romeo and Juliet. (My short novel, which I'm shopping around, concerns Mercutio's life before his fatal duel with Tybalt. Inquiries are welcome--just don't overload my in box, please.)

So are these novels historical novels or fan fiction? They seem to meet the criteria for fan fiction, as stated in Wikipedia: "written by people who enjoy a film, novel, television show or other media work, using the characters and situations developed in it and developing new plots in which to use these characters." Yet somehow I can't picture John Updike saying to himself, "Well, I guess I'll check Amazon to see how my Shakespeare fan fiction is selling today." Is the difference just in the quality of writing? Or is it just having a publisher's ISBN number that transforms a work from fan fiction into historical fiction? I'm curious to hear what others think.

(While you're at it, Mr. Updike, could you write another Rabbit book? Pretty please? Even if you have to call it Rabbit Remembered Redux.)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Chuggin' Along with Plaidy

Still chugging along with Jean Plaidy's In the Shadow of the Crown, about Queen Mary. (I was interrupted for a couple of days by my reading of another novel for review purposes. Can't discuss it until the official review is posted elsewhere.) The first few chapters in the Plaidy went by fairly slowly, mainly, I think, because Mary was too young to participate in any of the action but just had to recap what had been happening around her. Now that she can talk back, I think things will be a bit more interesting.

I've been tweaking both my Squidoo lenses. If you're interested in historical fiction generally, but not in my book in particular (that's me you hear gnashing teeth and muttering darkly, but never mind), check out my Reading Historical Fiction lens, which contains links of broad interest, not those centering on particular writers or publishers. If you're interested in both historical fiction generally and my book, check out both lenses, then have a great weekend! You deserve it, bud.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Finished Marrying Mozart

Finished Marrying Mozart today. It was enjoyable reading, but on the whole it was a little disappointing. It was the story of the four Weber sisters, one of whom becomes Mozart's wife at the end of the novel. After the girls' father dies, the sisters leave home one by one, mainly, supposedly, because of their mother, who has delusions that the girls can land rich husbands and schemes accordingly. Most of her scheming is so ineffectual, however, that it's hard for the reader to feel much anger at the mother or to understand why the sisters feel so much antipathy toward her. She remains a very shadowy character on the whole. Likewise, I didn't feel that I knew the sisters well enough. When they had various crises—dumping a fiancé, running off from home, getting involved with a married man—I didn't get the sense that there was anything in that particular sister's character that brought her to such a pass; rather, it seemed that any of the other sisters could have been in the same situation had she been at the right (wrong?) time and place. Mozart himself is a bit underdrawn—he shows some promise in one scene when he gets angry at his fiancée because she has let someone measure her leg (horrors!), but after only a few sentences his anger sputters out. He's such a nice guy, in fact, that when one sister tries to get him to run off with her on the eve of his wedding to another, there's no suspense because the reader doesn't believe for an instant that he would be such a cad.

There are some nice parts about the book too, mind you, particularly the scenes between Mozart and Sophie and between the sisters in the first half of the book when they are all living together. Perhaps that's one of the problems here—the author is good at depicting family life, especially the way four high-strung adolescent girls interact,  but where there's no family life to depict anymore, she falters.

Anyway, I'm back to Jean Plaidy with In the Shadow of the Crown (Bloody Mary).

Saturday, February 11, 2006

February Is the Cruelest Month

Why? Because it's Girl Scout cookie month.

I am a temperate person in most respects, but I have a weakness for Girl Scout cookies—or, to be more specific, the Trefoils. The rest I have no liking for, but the Trefoils I can polish off at the rate of a box a day (two if I'm not careful).

And there's no avoiding them. If the only opportunity  I had to buy cookies was when the Girl Scouts came door-to-door selling them, I'd be fine because I'd buy my quota and then be done with it for the year, but it doesn't work that way here in the suburbs. You go to the shopping mall, there's a troop there with a table full of cookies (and they're never out of my flavor). You go to the pizza place, there's a troop there. You go to the grocery store, there's a troop there—every single day. So far, they've left my other haunts, the library and Barnes and Noble, alone, but I'm sure that won't last forever.

So you might say, just walk on past the Girl Scouts, with their tempting array of cookies. But while walking the dog tonight (and incidentally burning off at least one cookie), I realized that I should not do that. You see, selling these cookies helps to build these girls' self-esteem. Conversely, not selling them can only hurt their self-esteem, right? So if I walk past these girls staring so hopefully at me, I might well be planting the seeds for disaster. Her self-confidence shattered, one of these sweet little girls drifts away from the Girl Scouts, into the wrong crowd, into a teenage pregnancy, on to marriage to a creep and a life wasted watching bad daytime television. And all because I didn't buy a lousy box of Trefoils.

No, no, I can't take the guilt. I'm buying two more boxes tomorrow.

Above: The Cruel Face of Temptation

Friday, February 10, 2006

Moving on to Mozart, with Some Musing on the Side

Finished the Plaidy book on Katharine of Aragon. It ends, of course, unhappily, with Katharine dead after having lived in very reduced circumstances and with Anne Boleyn's neck in considerable danger. All in all, I thought it was one of Plaidy's better efforts. I'm looking forward to reading Murder Most Royal (I think that's the title), about Anne Boleyn and Katharine Howard, as well as her book about Bloody Mary.

But that's for later, for now I've started Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. So far, I'm captivated by it. I know next to nothing about Mozart (except that I like his music), so I'm in no position to judge the book's accuracy, but as far as I can tell it seems well researched. It certainly has nicely delineated characters.

One of the fascinating things about historical fiction to me is how differently authors can interpret the same set of facts. Anne Boleyn is an extremely unsympathetic character in the Plaidy book I just read, scheming and vindictive, but I've seen other novels in which she is treated very gently—some, indeed, where she comes across as nearly a martyr. Plaidy herself wrote a novel narrated by Anne herself (the usual let-me-set-down-my-story-before-the-French-swordsman-arrives premise), in which she comes off rather well, considering, and Margaret George in her novel about Henry VIII manages the almost impossible feat of making Henry VIII sympathetic and even likable. Different strokes for the same folks—that's what keeps me reading!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Squidoo, Amazon, and Really Nothing Whatsoever to Do with Historical Fiction

I love finding new things to play with on the Internet, especially when some clever person's done all of the formatting for me and all I have to do is input text! A couple of days ago, someone on a list I belong to mentioned a site called Squidoo. It allows users to create a "lens"--not so much a website or a blog as a gateway into a website or a blog. Anyway, you can see my two Squidoo lenses here. One, of course, is devoted to my novel (Mom can only make so many telephone calls to her friends, you know, especially for a novel that opens with two guys in bed together), and the other is aimed at readers of historical fiction. So check 'em out on the right side of your screen!

Amazon is also adding some gizmos. It has an Author Connect feature now, which I have signed up for but seem to be about the millionth person in line for. I just noticed that Amazon has Wikis now for book pages, so I added one for mine. Problem is, Wikis can be edited by any Amazon customer who comes along, which is an attraction for nutcases and for people with way too much time on their hands. (One such person has added snotty little Wikis to J. K. Rowling's Amazon pages--that'll show her!) It'll be interesting to see how all of these features pan out.

By the way, I spent way too much time debating whether to capitalize "with" in this blog title.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Slow but Steady

Rather slow on the reading front at the moment--I'm still going through the Jean Plaidy. This is a reissue in one volume of three books about Katharine of Aragon that were originally published separately, and I've finished books 1 and 2. I think putting them all together works much better than having them separate, especially for book 2, which ended rather abruptly, not so much because the action (the birth of Henry Fitzroy) was particularly dramatic but because the author had reached her allotted word count. Anyway, I've enjoyed it so far. Plaidy's writing style can be pedestrian, but this is far better than some of her other novels I've read, and the length of these books allowed her to delve more into character and motivation than she usually does.

I've got Marrying Mozart to start on next, and I also remembered that I have a book about William Marshall by L. Christian Balling called Champion that I never got around to reading. It looks as if it'd be fun to read. On the nonfiction front, I've been debating whether to buy Michael Hicks' new book on Anne Neville. No kind soul has posted a review of it on Amazon yet. Hicks can be awfully dry, though, so I may just sit tight and hope the university library orders a copy.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Before they get swallowed up into cyberspace, here's some posts from a previous incarnation of this blog. Strangely enough, I couldn't find the post in which I unmasked James Frey months before Smoking Gun did. Ah, well--they'll have to get the credit, then.

Thursday, November 03, 2005
Starting to Read a New Book, Familiar Name on Amazon, and a Review at Last
I received a new historical novel (not a new one, actually, since it was published in 1972) by Jean Stubbs called The Unknown Welshman. (As you can tell, my taste in historical novels runs toward the late medieval). Haven't started reading it yet, as it requires more concentration than my kids would allow today, but it looks interesting--a book about the Wars of the Roses from Henry VII's point of view instead of the Yorkists for a change. I'm not particularly pro-Lancastrian, but I do get tired of the usual Good Yorkists, Bad Lancastrians that seems to be the guiding trend in current novels set during this period. So it'll be interesting to see a change in perspective.

Strange thing happened today while I was looking over the Amazon reviews for a book (not this one or mine). I saw a name that looked quite familiar and realized that it was one of my ex-boyfriends! I haven't seen the guy in nearly 25 years, and I don't intend to look him up now, but I naturally had to Google him to see what else he was up to. Learned quite a lot. Recently I'd Googled a couple of female high school friends whom I'd lost touch with and hadn't come up with anything, so it was interesting to see someone who had left an electronic trail behind him, so to speak. Probably wouldn't be a very good idea to send him a copy of The Traitor's Wife to review, I guess.

Speaking of which, I finally got a Kirkus Discoveries review for The Traitor's Wife. It wasn't a boffo review, but it wasn't a crawl-under-the-covers-and-stay-there-for-a-week one either. The reviewer found it entertaining but "melodramatic at times." Well, so was the history during this period! But it's still nice to have an objective review from a professional. You can read the whole thing, melodrama and all, on the "Reviews" page of my website. (Technically, it should be called "Review" but I have high hopes of more to come.)

Sunday, November 13, 2005
Charming, discerning mystery person recommends The Traitor's Wife!
Ah, ego-surfing--a terrible thing and something I suspect everyone with a book published does too much (that and checking one's Amazon ranking). But I just got a very pleasant surprise tonight--someone, a stranger to me but obviously a very discerning, lovely, and well-read person, recommended reading my novel, The Traitor's Wife. (And no, it's not my mother--she's computer-illiterate [note from present: not anymore!] and prefers regency romances anyway.)

As for the other novels recommended by our mystery person, I can tell you I've read several of them and found them all well written and researched.

Got three paperbacks to choose from for next week's reading--one about Richard III, one about Katherine Howard (Henry VIII's fifth wife), and the other about Hereward the Wake (about whom I know almost nothing). Decisions, decisions . . .

Monday, November 28, 2005
P. D. James's The Lighthouse

I started P. D. James's The Lighthouse a few days ago, and although I'm finding it enjoyable, I don't think it's James at her best. Some of the characters feel like reworkings of former ones, and the most compelling personality, unfortunately, is the murder victim, who has a fine old time alienating almost everyone around him until he's bumped off. It would also have been nice to spend a bit more time getting to know the murderer (OK, I peeked) and the other suspects instead of spending so much time with Dalgleish and his fellow investigators. (And isn't it time Kate got over being illegitimate and growing up in public housing? At least James is finally giving the poor woman a love life.) Still, it's well worth the read--I just wouldn't put everything else on hold to get to it.

Lots of historical fiction on my to-buy list! I'm looking forward to the new Philippa Gregory about Catherine of Aragon, though I'm not sure why. I couldn't get past the first few pages of her last novel, The Virgin Queen, and I thought that The Other Boleyn Girl, with the hideously deformed fetus, the brother-sister incest, and the supposed homosexuality of Anne's brother George was oversensationalized (and if Gregory wanted to sex things up, why did she ignore Mary Boleyn's reputedly lusty stay in France?). I'll probably have to do some serious skimming before buying it.

Saturday, December 03, 2005
Back to Historical Fiction!

Got my P. D. James fix, and now I have a couple of new historical novels in the house to read. I tend to look off the beaten path for my historical fiction reading--most new novels by the big publishing houses tend not to appeal to me for some reason or the other. So I find most of what I read online and used. Last week while browsing through Amazon, I was pleased to find a novel about Henry VIII's fifth wife (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived) called Lies and Lust in the Tudor Court by Margaret Doner. Not much is written about this queen, Katherine Howard, especially when compared to her relative and predecessor Anne Boleyn, so it's always nice to run across something new.

Also in my mailbox today (I love a mailbox full of books) was an old paperback novel by Maureen Peters, Elizabeth the Beloved, about Henry VII's queen. I liked Peters' book about Queen Isabella, and this one looks as if it'll be entertaining too. I'll keep ya posted!