Once upon a time I was young. No, honestly. Then as now I was a history nerd—big time. In fact (trivia alert), I was the first member of my graduating class to declare a major in history. Anyway, one day the younger me was given a postcard by her Woman’s History professor. A postcard showing the black and white image of Belva Lockwood. This image as a matter of fact.
It took me a while to discover the importance of this gift, delivered, as I remember it, with no real explanation beyond the mild-mannered comment, “I thought you might like this.” With age and distance I now realize my professor gave me the postcard to galvanize me to action; to make me angry—not at him but at the way history was taught and who got left out. You see Belva Lockwood was the first woman to have her name on the ballot for President of the United States (yes, I know Victoria Woodhull “ran” but her name did not appear on official ballots and votes for her were never tallied). She was also the first woman to be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court (though mind you she had to write to President Grant just to get the law diploma she’d earned and it took an act of Congress to see her admitted before the High Court). But I’d never heard of her.
That DID make me angry, and it also made me think. Just what does a woman have to do to be noticed, historically speaking? Give birth to a King? Have her head chopped off? How can that be when there were so many women throughout history who did so much more? Even today, Belva remains only the tip of the “over-looked” iceberg. And because we continue to under-represent women in history and underestimate their activities readers—both of non-fiction history and historical fiction—often think writers get it WRONG when they accurately report what historical female characters did.
I recently saw an example of this in a book review. A reviewer took Author X to task because her female main-character pressed her right to rule her own territories. “How dare the author suggest,” and I am paraphrasing here, “that a woman in the Middle Ages would assert such authority, or would even have the desire to rule in her own right!” The reviewer went on to castigate Author X for imposing modern feminist ideas on long dead women. But the truth is plenty of women held territory (and titles) in their own right during the time period of the author’s book. The reviewer was just wrong—likely because he/she had never heard of such women. I remember wondering what said reviewer would make of the fact that my main characters’ uncle, Thomas of Savoy, was Count of Flanders only by marriage and lost that title when his wife died and her title passed to her SISTER. My guess is the particular reviewer would think that bit of history was made-up, feminist-revisionism as well.
It is time to recognize, as consumers of history and historical fiction, that women have filled many, varied, roles throughout the centuries—even if we haven’t always heard about them. Some women did extra-ordinary things with those roles (e.g. just like male rulers, some female rulers were better at it than others), but the fact women held such roles wasn’t, in and of itself, necessarily as extraordinary as modern audiences seem to think. In each period of history we need to look at the specific facts rather than relying on broad assumptions. For example, to assume things were necessarily better for women later in history than they were earlier is to incorrectly posit a linear progression in women’s rights and opportunities.
I am happy to say that, imo, there’s a lot of really wonderful historical fiction celebrating women who have been historically overlooked these days. There are also fabulous books that examine “big name” historical women in new ways—as more than “ornaments of royal courts” or “mothers of kings.” Personally, I am very interested in telling the stories of women who are more obscure than they deserve to be. Probably because of that darned postcard. When I stumbled upon a footnote in a history of Notre Dame de Paris about Marguerite of Provence (her image is carved over Notre Dame’s Portal Rouge) and her sisters I had a Belva Lockwood moment. Clearly these young women (all of whom made significant political marriages) were celebrities of the High Middle Ages. Marguerite and Eleanor were the queens of France andEngland for heaven’s sake! Yet I had never heard of them. I made up my mind right then to tell their story.
I wish Professor T was alive today. I’d send him a copy of my book and I’d put the Belva Lockwood postcard in it—as an excellent bookmark and a thank you of sorts.
Have you ever walked into a bookstore, picked up a historical novel set in renaissance Italy and thought “my goodness WHAT is this headless woman on the cover wearing? Her gown is SO obviously Tudor!” Yeah, me too. And here’s the thing, before I started writing historical fiction I might have drawn some erroneous conclusions based on such a book cover.
First, I might have concluded that “author X” hadn’t done her research or just didn’t care that her cover model was wearing a gown from the wrong period. Since becoming an author I’ve learned that this is probably not the case. Shall I tell you a secret? Authors have VERY limited influence on the covers of their books.
I am NOT saying that good publishers don’t seek author input before holding a cover conference. My editor asked me for examples of existing covers that I loved as well as examples of covers I didn’t like. She encouraged me to explain why I felt as I did. She also asked me to collect images from fine art imbued with the feeling I wanted my cover to have, and to submit descriptions and pictures of what my 13th century sisters might have worn.
What I AM saying is my cover was still a big surprise when I saw it. So if you LOVE the cover of The Sister Queens, I am glad but, please, give credit where it is due. I did not create the cover painting (you should be thankful for this – profoundly thankful), the cover artist did. And folks in the design department picked that gorgeous lettering. So send your warm and fuzzy thoughts (or compliments) their way. And if you HATE the cover of my book (or any author’s book) please spare me a note upbraiding me.
This leads me to the second flawed conclusion I might have drawn back in my “fan-but-not-a-writer” days: covers exist to accurately portray a period of history, or a scene from a book. Nope. Sorry. Some covers may do those things, but covers in general are designed for one reason and one reason alone – to sell books. This is precisely why authors don’t (and probably shouldn’t) design them.
I never viewed covers as sales tools until I signed my book contract. But believe me once you have a book coming out selling books is foremost in your mind. I want to sell books, and more than that, I want to sell books to people who are not ME. Therefore, what I would personally like to see on the cover of my book runs a distant second to what a majority of book-buying, cash-carrying potential readers will find attractive. And the truth is I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer. I am not trained to do that, nor have I conducted studies or otherwise made it my business to keep my fingers on the pulse of such things. The folks in my publisher’s art and design departments, on the other hand, ARE in a position to predict what will make a reader reach out and lift The Sister Queens off a table full of books all looking for a home. They have been designing covers for years. That’s why design departments and not authors get the final say over what book covers looks like.
Perhaps the folks designing the cover for a historical novel know that a certain color gown makes books jump off the shelf and into readers’ hands, so they use that color even if it may not be precisely “period.” They might even (gasp) put Tudor gowns on non-Tudor-era women because books about Tudors sell like hotcakes and they are hoping to entice readers of Tudor historical fiction to pick up, and ultimately try, something new. Who can say? As an author I certainly can’t. And as a reader I am now careful to examine covers with a different eye than I did in my pre-writing days—I may still judge the book by its cover, but I no longer judge that book’s author.
Authors are in the business of writing books, design and art departments are in the business of covering them.
My dear friend historical romance author Miranda Neville wrote an interesting piece at The Ballroom blog. The gist of Miranda’s post is that writers have an incredible collection of historical real-estate to browse when creating settings for their historical novels (whether straight or romance), and at each location we can cherry-pick the very best parts and amalgamate them into something new. For example, Miranda incorporated The Marble Saloon at Stowe into the fictional Mandeville House—setting for her just released The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton as well as two of her other romances.
Miranda’s post got me thinking about several additional points relevant to historical settings—specifically, pertaining to the use of real locations rather than locations created in the mind of the writer.
Timing is everything! Great cities, great cathedrals, and houses (both great and not so great) change over time. When an actual historical location is used in a novel we need to remember that—however iconic—that setting was not stagnant. Whether you are describing the skyline of Avignon or Westminster Abbey you’d better know what period you are writing about before you begin waxing wane with descriptions. And as a reader, you shouldn’t be too quick to expect certain locations to look certain ways (e.g., as they did when you visited, or in Aunt Irma’s postcards).
For example, Westminster Abbey is a true historic landmark. Millions have visited it, and many more have seen it in pictures or movies. What they’ve seen—and the images that rise to their minds when the Abbey is mentioned—is not the Abbey that existed when Eleanor of Provence was crowned Queen of England there in 1236. In fact, Eleanor’s husband, Henry III, was responsible for a masterful renovation of the Abbey (leaving it dramatically changed for generations to admire), a reconstruction that took years. As a result, the Abbey would have looked very different at various points in my novel, The Sister Queens.
Similarly, for much of its history (and today) the outline of the city of Avignon has been distinguished by the Papal Palace (gorgeous). But at the time of my novel, when Avignon was part of the Count of Provence’s territories, the great medieval palace seen in paintings and photographs didn’t’ exist. Describe Avignon including the palace and get it wrong. Read expecting to see the palace and it won’t be there. This is why it’s a darn good thing that . . . .
Historical novels are NOT guidebooks. While it IS important not to be anachronistic when portraying settings—making certain not to include features in an exterior or interior that didn’t exist in a particular time period—it is okay not to flesh out every corner of a room or every façade of a palace. I certainly believe that an author needs to know the world of her novel in depth in order to move her characters through it convincingly, but, unless you are describing the maneuvers of troops in a battle, sharing too much detail is unnecessary. A little era-setting detail often goes a long way. Readers like to use their imaginations, or at least this one does. When an author throws in too much description just because she/he has the research to support it, or when I feel he/she is showing me miniscule detail gratuitously (the details themselves are interesting or intriguing but in no way relate to the plot), I start to skim. Skimming is bad.
Of course there ARE occasions when an infusion of detail can enrich the reader’s experience. This is particularly true when we want readers to share the sensory experiences of a character—a young woman overwhelmed by the view from a chateau, or nearly dizzied by the incense-saturated air and soaring voices singing the Laudes Regiae in a magnificent abbey. Nothing can draw a reader into the emotion of a moment more effectively than the purposeful inclusion of carefully selected details of the historical setting. But note that I said, “purposeful inclusion” and “carefully selected.” Filtering is a must. Try to load the same level of detail into every scene in your historical novel and you ruin the effect.
Writers can also use setting itself as catalyst to move a scene forward. Of course on the large scale this fact is obvious—pick any scene in a historical novel and move the setting as a form of exercise (from the gardens of a grand Château to its great hall). The meaning of and physical movements in the scene are likely to change, even if you attempt to keep the dialogue the same. But, setting as catalyst can also occur in small subtle ways in fiction as it does in real life. Have you ever noticed something—on your desk, outside your window—that, serendipitously, makes your mind leap to a new place and to a particular idea or to action? That can happen to characters too. A mother picks up a bird’s nest and thinks of her children. The pattern in a window reminds a character of a gown and thus of a particular partner from the ball the evening before. I find as a writer I often want, even need, to place a certain scene in a certain setting in order to take advantage of elements of the architecture or décor that I know by my research would have existed in that place at that time.
What about you? As a writer how do you handle the REAL real-estate that makes an appearance in your work? As a reader how much detail is enough to make you feel immersed in the past? Where does the amount of detail cross a line, leaving you bogged down? Do you have strong feelings about the balance between real settings/descriptions based on research and locations/rooms created in the mind of the author?
There is nothing new about sex. Birds do it, bees do it, and our ancestors most certainly did it (to butcher Cole Porter’s lyrics inexcusably).
What IS relatively new is the amount of sex appearing in “straight” historical fiction (I use this term to distinguish historical fiction from historical romance, not to imply that only heterosexual hanky-panky is included). If memory serves, the historical novels of my youth did a lot of fading-to-black. But somewhere between my decision to become a writer and my first book deal a shift occurred. Today there are plenty of sex scenes in straight historicals—some of them quite explicit. And sex seems to be a popular addition. For example, a video recorded at this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference during a popular event called “Late-Night Sex Scene Readings” (the reading of a scene from Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet) has received over 6,000 hits on youtube since June.
Opinions on this trend vary. Here is mine: the inclusion of sex in historical novels is neither good nor bad in a vacuum. It’s not the sexual content that determines whether a particular scene works—it’s whether that scene (sex or otherwise) has a REASON for being in the novel. Tossing in an orgy (or even a kiss) into your work of historical fiction without a solid reason is a bad idea. The scene will feel “added on,” and gratuitous sex is no more acceptable in a novel than gratuitous dialogue.
So what can intimate scenes sometimes do well?
Forward the plot. Yep, just like any other sort of action a sex scene can move a novel’s plot forward. For example, one of my manuscripts includes the seduction of a royal courier for the purpose of getting a letter into his satchel. This letter is an important step on the path to the book’s central climax. So the sex scene (in a stable and pretty exciting in its own right, I might add) is vital to the forward motion of the novel.
Flesh out (sorry, I just HAD to) relationships between characters and/or give us emotional insights into characters. Sex, as we know from real life (or at least some of us know – no pressure on or disrespect to celibates reading this), is seldom merely a physical act. It has emotional ramifications, and can be a language all its own. So, a sex scene in a novel (whether vague or graphic) can be effectively used to give readers a sense of how characters relate to each other. For example, in my debut novel, The Sister Queens, readers learn a tremendous amount about one of my female characters and her relationships with two separate men simply by the contrast between her sexual experiences with each.
Help set the story firmly in its historical period. Sexual politics, mores, and practices change over time. For example, in certain periods, a man’s dominion over his wife’s body was complete – there was no such thing as rape between a man and his wife. Likewise, for hundreds of years sex (seduction, withholding of, etc) was one of the few tools available to a woman seeking power or influence. While today we would surely condemn a man for taking his wife by force and likely censure a woman for using sex to get ahead, seeing either such event a depicted in a historical novel reminds readers of the realities of the past and of our characters’ lives.
Beyond raising large issues of this sort, the inclusion of period details pertaining to sex—the acceptable positions for intercourse, its prohibition on certain days, the forms of birth control that were or were not available—can help build the “historical world” of the novel just as the inclusion of other period details can. In my novel frequent reference is made to payment of the “marriage debt,” and one of my female protagonists feels wronged when her husband spurns intercourse with her. As a matter of history she was entitled to feel gypped because, under the doctrine of the medieval Church, a married man was obliged, under penalty of mortal sin, to give his wife sex as a preventative measure against temptation to sins like fornication and adultery.
Give the reader a thrill. Yep, this one is legitimate too. But wait, Sophie, you are thinking, “you wrote five paragraphs ago that gratuitous sex is not acceptable.” Since when, dear writer, is giving the reader a bit of fun gratuitous? Meeting the needs of the reader is our business. We meet needs for escape. We meet emotional needs. We help readers wrestle with difficult questions in their lives. For heaven’s sake why should meeting readers’ needs for a bit of titillation be off the table? And why should meeting that need be solely the province of historical romance? Plenty of contemporary novels—from thrillers to literary fiction—include sex. I believe that writers working anywhere along the historical genre continuum should feel free to include intimate moments as well.
What do you think? Would you prefer to see explicit sex kept for historical romances alone? Can the inclusion of sex in a straight historical novels can be a positive addition?
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but invention is the midwife of good historical fiction.
Invention and creativity are good things. But in historical fiction we (writers) sometimes lose sight of that, and get bogged down in the minutiae of our period and the thousand little details in our characters’ lives. I was recently reminded, with force, that readers come to authors of historical fiction for something more than a collection of facts.
I had the opportunity to hear Susan Vreeland, a master of the genre, speak at a recent Historical Novel Society Conference. I thought Susan was going to do a presentation on her latest book. But, when we were gathered before her in our neat little rows, she decided to tackle a larger issue – the role of invention in historical fiction.
“Don’t be tyrannized by fact.” That’s how Susan opened her presentation. And she is right of course. Historical fiction is not academic history. Does accuracy matter in historical novels? You bet your farthingale it does but, “fictional art can show truth that goes deeper than a collection of fact; it can show us what it felt like to be a particular person at a particular time” (again, Susan V). Besides, “as soon as something happens people start lying about it” (Cecelia Holland) so “truth” in history can legitimately be debated.
Susan pointed out that selection (and correspondingly, elimination) of facts is part of the process of writing compelling historical fiction. Good authors know instinctively – whether they write historical fiction or another genre – that telling just the right bits is what gives a great story its focus. Authors of historical novels must choose only those events from history that relate to the specific premise/themes of their particular novel. It doesn’t matter how interesting an event is (or how pivotal it is in the life of a historical character), if that event doesn’t forward the plot of the book an author is writing, then it needs to be left out. There were dozens of interesting events in the lives of my main characters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, during the twenty-year period covered by The Sister Queens that did not make it into my novel because they were not germane to the “sisters” theme of my book. Continue reading Invention is the Midwife of Good Historical Fiction
Although the release of my novel, The Sister Queens, is still months away, I am delighted to say that several historical fiction book bloggers have already featured the book.
Amy at Passages to the Past was the first to jump—snagging a sneak peek of my cover for her readers from the NAL Winter catalog. Daphne at Tanzanite’s Castle was kind enough to add The Sister Queens to her July 7th wish list. And my fellow AQConnect member Layinda added my novel to her recommended reads. Thanks ladies!