There's a new website that curates "best of" lists for novels called Shepherd.com. Basically, authors create a top-5 list of books (best summer reads set in Iceland, best gothic mysteries with an animal sidekick, that kind of thing). My own contribution--best historical fantasy with a twist of myth and magic--is up now. The link is here.
MATT'S OCCASIONAL WRITING BLOG
Because I write in a vein of historical fiction, I sometimes get asked about research. Usually, the question is along the line of how deep do you have to delve into historical research when you write a novel in this genre.
For me, the honest answer is "enough not to look dumb."
There are a lot of historical fiction writers who could probably pass themselves off as historians. They comb through original sources, translate documents, do all the things real historians do. And sometimes that comes off great--Patrick O'Brian, for example, was absolutely fastidious when it came to the mechanics of navigating and fighting naval ships in the Age of Sail. But he was also a heck of a story-teller. Being the latter, to my mind, is more important than the former. Because I've also read a fair amount of historical fiction and fantasy where it's obvious the author relished his or her research a bit too much and felt compelled to machinate each and every granular detail of what they uncovered into their story. Those can be tedious books to read.
So for me, when I come to a plot point or a setting that relies on history, I Google around a bit to get the lay of the land. Then I try to find one or two credible authorities to provide the foundation for the background that I need. Those might be books. Sometimes they're academic papers (for Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock, I read through a UMass graduate student's thesis that, for some reason, was published online, to gain some understanding of African-American society in 1800 Massachusetts). Often times, these jaunts of research will yield an idea that I end up using (in the Lost Lock, I happened across a piece about the undeclared French War in the late 18th Century, which ended up getting a prominent feature in the book). But because I have a limited amount of time to invest between research and writing, I try to limit these forays. Again, I only want to get to the point where I can confidently say, "I don't think I'll look dumb if I write this."
The Yonder & Far manuscript I just finished, tentatively entitled The Tarot Tale, has two areas that required me to hit the books. The first was the presidential election of 1800. For those who don't recall their high school history class, that was the one that was (mostly) between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And if you think recent U.S. elections were heated, do a little dive into what went on in 1800! Now, this is a topic of incredible complexity (in particular because at the time, each of the States had different methods of choosing their presidential electors). There was no way I was ever going to master it--but I'm not writing a book of history. I'm writing a historical fantasy that has the election of 1800 as a background feature. So, in order not to luck dumb, I hit a couple of books: the late, great David McCullough's biography on John Adams and A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward J. Larson. Between the two books, I gleaned enough to fill out a suitable setting for my characters to get into all sorts of adventures.
The second area I needed to gain some insight into was Tarot reading. As the name of the title implies, Tarot features heavily in this story. Now, here was a topic I knew nothing about. And so I ended up taking a little bit of historical license with it. But for a good reason. Historically speaking, people have been using cards for divination for hundreds of years. But what most people recognize as Tarot reading really didn't have a significant following until after around 1910 with the publication of the Waite-Smith Tarot deck of cards (of which, the 10 of Wands is pictured above). There is a metric ton of information available online and in books on these "modern" cards--it didn't take me long to feel like I knew enough for my fortune-telling character to provide insightful readings. But there wasn't nearly as much out there on the older decks that were in use in 1800 (plus, to be honest, the cards weren't nearly so vibrant and dynamic as the Waite-Smith deck). In order to resonate more with readers, my story relies upon the Waite-Smith deck even though the events are set in 1800. But by taking a little time to learn this new topic, I hopefully will make up for that little license.
The balance between in depth historical research and story-telling is a balance different historical fiction writers strike in different places. What are your favorite areas of historical fiction and how do your favorite writers tackle history?
I know I'm late to the party, but for the past couple of weeks, I've been working through the first two seasons of Stranger Things. Speaking as a child of the 80's--who played his share of D&D and rode a bike all over the place--let me just say this show hits a real sweet spot.
It's 1983, and a government lab in Hawkins, Indiana (something between a large, rural town, and a small suburb) has been engaging in covert experiments with telekinetic children. Why? Because their powers could be developed into a weapon against the Soviets--which is entirely plausible given the zeitgeist back then. But an especially "gifted" (but traumatized) young girl has unwittingly opened a hole into a dark, dangerous alternative reality. The "Upside Down," as this place is called, has all sorts of connections to our world.
Those connections, however, are mostly unpleasant. When ten-year-old Will Byers disappears into the Upside Down, his distraught single mother, his older brother, and his best friends and fellow D&D gamers, all go on the hunt to find him. There's deadly creatures, menacing fiends, and more 80's nostalgia than a New Wave Retro Night. High stakes, paranormal strangeness, government conspiracies, kids riding their bikes to save the day--Stranger Things is what you get when The Goonies meets The X-Files. It really is a delight to watch.
A couple of small criticisms. The acting is a little bit uneven in the first season, but gets better as the show goes on. Also, the plot lines get machinated from time to time (mostly when the characters are getting moved about in clusters like chess pieces). But it's easy to gloss past those minor issues because the story is so fast-paced and foreboding. Highly recommended viewing for the Gen Xer who keeps a soft spot for malls, walkie-talkies, and classic role-playing games.
There is nothing more satisfying--or unnerving--than typing "THE END" at the conclusion of a 100k-word manuscript. Satisfying because it represents the culmination of months and months of grinding through a story. Unnerving because the next step is months more of grinding through self-editing the story. It's a tiresome slog that comes around (for me, at least) about once a year, much like taxes. But it's part of the process.
But I'll focus on the good news. I've just finished the rough first draft of the second book in my Yonder & Far series. Tentatively entitled, "The Tarot Tale," this installment picks up where "The Lost Lock" left off. Mr. Yonder and Captain Far are off on a new caper. Lots of action, lots of twists and turns, sprinkled with a good deal of weird U.S. history surrounding the election of 1800, and, as the title suggests, there's more than a bit of the occult woven throughout. It was a blast to write (much like the first). I'm very pleased with how it came out.
But first there are plot holes to fill, characters to trim, dialogue to tighten, arcs to round out... I'll hold off a month at least before I dive back into it (if you want to know why, take a listen to my interview on the Mythbehaving podcast). If all goes well, though, by the autumn, I should have something to present to my publisher. Hopefully, they'll like it as much as I do.
Have a safe and happy summer,
Happy Fourth of July, everyone! In a country which has the freedom of speech as its "first right," it's not suprising that the good ole' U.S. of A has generated a rich bounty of writing since its founding. So in the spirit of the Fourth, here are my four favorite American books, by Americans, for or about America:
1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: the ultimate story of overcoming and triumph, one of Douglass' autobiographies, and one of the best ever written. There are passages that are absolutely haunting, despite the span of years.
2. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Franklin is a fascinating figure. You would think the autobiography of this polymath would be stuffed full of sweeping ideas or profound witticisms. There's a little bit of that scattered throughout, but its focus is mostly on his personal aspirations, plans (he always had them--and he recounts them all, successes as well as failures), reflections, and even some grudges he held. Honestly, Douglass' and Franklin's autobiographies could stand as bookends of American writing.
3. John Adams, by David McCullough: sweeping, insightful, layered with detail (but not overtly academic), this is a masterfully done biography that sheds much light on an overshadowed man.
4. The poetry of Emily Dickinson: I've never cared for poetry, to be honest. But my late mother was an enormous fan of Dickinson (she even wrote a book about her poetry), and, perhaps for that reason, I have a soft spot for this death-obsessed New Englander. Intermixed with all the metaphysics she wrestles with are sweeping, natural reflections, New England sensibilities, and religion, all of which, I think, put her finger on the pulse of America in the mid Nineteenth Century.
What's some of your favorite American writing?
"Ah, Grendel!" he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. "You improve them, my boy! Can't you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. . . .
If man's the irrelevance that interests you, stick with him! Scare him to glory!"
- Grendel, by John Gardner
Most folks have had an occasion to attend a work-related seminar or course. They can be ... hit and miss. To keep things fresh, some instructors will try to weave their personal hobbies into their teaching. I've seen it quite a few times. "How axe throwing made me a better orthopaedic surgeon." "Crochet tips for the airplane mechanic." "Karate's lessons for civil lawsuit mediators." (One of these is actually real). Don't get me wrong. Hobbies are great. Everyone needs a hobby. But why this compulsion to machinate one's favorite past-time into teaching about one's work?
The answer, I think, is that most folks like to share the things that bring them joy. And since for most folks work can sometimes (oftentimes? most times? invariably?) be a drudge, perhaps it's only natural to want to try to air-drop a little outside happiness into it.
In this post, I'm going to take that inclination one step further--and mix one fun hobby with another.
I like to bowl. Ever since I was 5 and my father would take me to the church league on Friday nights (staying up until midnight, granny-shooting 6 lbs chipped up alley balls, getting four quarters for the arcade--what's not to like?). I actually took a bowling class at FSU. I've kept up with it, on and off, over the years. Right now, I'm bowling between 140-150 on average. That's after bowling about once a week, week in and week out, for the past year and a half. And in that time, I have twice hit what had been a lifelong goal: breaking 200 (this last time, I hit it right on the nose; if I hadn't whiffed on picking up the ten pin on 2 consecutive frames, I could have pushed it over 220). Anyhow, hitting that benchmark twice got me to thinking about writing.
Twice I've had the privilege of publishing a novel with a press. Each offer felt like I had hit a milestone; each experience was richly rewarding. But there was a LOT of failure (gutter balls, if you will) along the way. Draft manuscripts that went nowhere, scenes that fell flat, characters who never came to life, prose that made me wince.
The thing is, that still happens, tiny successes notwithstanding. Like in bowling, I still make plenty of misses in my rough drafts. But here's the other thing: those misses aren't as bad as they used to be. If I miss the ten pin a little high, well, that's better than cleaning out the gutter. I need to tweak something, not change my whole approach. So, too, with writing. The problems I catch in editing a finished ms (and there's always ample plenty of them) may require a great deal of work, but they don't require a rewrite of the whole manuscript. That's improvement. And improvement leads to bigger and better milestones. More 200 games, fewer missed spares.
Here's hoping you make all your spares.
Check out the latest episode of the Mythbehaving Podcast with yours truly on the hot seat.