Saturday 23 April 2011

What was she thinking? (Part 2)

I talked in a previous post about using primary sources to get inside the head of your historical character.  It can be much trickier to find a secondary source whose author really has a feel for the period, but nevertheless, here is a sampling of resources, in no particular order, for the Middle Ages through to the 17th century that I’d recommend. It’s an admittedly personal list, compiled from my years as a graduate student, teacher and writer, but I hope it offers insight.  Several of the books cover specialized topics rather than overviews of a period, but I’ve chosen them because they address underlying values or ideas that will get you to the core of a character.  Your additions are welcome!

For the medieval and early Renaissance world, I cannot praise C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image highly enough.  Thankfully for all of us, Lewis was involved in academics before one had to prove one’s ability by writing textbooks full of obscure technical terms.  He presents both literary and theological concepts in a style perfectly accessible to the average educated person.  I’d recommend The Discarded Image to a student or ‘layperson’ interested in the Middle Ages.  Although first published in 1964, it is, in my opinion, still the most balanced and coherent introduction to the worldview of the Middle Ages you will find.

More specialized but useful is Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the History of Written Culture by Armando Petrucci (trans. Charles M. Radding) for an understanding of the way books, reading and libraries were viewed from late antiquity through the Middle Ages.

Despite what school history might suggest, the English did not become Protestant overnight.  Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year, by R. Chris Hassel is a stepping stone into the liturgical way of seeing the year that is lost to most of us.  Add The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 by Eamon Duffy, and you’ll get a much better idea of the mindset of the nation in this period of transition.

If you want to stretch your brain cells a little more, celebrity professor Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning is almost compulsory reading for the college English student on the formation of the Elizabethan (mostly male) mind.

I’ve yet to forgive Simon Schama for being disrespectful about the Queen Mother during her funeral but I have to admit that An Embarrassment of Riches gave me a whole new insight into European Protestant thought, although its focus is Dutch culture in the seventeenth century. (However, I gave my copy away after he offended me.)

On an opposite note from my displeasure with Mr. Schama, I’d recommend both the person and writings of Neil Keeble (N.H. Keeble).  His seminal The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth Century England was constantly at my side as a graduate student.  It covers about every type of nonconformity, from Baptists to Diggers, and is invaluable to anyone interested in the topic.  A more general survey is found in The Puritan Experience by Owen C. Watkins.  For New England, Charles E. Hambrick’s The Practice of Piety delves into the religious mindset of the first generations of Puritan colonists.

Also on my list of people who are erudite and just plain nice is Margaret Spufford.  Her study of Cambridgeshire nonconformity, Contrasting Communities, gives insight into the way these new beliefs played out in smaller communities.  Tessa Watt’s Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640 also shows the impact of the newly emerging cheap print culture on communities and belief (and will give you lots of titles to cleverly throw into your novel).

I had fun digging through old notes to compile this list – so more may be forthcoming!

Thursday 14 April 2011

Elysium by Diane Scott Lewis

Fulfilling this blog’s mission to go beyond the prominent publishing houses and highlight authors worth reading, I’d like to introduce Diane Scott Lewis, fellow member of my historical fiction critique group.

Diane’s second novel takes the bold step of reimagining the story of Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena.  On this remote, volcanic island, Amélie Perrault, the daughter of Napoleon’s head chef, struggles with her low station in life and a fascination with the fallen French emperor. When her beautiful singing voice catches Napoleon’s attention, she is drawn into his clashes with the British jailers, court intrigues, and a burgeoning attraction for the emperor.

Napoleon is soured on love, yet this young woman’s selfless devotion tugs at his heart. After political maneuvers fail to release him from the island, he desires freedom no matter the risk—but will he desert the only woman who has loved him for himself?

Amélie suspects someone in their entourage is poisoning the emperor. Will she uncover the culprit in time and join in Napoleon’s last great battle plan, a dangerous escape?

Elysium is published by Eternal Press and is currently available in several ebook formats, including Kindle and EPub (which Nook supports), with a paperback to follow; check out Diane’s website for more news and information.

Blog award

Thanks to Victoria Dixon for giving me a grasshopper award for excellence in blogging.  I’d like to pass it on to Mirella Patzer for her hard work on the blog History and Women, keeping readers up to date with reviews of historical and women’s fiction, and entertaining with fascinating biographies of well known and not so well known women in history.   
 With these awards, one is supposed to offer seven facts about oneself.  Well, I’m the stereotypical reticent English person, but here’s a few facts I don’t mind sharing:

  • I enjoy visiting different places, but can’t stand travelling.
  • I’m a member of a lay religious order based in the Episcopal church.
  • My all-time favourite movie is It’s a Wonderful Life.
  • Surprisingly, given the above, the student house I shared was dubbed “Castle Anthrax” (don’t ask, please).
  • I love afternoon tea and cake.
  • I have eleven chickens, Buff Orpingtons and Ameraucanas, who give me delicious eggs (for aforementioned cakes) and friendship.
  • My dream is to move back home to a cottage in the English countryside.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

What was she thinking? Inside the head of a historical character

A common ‘truisim’ that historical novelists maintain is that, whatever the era, people still essentially love, hate, grieve, etc. in the same ways.  That’s true, of course, but the way we express those feelings, and even the way we think about things is regulated to an extent, I contend, by our culture.  These differences exist in our very own time – why else are we looking with respect and awe at the dignified behaviour of the Japanese people in the wake of such terrible disasters?  Closer to home (for me), having moved from London to the American South, I often encounter thought processes and assumptions that mystify me (and I’m sure I return the ‘compliment’).

In teaching early American literature, one thing I have to impress upon my students is that they have to try to get out of the habit of approaching works with a post-Romantic mind.  A simple example I give is our widespread use of the question, “How do you feel?”  Quite frankly, this continual focus on the self would not fly for seventeenth century Calvinists, who are community-, not individual- oriented.

So how do we reflect what our characters might be thinking, and is it OK to have that ‘rebel’ with modern sensibilities?

Spending time with your nose in the popular books of the day, as I suggested in a previous blog, is a good way to pick up the sensibilities of the period.  Diaries, letters and journals are a help, bearing in mind that people may still create personas for what were often seen as semi-public works.  Poetry has a wonderful way of capturing emotions and ideas in a nutshell.  If you work in an era where newspapers exist, you have a goldmine of opinion to gather.  You must first and foremost know your period, and then you’ll feel more confident about guessing what your character may or may not think.

Can you make your character a freethinker and still sound authentic?  Of course.  There have always been those who think outside the cultural box and are not afraid to hide it; there must also be countless others who think but do not dare to act.  But still, those thoughts come from within a particular culture. 

An example that comes to mind is a YA novel about the Salem witch trials that I recently reviewed.  Something about the young heroine just struck me as inauthentic – while I accepted the premise she was a rebel, I found it hard to swallow that she questioned absolutely everything about the world around her, from wearing stays to the existence of the devil.  When I did a little research on the author’s website, I found that she had been undergoing her own spiritual crisis.  Suddenly, my nagging doubts became crystal clear: the author had clearly transposed her own feelings onto her character, and, for me at least, it just did not fit.

So this, I think, is the key.  A character who has nothing in common with his culture is probably not authentic.  This is true even for the greatest rebels.  Thus an eighteenth century atheist would usually still call himself a Deist; Oscar Wilde spoke only in veiled terms of “the love that dared not speak its name” (a phrase he borrowed from his lover, by the way); George Elliot openly lived with George Henry Lewes, but she was a slave to nineteenth century notions of duty (and did of course marry her second partner).
In the next post, I’ll list some recommended secondary reading for getting inside the heads of your characters.  Suggestions welcome!