Sunday, 28 August 2011

Neglected classics: Ben Hur by Lew Wallace

Yes, you’ve seen the movie: you sat on the edge of your seat during the gruesome chariot race scene; you teared up when Charlton Heston’s mother and sister were healed; but have you ever read the book?

The story is that Lew Wallace was inspired to write Ben Hur after a train journey in the company of a well-known religious skeptic.  He was so ashamed of his ignorance of his own faith that he resolved to investigate the political, social and historical origins of Christianity.  The result became a best-selling novel whose reign of over fifty years (in the US) was only toppled by Gone With The Wind.

The novel’s centre is a classic revenge plot.  The Jew, Judah Ben Hur, is betrayed by a Roman childhood friend and sentenced to life as a galley slave.  When he finally escapes this fate, he returns to Jerusalem, where he is presumed dead, and embarks on a path of revenge, not just for his family, but for his people.  He is all too ready to embrace a Messiah; he has no need of a saviour…
A thread in the story I particularly enjoyed is a reimagining of the journeys of the Three Wise Men, and in particular, the lifelong quest of Balthasar to make sense of what he witnessed so many years ago.

Whatever your views about current Christian fiction, Ben Hur deserves credit for helping to soften clerical opposition to novels, and the early stage and screen versions tempted many American Christians to their first taste of these other media. 

I made my daughter read Ben Hur when we were homeschooling one semester in Slovenia.  She started off resenting it (and me), but by the end she had to admit to enjoying it.  I’m not claiming it’s a masterpiece of literature.  At times, I found this substantial novel pretty slow going, but at others I was gripped or fascinated.  If you’re interested in the stories of the Bible, you’ll find this an absorbing and refreshing alternative view of events surrounding the gospels.  If you homeschool, this is a great way to teach the history of the period (as I did).  And if you’re a writer of historical fiction, you may learn a thing or two about integrating fictional and real-life events—and a little more about standards of scholarship we could all do to emulate.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Self-published Historical Fiction

 Part Two - A reader's guide
In my previous post, I tried to make a case for respecting and embracing self-published historical fiction.  If you find yourself interested in exploring self-published historical fiction (often lumped with small publishers as ‘indie’), here are some suggestions to get started.  All these links are those I am familiar with or have been recommended through other authors – perhaps they’ll lead you to others.

  • The Historical Novel Society will not review self-published books in its printed review, mainly from lack of space (ebooks are also not reviewed in print).  However, they do consider them for their online review.  Reviewers (like me!) are unpaid and are supposed to abide by a code of conduct that includes no contact with authors of the books they review.

  • A site that gets you straight to indie authors in this genre is Historical Fiction ebooks, found at  Authors become part of this network by invitation only.

  • Another popular site is, which has both ebook and historical fiction pages.

  • The Independent Author Network is a good resource for readers as well as writers, though it’s open to any independent author who makes heavy use of social networking tools (OK, for me heavy means they tweet!).  Their Avid Reader’s Café offers recommendations for what they consider the best in indie publishing.

A few author sites you may wish to check out include:

  • Mirella Patzer, who helped me with suggestions for this post, writes historical women's fiction, often with an Italian setting.  She also reviews historical novels, including self-published ones, on her website, History and Women.

  • Lisa Yarde, at one time a member of my critique group.  I don’t know her personally, but I often see her comments on Facebook via my author friends!  She has written several medieval novels.

  • M. Louisa Locke.  An example of how far you can get with self published fiction, Locke has been a Kindle bestseller with her Victorian mystery series set in San Francisco.

Looking further into this topic both whetted my appetite for discovering gems that fit the scope of my blog (books outside the mainstream) and encouraged me not to dismiss self-publishing as an option for my own work.  I hope it does the same for you.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Self-published Historical Fiction

Part One:  My Rant An Overview

“More and more authors,” says Mirella Patzer, “are choosing the self-publishing route.”  In fact, I turned first to Mirella when compiling this post because she’s a historical fiction author whose work I love – but who chose self-publishing over traditional methods.  Yet, when the topic came up amongst my online critique group, opinions on both sides were strong.  Why then, would historical fiction authors choose to self-publish, and what are the advantages for readers of the genre?

It’s easy to dismiss those who self publish as vanity authors, but in fact they follow in some august footsteps.  Authors who began, or continued, by self-publishing include Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, James Joyce Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood and John Grisham.  And you may not know that the queen of American style guides, The Elements of Style, was first self-published! Yes, people self-publish badly written books, but who among us has not at one time or another read a book published by one of the big publishers that left us wondering how on earth it got into print?

And talking of big publishers, it’s no secret among writers that most changes in publishing houses have not been to the advantage of the author.  Tasks from editing to publicity can now be put on the author’s back.  The decline of the copy editor in particular has been very noticeable to me.  Ten years ago, it was rare to find a typo in a book; now, I see them with an alarming frequency.  Independent author Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes an in-depth and somewhat alarming look at the wider subject in her blog The Business Rusch.

True, historical fiction is doing pretty well in a time when readers are choosing genres that take them away from reminders of the present economic decline.  However, historical fiction authors can themselves be the victims of the present day: agents and editors, afraid to take risks, can push for more formulaic writing; publishers drop established mid list authors in favour of pursuing the next big thing; publishing companies fold overnight.  Almost every author I know, including myself, has either personally suffered one of these setbacks or known others who have.  Little wonder then, that many follow the heroes and heroines of their own books in taking control of the situation.

Why should we automatically turn up our noses at self-published historical fiction?  The author has chosen to go into business for herself.  If she were making and selling clothes, we wouldn’t dismiss her because she wasn’t working for a fashion house – we’d see if we liked her product.  Perhaps we need to ask why books have this snob value. 

The new force in self-publishing is, of course, the ebook.  Now that e-readers aren’t just for the likes of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, authors can take advantage of the low overheads and get their work out to readers at competitive prices.  However, this isn’t true when it comes to self-publishing the traditional way, where the cost of a softback is almost as much as a hardback, a difficult hurdle for an author who is trying to build up a readership.

Even established authors have been choosing to take control of their back lists, using the flexibility of ebooks to self-publish out of print titles.  An example would be historical fiction author Kathy Lynn Emerson, who has partnered with other professional authors on the site A Writer’s Work to offer both previously published and original work in ebook format at extremely low prices.

To sum up the advantages of self-publishing: authors get control of their work, the opportunity to build up an audience with lower overheads, and the chance to continue to profit from their back lists.  Readers get a wider choice and cheaper books.  So, how do we get the two together?  In the second part of this post, I’ll review some of the ways readers can sift through the chaff and find quality self-published historical fiction.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Neglected classics: The Mysteries of Udolpho

Ann Radcliffe
Proof (if proof is needed) that I really am a nerd is made manifest in my response to the Twilight/vampire/gothic phenomena of recent years.  I did eventually read Twilight at the urging of my teenage daughter, but my response was not to devour the rest of the series, but to at last fulfill an intention I’ve had for the past twenty years, to finally read some of the original, eighteenth century gothic novels.  Although I blogged previously on The Monk, the first true gothic novel I read was Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, satirized by Jane Austen refers to in  Northanger Abbey.    

The heroine, Emily, left orphaned and at the mercy of uncaring relatives, is forced to leave the man she loves and travel with her guardian aunt (who has made a rash marriage) to Italy: first Venice and then the remote Castle Udolpho.  In between resisting her aunt’s husband’s attempts to sell her to the highest bidder, she seeks to unravel the mystery concerning her dead father’s connection to a supposedly murdered Marchioness, who was once an inhabitant of the castle.

This is a typical, peripatetic and lengthy eighteenth century volume.  One of the chief things it did was to remind me once more of Austen’s own achievement in launching her pithy, domestic novels on the world.  The lengthy travelogues (although making a point about finding meaning and consolation in the divinely created world) can be tiring, as can the poems, and the deus ex machina ending was quite a disappointment to me.  The element of horror is subdued; there is almost a humour in the way Radcliffe leads the readers to the brink of horrific discoveries time and again, only to draw back. 

What the novel does highlight, though, is the plight of young women of the upper classes dependent on their guardians’ whims.  Emily is often left physically helpless, and only survives through the philosophy of self control imparted by her father before his death.  Although historically interesting, I think The Mysteries of Udolpho is best read if you are already familiar with novels of this period, or you may find the style offputting.