Category Archives: Historical fiction

The Mongoliad iPad and iPhone apps are now available

The Mongoliad apps for iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch are now available in the iTunes store. (For more information about The Mongoliad, the collaborative storytelling project headed by Neal Stephenson, see my earlier post or go to The Mongoliad website.)

The apps are free, but to read the serialized novel and view the extras you’ll have to buy a subscription ($5.99 for six months or $9.99 for one year). If you’ve already subscribed through the website, you should be able to log in to the app using your existing account.

Chapters 1 through 9 of the novel have been released, and new chapters appear every Wednesday.


The Mongoliad begins…

The Mongoliad launched this morning. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, see my earlier post, “The Mongoliad, a “sekrit project” from Neal Stephenson and friends,” or these articles from Fast Company or VentureBeat.

You can explore The Mongoliad website and read the free preview content, but you’ll need a subscription to read the novel, which will be published in serialized weekly chapters over the course of a year. (The first chapter of the story was released today.) Subscription rates start at $5.99 for six months or $9.99 for one year. Subscribers will also have access to the Forum and other goodies (art, video, music, etc.) as they are released.

If you’d prefer to read The Mongoliad on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, the apps will be available soon (once they receive the Apple stamp of approval). Apps for other devices will follow in time.

And yes, Matt and I are minor members of The Cabal, but you won’t get any spoilers out of us.

Update: New chapters of the serialized novel will be posted every Wednesday. (The first chapter was posted on September 1st, and the second chapter will be posted on September 8th.)

New Update, 10/31/10: The Mongoliad apps for iPad and iPhone are now available. See my new post for more information.

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.”

Nicola Griffith blogged yesterday about the historical novel she’s writing and different approaches to writing historical fiction:

There’s the hey, anything goes, just use the period as window dressing around a fab story camp, and there’s the never, ever, don’t evereverever, contravene what is known to be known people. (There’s an article in MACLEANS.CA that lays this out by illustrating the difference between the attitudes of Hilary Mantel and Kate Pullinger.)

Here’s an even more interesting piece from Magistra et Mater: an historian explains why she no longer reads historical fiction.

Me? Well, I love getting things right. I’ve done a lot of research on Hild and her time (some casual, some deep and complex). But I’m a novelist; I also occasionally can’t resist just fucking with things. Sometimes, though, it seems I fuck with things in just the right way–and those are fabulous moments when I know I’m really beginning to get a feel for the period. (At least in some senses.)

This seemed like a good opportunity to mention some related issues I’ve talked about in my classes on creative research for writers:

  • The research process is completely different for each writer and project. Some authors do the minimum necessary and fake the rest, others completely immerse themselves or become experts on their subject or period. There isn’t a right or wrong way–you have to figure out what works for you.
  • Think carefully about what you really need to know, why you need to know it, and what you can just make up. What degree of accuracy and authenticity are you trying to achieve? What can or should you fictionalize?
  • Decide what game you’re playing. Make conscious choices about straying from history or reality when it serves your story and your characters, but understand that some readers and critics will be unhappy about it.

John Scalzi touched on this in his recent blog post about science fiction worldbuilding. For him it’s about plausibility, keeping “the audience engaged all the way through the work without once saying, ‘now, wait just a minute…'”:

Other worldbuilders will have to answer this one when talking about their own works, but as for me, in general, I try to build my worlds at least two questions deep — that is, you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question….

And for about 90% of your readers, that’s going to be sufficient rationale. For about 10% of your readers, it won’t be, but at some point, and simply as a practical matter, you realize that some folks aren’t going to be happy with your worldbuilding no matter how far you drill down, and that you can just sort of accept that as the cost of doing business in a geek-rich field like science fiction. To a very real extent, what you’re aiming for is sufficiency, not completeness.

Here are a few other links about writing historical fiction:

An interesting August 2009 BBC radio broadcast in which “Mark Lawson examines the differences between factual and fictional writers of history and between academics and populists in the telling of stories from our heritage. Writers Antonia Fraser, Margaret MacMillan, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant and Tristram Hunt join Mark to discuss the best ways of exploring the past.”

Susan Vreeland’s thoughts on writing historical fiction.

A 1998 essay by Anne Scott MacLeod, “Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction,” about revisionism in historical novels for children:

But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.

And on a lighter note, there’s History-Spork, a very funny blog in which historians review Hollywood movies.

By the way, the title of this post comes from a quotation attributed to historical novelist William Martin:

The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.

Does anyone happen to know the original source of this quotation?

Update, 11/13: I emailed William Martin directly to ask about this quote, and he says it is indeed his, and it appears in the February 2000 issue of The Writer magazine. Thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s electronic databases, I was able to find his essay, which is titled “First-Person Narrators in Historical Fiction.”

Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is 01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation
01.05.05.10                                    endeavour
01.05.05.10.02                             searching/seeking
01.05.05.10.02.01 (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10               accidentally (subcategory)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (01.05.05.10.02.01|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

“The small details of common life give actuality, aliveness, and thickness to a historical story…”

John Crowley, the author I blogged about last month, has written an excellent essay for the Powell’s Books website on doing historical research for his new novel, Four Freedoms. Here’s an excerpt:

How much did a condom cost in 1944? What did the package look like? Where could one be bought? Were there machines in the toilets (we called them toilets) of bars, as there were in the late 1950s? I was writing a novel about the U.S. home front in World War II (Four Freedoms, just out), and I needed to know. Why not just skip the detail, and say, “He bought a condom” or “He produced a condom”? Because the small details of common life give actuality, aliveness, and thickness to a historical story in the same way they do to a present-day story. The difference is you have to go find the details of the past; you can’t just draw on experience.

The writers of historical fictions, just like real historians, do (or ought to do) a huge amount of research before beginning on their works, and then continue doing research until the very end. They are, however, often looking for different stuff. The reasons for things, the reasons that people believed they had for acting as they did, the forces pressing on them that they dimly grasped or didn’t, a chronology that puts cause before effect — that (I imagine) is what the historian spends her research time looking for. Except when tiny details of action matter very much (at exactly what hour was that telegram sent?), the minutiae of dress and dinner, how a character spent his morning or evening, the maker of her gown and how much it cost, aren’t the goal. The fiction researcher’s work is the opposite, or mirror image (as historical fiction is the mirror of history — the same stuff but not). What the fiction researcher wants is masses of actual detail, whether pertaining to his characters (if his characters are historical) or to others like them. He cares less what everybody did, or what masses of people did, than about what was possible to do. He cares less about what an actual person did than what any person could have done: could someone like the one I am imagining have thought this thought, owned this gun, remembered this event, worn this hat? He needs the stuff to help him make a world of the past that is as believable as one made out of the present.

Of course, writers of fiction can be more or less conscientious about their research. (Though, they can’t be exposed as frauds if they get the details, or even the big picture, wrong; they start out as frauds.) Some care a lot, others less; Walter Scott, who in a sense invented the historical novel, often footnoted his stories, to back up his inventions with evidence. Fiction writers can always claim that detailed research is unnecessary or peripheral to their work — but they can no longer claim that it’s too hard. I don’t know if the Internet in all its glory and some of its shame has changed things utterly for professional historians — if it has, they may not be telling — but it has made research for a writer of historical fiction a piece of cake: that sweet, that delightful, that filling.

And it’s not only Google and Project Gutenberg and JSTOR. I used those tools almost every day, following leads from place to place and having strange adventures with collectors, memoirists, visionaries, merchants, and obsessives (try writing anything about old cars, railroads, airplanes, World War II, or comic books, without turning them up). But I also had the help of the readers of my blog (John Crowley Little and Big on Live Journal), who are an inordinately smart bunch, I think, and ready to go look things up and bring them in. We’ve had some wonderful interchanges — like the time I needed to know how much a condom cost in 1944…

The great danger in all historical research, for the lover of trivia and oddity, is distraction; it’s one of the rewards, too….

You can read the whole essay, titled “The Accu-Thump of Googletarity,” here.

“That’s one of the many reasons I love writing historical fictions. The research is fun.”

The fabulous Justine Larbalestier has been blogging and answering questions from readers about her research and writing processes. She’s currently working on a novel set in 1930s New York City, so she’s been immersing herself in historical research and having lots of fun (well, except for the Lindy Hop situation).

Here are links to a few of her posts for your reading pleasure:

I really enjoyed Justine’s last YA novel, How to Ditch Your Fairy, and she has a new YA novel coming out in September called Liar.

“I just love looking at old pictures of people who are now dead.”

My thanks to Gwenda Bond for the tip about the fascinating interview with author John Crowley in the current issue of The Believer magazine.

John Crowley has been a major influence on so many writers (including my husband, Matt Ruff), and he’s written nearly a dozen novels, including The Translator, the four-book Ægypt cycle, and Little, Big, one of Matt’s favorite books, which he described as  “a sprawling family chronicle that William Faulkner might have written, if he’d written about fairies.”

Here are some of John’s comments on research from the interview:

BLVR: So many of your books have a strong research element to them, whether it’s written into them with characters who are themselves researchers, like Pierce Moffett, the main character of Ægypt, who scours the world finding materials for his own book, or simply because the novels themselves are obviously the result of meticulous, extensive research. What’s the relationship, if any, between research you do for your novels and doing research for documentaries? Do they feed off one another in any way?

JC: Maybe I just have a taste for research. Most of the films that I have worked on and enjoyed doing have been based on archival footage. And I’ve found that I just love looking at old footage. I just love looking at old pictures of people who are now dead. There’s something intensely attractive and gripping in looking at these pictures of people who are gone…

I don’t know whether this research actually combines with my writing, but I do know that there is a real thrill to it. I’ve completed a book [Four Freedoms] set in the 1940s about people who are building a bomber in a war production plant, and the research I’ve done for that offers the same kind of fascination with the lives of ordinary people. You can find lots of memoirs of people who worked in these factories, especially women, how they felt about it, what they did every day, how their husbands viewed it, how scared they were to go to work, how they learned to do things they thought they never would. It’s enormously touching.

BLVR: Did you dig through even older materials for the Ægypt quartet? Did you look at old manuscripts? Was there any tactile element to your research?

JC: [Laughs] Not really. I did handle a few old books but I never went into it to that degree. There was never the kind of experience that I ascribe to some of the characters in those books, where they actually go in and palpate old books and turn old dusty leaves and things like that. Most of that, I have to say, I constructed for them to experience. Most of my research for those books came out of secondary sources; a lot of the books I read are full of printed reproductions of old imagery and texts, and I enjoyed looking at those. But I never did the kind of deep manuscript research that might have given me that kind of a thrill. Somehow I felt I was doing enough just creating all the universe around them!

John has more to say on research, genre, his books, and other subjects, so read the whole interview.

By the way, John has a blog, and his new novel, Four Freedoms, will be published at the end of this month. Matt and I heard John read from the manuscript when he came to Seattle last year, so we are very excited about reading the book.