Novel 6 is Emerging

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As I said on Facebook a few weeks ago, I have a confession to makethe work in progress is contemporary rather than historical fiction. “And how did that happen?” you say.

Last November I went on a writers retreat in Monterery CA. The theory being, if you’re going to go on a retreat, it might as well be an interesting place. While there, I was assigned a mentor, a lively woman named Gina who helped me shape a pitch for novel 5 – The Admiral’s Wife – and pushed me to enhance the conflict within that novel.

Nearing the end of the retreat, I asked Gina for her thoughts on what novel to write next. I had three ideas: one set during WWII as a sort of sequel to Lies Told in Silence; another based on the life of Robert the Bruce from whom I’m descended; and a third featuring twins with a contemporary setting. I sketched a few points about each story and without a moment’s hesitation, Gina said to write the twins story.

So here I am with an outline prepared and seventeen chapters – about 42000 words – written.

I have managed to find a few historical tidbits to include: the setting for one scene is at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (see photo above), originally built in 1903; and the setting for another scene is at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, an English-language bookstore located in a 17th century building (see photo below).

With no requirement to research a particular historical time period in order to effectively capture its culture, values, politics, events, language, fashion and so on, writing contemporary fiction is a more straightforward process. Don’t get me wrong. There is still a need for research but in my case it’s confined to topics like ‘waterfront bars in Boston’, or ‘loft styles in New York city’, or ‘the election cycle for US senators’. (If you’re interested, I’ve writing about the productivity burden of historical fiction.)

Most importantly, I’m having fun and Gina has become my agent. Fingers crossed that she’ll find a publisher for The Admiral’s Wife, the dual timeline novel set in Hong Kong, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned a time or two 🙂

PS – ten years ago I never could have imagined writing a sixth novel!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (either through WordPress or by using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Line Between Fiction and Non-fiction

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Have you ever read a novel and wondered what was fact and what was fiction? Greg Johnston, author of Sweet Bitter Cane brings that perspective to today’s blog post. Welcome, Greg.

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I remember my primary school library, a large room in the middle of a railway carriage of cold classrooms.  The non-fiction was on the left-handside of the room and the fiction on the right.  The twain met on the reading mat in the middle of the room.  I think I’ve always kept this line in my head between fiction and non-fiction.

Real life is rarely a novel.  Despite all the puffed-up grandeur we ascribe to our own circumstance, it rarely follows precisely the neat structural dictates of a novel, with all its demands to satisfy the well-hewed expectations of a reader.  I liken it to making bread.  The stories are mixed, allowed to prove, punched down, re-kneaded, baked and finally eaten.

Recently, a pleased reader emailed me saying she wished she’d known Sweet Bitter Cane was based in fact.  Although she enjoyed it, this would have helped her connect more to the story.  While I was grateful for her praise, it was an odd experience, cast back to my primary school library and its division of fact and fiction.

I couldn’t have drummed up the events of Sweet Bitter Cane; a young, Italian woman fleeing physically and fiscally destroyed post-WWI Northern Italy, hoping to find a better life on the sugarcane fields in the Far North of Queensland in Australia.  But all that hope became mired in relentless racism, envy and resentment, resulting in her being accused of supporting fascism and imprisoned for a significant part of WWII.

These were the facts I’d gathered together over decades of interest, not one story but a repeated story of many Italian migrants to Australia.  But when a neighbor, Gloria, gave me a folder of archived documents about her mother, Gina, her arrest and imprisonment, the bones of the story started accruing flesh and blood.

The documents I had about the “real” woman were scant and fractured. In a way, she was unremarkable.  And, as a woman of that epoch, her accounts of life were rarely recorded.  But as a writer, I was in an incredibly privileged position – my neighborwas the “real” woman’s daughter.  How easy was it for me to pop next door and mine Gloria’s memories of the house, the farm, the town, the concentration camp and life after their release.  But even this had limits.  Gloria, so young when she was forced to go with her mother to the camp, only had one memory; of being put in a car and taken away from her mother. 

I commenced more research, found more details, corroborated other facts.  But I still didn’t have a story adhering to the genre expectations of my reader.  I began to knead what I possessed and often with surprising results.  I noticed amongst the documents, the “real” woman’s husband had written many letters. They were always in different handwriting, but the signature was the same.  I thought, he couldn’t read or write. And when I asked Gloria, she blushed and asked how I knew?  I realised she wasn’t telling me the whole “real” story and that there were private details she found either embarrassing or had forgotten.

At this point, I felt a justified sense of liberation. I had these bare bones I could perhaps bend but not break, but the story’s flesh was mine.  I had to fill the cracks between the documents with imagination.  The “un-real” woman had to have thoughts, imaginings, desires and disappointments.  These were never written, probably never spoken, perhaps embarrassing, never entirely clear to anyone but her.  And this is the stuff of a novel’s pages.

But this reader’s well-intentioned email left me in a bit of a quandary.  In the run-up to the publication of Sweet Bitter Cane, I’d considered bannering in fluorescent pink across the cover – BASED ON A TRUE STORY. And the novel is, at least in part, but then … it seemed a cheap lunge at credibility.

I swooned and still do to Byatt’s Possession, where the whole thing was made up, securely positing Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel La Motte amongst their canonical contemporaries.  But I still read Eco’s The Name of the Rose as fiction which inspired me to cross the reading mat and read some non-fiction about medieval monks.  Should we colour a novel’s text, like the original imprint of Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, with a rainbow of colours to signify the real, the not-so-real, the un-real, and the lies? Footnotes – there’s a thought.  And a mess.  This all forces an historical fiction writer into a rather obtuse corner.

But rather than the lines between the two extremes being as demarcated as my primary school library, isn’t this reading mat between the two extremes the arena where the reader’s imagination comes into play?  Reading is far from a passive experience, and perhaps an historical novel should tweak a reader’s imagination to find more information, go to the left-hand side of the reading mat, if they so desire. 

An historical novel churns all this “real” and “un-real” to rich butter, much more than a cheap blended Rosé. But they are un-real novels and should be exalted as such.  It reminds me of a late twentieth-century popular song.

It takes courage to enjoy it

The hardcore and the gentle

Big time sensuality

Many thanks, Greg. I’ll be thinking of this dividing line and the reading mat when I read my next historical novel.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Slavery in Canada

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While in Quebec City, we visited a museum — the Musee des Beaux Arts — that features Inuit works from across Canada (stunning) and well-known Quebec artists such as Jean-Paul Riopelle, Alfred Pellan and others.

One exhibit – Devenir or Becoming – grabbed my attention. Not only did it include a collection of paintings – primarily portraits – from the 18th and 19th centuries, but it also included a series of drawings of runaway slaves alongside advertisements seeking their whereabouts that had been posted in Quebec newspapers.

In my naivety, I thought slaves running away from the US sought refuge in Canada.

While this is true, it seems that slavery was practiced by our indigenous people (usually as a result of wars with other tribes) and also by some who came from France and Britain to colonize Canada and acquired slaves in part to deal with the shortage of labour in the new land. Another source of slaves occurred when America declared its independence from Britain and many of those loyal to the crown moved to Canada and brought slaves with them.

The drawing above is one artist’s depiction of Bell, a slave who had runaway and whose owner advertised for her return in the Quebec Gazette in August 1778 (shown below).

 

Definitely a tragedy and a shameful period in Canada’s history. My writer brain is already imagining a story.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.