Theme in Historical Fiction by Lucille Turner

Lucille Turner has been on the blog before talking about Mona Lisa – 500 Years of Mystery, The Fall of Constantinople, and most recently offering insights on Research in Historical Fiction. Today she talks about theme in historical fiction. Welcome back, Lucille.

Theme in Historical Fiction by Lucille Turner

Writing is a very subjective activity. A writer becomes immersed in the fictional world he or she creates for the time it takes to finish the book, be it a few months or a few years. But however dedicated a writer you are, one of the greatest challenges you face is how to communicate the core of what your book is really about to the reader, because not every reader emerges from the same book with the same understanding of it. This can be frustrating; it can mean negative reviews, or even no reviews at all. Sometimes the significance of a book can be entirely lost on a reader. The plot may be thrilling, the characters may seem real, but the reader still needs to make sense of the book at a deeper level in order to enjoy it, and this is particularly true for literary and historical fiction, which are often driven by character and setting more than by plot.

What is theme, really? It is easy to say that theme is the central idea of the story, but in fact theme is not so much an idea as what the book has to say about an idea. Several ideas may emerge from a good novel, but where do they lead the reader, and how strong are they? A weak theme leaves you feeling there is something you have missed, or something the author has missed. A strong theme delivers that deeper level of enjoyment and understanding; it is the key to the book, which must be unlocked by the reader. Once unlocked, it will take the reader to that core of the book: its message, which is what the reader takes away once the book is finished.

In my recent historical novel, The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, one central idea that arose from the book was the struggle between good and evil. As the characters evolved and the plot moved forward, the emerging theme and message (hopefully) became apparent: that the struggle between good and evil is not played out in a church or a mosque or a monastery, but in the hearts and minds of individuals; it is about the choices that we make throughout our lives, and how we act on them.

A good historical novel uses setting to power theme. Setting is not just where and when events happen, it is also why they happen. It is the underlying context to events. Without the context of the American Civil War, for example, Gone With the Wind would be nothing more than a love story. Instead, the setting of the novel shapes the character of Scarlett O’Hara, making her the bearer of a message and a theme: to survive a civil war you must be ruthless and strong-willed; if you cannot change with the times you will die with them. Gone With the Wind, like the Civil War itself, was about the death of one way of life and the rebirth of another. The theme was so powerful and the message so relevant, that the book soon became a classic.

To grasp the message of any book requires a little bit of thinking, but not too much. Ideally it should dawn on the reader slowly during the course of the book; it should linger longer than the plot and longer than the characters, who cease to exist as the book ends, even if we will them on as readers long after the final page is read. A character cannot live on beyond the scope of the book, but fortunately a message can, and only a well-developed theme or themes will deliver one.

For a writer, theme doesn’t always reveal itself at the moment a story is conceived. It usually arises during the writing of the novel, organically. Imposing a theme from the outset can be a mistake because it means putting the cart before the horse. The best themes are those that work themselves into the story naturally, as a result of other elements. While setting may deliver the background to a theme, it still has to be played out by the character(s) of the novel. They are the ultimate drivers of theme, deciding on a left turn over a right one, and so leading the outcome one way or another towards this conclusion or that one. When Scarlett O’Hara decides to get Rhett Butler back at the end of Gone With the Wind, she is not only being true to herself, but also to the theme of the book, which demands the kind of strength and purpose only true adversity can fuel. Many things may be ‘gone with the wind’ but Margaret Mitchell’s Southern heroine will certainly not be one of them.

Further thoughts on theme in historical fiction can be found at 8 Steps for Outlining a Novel and Author Tips on Writing Historical Fiction.

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.

The Fall of Constantinople by Lucille Turner

lucille-turner-tstvats-cover-smallLucille Turner’s first novel, Gioconda, was inspired by the life of Leonardo Da Vinci. Her second, The Sultan, The Vampyr and the Soothsayer, is set in Constantinople, the subject of today’s post. Many thanks for being on the blog, Lucille.

THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE by Lucille Turner

As the last jewel in the crown of Byzantine Greece, Constantinople represented a living link between the world of the Ancient Greeks and that of the old Roman Empire. It was named for Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 AD who converted to Christianity. It was also the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Christian church, which lost its power and status when the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453. Constantinople was more than just a Byzantine metropolis; it was one half of the Christian world, the eastern half, and it fell into dispute with the western half, the Roman Catholic Church, right from the start. Theological disputes between the Romans and the Greeks raged on and off like a storm until the day the city was taken by the Turks. In essence, when the Ottoman Turks entered Constantinople in 1453, they seized one half of the Christian world and brought it under Muslim rule.

In the run up to what is called the Fall of Constantinople, the Catholic Church was before a choice. Either it brought all its power to bear against the Turks and saved Eastern Christendom, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, or it cut off the limb that was weakening its body, and this, in the end, was what it did. The Roman Catholics did not give their support to the Greeks because of unresolved theological differences. As a result, thousands were slaughtered on a black day in the annals of Greek history, a day that fuelled hostility between the Turks and the Greeks for centuries. Fear of the Muslim armies resonated for generations to come in the minds of Western Europeans as news of the massacre on the streets filtered through Europe.

Today, Constantinople is known as Istanbul. It could have been the capital, but Ankara was chosen instead, partly perhaps to distance the new Republic of Turkey from its controversial Ottoman past. At the time of its conquest, the taking of Constantinople was considered as the unequivocal act of a great conqueror. It was almost impossible to assail, not only because the city walls were so formidable: 40 feet high by 15 feet thick, but because the Greeks had hauled a great chain beneath the surface of the water across the mouth of the Bosphorous straits to prevent an army from landing men directly at the foot of the citadel walls. Nevertheless, the Ottoman army took it, sending a shock wave rippling through the Christian world.

The last Greek Emperor to sit on the throne of Byzantium was Constantine Palaiologos. His brother John ruled before him, but Constantine was said to have had a premonition that he was to be the last Emperor, and that the city would fall under his reign. That did not mean he fled — far from it. On the day the Ottoman army entered the city gates, Constantine stripped away his imperial robes and stood before the invading army like a common foot soldier, drawing his sword for his people and his city like a hero from a Homeric tale. After his death he was immortalised as a legend. One day, the legend recounts, he would awake, like a sleeping king beneath a mountain, and take his city back.

The Palaiologos brothers were well aware that their world was under threat, although there was little they could do about it in the end, being as they were, an island of Greeks in a sea of Turks. Fearing the worst, they had already begun to strip their city of its treasures, often using the gold taken from the Hagia Sophia, the huge wonder of a church that still stands in the centre of Istanbul, to pay their diminished armies. But there were other treasures too in Constantinople. One had a value that could not be esteemed in terms of gold or coinage as it was nothing less than the greatest repository of human knowledge in existence at the time, the library.

The library of Constantinople housed almost all the scrolls of the ancient world. We do not really know for certain exactly how many and which ones, but there must have been works by Aristotle, Pythagoras, Galen and Euclid. Many of the scrolls housed there were Greek and Syriac works moved from the House of Wisdom of Baghdad to the libraries of Alexandria and Constantinople before the time of the Mongol siege in 1258, when the Mongol armies threw the remainder of the works of Arabic scholars into the River Tigris. So whoever acquired these works would have had the knowledge of centuries of brilliant minds in his hands to use as he saw fit.

It was Francis Bacon who was said to have coined the phrase knowledge is power, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a Greek hadn’t said it first. The fate of these hugely important scrolls became a source of fascination for me as I wrote The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer. How could it not be, when the stakes were so high and the interested parties so numerous? But for me it was the image of Constantine, the last emperor of Constantinople, defending the city of his name to the bitter end, which set itself at the heart of the tragedy. But still, he was far from being the only hero of his day. There were others, equally heroic, except that they had acquired a reputation not as heroes but as something quite the opposite…

The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer by Lucille Turner  (Amazon UK and Amazon.com)

1442: The Ottoman Turks are advancing through the Balkans with Vienna in their sights and Constantinople, the Orthodox Greek capital, within their grasp. Dracul, ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania), will pay almost any price to save his country, but he will not surrender to the blackmail of the cardinals of Rome; he will not betray the Greeks.

When Vlad, his middle son, begins to show signs of the ancestral sickness, Dracul vows to deliver him into safety. But time is running short. To some, Vlad Dracula is a strigoi, the worst of all evils; to others, he is the son of a righteous man. Confrontational, charismatic and manipulative, he tests family and enemy alike. Surely he is destined for power, but of what kind?

As the Ottomans plot to take Constantinople, the future of Vlad Dracula becomes a weapon for those who would preserve the Golden City of the Eastern Church. The Catholics are afraid of him; the Greeks hold the scrolls that tell of his past. And when the Sultan calls for the services of a soothsayer, even the shrewd teller of fortunes is unprepared for what he learns.

What a great article, Lucille! Congratulations on your second novel. Readers can enjoy another article by Lucille Turner on the topic of her first novel, Gioconda.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.

Mona Lisa – 500 Years of Mystery

Lucille Turner, author of Gioconda, has written an intriguing article on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and tells us how the artist and his famous painting influenced her writing. Over to you, Lucille!

Gioconda-Lucille-TurnerLeonardo da Vinci was a major player in the evolution of human understanding. Few men have incarnated such a strong, early connection between art and science, and few have retained such an aura of mystery over such a long period of time. We know Leonardo best for his portrait of the Mona (Madonna) Lisa, a 500 year old icon of popular culture and myth. But why all the mystery? I asked myself this question when I first began to research the life of Leonardo da Vinci for a book I had in mind, called GIOCONDA. The answers I found made me something of a Leonardo devotee, because the man behind the painting was, in the end, the biggest mystery of all.

The first thing that struck me about the portrait was its non-delivery. Leonardo kept it closely guarded at his side for years, refusing to deliver it to the man who had commissioned it as a wedding portrait, Francesco del Giocondo. By the time the painting arrived in France in the year 1516, exactly five hundred years ago, it was quite well travelled. By then, Leonardo had worked on it for almost twenty years, layering his paint on in fine applications until the portrait gradually acquired the depth it still has today. But other things also contributed to the mystery of the Mona Lisa, and one of them became a sort of Leonardo fallacy, a “Da Vinci Code”.

Where there is mystery there is rumour, and over the years Leonardo has been accused of dabbling in many things, from sodomy to alchemy and beyond. Hardly surprising that author Dan Brown was drawn to the aura of legend that surrounded him. In ‘The Da Vinci Code’ Leonardo is said to have been a member of the Sanhedrin: an order connected to the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians. It is doubtful that he was, but history leaves the door open to the novelist, and anything is possible when there is no evidence against it. Still, there was one thing in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code that rang true to me as far as Leonardo was concerned.

The beliefs of religious orders like the Rosicrucians owe their origins to the ancient Mystery Schools and Gnosticism. The Knights Templar were originally formed as guardians of the Holy Grail: the cup that was said the have been used by Jesus during the Last Supper. In The Da Vinci Code it was the nature of the Holy Grail that caused the sensation: person not cup. The grail was therefore symbol rather than object. The link to Leonardo resided, for Dan Brown, in the theory that Leonardo’s work was rich in symbolism, or to use a Dan Brownism, that a ‘Da Vinci Code’ did in fact exist.

Before we all get out our decoders, it would be more accurate to say that Leonardo’s art contains symbols rather than codes. It could also be said that the painting of the Mona Lisa owes its fame and enduring quality to the symbolism embedded within it. We see a woman sitting on a balcony against the backdrop of a view, smiling. On the surface of it, there is nothing particularly extraordinary or symbolic about that — or is there?

Perhaps the mystery lays not so much in the woman herself as in the associations she provided. From Leonardo’s perspective, these associations form the fabric of the painting. They are the link between Lisa and her background; they are Leonardo’s particular connection between science and art.

By the time he painted the portrait of Mona Lisa, Leonardo had understood how the eye works, and peripheral vision in particular. He had also understood that the brain receives the images we see upside down, and that it corrects these images. In short, he sensed that what we see is not exactly the whole picture. Sight must be processed; the old rules of linear perspective, which had marked the art of pre-Renaissance Italy so strongly, were incorrect. The three dimensional image that we see is recreated essentially in the brain, not in the eye.

How likely would it have been that Leonardo brought all his discoveries to bear in one painting, and that the painting in question was Lisa’s portrait? Quite likely, I think. Picture, if you can, the face of the portrait. The eyes, it is said, appear to move, to look in all directions at one time. The smile, it is said, is either a smile or it is not a smile. Or is it just half a smile? As it is with the eyes in the portrait, it would seem to depend on who is looking and where they are looking at any one time. But it could also depend on how they are using their peripheral vision.

The power of peripheral vision always strikes me when I think about a juggling act. The juggler can only keep going if he uses peripheral vision. The moment he focuses on one ball, instead of all the balls at once, the spell is broken, the balls fall. Apply this to Leonardo’s portrait, and we sense the same process at work. We focus on the smile and it vanishes. We focus on the face and it reappears. We focus on the eyes, and the smile vanishes again. We step back and focus on nothing at all, and the smile is there. When Leonardo painted Lisa, was he giving us peripheral vision in a portrait? Does he force us to use our peripheral vision when we look into his painting? Many people say that when they look at Mona Lisa’s face she elicits a response. Are we then mesmerised, held in the trance of the juggler?

The idea that Leonardo has painted the secret of sight in Mona Lisa is an entrancing one, but there is more to his painting than one pretty face. There is also the background. It would have been common practice at the time to provide a simple background of drapes or flowers for a portrait, but Leonardo being what he was, preferred something a little more spectacular. It is unlikely that Lisa del Giocondo would have been aware of the mountainous, primeval landscape that was being conjured at her back when the portrait was being painted. But since Leonardo had no intention of delivering it anyway, that would not have worried him. The landscape is certainly a strange one. Rivers are being formed and mountains are being made. The slow work of time is taking place behind Mona Lisa’s back. What did Leonardo mean by it?

To understand the background, we need to see Leonardo and his painting as one complete whole. A man who is curious about everything, and especially about the connections between everything, will sooner or later produce these connections in his work. This is really what he achieved with the Mona Lisa, and it has given the painting its enduring quality and its air of almost supernatural mystery. He did not just paint a woman; he placed her in the centre of a world that he had understood better than anyone else of his time. The slow work of time and paint made the miracle of the Mona Lisa. Five hundred years have passed, and we continue to wonder how he did it.

What a story, Lucille! Many thanks for being on the blog today and best wishes for continued success with your writing.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.