Coronavirus and Living in a Historical Novel

Whether you’re a writer or not, we’re all experiencing the highs and lows of Covid-19. Today, author Michelle Cameron discusses how the pandemic parallels the experiences of some of her characters in her novel Beyond the Ghetto Gates.

Coronavirus and Living in a Historical Novel

I keep repeating the same phrase when I talk to people about my recently published book, Beyond the Ghetto Gates: “It’s ironic that I’ve released this book about a community that was locked inside, when we are all, in fact, locked inside.”

Because now, I have a greater sense of empathy for my characters’ dilemma, trapped inside iron-wrought gates from sunset to sunrise. Writing is so often a case of respectful imagination – imagining what someone must have felt in a situation you could never expect to experience yourself. Certainly no one could have anticipated our social isolation even a few months ago. Our current reality hit so abruptly and took hold so quickly that “surreal” was the word everyone kept using to describe it. We’re living in a science fiction novel, some of my writing students said, as we met via Zoom to continue classes. A dystopia.

But are we, in fact, living in a historical novel instead? “Bring out your dead” replayed in my mind, seeing photos of the mass graves lined up in a New York park. Having written In the Shadow of the Globe, a verse novel about Shakespeare’s time, I had used that same respectful imagination to conjure up Shakespeare’s grief over his lost son, and that famous line features in a poem about poor dead Hamnet:

“Give us your dead”

floats by tonight in London streets,

keeping time with a laden wagon

dragged past a miasma of fever,

then the dirge beyond

my neighbor’s chalked door,

his cracked voice crying, What,

all my children? All?

All gone from me in a single night?

Earlier in that same collection, I wrote a poem listing the “postings about the city, on church and tavern doors” that has eerie resonance to our present reality:

no one may congregate in large gatherings save Church –

no bearbaiting, gambling, playacting,

no assemblies for purposes other than prayer –

this applies, too, to taverns and ale houses,

all now closed by order of the City.

Even the “save Church” line is weirdly appropriate, considering how many mega churches ignored the regulations to remain isolated during the crisis and held holiday services, trusting that God would keep their congregants safe.

In Beyond the Ghetto Gates I didn’t write about pestilence and pandemic – though the next book in the series, which will take place in Egypt and Israel during Napoleon’s expedition there, will certainly describe the plague that took the lives of many of Bonaparte’s troops. But being locked inside against one’s will is definitely a part of the novel:

From dawn until nightfall, ghetto residents moved freely through the stone archway into the city of Ancona. As the sun dipped behind the horizon, however, city guards slammed the gates shut and chained a heavy padlock to the bars. The clang of the closing gates always raised the hair on the back of Mirelle’s neck.

It affected her generally carefree brother even more. Jacopo often railed against being imprisoned inside the ghetto.Just once, I want to see what the sea looks like under the stars,” he’d said one night as they stood outside, straining to see more than a few inches of night sky. “Just once, I’d like to walk freely out the gate and not have someone stare at me because I’m Jewish.”

Something had stirred in her chest as he spoke. A whole world existed outside the ghetto. If only they could both walk out of the gates freely!

And yet, there was vibrant life inside the Jewish ghettos that couldn’t be denied, despite padlocked gates and enforced isolation. I describe at one point the many suitors who pay court to my heroine and her friend in the evenings during a visit to the Venice ghetto, even as the community is confined to their narrow streets and crowded homes. Our own isolation is different, of course – but then, consider how much art, music, and performance is being streamed onto our electronic devices, much of which we don’t generally have access to. Consider the Zoom book clubs, social hours, classes, even the play dates. Forced apart, we’re still finding ways to come together.

There have been countless plagues throughout our history that we have survived. This is not in any way to minimize the suffering of those who have coronavirus, or those who were afflicted with the Black Death, the great plagues of the 17th and 18th centuries, yellow fever, polio, Spanish flu – the list goes on and on. And there have been many historical novels written about them. Each of those authors brought their own brand of respectful imagination to convey the loss of life, the pain, and the suffering. Regrettably, our generation of writers no longer have to imagine what it’s like. I anticipate many pandemic books in our future, books that capture the angst and the loneliness of isolation – and I’m sure many of them will have dystopian overtones.

But for me and my fellow historical novelists, what we’ve all learned will harken back to our shared pain in the present as we reach into the past. It’s something we all carry with us now. As I recently told an aspiring novelist who is depicting the TB epidemic in America: “Go deeper. You don’t have to imagine it any longer. You’re living it.”

Many thanks for these insights, Michelle. Today’s shared pain will indeed inform how and what we write in the future as well as the reader’s experience.

Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron ~~ When French troops occupy the Italian port city of Ancona, freeing the city’s Jews from their repressive ghetto, two very different cultures collide. Mirelle, a young Jewish maiden, must choose between her duty — an arranged marriage to a wealthy Jewish merchant — and her love for a dashing French Catholic soldier. Meanwhile, Francesca, a devout Catholic, must decide if she will honor her marriage vows to an abusive and murderous husband when he enmeshes their family in the theft of a miracle portrait of the Madonna.

“With vivid clarity and keen historical insight, Michelle Cameron sweeps us into the unusual setting of Italy during the Napoleonic invasion, and the plight of two courageous women of different faiths, who must fight for their right to love and live during a time of tumultuous upheaval.” ― C.W. Gortner, international best-selling author of The Romanov Empress

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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.

Second Career Author – Donna Croy Wright

Donna Croy Wright has recently launched The Scattering of Stones. She lives in the Sierra Nevada Foothills southeast of Yosemite and in addition to writing is an amateur genealogist and historian. Here’s Donna’s take on being a second career author.

What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?

My life has been a series of reinventions. First, in my twenties, I was a dancer and artist. Next, in my thirties, I was a mother (still am). Then, in my forties and fifties I was an elementary school teacher and principal. When I retired, everyone asked me what I would to do next, and I always replied, “I’m going to reinvent myself.” I didn’t know how at the time. Now I do.

Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing?

The usual answer to this question is: “I’ve always written.” It’s not so different for me. As a preteen I wrote Little House on the Prairie/Little Women knockoffs. My parents owned a dictionary with a list of boys and girls names in the back. I underlined and starred a host of names (in ink), a testament to my name research for the characters in my stories. I wrote in my Anais Nin style diaries incessantly during the college angst years. As a curriculum specialist, I focused on language arts and history, and my career as an educator required extensive writing. Then, while reinventing myself in retirement, I delved deep into genealogy and wrote an ancestral history for my family. I kept wondering about the emotion behind the lives I discovered, beyond birth and death dates on a page. So I included my imaginings in the book, using italics to separate them from fact. When my son told me he liked my imaginings most and thought I should write a book, I did. Then I wrote another and another.

Do you now write full time or part time?

I’m obsessive. With research, blog, fiction, and non-fiction, I “work” about 35 hours a week. My husband demands an equitable amount of attention.

What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?

Taking a few factoids about everyday humans, pulling them up from the reaches of the past, and depositing them in the world of my imagination? That fills me with joy. Having these characters take over my being and write their stories? How exciting is that! Researching a time and a place? Traveling to that place, and meeting people who have the same passion? A world of learning has opened to me. (I haven’t figured out the time travel thing yet, except in my mind.)

I’ve even come to appreciate the tedious: blocking out the story, editing, editing again, waiting for publication, editing again, and waiting some more. While “appreciate” might be too strong a word, I see the importance of these tasks. However, because I started writing late in life, waiting for query replies, editor timelines, and publishing opportunities is, well, frustrating.

The hardest thing, though, is promotion—selling both my book and myself. I was the mom who bought all the See’s Candy my child had to sell rather than help them with sales—a version of task avoidance. I just don’t have the hard-sell gene.

What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?

Which former career? Life is a journey. I love the places I hang my hat.

Do you have any regrets?

Of course, but they have nothing to do with my various career renditions of myself and are not for public consumption.

What advice would you offer other second career writers?

Beyond watching out for too many ellipses and the corralling of commas? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. If you are thinking it, don’t beat around the proverbial bush. ASK! Ask for help. Ask for a different typeset. Ask for that review. And definitely ask for feedback. Listen to it, prepare yourself to be hurt by it, don’t take it too seriously (yeh, right), and then digest it and learn from it. If you are doing what you love, as with any reinvention of your life, you will grow into your dream.

Many thanks for sharing your story, Donna. I can certainly identify with being obsessed as well as the frustration of watching time pass in the querying and publishing game.

Visit www.croywright.com to read her blog and follow her on facebook at @croywright or twitter @CroyWright.

The Scattering of Stones by Donna Croy Wright – Two women, each living in a different time and space, yet something inexplicable binds them. Maggie Carter Smith researches her ancestors’ lives from the comfort of her 21st century California home. But beyond births and death written on a page, Maggie chronicles souls. Mary Hutton and her family arrived at Wills Creek when treaty lines prohibited settlement. A marriage to Jacob Carter, orphaned, raised and then abandoned by the Shawnee, offers Mary freedom from a father’s reach and protection on the 18th century frontier. But prejudice and intrigue intervene, throwing tragedy, treachery, and murder in their path. One thing is clear, from choices made in a heart’s breath moment, whole lives will unfold.

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.