The History They Knew

"Remember the law of Moses."

I talked in It Was Not History Then about avoiding the unconscious mistake of making the historical period you are writing about seem too novel to the characters.  Now I am going to talk about what was history for them, and how to incorporate that into your novel.

First of all, you have to know your history.  A character can't know what the author doesn't know.  I don't think I have to engage in the whole "history is fun, really it is" spiel.  I think just about everyone following The Penslayer already has a deeply abiding love of history and is willing to go out of the way to learn it as a matter of enjoyment, not just a matter of research.  To write a novel in a time period, one does often have to do research; to incorporate history into that time period, one has to know a lot more: one has to have, essentially, the entire range of human history to draw from.  Moral of the story: don't confine yourself to a single period of history in which to study.  Learn everything you can!

Note: as a caveat, keep in mind that while you may have that vast range of knowledge to draw on, your character might or might not depending on his education.  An illiterate man may reference Aesop's Fables, but he will probably not draw conclusions from Plato's Republic

Pertinence.  You would be surprised the pertinence of historical happenstances on the circumstances in a novel.  I found a few quiet ones cropping up in Adamantine; in Plenilune I had to practically sit on a character to keep him from snapping off names and places, old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago.  Many got through, and I left them (which also returns to a point I raised in It Was Not History Then), but they arose because the character's brain was awash with histories and peoples - as well as philosophies and theologies, fables and riddles and whathaveyou.  If the shoe fit, he put it on.  If the moment corresponded to something that had happened in the past or former generations, or a comment linked with a thought of a great man who had come before, he made the connection. 

Note: my brain is also awash with histories, people, philosophers, theologies, fables, riddles, and whathaveyou, which gives people the confused impression, as everything is thrown into my mind and out again in a hapless jumble, that I am more intelligent than is really the case.

For those of you writing historical fiction, please don't despair!  It is a true saying that history repeats itself.  The more history you learn, the more you will find things happening in your stories that resemble, however unintentionally, problems and solutions that man has faced in the past.  If you keep your eyes open, you'll see them.

Note: for those of you who may be thinking this is an exercise good only for writing, let me disillusion you.  A steady and wide study of history is also a study of God's work with man, and I have continually found it helpful in life to be able to hold up history to God's self-revelation in the scriptures and discover what the two can tell me together. 

It Was Not History Then was Aristotle, long before Kipling, who taught us the formula, 'That is another story.'
Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis

I know a lot of you tend to write fantasy (there is so much scope there for the imagination) I also know that many of you have tried or are trying your hands at historical fiction as well.  In light of that, I thought I would share a little trick I learned and also point out an obvious but often overlooked fact.

The fact first, and that is that, to the people in the time you are writing, their time was not "historical" yet.  It was as plain, unlovely, and dull as every day of your life can be to you.  Obviously, you will be writing an engaging story in which things happen, things are at stake, and the reader will be invested in the lives of your characters and their time period.  But a really accurate historical fiction novel will make the time as real and as common as the shirt you are wearing.  The well at the corner of this road and that in ancient Rome is not a novelty to them.  It's their way of life.  The drafts in the castle, the pigs in the yard, the papyrus stands and Lord Crocodile and a gentleman's horse are all common, everyday sort of things.  Don't make much of them with the eyes of someone writing from the twenty-first century looking back on the past.

This was something I was taught subliminally through the novels I read growing up.  The ones I liked most were the ones that felt real, and looking back on them critically I see they were real because they did just this: they treated the time with a casual nonchalance, taking for granted that it was Now and would always be Now.  Oh, there was always the future to be provided for and a vague, glorious past to replicate, but the way of life would go on and the things of life would endure forever, familiar, unnoticed, and strangely precious.  If you want to know how to write like this, it is very simple: you have only to study the time so thoroughly that you become fluent in it, like a language - so that, essentially, you think in that time.

The trick I learned was a kind of sleight of hand, a sort of trick of magic that was worked on me by the author.  A really good author who so well knew his or her time period could drop at appropriate times a reference to something - a line from a Roman poet I had not read, or an object from far-off orients that was hitherto unknown to me - and the author, far from telling me the poet's name or telling me where the object came from, would leave me otherwise ignorant.  To the people in the story it was obvious.  To me, I was left in the dark, suddenly a stranger looking in from the outside.  I never minded.  Even the entire conversation in French in one of Sayers' short stories (my French was never good, and has almost degenerated away), while it left me clueless, was at the same time so off-handedly accurate to the time and the characters that the very act that jarred me away from communion with the story made the story all the more real in its own right.

I know a lot of people will tell you, "Don't talk about things the reader won't understand or associate with.  He won't like ignorance or being left in the dark."  That is, of course, often true, if the topic is handled badly.  But it can be handled well, and if we all pander to the ignorance of each other no one will learn anything.  It's a bad sort that takes natural ignorance as an insult.  We're all ignorant until we're taught, and we might as well own that cheerily now.  The fact is that I let the poet's line go, hidden in my memory, and I accepted the oriental treasure as a matter of course, and as I continued reading in other books from now and then and here and there, I stumbled (almost always inadvertently) over the answer, over the poet, over the place.  And my sudden joy was indescribable!  I felt like someone who had learned the trick of magic.  Suddenly that novel was not a stand-alone - it was linked with this book wherein I found the answer to the riddle.  Suddenly Sutcliff and Uncle Aquila were linked with Everyday Life in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Times.  Suddenly two seemingly disconnected pieces of the infinite dialogue of writers were put together, question and answer.  And I would not give up that moment of discovery for anything.

They say, "Show, don't tell."  But I say, "Don't show everything.  Let the reader, if he's really worth his salt, discover for himself."

Beautiful People - Mazelin

"It is an equation."
"An equation of what?"
"Of the way things ought to be."

I said I would do more character fractalling, and I have.  The more I write, I swear, the less rules I find can apply across the board.  I've never really had to do character fractalling for a book before.  Gingerune sticks out its bottom lip at me until I've done so, and then - and only then - can we move on happily with the story.  Though, I don't know about happily...  ("She doesn't look happy."  "She's the protagonist," I explained.  "Protagonists are never happy.")

mazelin, of the house of the white cyclamen

Who is your character as described in one sentence?
Mazelin is part of the White Cyclamen branch of the royal family, far from the throne yet near to the queen, so that he has had a chance to watch the events of the queen’s life unfold and, spurred by a sense of pending danger and a curiosity sparked by the old legends, he has spent his life trying the thwart the doom the queen’s actions are bringing down on Thera and trying to unearth the riddles of the past and a civilization that has been buried in the dust.

Who is your character as described by several key words?
Quiet, curious, elemental.

Who is your character as described in a paragraph?
While he comes from a lower branch of the royal family, Mazelin has always exhibited an aura of being in command—ever since he was about six years old and had begun to read. He is “incurably curious,” and comes across—whether he means to or not—as impertinent and sometimes judgmental. He is endlessly intrigued by puzzles, riddles, history, and human interaction, all of which are often the same thing. He had a quick, inscrutable mind, and once he has begun to ply his questions it is often very hard to hide things from him.

Who is your character as described by several key phrases?
The wandering prophet. The Lion of Libya. “Just a man.”

Who is your character as described by several paragraphs?
Mazelin is a very quiet, patient, nondescript sort of person. He took his education into his own hands at an early age—in the scheme of ranks he would not have amounted to much anyway, so he was quietly left alone and unhindered in his quest for knowledge. He learned early on the knack of watching people and places, and soon began to unearth secrets that the royal family had forgotten for generations.

But even in Mazelin there is a streak of the impetuous and the strong-willed, and the hard-headedness that comes with being an idealist and the only person, seemingly, who can see what the future is unfolding into. No one takes this sort of behaviour well from an adult, and it is even less agreeable when coming from someone on the nether side of manhood. He and the queen—who is old enough to be his mother—clashed continually for several years until, getting nowhere with her, Mazelin picked up his bag, bought a ticket on a merchant ship, and left to find the answers to a handful of riddles, promising, once he had got them, to return.

What is your character’s extroversion or introversion preference?
Mazelin is very introverted. He has learned to interact with people when necessary and he can be very genuinely friendly, but he has also learned to hold his cards close to his chest, as it were, and that habit of being both wary and deeply thoughtful has turned him irreparably into an introvert.

What is your character’s sensing or intuitive preference?
He is accidentally intuitive—intuition is often like that—with occasional odd feelings and even dreams, but more often he is keenly deductive and can extrapolate reasonably down a line of facts to arrive at an accurate conclusion. He knows the nature of things, and furthermore he knows the nature of people. It is very hard, once you have started talking, to hide things from him.

What are the weaknesses and strengths of your character?
He can speak and write in the language of the Earth-Masters, all things considered he is patient and long-suffering, he is both kind and just, and he is unafraid to act on his deductions. Unfortunately he does occasionally overreach himself. He is not infallible and he does not always take that fact into account. This has already cost him three lives.

What is your character’s love language?
Mazelin would fall into the “words of affirmation” category of the love languages. He is not a man of possession and therefore has very little to give. He is a man of learning and mental abstraction, and so does not have much occasion for “acts of service” in a more material way. If he likes you he may be happy to be quiet in your company, but being introverted and keenly psychic he is not drawn toward—and can sometimes be adverse to—physical touch. But as a naturally quiet person who makes as a matter of course value judgments (which are often harsh, if accurate), he best expresses his admiration through a simple spoken phrase.

What is the story of how your character’s personality changes?
He grows into a man, and he grows far away from family and friends where he must learn to shift for himself and where life must be anticipated quickly before it can catch him unawares. His naturally pleasant, quiet disposition does not leave him; the harshness of life abroad does not make him cynical: if anything, it makes him more merciful. He knows what people are and what people might have been, he knows what the world is like and what it might have been like, and he has always tried to be a force of anonymous good wherever he goes, so that, inasmuch as possible, the place he leaves is better than it was before he came.

What axioms and definitions influence your character’s decisions?
Life is a war, and inasmuch as possible a man ought not to go out into it unprepared to fight to the last breath, to win back a ground stolen and surrendered.

What does your character believe about origins and how does that effect his decisions?
Mazelin believes in Elohim, the single God and progenitor of man. He believes in the conquest of the gods, in the Fable of Falling, and the promise that someday, out of obscurity, a man will rise up to reverse the decay of man and arrest the kingdom of the gods. Until then, he can only emulate the promise as best he can.

What does your character believe about the afterlife and how does that influence his decisions?
He believes in a place of waiting—whether of wakefulness or sleep he does not know and cannot say—where the souls of the dead go to await the man of Elohim. He believes that place is divided between those who believe in the man of Elohim and those who follow the gods, and that those who live and die in the faith of the promise will enjoy the rejuvenation of the kingdom of Elohim, those who adhered to the gods will be imprisoned forever with their gods in a state of judgment.

How does your character’s family influence his decisions?
The only influence they have over him is in the sense that he wants the best for them but is equally aware of the fact that they will get in his way, disbelieve him, and have already gone a fair way to surrendering much of their power to forces which do not want their good. Unfortunately, a prophet is not without honour except in his own country…

How do your character’s friends influence his decisions?
In some ways they are more of a complication than an aid. No one is quite Mazelin’s equal and he is reticent to delegate to people he does not trust are up to the task. Additionally, in the midst of plotting the next step, trying to anticipate the next twist of fate and sentient interference, he must always have one eye on his friends lest something happen to them.

When someone first meets your character, what does he notice about him?
That he is a man apart, a man whom death follows, and there is some doubt if he is a man or a demigod or something altogether other.

When someone is an enemy of your character, how does he perceive him?
Impertinent, inscrutable, a nuisance, possibly even a danger.

How does your character display his various moods?
He is of a thoughtful, half-amiable disposition at most times: he comes across as a pleasant, self-satisfied sort of person who will demand nothing from you (probably because he assumes you have nothing to give him) and will impose none of himself on you. Unless he is angry to the point of physical violence, it is hard to tell his anger and his determination apart: they are both dark, hard auras, electric and powerful. He is obviously a man who gets what he wants.

What is your character’s frame?
Well over six feet tall and built like an ox. He is very lightly-footed and can be very graceful and precise, but his frame is almost breath-taking in its sheer size.

How does your character fight?
Against another man or an animal, Mazelin prefers his fists—couched in iron knuckles. Against anything worse, he has a few other tricks up his tunic sleeves.

What are your character’s features?
Olive-skinned with dark, curly hair kept short. He is not a good hand at growing a beard so he keeps his chin clean-shaven. He has a harsh brow, the final word in aquiline noses, and brown eyes.

How does your character speak?
In general, quietly, imperiously—he is, after all, of a royal family, and after a fashion burdened with glorious purpose… He also speaks abstrusely as regards the content of his conversation, and is careful not to give much away as he takes from you everything he needs to know.

What does your character wear or carry with him?
In his travels he wears a pair of breeches, a tunic, and a robe; on Thera, as is the fashion, he wears a tunic and his indomitable pair of nail-shod boots. He carries a staff and wears a leather satchel in which he carries all of his few worldly possessions.

To Call Me An Egghead Is To Insult Eggheads

It's a cloudy, chilly February afternoon, on the brink of the weekend, and I'm sitting here eating a cucumber and drinking a cup of coffee.  (My tastes have never been discerning when it comes to knowing what to put together to make a meal.)  As I said, it's nearly the weekend, and the really busy part of life, for me, is about to start.  I mentioned around the beginning of 2011's holidays that it seemed to me that the quiet part of my life was about to be packed up and what most people call "holidays" was, for me, the really hectic time.  An enjoyable, but definitely a high-paced, hectic time.  My life is somewhat backward from most other people's.

Joy asked me on Facebook if I had any advice about finding time to read when life (for her, at least, and probably many others) is taken up with schoolwork.  I have a few ideas, but the problem is that they are not actually mine.  To put it simply, reading is my work.  When I gave my father-in-law Signs Amid the Rubble for Christmas and added that I had already read it and loved it, my brother noted how few books he had read in the year (he legitimately has little time to do anything but work), and I had to explain, somewhat abashed, that reading is my work, and that is why I do so much of it.  Again, at a gathering I flung out a piece of knowledge (which was not very trivial and I do not actually remember what the conversation was all about) and when I was asked how I knew my little tidbit of fact I replied, also abashed, that it was my business to know such things.  It's simply what I do.  I don't know if it does anyone else any good (except to clarify that Vercingetorix was a Gaul, not a German), but I like to think it does my own writing some good.  It wouldn't do for me to be mistaken in my facts or lacking in knowledge while at the same time trying to be a novelist.  And I have no idea what I might need to know, so I simply take in everything I can.

And here I sit, on the brink of what is the end of the workweek for most people, and what is about to be for me the beginning of two days of not having enough time or energy to do what I like: reading.  Reading is my business and my life is open with acres of time in which to do it.  So much of the advice I have for you (any of you) has to be gleaned from Abigail.  She has schoolwork, and office work, and house work, as well as her reading and writing, all nagging at her to be done.  And yet she gets it all done.

Make a point of reading before bed.  This is something I'm trying to institute myself.  Don't look at the computer, stay away from television screens.  Bundle up in your pajamas, crawl into bed, and read some from your book.

Read in the morning before you "start your day."  Once you get into the flow of the day, it's sometimes hard to break off and pick up a book.  Go to bed early and get up early - and read a bit before you get going!

Have "book stations."  If you're like me and you're reading more than one book at a time, find places you tend to be in the house for any length of time and assign books to those places: your bed, a chair in the living room, a place at the kitchen table.  When you're there, pick up the book and read.

Multitask.  Unless you tend to have sit-down meals other than supper, in which case it would be rude to ignore your family, read while you eat!  This can grow awkward when your food requires a fork and a knife and your book requires at least one hand, but necessity is the mother of invention.  You'll find a way around such problems.

"Never trust anyone who hasn't brought a book with him."  Got a bag or a purse?  Stuff a book in it.  I have designated reading areas at my local grocery stores.  While I'm waiting for the rest of my crew to finish, I plunk down and read for a spell.  Even if you get carsick while reading (which I do) take a book with you anyway.  You never known when an opportunity to read may arise. 

Break it down.  I'm reading three books at present (The Flowers of Adonis by Rosemary Sutcliff, On Christian Truth by Harry Blamires, and 1215: The Year of the Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham) and two of them have short to manageable chapters, the sort I can easy read in a day.  If you have a lot you want to read, take it in bite-size pieces (I did this with Thera, whose chapters are few and huge) and put the book down and move on once you have accomplished your goal for the day.  Slow but steady wins the race.

Beautiful People - Akmennades

I began Gingerune with a bare handful of characters.  Truly, I had only five.  As you may have picked up on my sojourn through Plenilune (I was not really about when I was writing Adamantine) I have a knack for stumbling upon new characters at the merest turn of the road.  Well, a few thousand words in to Gingerune I had at least two new "primary" characters and a few secondary ones.  Unlike many of my Plenilune characters, the characters of Gingerune have to be cracked open and don't come dashing, prancing, leaping and bounding with open-faced smiles at me.  So I decided to do an in-depth "beautiful people" post - really a character fractalling.  I have only done one so far.  They take some doing, but I will probably do several other characters quite soon.  So here is my second new primary character.

akmennades, prince of thera

Who is your character as described in one sentence?
Akmennades is twenty-nine years old and heir-apparent of the island kingdom of Thera, lieutenant priest of the Rammerowt, Theran ambassador to neighbouring islands, and Lord High Admiral of the Theran fleet.

Who is your character as described by a few key words?
Silent, dangerous, tyrannical.

 Who is your character as described by one paragraph?
Akmennades is by nature a quiet person, and because of his position in the Theran government, very close to the queen and a very important person himself, he has learned the knack of silence and also how powerful a weapon it can be. Upon power he places a great price, having experienced helplessness at a young age. He holds all things tightly in his grasp and makes people feel, intuitively, that he has the power of life and death over them.

Who is your character as described by several key phrases?
A ship without a shore. A riptide on a moonless night. A man, curiously, such as men are wont to follow.

Who is your character as described by several paragraphs?
Akmennades is a man born to privilege and responsibility and he feels that weight keenly. He was also a man nearly not born, and that, too, he feels keenly as an omen of inevitable failure, a fate against which he fights desperately every day of his life. He lives in an iron dread and commands with an iron will. Perfection, the unswerving loyalty of his men, the glory of his dynasty, seem to lie always just beyond his fingertips. This turns his disposition tyrannical, his heart unwilling to kindness, and while he believes he has the capacity to be a great man, he feels the gods draw it, tauntingly, just out of his reach.

 He is a brilliant young man. He drives himself to greatness. His men, though they do not understand him, would follow him willingly into Hades. In his harsh way he loves Thera, much as a wolf loves its cubs. But he is also a man to hate, long and hard and unwaveringly, and he carries a great storm of hatred with him every day of his life.

What is your character’s extroversion or introversion preference?
While Akmennades is naturally cold and withdrawn and does not usually share his thoughts, he is always watching the interactions and listening to the discussions of his generals and the lords of Thera. Not much escapes his eye.

What is your character’s sensing or intuitive preference?
He is a well-balanced individual. He is as willing to weigh cold facts favourably as he is willing to listen to guts and instinct.

What are the weaknesses and strengths of your character?
He is an ambitious, driven character with a just if unmerciful mind, but the fear of failure, which pushes him to excel, also makes him vulnerable to doubt and despair.

What is your character’s love language?
Akmennades possesses the rough love of a god. He is a man of strength, high sentiment, and iron purpose which the will of no other man can sway, which are all traits that do not lend themselves to the normal human expressions of love.

What is the story of the changes of your character’s personality?
Not many people remember clearly their very early years—mostly before the age of five—but Akmennades remembers a strange, terrible man and his mother’s screams, a sense of abject terror fuelled by helplessness, fire, and a long blinding time of pain and darkness, oblivious to all but a sense of raging confusion. All other memories of happiness before that time were truncated by this single memory. As the years went by and he recovered to the best physical ability from his experience, the memory (and the confusion) has haunted him, his physical inabilities have always quietly mocked him, and the growing responsibilities to which he was born have aged him faster than is the case with many other boys. He knows, also, that he is a man who has death for a close friend.

What axioms and definitions influence your character’s decisions?
The only truly powerful people are the ones who understand pain.

What does your character believe about origins?
He believes in the gods, though he does not love them; he believes in the Rammerowt, though—unlike his mother—he is continually perplexed by their lying out of his reach. If legends are true—and there are not many left—and if he is of the royal house and a priest of the Rammerowt, the power of the Rammerowt, he feels, ought to lie within his control. Stubbornly, silently, the four powers remain dead.

What does your character believe about the afterlife?
He believes it is a raw, pure state of pain in which the spirit, torn forcibly by wills against its own from the body, cannot grow numb nor flinch nor flee, no more than a lidless eye can blink and shut out the sight of the world.

What does your character believe about law?
Personal preference, wealth, and comfort are weaknesses that cloud the perfect execution of justice. Great nations are ones with rigid morals, safe sea-ways, a simple home life, frugality, and strong work ethic among its people. The vices, in any level of society, exhibited in any crime, are marks of weakness to be thrown out at once as a bad fruit is thrown from the basket lest it soil the rest of the vintage.

How does your character’s family life influence his decisions?
He is as yet only heir-apparent; though he has many responsibilities and is a great mover and shaker of the state and navy, he is still in the shadow of his mother whom he feels, intuitively, that he should feel affection for, and yet whom he quietly despises. She is in many ways as hard and unbending as he, and like iron they are continually clashing. She is, in his eyes, too subjective in her rule and far too driven by her own desires—not seeing, even in his rigid adherence to justice, that he, too, is no less influenced by his fears and passions.

When a person first meets your character, what does he know about him?
That he might have the potential to be good, but that he is implacable, bitter, and omen of ill things, and that he is strangely—almost alarmingly—the kind of man to throw one’s lot in with.

When someone is an enemy of your character, how does he see him?
Stubborn, fighting like a hunting bird with clipped wings against the horror of an inevitable cage, whose strength is at the same time his weakness, and in whose eyes one can see the long dark road of a despair that leads to death.

When someone has been a friend of your character for years, what does he know about him?
He does not trust himself and trusts others still less. He is a man convinced of power and yet fears he will never attain it. He is a man to be followed unquestioningly, proudly, and loved unconditionally, though he himself shows no betraying glimpse of love. He can be kind, but not loving.

What is something about your character which no one else knows, which no one will ever know?
The nightmares.

He wore [the mask] now, and behind it streamed the blue-grey feathers of the storm petrel so that he seemed, for all he was too small and too ornately dressed for his size, a thing of prancing beauty, a thing scornful of the earth. In every line of him, in the motionless human features carved into his mask, Ginger saw an implacable soul, bitter as a falcon, inhuman as a god.