Challenged – and Challenging – Books

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about whether fiction is a safe place, and my own experiences with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I determined that fiction – even if age-appropriate – is not only a dangerous place, but that it should be a dangerous place. That it should force you beyond your comfort zone, and push you to think about things you’d rather never consider, and in the process, make you grow. Make you stronger. Make you more diverse and broad-minded and hopefully, more educated.

One way in which religions and governments have always tried to control the populace is by controlling what they read. From the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books to the current push by individual school districts to ban certain books from school libraries, books have always been regarded as dangerous.

As well they should be.

Although the Index was abolished in 1966, it remains an indelible part of history. My students are flabbergasted to learn that great scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo had their works listed, that philosophers such as Descartes and Locke and Hume are on the list, that books such as Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were on the list.

Yet it’s no different than the efforts to ban certain books in schools across America today. Some, like Fifty Shades of Grey, I totally get – in fact, one librarian in Florida refused to put it in her library not due to the content, but because it was poorly written. 🙂 But that begs the question:  is it ever up to us to decide what someone else reads?

As a writer, I say no. As a teacher, I say no.

Fiction may not be a safe place – but it’s far safer for students to become exposed to issues like racism, drug/alcohol abuse, suicide, death, parental abuse, etc. than anywhere else. We want to ban books because they discuss such topics – but kids go through this every day. Not only that, but they’re online. They watch TV. They see this stuff anyway. The difference is, they see it in real life, with no tools to handle it or process it.

Fiction gives them those tools. By allowing them to read about fictional characters who are going through difficult situations, it allows them to see how this character handles it – and the results of their choices. It gives them a way to discuss what they would have done instead, or options the character may have had. They have a chance to identify with someone, perhaps someone who’s going through a very similar thing. Not only that, but these characters sometimes give kids a role model, someone to look up to. How many teenage girls went to archery ranges after The Hunger Games became popular? Maybe more importantly, how many of them realized that girls could hold their own against boys? Maybe even gave them the confidence to defend themselves if the need arose?

This is one reason why To Kill a Mockingbird is still a classic today. (We’ll forget that other, second book for a moment.) Through Scout’s eyes, we’re able to understand Jim Crow South. We’re able to see racism from her vantage point. We’re able to see the hatred and fear of the town, and the incredible courage Atticus Finch shows. Atticus (until that second book, anyway) gave us a father figure to look up to. Published in 1960, just six years after Brown v. Board of Education, just five years after the murder of Emmett Till, it showed the world the South that Harper Lee knew. It drove home the fact that the South she knew was still very much alive. And I like to think it gave whites the courage to stand up for what they knew was right, to start joining the fight for civil rights.

Was it challenged? Of course. By both blacks and whites, generally on grounds of racial content, racial slurs, profanity, and sexual content. It’s been challenged – and banned – since it was published.

But that’s the point. It challenged us. 

All good books should challenge us. That’s what good literature – whether adult or young adult – should do. The Hunger Games and Divergent challenge us to consider a future with a totalitarian government in which all civil rights are eradicated. Thirteen Reasons Why, although many people have pointed out that the reason for the suicide may not be believable, is still disturbing to a lot of adults – I taught this book in a Young Adult Fiction class designed for teachers, and I was surprised that this was the book that most disturbed them, that they didn’t think they could actually use in a classroom. The Book Thief forces us to consider the evils of Nazi Germany – but also, to recognize that not everyone bought into Hitler’s vision, and that many were just trying to survive.

So, yes. Some books are dangerous. Some make us question our beliefs. Some make us question our upbringing. Some make us question our society.

And that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do.

 

Some links you might find interesting:

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/classics – the American Library Association’s ‘Banned Classic Book’ List

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009 – the most challenged books from 2000 – 2009.

http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/indexlibrorum.asp – the Index of Forbidden Books, from Fordham University

 

 

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Half-Baked Cupcakes: Getting Your Characters “Done”

It’s no secret:  I’m a historian, and I write a lot of historical fiction. Even my urban fantasies are infused with history. (Sort of hard not to be, when one of my MCs is an 18th-century ghost, I guess.)

But one thing I’ve learned over the past years is that characters will often come to you fully formed – including backstory – and sometimes, they don’t. They’re like a cupcake that’s not quite done in the center. It looks done; the top has risen, and it looks like all the other cupcakes, but it’s just not. Stick the toothpick in, and you get a gooey mass of unbaked chocolate batter.

So what do you do?

There’s a couple of things. First, figure out what you do know about this character. They came to you, so clearly you need them in the story somehow. They fulfill a purpose. Of course, if this is the waiter that brings your MC a glass of water and we’re never seeing him again, then no worries. Don’t bother. But if this is the waiter that brings your MC a glass of water, and suddenly he pulls out a gun and shoots at the baddie that’s been secretly stalking your MC – wow. He just turned into a Real Character. How’d he come to be there? Why is he packing? How many more tricks does he have up his sleeve, and where did he learn them?

Those are the things you may not know right now. You may be just as shocked as anyone that this random guy has done this. Maybe you meant for something else to happen in that scene. Who cares? Go with it!!!! Because if this character can suddenly insert himself into your novel like that, he’s worth keeping.

So. You can talk to him, of course – do a character sketch, where you let the character tell you about his life. I do this a lot.

But depending on what he says, you may also have to do some research. Let’s say he’s Interpol. Well. What do YOU know about Interpol? Maybe nothing! Maybe you head the term on an old rerun of “Magnum, PI.” So you’ll need to do your research. What you learn in your research will shape who he is. If he’s Interpol, chances are he’s not American – so what is his nationality? That will give you race, religion, ethnicity, beliefs, other languages he speaks, contacts & connections . . . You might even change your mind. You might realize he’s not Interpol at all – instead, he’s Mossad (Israel’s version of the CIA). Or Scotland Yard.

Well, then what?! 🙂 More research!

If you hate research, then better stick to the old adage “write what you know.” But even then, there’s going to be research. Let’s say you’re writing about your home town and one of your MCs is an auto mechanic. Do you know anything about that? Or maybe he’s engaged to a woman who runs the local movie theatre. Or teaches for a local college. Research!

I’m doing this right now with Sarah, my female lead in the historical romance I’m working on. The more I research Massachusetts circa 1774, the more real she becomes.

Another example is Rebecca, from my urban fantasy series. Rebecca appeared briefly in one novel, but I was always intrigued by her and finally decided that she needed her own novel. So I wrote it. It sucked. Mostly because I had no idea who Rebecca was. I thought I did:  I really thought I did, but in reality, she was a caricature. Calling her a half-baked cupcake is a kindness; she hadn’t even been put in the oven yet! In truth, she was missing quite a few key ingredients!

So I put it away, embarrassed I’d even let my beta readers see it.

And then one night – about six months later – I had a very clear scene in my mind. Rebecca, squaring off against her husband, only I knew that it wasn’t really her husband, but something else. I grabbed my laptop and started writing – and from the second my fingers touched the keys, it was her voice coming through. Calm, educated, scared to death. In love so deeply with her husband that she might very well drown in it. And yes, a woman living in the 17th century with powers no one could attribute to anything other than witchcraft. It was that voice I’d been waiting for. It simply took her longer than my other characters to bake.

What’s funny is that there’s another character from these novels. a ghost named Shannon, who came to me 100% done and ready to raise all kinds of hell. But Rebecca was more subtle. I needed to do more research on the time period, read more about the witch trials of the time, review the Malleus Maleficarum. And in truth, there was another character who I needed to know more about – her nemesis. They began to come to me in tandem, telling their stories. In truth, I love her nemesis – he’s an extremely complicated character, and makes no excuses for it. But I needed to research him as well. I needed to know how he came to be in her village, and once I understood that . . . I had no problems.

Rebecca is much closer to being done than she was a year ago. I’m still struggling with how to finish her story and embed it into the existing novel without a ton of rewriting – it’ll involve some experimenting with format, and I’m okay with that. Besides, I’m still doing research for both her and Sarah. And with every new fact I learn, the more ‘real’ I know they’re going to be.

Someday, they’ll be cupcakes fresh from the oven. Fully baked. Ready to be frosted and consumed by readers.

At least, I hope so!!!!

Existing in a Vacuum: A Rant About Literature Classes

I’m teaching a philosophy class this semester. First time. Nothing big, just a basic introduction course, but it’s been interesting and I LOVE the students. They are so curious, so questioning. They don’t hesitate to call ‘crap!’ on these philosophers!

But today we had a discussion that really broke my heart.

I’m a historian and a writer, above all else. (And, currently, a feeder of newborn kittens every two hours, but I digress.) So in philosophy, I love to go into the history of the times, so my students understand why these philosophers were thinking about certain things, what their inspirations were, even what they were railing against. So today, we finally got to the Existentialists – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc. – and I was able to talk about the tragedies of the Industrial Revolution and the horrors of World War I.

And I mentioned the literature of the time, too. How it was moving from the romanticism of Jane Austen, to the more rugged adventures of Mark Twain. That it was a reflection of the times (I forgot to mention Upton Sinclair, though!), I especially mentioned Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.”

Now, let me be clear:  I don’t love all literature, and I don’t think all the literature we force down the throats of high school and college students today is worth the paper its printed on. If I ever get my hands on a TARDIS, the first thing I’m going to do is go back in time and shoot Flaubert before he has a chance to write Madame Bovary. I’ve never, ever wanted a character to die on page 1 as much as I wanted that self-centered, self-absorbed bitch to die!

Again, I digress. Suffice to say, there is literature we all could do without.

But what broke my heart was when I discussed “The Story of an Hour” and heard that my students a.) weren’t reading it in class, and b.) hated their literature classes. Hated their Comp 2 classes, in fact, because they are basically literature classes. And what they hated most was the stories the teacher had chosen.

No, I don’t like all literature. (See remarks on Madame Bovary, above.) I think there’s a lot more out there that could be explored, but isn’t, either because the teachers are too lazy to do the prep work, or because they just don’t like the stories. I hate that students aren’t allowed to ‘choose their own adventure’ when it comes to literature. I took a British Lit class once because I adore British Lit – but the stories the teacher chose were really, truly awful.

More importantly, though, what I always hated about my lit classes was the lack of history that went along with them.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the thing:  nothing exists in a vacuum. Teaching is, and should be, a holistic experience. In Anthropology, we explore everything – history, colonization, artwork, marriage and family relations, religion, biology, forensic science, current events . . . and I do the same in my history classes. Because nothing exists in a vacuum.

PARTICULARLY LITERATURE!

Ever read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? I have, and when it was presented to me, I had no clue how to interpret it (though I did despise Gregor’s family and sympathized with him greatly, which earned me the ire and mockery of my classmates). Now, I know far more about Kafka’s life, and the society in which he lived, and his influences, and I have a much better grasp on that story. But when I was younger? Nope. It’s really quite philosophical, in fact; really, it’s a discussion of Kafka’s own bleak outlook on life, that all humans are doomed to be alone, to always live as outcasts, never to be truly known by others. (And, apparently, also doomed to die with a rotting fruit stuck in our carapaces.) So if you thought it was just about a guy who turns into a bug, think again.

Let me go back to “The Story of an Hour.” If you’ve never read it, here’s a link:  http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/

This is a story about a woman who has been under the thumb of her husband for her entire married life. Maybe he was abusive; maybe he wasn’t; Chopin lets us draw our own conclusions there. But once she this woman realizes he is dead, she also realizes one critical fact:  she’s free.

I talk about this story in my US History classes, when we look at the Victorian Era. This story was published in 1894 – twenty five years before women had the right to vote! Chopin was a voice crying out for women’s liberation before the term had ever been coined. She urged women to fight for their rights and their independence, every bit as much as Jefferson, et.al., urged the American colonies to rebel against the shackles of Britain (their words; I’m a Loyalist, myself!). But unless you know about the Victorian Era, the ‘cult of domesticity’ that kept upper-class women busy with silly affairs of the home, and the wrath and ridicule that women who dared step out of their sphere of influence endured – then how can you fully grasp what this story’s about?

Fact:  You can’t.

Every single time I put this story in its proper historical context in my courses, I see the light dawning on students’ faces. Hear the words. “Oh! THAT’S what it means! We read it in Lit, but I had no idea what it meant.”

Good grief, Charlie Brown. How can you pretend to teach Siegfried Sassoon, Kate Chopin, Anna Sewell, Rudyard Kipling  – any of the 19th century writers – without putting their works into context? How??????? How can you sit there and preach to the students what they should and shouldn’t “get” out of these stories and novels, and not give them the tools to understand them?

Fact:  You can’t.

No one would dare try to teach the Declaration of Independence, or Common Sense, or “Vindication of the Rights of Women” without historical context. So why do it for literature? These are historical documents, too! No, when they were written, the authors didn’t consider them to be historical. But they are. They are microcosms of 19th century life – the mannerisms, clothing, hair styles, society and social hierarchy, politics, humor, even the jobs and modes of transportation, are all there.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Not you. Not me. Not literature.

So please, lit instructors:  give it context, and make it interesting.

And if you can’t – maybe you need to hand the reins over to someone who can.

“You Are Here!” – The Importance of Creating Historical Settings

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about pop culture references in your work, and how they can be taboo to some, and ‘setting’ to others (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/pop-culture-yay-or-nay-the-shadow-knows/).

When you’re writing a novel set in present times, it’s a bit of a two-edged sword. For example:  the movie Clueless turns 20 (I KNOW, right? 20? How did THAT happen?!) this summer. If you grew up watching it (I was in my teens when it was released), then the cultural references are something you totally get. When Cher says “I think they’ve seen that Tina and Ike movie way too many times” (and I think I just got that quote wrong!), you know exactly who she means and why she’s saying it. It’s context. And let’s face it:  who hasn’t said “That was way harsh” in the last twenty years? 🙂 The designers (“This is an Alaia!” “An A-what-a?” “It’s like a totally important designer!”), the cell phones, the gay best friend – they all date this movie to one very specific time period.

The same is true of your novel. You have to remember that even if you’re writing a contemporary novel, some day it will be a historical. There, did that blow your mind? But it’s true. Think about it. Think about the books you had to read in high school:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice . . . written by people who were writing about their own era, and yet today they are historical. Some day, the same will be true of Gone Girl.

But if you’re writing a historical novel, getting the details right is key, because you’re not throwing around pop culture references:  you’re creating setting.

Currently, I’m reading City of Women by David R. Gillham. Set in 1943 Berlin, it’s a fantastic glimpse inside that city and the lives of the people just trying to survive the war. Gillham hasn’t just plunked down a few facts here and there to add flavor; he’s immersed the story in the setting. I adore it. I feel like I’m there. This novel could not have occurred at any other time, in any other place.

Had this novel been written in the 1950s or 1960s, the references to the movies they watch, the war rations, the patriotic songs, might be considered trite and unnecessary. But seventy years removed, all these things let the reader see precisely what Gillham wants us to see:  Berlin, 1943. Harsh, cold, barely functioning, Gestapo everywhere. A place where one’s identity card must be at the ready at all times, and speaking out against the Reich is death.

The book is so well written, in fact, that I had trouble choosing a passage to demonstrate what I mean. But here’s one:

Another blast shakes the cellar, and the lamps blink frantically. But by this time the rest of the shelter’s inhabitants must welcome a bomb blast or two, if only to silence Frau Remki’s suicidal indictment (*of Hitler; she’s just called Hitler the devil, which is Not Good in 1943 Berlin, to put it mildly). And indeed when the light sputters back to a low-wattage glow, the woman has sunk back down to her place like a pile of rags. The thudding explosions grow more distant, but the cellar remains a densely silent place . . . One long, aching howl, signaling that the RAF has crossed over the line into Hannover-Brunswick airspace, and that Berlin, that vast, rambling city, is all-clear.

Gillham has it all:  the street names; the exact trains; the brand of the really good, black-market cigarettes; the German terms, unobtrusively explained either by context or within the next line.  Even the furtive, illegal act of listening to the BBC with your ear pressed to the speaker, the sickening realization that what Berlin is being told about the Eastern Front is a complete propaganda lie . . . You are there. You’d really rather not be. But you can’t escape.

Getting these details right is at the heart of any good historical novel. But as I learned at the Oklahoma Writer’s Conference this spring, you’ve got to have an agent who ‘gets’ that time period. There was a ‘first page workshop,’ where some people got to submit their first pages for critique by the agent (and the audience). We read a relatively good page, set in the early 1930s, in which the character looks at the thermometer (as I recall, it actually said that the thermometer was hanging outside the window) and notices it’s very hot, very early in the morning.

“See,” the agent said, pointing out the word thermometer, “this has to change. This should be thermostat. This is sloppy writing. This is what I meant when I said you need to proofread.”

Before I could say a word, the older lady next to me jumped to her feet. “Uh, no,” she said, “the word should be thermometer! This is one of those big Dr. Pepper thermometers that used to hang outside of buildings! I know exactly what they’re talking about!”

So writers, take note:  your readers will know, and your agent may not. Get it right anyway, and be ready to defend your word choice if necessary! But that’s precisely the kind of thing I mean. Look at maps – but look at photographs, too. Describe the buildings you’re writing about. Describe the clothes, the cars. Don’t say He was wearing a hat; be specific to your time period. Is it a slouch hat? Gray fedora? Stetson? Tweed driving cap? Is the building granite or limestone? It’s not just about the details, it’s about the right, exact, and accurate details.

Create the setting for your novel. Create the setting that your characters can live and breathe in, that contributes to the plot. Create the setting that captures readers and holds them hostage, where they breathe the foul fog off the Thames, or hear the jingle and creak of harness, or break a wrist cranking over a Model T engine. Create the historical setting that becomes a character itself.

Even if you’re writing a contemporary novel. 🙂

Historical Fiction: Playing in the Sandbox

A few weeks ago on a writing website, someone asked a question that went like this:

“I want to write a historical novel for my first novel ever and I don’t know what era I should use so tell me!”

soapboxThis is one of those times I gently banged my head against my desk and refrained from responding. Because this goes back to my biggest pet peeve. Soapbox time again: you don’t become a writer by saying “I want to be a writer” and then begging for ideas. You become a writer by writing.

Historical writing is so close to my heart, as a historian. My first attempts at novels were fantasy, with a heavy dose of medieval history; later efforts revolved around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of my ideas, truth be told, are based in history — even my urban fantasy series is steeped in several layers of history going back 500+ years. That’s a lot of research! And it bothers me so much when someone says, “I don’t know what era to write in.” Um — how do you NOT know?

As I’ve said before, Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite authors, for a multitude of reasons. (Her ability to write really hot sex scenes is just part of it. Really.). Here’s one of her interviews, where she talked about how she came to have the idea for Outlander:  http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/gabaldon.html

Yup. I realize she broke all the rules. Still does. But the point is, she chose a time period herself. Thinking like a writer, she took inspiration from the things around her (Yes, I call Doctor Who an inspiration!), and then proceeded to draft things. She thought about sources of conflict. That’s where Claire Randall came in. And like a good writer, when Claire began to take over the story and boss it around, Diana let her.

History’s a funny thing. It won’t let you get away with much. It’s a sandbox with definite boundaries. And yet, once you start to work within its limits, it seems to expand and grow. Your sandbox becomes infinite. Take Nicky, for example. I had become 100% focused on his run-ins with the local Klan. But as dug into the newspapers for 1924, I learned that there was an entire bootlegging empire in this region. Not only were they bootlegging, they were stealing cars and chickens and even hijacking people on the streets and stealing their valuables! And I knew immediately that Nicky would never, ever get involved in that — but what another level of complexity and conflict for the novel! By playing within the confines of my historical sandbox, I was given a broad base, which may allow me to expand this from one novel into at least two, and maybe a trilogy.

So no. I don’t understand the whole “I want to write a historical but I don’t know when to set it” question. Because to anyone who does historical research, we know that the history will dictate what you can and cannot do.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind, from a historian’s point of view, if you want to do historical fiction:

1.) The characters and your era have to work together. One will inform the other. If they don’t, you’re screwed. I believe Claire and Jamie were always there in Diana Gabaldon’s head, just waiting to get out; it just took her finding the right time period first! When Nicky came to me, there was no doubt he was from the 1920s. The two almost always arrive together.

2.) Your characters have to work within societal norms — or be very aware of the price if they don’t. If your character wants to break the rules of society, you’d better give her a good reason, and a good cover. Let’s say you’ve got a 14-year old girl who wants to attend University of Paris in the 1400s, for example. She’ll have to cut her hair. Behave like one of the boys. Lots of conflict there! This is where so much conflict comes in for Nicky; he knows the rules. He just chooses to ignore them. But he also knows the price he’s going to pay if he ever gets caught.

This is one thing that bothers me so much about Ariana Franklin’s books. While painstakingly researched, her main character, Adelia, consistently acts outside the societal norms — in fact, she acts quite a lot too much like a 20th century woman. It really takes me out of the story; the historian in me keeps saying But she’d have been burned as a witch already!

3.) Research, research, research. Read every book you can get your hands on about that era. Your character’s field of work. Horses. Whatever you need to research, do it. Somewhere out there are experts in your field. Find them. Or I promise, once you publish, they will find you. 🙂 Even if you are 99.9% sure you know what x and y are, double-check everything. Triple-check. I have to find out if you can, in fact, drop a 1917 V-8 Cadillac engine into a 1916 Model T. I’m sure hoping so. If you’re lucky enough to be working within the past 150 years or so, read newspapers from that time period. Get a feel for the language and politics and fashions and rules.

4.) There is some room for play. But not much. We often talk about “poetic license” and “taking liberties.” But you have a contract with your reader. If you’re telling them this is a straight-up historical, that’s what they’re expecting. Take one step out of bounds, and you’ll never hear the end of it. If you choose to write alternative history, or a time-travel novel, then your reader will expect you to take a few liberties. For Nicky, I’ll be taking a handful of liberties; I already know that. But the liberties I plan to take all make sense within the confines of the 1920s. Never give your characters an easy way out. By playing within the sandbox of your era, you make sure their conflicts, and their risks, are genuine.

So if you’ve ever thought about writing a historical novel, keep these things in mind. People who read historical fiction are a unique group; they’re often historians or “amateur historians” themselves (I put that in quotes only because the “amateur” historian often has more knowledge of a particular subject than a trained, degreed historian!), and they will rip you apart if you get one thing wrong, like underwear.

So go find your sandbox. It might look small now. But I promise, once you start to research and write, you’ll look up one day and realize that sandbox has no limits.