Hist-fic doesn’t require real characters!

It seems many younger hist-fic writers are under the presumption they need to write about real people. While there’s a long, rich tradition of historicals about or prominently featuring real people, as well as the entire subgenre of alternative history, there’s never been a requirement to draw your characters from real life.

Ask yourself why you want to write about this person, and why it needs to be fiction. If you’re so passionately interested in her/him, why not write a biography or a non-fiction book about a certain aspect or period of his/her life? As it is, many of these novels read like bios already.

One of my major problems with these books is that the authors often go off in a completely ahistorical direction. E.g., people who lived 100+ years ago are given very modern values, 100% fictional characters are given major roles in the MC’s life, storylines and events are invented without even the thinnest shred of proof.

Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln immediately comes to mind as such a story. There is so much detailed documentation on the Lincolns, and none of it supports the fantastical depictions of Robert as a cold-hearted villain from birth, Mary having an affair, Mary being sex-crazed, or Mary seducing her husband to force him to marry her!

Julie Orringer, the author of the dreadful snoozefest The Invisible Bridge, recently published her long-promised novel about journalist Varian Fry, one of only five Americans to date to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Given the subject matter, you’d expect a gripping epic about a hero helping many artists, writers, musicians, and other intellectuals to escape Vichy France, right?

WRONG!

It’s all about his insipid gay romance with a made-up character! If you’re going to make a real historical figure gay, you’d better be prepared to prove it with irrefutable evidence instead of speculation. And to check more boxes, Ms. Orringer also made this fake lover biracial.

Just like her massively overrated first novel, this one too is wildly overwritten, with overlong, pointless descriptions of everything. Ms. Orringer also continues her pretentious habit of regularly having entire lines in untranslated French, German, Italian, and Latin, as well as liberally using million-dollar thesaurus words.

Other times a book is little more than a direct retelling of a memoir or autobiographical novel, only with another person in the main role. Nothing new is brought to the story. Caroline: Little House Revisited is a prime example of this. The author also plays into the inaccurate stereotype of Victorian women as dour, depressing, and prudish.

We also have a trend of books like Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti, with a first-person narrator who’s not the MC. This isn’t necessarily a badly-done gimmick, but there needs to be a compelling reason the story isn’t being told by the MC, and the narrator always needs to be in the same place as the MC or know all these details about the MC. Do young writers these days truly not understand the concept of third-person?

I’ve zero problems with sex scenes involving fictional characters, but sex scenes with real people cross a major line for me. Unless this is a person like Casanova, who made no secret of his sexual exploits, it seems a huge invasion of privacy. Do you really think they’d want total strangers 100+ years later to speculate about their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

Even worse are scenes of people relieving themselves! Why did this ever become a thing in fiction?

I get the distinct feeling many of these writers aren’t motivated by respect, and have made little to no effort to understand these people in their full historical context. They just grabbed a familiar name and decided to spice his/her life up for modern readers.

Here’s a novel idea: If you like this historical figure so much but can’t bear to stick to just the facts, create your own character with similar circumstances! Then you can do whatever you want with her/him instead of being bound to following documented history.

2020 in review (Reading, Part III)

Amazon.com: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: An Autobiographical Account of an Escaped Slave and Abolitionist (Clydesdale Classics) eBook: Jacobs, Harriet Ann: Kindle Store

This was a long, slow read, and took forever for Ms. Jacobs to finally stay on the subject of her own life instead of unrelated side stories. The 19th century prose and euphemistic language also made it difficult to read. E.g., until I did some outside research, I thought her scuzzy master Dr. Flint (real name Dr. James Norcom) was raping her. He was guilty of some kind of sexual harassment, but not out and out rape.

I was also surprised at how frequently slaves in her town were able to buy their own freedom, or be sold to people who immediately freed them. The latter happened to her grandma, in whose house Harriet later hid for seven years before going North.

And speaking of those seven years, Harriet kept sending fake letters to Dr. Norcom with addresses from various Northern cities to antagonise him. When she’s finally in the North, guess what, he almost catches her several times, and later finds her in Boston!

Earlier, Harriet antagonised him by having two children out of wedlock with a much-older white man, believing he’d be so angry he’d sell her and she’d be free of his constant sexual harassment. WHAT! I don’t get that train of thought of all. And of course, he didn’t sell her, despite his anger and Harriet’s own shame at being an unwed mother.

The intended audience was white, Northern, Christian women of means, whom she hoped to appeal to and thus enlist to the abolitionist cause. It was originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, though it was really hard for me to imagine a 19th century woman named Linda.

Still, kudos to Harriet on sending her kids North and giving them a good education, escaping slavery, and making a better life for herself in freedom.

Amazon.com: The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel (P.S.) (9780062110848): Wecker, Helene: Books

Talk about a dragging dud! This book started out so captivatingly, with lovely prose, but it quickly ground to a meandering standstill. Many things happened, but they never accomplished anything. The two protagonists don’t even meet till page 172! And it follows that annoying trend of alternating POV chapters.

It seems like someone chose NYC as a lazy default setting and wanted to show off her research of the city in 1899–1900. Why do so many writers immediately and only go to NYC for immigrant stories? How about Boston, Pittsburgh, Philly, St. Louis, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Dallas, even outside the U.S.?

Each respective Jewish and Syrian character is a clone of the other. It’s not even subtle. And there was such poor character development.

Speaking of characters, the forward momentum ground to a halt every time a new character was introduced, and there followed pages of detailed backstory. Why did I and many other writers spend so much time learning how NOT to write like that if apparently it’s still perfectly acceptable?

Even after the protagonists are named Chava and Ahmad, they’re still referred to as the Golem and the Jinni in the narrative.

We’re supposed to believe a well-heeled upper-class young lady like Sophia would leave her bedroom door unlocked in the hopes a strange man she just met might come to her mansion and deflower her?! I’m so tired of historical characters treating premarital sex like no big deal!

Of course it happened a lot, but people were much more discreet, and they stayed within their own social class to do it. Believe it or not, class stratification and consciousness in the U.S. used to be a much bigger deal, the way it still is in the U.K.

As someone who often writes at deliberate saga length myself, I’ve developed a keen sense of when length is justified by the story vs. when it’s an overwritten hot mess. The latter is true here.

Even a deliberately slower-paced, character-driven, episodic story needs hung on some kind of arc. Characters can’t just leisurely meander about doing and saying nothing of importance.

We’re supposed to believe the Jinni has never heard of angels?! They’re very much a part of Muslim theology!

Did the author, a woman herself, really have to be so awful to every single female character who enjoyed sex? Death, beating, enslavement, miscarriage, lifelong illness, abandonment. It’s one thing to present it as historically realistic, but entirely another when it’s accompanied by the attitude of “Oh well, those little harlots got what was coming to them! It serves them right for giving up their sacred maidenhood before marriage!”

Even when the Golem attempts passionate sex with her husband, she stops when she sees how horrified he is at a woman experiencing sexual pleasure!

It also perpetuates the repeatedly-debunked urban legend about names being changed on Ellis Island.

Still reading this book as of 31 December 2020, but I should finish very soon. It’s so fun and accessible, with lots of stories I’d not heard before, or wasn’t very familiar with. Some of these stories don’t directly involve The Beatles themselves, but are about the experiences of fans or people associated with them in some way (e.g., watching Ed Sullivan, writing fan letters, attending the same party).

Some obsessed losers on review sites have whined about how there’s barely anything new here. It must be nice to have read every single printed word about The Beatles and watched every interview for 50+ years. Most people don’t have time or interest for that, and not everyone is a first-generation fan.

2020 in review (Reading, Part II)

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I absolutely loved this book! Though Echo (the English title) is classified as MG, people of all ages can enjoy it. It tells the story of three preteens who successively come into possession of the magical harmonica introduced in the prologue, and beautifully ties all of the stories and characters back together in the end.

The story starts in the 1870s, when Otto gets lost in a forest during a game of hide-and-seek, and meets three sisters from the fairytale he was just reading. This book has blank pages which can only be filled in with a HEA when Otto’s magical harmonica saves a life.

The harmonica eventually makes its way around aspiring conductor Friedrich in 1933 Germany, orphaned brothers Mike and Frankie in 1937 Philly, and promising musician Ivy in 1941–42 Southern California. Each story ends on a cliffhanger, and we don’t find out what happened next until the Epilogue.

The entire story was brilliant and deeply moving.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I loved the first book and liked the sequel. Once again, I’m much more impressed by recent MG hist-fic than YA hist-fic. MG emphasizes the historical setting, whereas much YA is about teen characters who just happen to live in the past.

Ten-year-old Ada was born with clubfoot, which is a huge source of anger to her abusive Mam. Despite being forced to stay inside their one-room flat and not given crutches, though, Ada manages to teach herself to walk. This enables her to leave London with her little brother Jamie when children are evacuated to the countryside in anticipation of bombing raids.

They wind up with an older single woman named Susan, who lives in a cottage left by her deceased best friend Becky (whom most adult readers will understand was her lesbian partner). Susan is none too pleased to have two kids dumped on her, but eventually she starts to genuinely care for Ada and Jamie.

Because of her past abuse, Ada is loath to let down her guard and let Susan love her or do anything nice for her, but she can’t help but find herself growing more attached. She also loves riding Butter, the pony Becky left to Susan.

The sequel felt a bit unfocused, poorly-paced, and not developed as well as the first book, more like a collection of story threads and a plot in search of itself. I would’ve preferred one long book encompassing all these events, with the boring bits cut out.

Amazon.com: Weedflower (9781416975663): Kadohata, Cynthia: Books

Talk about boring! I felt so emotionally detached from everyone, and there was no real plot trajectory. The summary claims it’s about an unlikely friendship between a young Japanese–American girl in an internment camp and a Mohave Indian boy whose reservation is on the same land, but they don’t meet till well into the book, and they don’t have many interactions after that.

Poor character development and flat writing all-around!

A Place to Belong: Kadohata, Cynthia, Kuo, Julia: 9781481446648: Amazon.com: Books

I wasn’t much more impressed by this other book of Ms. Kadohata’s. While I love character-based, slower-paced stories with a more episodic structure, they still need hung on some kind of arc. This book felt more like a collection of story threads that weren’t developed to their full potential.

When your book is episodic instead of built around one major driving plot, those episodes still need to go somewhere and be fully developed. Each chapter should read like a short story, a miniature novel unto itself. Don’t just drop something partway through, or only come back to it later as an afterthought.

E.g., a big deal is made of Hanako getting her trademark long braid cut off to fit in with the girls at school, but we never see her classmates’ reaction to it. She just gets her hair cut, and then we move on to an entirely different episode some time later.

I also disliked! How many times! Sentences would end! In exclamation points! For no reason! Over and over again! It was like reading a Beatrice Sparks or Five Little Peppers book!

I did like the rarely-told story of a family returning to Japan after WWII, thanks to giving up their U.S. citizenship under duress and answering “no” to certain questions on a loyalty test out of fear, confusion, and anger at their implications and wording. Some, like Hanako’s father, soon came to regret this decision, and got in touch with real-life U.S. lawyer Wayne Collins.

Sadly, his thousands of clients were unable to have their citizenship restored as a mass class action. Each case was decided individually, which took as long as 23 years for some people.

I also liked the setting of postwar occupied Japan, esp. close to Hiroshima. Many people struggled to make ends meet and get enough to eat. Jiichan (Grandpa) and Baachan (Grandma) were also lovely, sweet characters.

9780545915960: A Night Divided - AbeBooks - Nielsen, Jennifer A.: 0545915961

I wasn’t that impressed by this one. There wasn’t much character development, not even brief descriptions of physical appearance. For a story about escaping East Berlin, it sure lacked any real suspense, even when Gerta and her brother Fritz spend weeks tunneling in the cellar of a boarded-up building in the literal shadow of the Berlin Wall!

Gerta alternately seemed much younger and older than twelve, and she felt like a modern American criticising East Germany instead of an actual born and bred East German who didn’t know anything but that kind of life. In fact, no one seemed like an authentic East German of 1961. I can’t believe the author matter-of-factly admitted her only real research came from a museum in California!

It finally starts getting exciting in the last quarter, but that portion is full of convenient deus ex machina developments and plot twists I saw coming a mile away.

2020 in review (Reading, Part I)

Amazon.com: Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism eBook: Hotez, Peter J., Caplan, Arthur L., Caplan, Arthur L.: Kindle Store

Dr. Hotez proves (yet again!) that vaccines have zero to do with autism and that Andrew Fakefield is a vile criminal and charlatan with blood on his hands. But of course, the anti-vaccination cult will never accept anything that doesn’t back up their demonstrably false narrative.

However, the book feels more like a biography of his career than a scientific study or a memoir focused on his daughter. I found the constant name-dropping and casually-mentioned upper-middle-class privilege quite annoying. At one point he laments how Rachel won’t have a spouse and kids, advanced degrees, world travel, and life in exciting cities or cushy suburbs, which her parents and siblings take for granted.

I wanted more science, less navel-gazing narcissism. I also was offended at how Dr. Hotez is pro-“cure” (a position widely rejected by autistics and Aspies) and made it seem like Rachel is a chore and burden making his precious UMC life unnecessarily harder.

Eyes On The Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs by Robert Kanigel

I read this book while reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and really enjoyed it. This is a great biography of one of the most important urbanists of the 20th century. It took a special breed of person to choose big-city life in an era when so many other people were hightailing it to suburbia.

It really turned me off, however, when Mr. Kanigel referred to the demolition of the St. Louis high-rise Pruitt-Igoe projects as “a weird kind of urban destruction porn.” WHY do so many people casually use the word “porn” to refer to things that are decidedly NOT pornographic in any way, shape, or form?!

Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai (2008-08-19): Amazon.com: Books

While I loved the rich depictions of Iranian Jewish life in the years leading up to the Revolution, a lot of the writing felt flat. There were also a number of really embarrassing typos, and it felt dishonest to describe this as a book about a Deaf girl when that wasn’t the major storyline at all, and Yaas doesn’t start losing her hearing till about three-quarters of the way in.

Most of the book tells the story of Yaas’s parents, even after she’s born about halfway through the book. There was no reason for first-person narration with such a large ensemble cast!

Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution: Andreas, Peter: 9781501124396: Amazon.com: Books

Mr. Andreas’s mother Carol ran away from home with her three sons after a political conversion in the 1960s. At first they lived in a Berkeley commune, but then she ran away to South America with her youngest son Peter and left her two teen sons back in California. She outright kidnapped him from his father twice.

Carol was no champagne Socialist or limousine liberal. She fully lived her beliefs, though I was horrified at how she exposed her child to sex, violence, danger, unnecessary poverty and squalid living conditions, suicidal ideation, and adult political arguments. Once she even let her much-younger second husband whip him with a belt for no reason! She also let Peter play with a loaded handgun because it was “good training for the revolution,” and was arrested for shoplifting his birthday present.

She dragged Peter from country to country as she voluntarily lived in poverty and did political activism. When she returned to the U.S. to tie up some loose ends from her divorce, Peter’s father and new stepmother got custody of him, and his mother kidnapped him again.

They eventually returned to the U.S. with fake names and lived in a run-down apartment in Denver. I was glad when Peter stood up for himself and refused to go to the crappy high school his mother wanted him to attend for ideological reasons.

I saw this in the new books section of the library just before lockdown started, and really enjoyed it. Since I listen to a lot of auto-generated Eighties-heavy playlists on YouTube, I’ve become very familiar with Wham! and George Michael’s solo work, and have really grown to enjoy both.

This was a fun, fast read. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Wham! years, and isn’t a full-blown memoir of either of their lives. Mr. Ridgeley says many times that they never intended Wham! to be more than a short-lived band with songs about being young and having fun. They wanted to retire before overstaying their welcome. He knew how ridiculous it would be to still sing about carefree, youthful fun in middle-age or on the oldies circuit.

Hollywood's Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era: Cary, Diana Serra (foreword by Kevin Brownlow): 9780870744242: Amazon.com: Books

You might know Diana Serra Cary as Baby Peggy, the last major surviving star of the silent era, who passed away in February 2020 at age 101. She started acting at 18 months old, and had a natural talent from the jump. Like Shirley Temple a generation later, she was instantly an international hit.

Peggy’s parents, particularly her dad, were typical stage parents, and never gave up the idea of her having a comeback after her star faded early. Her acting career could’ve continued a lot longer, but her dad was overly demanding, difficult, and greedy. Though Peggy had nothing to do with his odious behavior, studio execs nevertheless couldn’t avoid dealing with him as long as she was underage.

As an adult, she changed her name to Diana Serra, for a full break from her life as Baby Peggy. Astonishingly, her parents learnt absolutely nothing from her bitter experience, and couldn’t understand why she didn’t want her late-life miracle baby Mark to become a child star too!

But this isn’t a memoir of her own life. Diana also tells the story of many other child stars from the 19th century to the 1940s, many of whom had nightmare stage parents (esp. stage mothers). It’s quite tragic how so many of them became washed-up has-beens before they were even teenagers, and had awful adult lives too.

Edvard Radzinsky: “Alexander II.” – The First Gorbachev | hamiltonbeck

This isn’t a biography of Tsar Aleksandr II so much as it’s an account of the political and social climate of his reign, and his hideous father Nicholas I’s reign. I learnt way more about writers and revolutionaries than I did about Aleksandr himself!

This may partly be the translator’s fault, but a lot of the writing also was very simplistic (e.g., “He ate his meat patty.”). And what was with using the archaic title Tsarevna for the Tsar’s wife?! That was used for daughters of a Tsar until being discontinued in the 18th century!

How not to write a series finale

Warning: Contains major spoilers!

Now I'll Tell You Everything by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

The 28th and final book of a long-running, much-loved series could be an unforgettable, epic tearjerker, or it could bite off far more than it can chew and leave a bitter aftertaste. Unfortunately, the latter is true with this book. Many readers feel the last few books were running out of steam anyway, but the finale takes it to a whole new level.

This book fell far short of the mark in so many ways.

1. Talk about an unrealistic life of upper-middle-class privilege! How many readers can relate to people who regularly vacation abroad, are able to take six years off work to stay home with the kids before coming back to that same job full-time, get their first and only job fresh out of college, spend two years living in Barcelona, or buy their dream house after leaving an apartment?

2. There are no real struggles, which leads to a lack of conflict. The few roadblocks are resolved quickly and never spoken of again (a broken engagement, attempted rape, breast cancer, problems with a rebellious teen, miscarriage).

3. When the time capsule is opened in the final chapter, Alice’s former classmates (now age 60) speak about how their lives haven’t always been easy, with things like divorce, health crises, and losing jobs. That sure as hell didn’t happen to Alice and her BFFs!

4. Is there a word for a reverse floating timeline, where characters age normally as time alternately stands still and passes faster than they’re aging? The first book was published in 1985, and the finale was 2013. A sixth grader of 1985 would not be texting and using Facebook when heading off to college six years later! The time capsule also has a newspaper with headlines about the USSR. Make up your mind about when this series is supposed to be set!

5. The opposite onomastic error of gut-loading your book with current Top 100 names is gut-loading it with dated names. Sure, we’ve probably all known a few young people with names that were most popular in previous generations, but so many of them in the same circle?

6. How many people nowadays marry at all of 23? Yes, I think the pendulum has swung WAY too far in the other direction from the 1950s, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore trends when writing contemporary.

7. The pacing is really off-kilter. Many times, a couple of years fly by within the span of a paragraph or a single sentence later.

8. Does anyone under 80 still seriously refer to women as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name? Nails on a chalkboard every time I saw that archaic convention in print! And again, for a contemporary story, how could there not be at least one woman who keeps her birth surname or hyphenates? Even the lesbian couple shared a surname!

9. A lot of events which took up an entire chapter or long scene in great detail had no relevance to the overall story arc (as it were), like Alice’s son Tyler having trouble with a urine sample, a one-day temp job at a construction site, and several vacations. Meanwhile things like the two years in Barcelona were rushed through in a few pages.

10. Is this intended for teens or adults? Alice’s college years are a natural subject for YA, but how many teens will connect to her worries about raising kids, caring for an aging in-law, and juggling family and work?

11. It’s kind of confusing to have a dad and daughter named Patrick and Patricia. Bad enough when people do that to twins. Why couldn’t Alice name her daughter Marie after her mom, instead of using that as the middle name? Marie is the most overused female middle name in living memory! It’d feel more special if that were her first name.

12. It feels like fanfiction. After the realistic, difficult issues Alice faces for much of the series, now she has a HEA with the guy she’s liked since sixth grade and smooth sailing through the rest of life.

13. Alice’s college years are really underdeveloped. It would’ve been better to focus on them, in a longer than normal book, and either have an Epilogue summing up what happened after she married Patrick, or put her adult life into a second book where each chapter was a short story.

14. Alice spends much of the series thinking about sex, yet when she finally does it, we get no window into her emotions.

15. Poor character development. New people are thrown at us thick and fast during the college years and all blend together, even Dave, the first guy she slept with and almost married. Even long-standing characters start to feel paper-thin.

I didn’t want a nonstop series of tragedies and traumas, but some conflict and realism would’ve been nice. Maybe Alice could’ve married Dave, reconnected with Patrick years later, and realised she still had feelings for him. Perhaps Alice and Patrick could’ve cheated instead of merely contemplating it. Alice could’ve changed her mind about her career path. Elizabeth could’ve kept having miscarriages and Alice volunteered to be an altruistic surrogate. Postpartum depression. Stage 4 cancer.

Anything but this rushed snoozefest devoid of details.