A novel of tedium and infodump in Medieval France

I was excited to find this among the $3 books at a used bookstore. My parents bought me the second book years ago, for my birthday or Chanukah, but I’d never read it. Sadly, I yet again had the exact opposite reaction from the crowd re: a very popular recent hist-fic.

Why might that be this time?

1. Ms. Anton gets an A+ for research, a D for storytelling. It’s a bunch of ideas and historical facts patched together. The narrative plods along tediously, with no compelling, well-developed characters or strong prose to compensate.

2. Showing off her research. Ms. Anton dumps in detailed information that has nothing to do with the purported main story, like Medieval French politics, parchment-making, wine-making, and Rashi’s mother’s diary.

3. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue conveying said details. Enough said.

4. Head-hopping deluxe! When we’re in too many heads, too close together, for not enough time each, we’re ultimately in no one’s head, and can’t care about the characters. The trick to handling an ensemble cast is to weave the POVs, just as a great figure skating program weaves the elements in and out instead of clustering them.

5. By the time an actual plot finally emerged (over 200 pages in), I was long past caring about anyone. At least in A Farewell to Arms, I felt bad for the baby for about two seconds!

6. The sex scenes are like Medieval Jewish porn fantasies! I also call BS on Rashi giving fairly graphic sex advice to his own daughters and son-in-law and giving the latter intimate details about his sex life! And enough already with the unrealistic trope of virgins having a mind-blowingly awesome first time!

7. I call BS on men waiting outside the mikvah for their wives and gossiping about who went there! Taharat hamishpacha, family purity, is an extremely private mitzvah, which even many women didn’t discuss with other women till a few decades ago. You’re not supposed to know who went there, esp. if she’s your sister, mother, or rabbi’s daughter! A brother also wouldn’t oversee his own sister’s immersions!

8. Was it really common for women to regularly come to synagogue, not just for holidays and the Sabbath, in the 11th century?

9. The word “gender” is anachronistically used in place of “sex” six times, including twice in dialogue. People in the 11th century DID NOT use that word in that way, EVER! It only became a euphemism for “sex” in the late 20th century, thanks in large part to the vile Dr. John Money and his grotesque experiment with poor David Reimer. The freaking Victorians weren’t afraid to say “sex” when referring to being male or female!

10. Either someone confused the dating, or Ms. Anton SORASed her characters. The timeline says Joheved was born in 1059, yet she’s twelve when the story opens in 1069. Miriam’s birth year is given as 1062, yet she’s nine when the story opens. Joheved’s husband Meir is depicted as four years older, yet he was born circa 1060.

11. Speaking of, I had no sense of these girls growing up. I know there was no concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages, but I never had a feeling for how old they were at any given time, or of going on a coming-of-age journey with them. It felt more like SORASing.

12. Zero character development. Enough said.

13. I call BS on the premarital kissing and making out! Traditional Orthodox couples aren’t even allowed to be alone without a chaperone or hold hands before marriage.

14. Every time a conflict appears, it’s quickly resolved, like when Rashi catches Joheved and Meir making out before they’re married.

15. The blurb makes it sound like the story is about Meir’s disapproval of Joheved’s Talmud study, but he’s totally cool with it after his initial shock. It was extremely unusual for Jewish women (and even most men) to be so educated in this era, yet we never gauge any long-lasting reactions to this from anyone!

16. The depictions of births and midwifery aren’t accurate, as a reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads explained in detail.

17. Constantly interrupting the narrative to define or explain things!

Rashi and his daughters (who really did study Talmud and pray with tefillin) deserved so much better. I’m told the second book depicts Miriam’s husband Benjamin as openly gay, and the community anachronistically accepts this.

When to change a character’s name

If you observe Sukkot, may you have a joyous holiday!

Rare is the writer who’s never changed even one character’s name. It happens to just about everyone, growing to think of a character by one name and then suddenly realizing that name doesn’t work, no longer appeals to us, or just doesn’t have the kind of standout flair needed for a protagonist. Here are some of the reasons I’ve changed characters’ names, reasons also applicable to many other people.

It’s not culturally/linguistically accurate

This was a big issue with my Russian and Estonian characters until 2011. Even after I knew better, I engaged in some powerful cognitive dissonance to justify keeping English names. I innocently copied what I saw, and then just became so emotionally attached to these names. It was rather selective attachment, since I changed some names in 1996, like Alexis, Anne, and Kathie, yet kept holding onto names like Margaret, Amy, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter.

This is why it’s so important to use accurate names for characters in a culture outside of your own. Otherwise, you risk younger or less-informed writers copying you and assuming those are real names in that language. The entire world doesn’t speak English, and generally only certain people in reigning families went by non-native forms of their names. I only kept a few non-Russian nicknames, and found plausible reasons.

This also explains why my Jewish characters of oldest vintage have German, Dutch, and Polish surnames instead of names like Katz, Cohen, Kaganowicz, Lipschitz, and Rosenfeld. Many of them also have normal, secular names, or common Bible names just as likely to be used by Christians. However, this isn’t completely inaccurate, and I like how it makes my characters appear like regular members of their home cultures. I don’t want insular characters with shtetl names like Faige, Shternie, Avrumie, and Mottie.

It’s not historically accurate and is anachronistic

When I was younger, I naïvely believed the names I knew had always been used, either altogether or on girls instead of boys. Therefore, I created a few minor female characters named Ashley in my Atlantic City books. It’s one thing to have an outlier within the realm of plausibility, like a Jennifer born in 1940 or a Liam born in 1984, but there are some names which just weren’t used on girls prior to very recently, as well as names which simply didn’t exist. Either change the name entirely, or find a close-enough-sounding substitute.

The two oldest sisters in my long-shelved but to-be-resurrected 18th century series were originally named Marionetta (nicknamed Jinx) and Marilyn. Neither of those names existed in that century, so I’ll have to change them when I finally dust them off. Since the third, much-younger sister’s name is Labyrinth (called Lady), I found the perfect new names and reasons for them. Their mother is so enamoured of Greek mythology, she names all of her children after rather obscure Greek deities, including all the children she lost between the former Marilyn and Labyrinth. Jinx’s real name will be Iynx (pronounced like Inks), and Marilyn will become Myrina. Jinx is merely an alternate Romanized form of Iynx.

You want a more standout name for a protagonist or important character

A lot of the names in my hiatused or planned soft sci-fi/futuristic books have names which aren’t standout enough for a main character. There’s nothing wrong with names like Casey, Terri, or Shelly, but they just seem kind of “there” when it comes to an important character. The average reader is more likely to remember a character with a distinctive name one doesn’t encounter every day. I changed Casey to Arcadia, and will change the names of Terri and her two sisters to Esperanto names, since they live in a large Esperantist commune.

You’ve already used the name on more than one other character

You can get away with using the same name on multiple characters in the same series or story (as long as they don’t really appear together or go by different nicknames or titles), as well as using the same name on characters in different books, but it can feel kind of unoriginal or wrong to use the same name too many times.

I kind of reached my saturation point with the name Victoria. There are two Viktoriyas in my Russian novels (the elderly Mrs. Yeltsina and Katrin’s whipper-snapper little sister), and a Viktoria (Vikki) in my Atlantic City books. Therefore, I no longer want to have a Vikki and a Victoria Jane (V.J.) in two more books, despite those being the planned original names for those characters.

You just don’t like it anymore

You should never feel bound to keep using a name you no longer like or have grown to find boring. The unlikely Tsaritsa in my alternative history was originally named Varvara (Varya), but changed to Arkadiya, and the Tsesarevich’s name was changed from Stepan to Yaroslav (Yarik).

Anachronisms to watch out for, Part V

In loving memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

This is the fifth installment of a series on potential anachronisms which can mar the plausibility and accuracy of a historical. In future, I may create more sections if I think of more categories.

Geography/neighborhoods

Some regions of countries didn’t exist, or had different names. Many former colonies had different names. Some cities under foreign rule weren’t officially called by their native names. (Side rant: Ukraine has been independent for over 20 years. It’s offensive to keep referring to their cities by Russified names.) Some streets had different names. The boundaries of neighborhoods were different sometimes. One of the obvious examples of this is that of the so-called “East Village,” which was just the northern, increasingly gentrified section of the Lower East Side till the mid-Sixties. I laughed when I heard of a YA “historical” set in 1950 in the “East Village.”

Personal grooming

As I detailed in Historical Fiction and Body Hair, one of my most-viewed posts (with a lot of creepy, perverted search terms finding it), women in the past didn’t have an obsession with being hairless. A woman in, say, the 1930s would’ve probably been considered touched in the head for shaving her pubic hair, and Western women didn’t shave their underarms till a very successful ad campaign in 1915. Leg-shaving rose in popularity around the same time but didn’t become uniformly popular till around the 1940s. On the male side, facial hair was out of fashion for a lot of the 20th century, and excess body hair was considered a turn-on, not a turn-off.

Toilet training

In the West, until about the 1950s, it was the norm to have your child out of diapers by the second birthday and dry through the night by the third birthday. There wasn’t this culture of keeping kids in diapers and training pants until age four or five, or waiting until the parent thought the child was “ready.” Having a three-year-old wandering around in diapers in 1900 would be pretty anachronistic.

Engagement rings

Until the DeBeers ad campaigns of the late 1940s, diamonds weren’t the most common engagement ring stone. Many people didn’t even have engagement rings, and if they did, they were often more affordable and modest. People 100 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought of an engagement ring costing two-three months’ salary. The alleged “engagement ring” I had to buy myself (and hence got to keep) has black diamonds with some small white accent diamonds, and was under $400 before tax.

Wedding dresses

White dresses weren’t the style until Queen Victoria wore one. And btw, white was meant as a display of her wealth, not some vulgar public proclamation of the state of her hymen. Until probably the post-WWII era, it was most common for American brides to wear simple, modest dresses, often dresses they made themselves and could wear again for ordinary days. In much of the rest of the world, red is the traditional bridal colour. If I ever marry, I’m going to wear a gorgeous black gown (with actual sleeves!) from a nearby designer who does a lot of Medieval- and Renaissance-style gowns.

Anachronisms to watch out for, Part IV

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the plausibility or accuracy of a historical.

Menstrual products

There’s one funny scene in my 7th Max’s House book that I now realise couldn’t have happened in 1943. Max’s hated youngest full brother Gene grabs a random pair of clothes in a beach locker room after their cousin Elaine put his real clothes down a sewer as revenge. Gene comes home and all the way out to a restaurant wearing pink shorts with a maxi pad stuck to them, and everyone, of course, laughs hysterically. Mr. Seward goes ballistic when he sees it, and refuses to believe Gene’s story. As punishment, he eats Gene’s dinner, rubbing salt in his wounds by making loud yummy noises.

Sanitary napkins didn’t have adhesive strips till the early Seventies. Prior to that, women had to wear belts, suspenders, and special underwear, or attach the pad with hooks or pins. Tampon use wasn’t that common, particularly among single girls. There also wouldn’t have been mainstream ads for any of these products, and they were often sold in unmarked brown paper right near the register, to save women the shame of being caught buying them in public.

Body modification

Tattoos and non-ear piercings didn’t start going mainstream in the West till the 1980s. Even ear-piercings was frowned upon as prostitute-like for a long time. Having more than one earring in an ear would’ve been considered shocking and scandalous for much of the 20th century. You couldn’t just walk into a tattoo parlour or find one in the yellow pages 50 years ago.

Sports

What sports were popular in your chosen era? Were the rules different? My father and brother still laugh when remembering how I thought I knew all these football rules based on reading the 1965 encyclopedia we had. It included positions and moves that no longer exist.

Language

Watch the slang your characters use. I’m embarrassed that I had my 1940s and even 1910s characters using 1990s American slang. Make it accurate to the time period, but don’t overdo it. And watch for modern terms and phrases, like “shut up” or “brainwashed.”

Transportation

How did people most commonly get around in your chosen era? Trains were very common for long-distance transportation until airfare became more affordable for ordinary people. A lot of people didn’t have cars even after they supplanted horses. Most people crossed the ocean in ships, not planes, until probably the 1970s. And make sure you know how fast a given mode of transport could travel in that era. Crossing the ocean in a ship took a lot longer in the 18th century than in the 1920s, for example.

Cost of living

Look at some old catalogues and other resources to see how cheap it was (by today’s standards) to buy food, a car, a house, clothes, a wedding dress, shoes, appliances, and a night out on the town.

Sexual double standard

Sadly, it’s still very much alive and well, but before women’s lib, it was even more oppressive. Even a lot of women bought into it. It was so horrifying to read the slut-shaming in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and its sequel in all but name, Joy in the Morning. A minor character in Tree, Joanna, was treated like an absolute pariah because she dared go out in public with and show love to her baby girl born out of wedlock. Her boyfriend wanted to marry her, but his mother and sisters insisted she had cheated and he couldn’t be the father, since “if she let you, she let others.” In Joy, Carl’s hideous mother and sister also say this when they find out Annie’s pregnant, albeit some months after marriage. But of course, it’s okay for a man to sleep around and have premarital sex, since he’s a man.

Anachronisms to watch out for, Part III

This is the third installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the plausibility and accuracy of a historical.

Education

Different methods and information were emphasised at different times in history. Creative learning wouldn’t have been popular in the conformist pre-1960s era. Students were expected to blindly memorise instead of having more interactive, personally meaningful lessons. Until very recently, young students were taught and expected to use cursive. I learnt cursive in second grade, in 1987-88, and always felt cursive to be more grown-up than print. Now I’ve come to find out that a lot of my peers, and younger people, don’t even know cursive, and that many teachers no longer teach it.

An education was a luxury for the rich until mandatory, free public education became popular in the late 19th/early 20th century. Until then, mostly well-off white boys could go to school for longer than a few years. Many schools also had separate doors for boys and girls.

Food

As I’ve written about before, food shouldn’t be a minor detail. You can’t have people in the 1920s, outside of a big city, having pizza, just as you can’t have people during the Civil War having gelato and hummus.

Clothes

What was in fashion? How long or short were hemlines? What were hats like? Did people wear gloves? Was it common to make one’s own clothes? Do your characters live in a big city, where they could get pre-made clothes at a department store?

Just because an item of clothing was trendy or existed doesn’t mean everyone would’ve worn it. Also, don’t overdo it with the fashionable clothes. It seems like a parody if, say, 1920s characters wear nothing but raccoon coats, rolled-down stockings with clocks and powdered knees, open galoshes, glovelettes, cloche hats, flapper dresses, and greased hair. People wore ordinary clothes too. Fur was also considered an important part of a woman’s wardrobe until a few decades ago. I generally have women who are as repulsed as I am by stoles, muffs, and coats with actual animal bodies and parts left on, but who happily, matter-of-factly accept fur coats as a way to stay warm and look beautiful.

Religion

A Pre-Vatican II Catholic is very different from a typical modern Catholic. In those days, the priest didn’t face the congregation, the Mass was in Latin, Communion had to be taken with the eyes closed and right from the priest’s hand to one’s mouth, nuns wore full habits, and even lower-income parents did whatever they could to send their kids to private school for a proper Catholic education.

For much of the 20th century, Conservative Judaism was almost identical to Orthodoxy, minus the mixed seating and some differences in the prayerbook. Reform Judaism was way more liberal, with some shuls holding services on Sunday and serving treyf (non-kosher food) at their banquets. Orthodoxy was also more progressive, in its own way. At midcentury, many proper Orthodox shuls didn’t have a mechitza (divider between men and women). Sadly, much of Orthodoxy drifted further and further to the right after the Shoah.