Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

The importance of a glossary (and other supplemental material) for historical and multicultural books

If you’re writing historical, multicultural, or both, it’s important to include a glossary, and possibly an author’s note or other appendices. Your readers who are unfamiliar with the culture, language, and/or era will thank you.

For Jakob’s story, whose release is planned for Friday, I decided to include three sections after the main text ended. I have a list of the sources I consulted, a glossary, and some notes explaining a few things, like how Dutch women are traditionally Lucy Stoners (i.e., they keep their birth surnames after marriage).

While doing my last edit/polishing of the book, I took note of each Dutch or Hebrew term which appeared, and jumped to the glossary in progress to add the words in alphabetical order. My last major thing left to do is finish writing definitions for all the words or concepts. I also included the names of some of the Amsterdam streets and neighbourhoods.

Some of these things are explained in the text, or otherwise made clear through context, but I thought it was a nice touch to have them all defined in one place anyway. Even though I know a number of the people in my community will be reading the book, and therefore know what these Hebrew words mean, I can’t arrogantly assume everyone who reads my book will be Jewish. I care about my readers of all faiths.

I’ve studied lots of world religions, and probably know quite a bit more about Hinduism, Buddhism, certain Christian denominations (particularly Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Mormonism), Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism than the average non-member. (That was the whole reason I recognised the blatantly Mormon language in Beatrice Sparks’s books as yet another clue of her authorship of these “real teen diaries.” I honestly would have more respect for her if she’d just been honest and made her characters Mormon like she was, instead of pretending they were other denominations!) But I know I’m unusual for being so well-versed in so many other religions.

I’m currently revisiting Sydney Taylor’s More of All-of-a-Kind Family, and there are a number of really awkward, infodumpy passages or dialogues that slow the story down by stopping to explain what certain holidays or concepts are. The dialogues are really “As you know, Bob.” That problem is easily solved by a glossary or appendix.

I have much larger glossaries for my Russian historicals. I have sections for foreign words broken down into categories like vulgarities and insults, food, historical references, family relations, terms of endearment, and miscellaneous. Since I’m dealing with prominent characters and words of a number of different backgrounds in the current third book, I indicate in parentheses if a word is Russian, Estonian, Georgian, Armenian, Persian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, etc.

For Little Ragdoll, I went all out with appendices, covering things like real places and streets in Manhattan which were featured; the vintage toys and games mentioned; a chronological listing of all the books, songs, and albums which were featured or mentioned; and the characters’ names’ popularity in their years of birth. Finishing those appendices is the last major thing I have left to do with that book.

If you’ve played with a historical timeline or event to allow for more drama or work better with your story’s timeline, or if a big part of your story revolves around something that would’ve been an unusual occurrence in real life, it’s important to mention that in a note. Historical purists will probably still get their knickers in a knot, but at least you’ve acknowledged something was slightly altered for the purposes of storytelling.

In the notes for my first Russian historical, for example, I explain that the titles Mr. and Mrs. are very rarely used in Russian, but that I retained them as a way of distinguishing the older characters from the younger characters. It was my one major concession to Western naming sensibilities.

Finally, I like to maintain a list of characters, generally in the order they appear, with the names of main and important secondary characters bolded. I include birthdates when known, nicknames or titles in parentheses, and a brief identification of who they are. If a character later changes his or her name, I list him or her by the name with which s/he first appears. As an animal-lover, I also include the pet characters.

Posted in Books, Historical fiction

Top Ten Tuesday Rewind—Must-Read Words and Topics

Happy heavenly 71st birthday to George Harrison, wherever his sweet, beautiful soul may now be. May his memory be for an eternal blessing.

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Tuesday REWIND!, a revisiting of a prior topic you’d like to do again or may have missed. I chose the topic of 30 April 2013, “Top ten words/topics that will make me pick up or buy a book.”

1. Japan. I’d love to read/find more Japanese historicals or contemporaries. I’ve been a Nipponophile since I was fourteen, and plan to write some Japanese historicals once my queue is finally empty or simmering down.

2. China. I’ve always enjoyed Chinese historicals when I’ve read them, though I’ve read even fewer Chinese historicals than Japanese. There’s so much territory to mine, not just in terms of eras, but types of people. I’d also love to read something about non-Chinese in China, like the French, Russians, Jewish Europeans, British, or Americans who formed much of Shanghai’s population till the 1949 Revolution, or a missionary family in the 19th or early 20th century.

3. Immigrant stories. I love books about new or recent immigrants to the U.S., either historical or contemporary. With a contemporary, one is also more likely to find a new story, like about immigrants from India, Iraq, or Ghana. It’d also be a nice change of pace to read a story about immigrants to a place like Canada, England, or Australia. Not all immigrants came to America! In my late teens, I devoured Maisie Mosco’s five-book family saga Almonds and Raisins, about two Jewish families, one Austrian, one Russian, who come to Manchester, England around 1905.

Also, bonus points if a U.S. immigrant story isn’t set in New York City. As much as I love reading about historical New York, when normal people could still afford to live there, it wasn’t the only city immigrants settled in! How about Pittsburgh, Boston, Cincinnati, San Francisco, a small Midwestern farming community, or Chicago?

4. Russia. Pretty self-explanatory.

5. Iran. I have a new interest in Iranian history and culture after putting some of my characters in my WIP in Iran to escape the Great Terror. It’s sad how many people don’t realise that Iran was a very modern, Western, secular country until the 1979 Revolution.

6. Sisters. I always loved stories of sisters growing up, like the Little House and All-of-a-Kind-Family series. It’s probably one of the reasons why I tend to make my own sibling lineups predominantly female. It’s a refreshing change of pace to read about family relationships instead of books where family is a minor detail.

7. The early post-WWII years. So many books about the Shoah or the WWII homefront stop at or soon after the liberation, when a story that was at least as dramatic and compelling was just beginning.

8. Left-handedness. I’m a sinistral chauvinist, and always include at least a few lefties or ambis among my casts of characters. I get a special thrill when I encounter someone else’s fictional lefties, whose handedness isn’t just a minor detail.

9. Armenia or Armenians. I’ve been an Armenophile since the Spring of ’95, when I was 15 years old. I get so excited when I find historical fiction, memoirs, or non-fiction about the Armenian experience.

10. Art and artists. I’m an amateur artist, and love finding stories about other amateur artists or serious professionals. Bonus points if we share some of our favourite artists, like Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, or Gustav Klimt.

Posted in Writing

Using food in your writing

I love food and have never really bought into the Western media’s attempts to guilt women for having hearty appetites. Unless you stole the food, you should never feel guilty for eating anything. Just enjoy some delicious food, and love your body no matter what size it naturally falls at. Physical fitness should be about getting and staying healthy, not dropping a huge amount of weight just so you can fit into a size 4.

Food can play a very important role in a story, even if the book isn’t focused around a cook or a culinary theme. The national, regional, ethnic, local, personal, or religious cuisine of your characters can help to season the overall story, just as language and music can. And you want to make sure you’re getting the seasoning right.

If you’re writing historical, it’s important to do all your research. This extends to food as much as to any other details. When I was much younger and didn’t know any better, I had my 1940s characters frequently chowing down on very modern American food like nachos, tacos, burritos, pizza, chili, chili dogs, corndogs, sno-cones, and modern-style French fries.

You need to know not only when a dish was invented, but also when it was popularized and spread beyond its original region or ethnic group. Chances are a typical pre-WWII American, outside of a huge city like NYC, Newark, or Chicago, would never have heard of or tasted something like pizza, and outside of some chili bars in the Midwest and of course places like Texas and the Southwest, most pre-WWII Americans had never eaten chili.

If your book is set in a foreign country or is about people from outside your own ethnic or regional group, do a little homework into their national cuisine. Don’t show Russians only ever eating borshcht and black bread, Germans eating schnitzel and bratwurst, Mexicans eating chili and enchiladas, Italians eating spaghetti and lasagna, Chinese eating egg rolls and pork, or Southern Americans eating grits and fried chicken. That’s just lazy research, and rather stereotypical.

There are so many foods to be found in each country. Limiting it to just the best-known is not only poor research, but also missing a golden opportunity to open outsiders’ eyes to some delicious foods they might want to try. All you have to do is look through some cookbooks and ethnic cooking magazines, peruse recipe sites, or look at the menus of ethnic restaurants.

Keep in mind that national cuisine may vary among the different regions, and among the different groups of people in a land. Siberian cuisine will be very different from food in St. Petersburg, just as Armenian-Persian food is different from Muslim Persian food and Cajun food is different from Texan food.

You should also avoid stereotyping if your characters are a different religion from you. For example, most modern North American Catholics only abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent nowadays, and there’s a lot more to keeping kosher than just avoiding pig and shellfish. Also, as someone who follows the Sephardic minhag (custom) of eating legumes, rice, corn, and peanuts during Pesach, due to being part Italian, it’s worth pointing out that, contrary to the media’s stereotypes, not ALL Jews are Ashkenazic!

The typical, historic Jewish cuisine in a place like Syria, India, China, or Algeria is going to be much, much, much different than the stereotypical potato pancakes, blintzes, matzah ball soup, kugel, and brisket from a place like Poland, Germany, Romania, or the Ukraine. Even a dish like cholent, the overnight-cooking stew served on Shabbos, is going to differ depending on whether you’re from Poland, Italy, France, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Georgia (the country, not the state). Ashkenazocentrism really gets my goat!

I wish this didn’t even need mentioned, but if your story is set in Africa, either past or present, the cuisine will differ depending on the region. It’s embarrassing how many people think Africa is a country, or that African culture is monolithic. Someone in Egypt will not eat the same foods as someone in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique, or Ethiopia!

Even a contemporary North American story should have attention paid to culinary detail. If your characters live in a small, insular town in a place like Idaho or Alabama, chances are they might not have ethnic restaurants or items like tofu at the grocery store.

Finally, as a pescatarian, I’d like to say that you need to be careful if you’re making a Western historical character a vegetarian or vegan. Sure there were some Westerners abstaining from animal products before the 1960s, but it wasn’t common, and it was a lot harder to find balanced things to eat. No one before the 1960s at the most recent would’ve eaten something like granola, tofu, tempeh, or coconut milk, and then probably only if s/he lived in a diverse metropolis like NYC or San Francisco. Even a mere decade ago, it was a lot harder to find a variety of vegetarian and vegan choices in the supermarket and restaurants.

One of the letters in A Bintel Brief, a published collection of letters from the popular feature of the Yiddish-language daily Der Forvertz, was from parents alarmed that one of their sons had become vegetarian. The editor recommended taking him to a psychologist to “cure” him, and taking him to a restaurant so he could see “everyone” eats meat. This was only in the 1940s, so people that relatively recently thought vegetarians were mentally ill. At least a member of a past Jewish vegetarian group wrote in, dismayed at the thoughtless “advice,” and recommended the parents put the boy in touch with the group.