IWSG—Miraculously regained momentum

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group meets the first Wednesday of each month. Participants share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

It’s spring! Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?
In past years, I remember having felt more inspiration and renewal for writing as spring took bloom, though I can’t specifically recall the same experience in recent years.

Due to my shaken confidence in my usual daily wordcounts, I set my April Camp NaNo goal at only 25K. The first 5,200-odd words came from A Dream Deferred (since I had to finish that chapter before switching gears), but everything else came from my alternative history.

I reached my lowball goal on Day 14, validated as soon as Day 20 began, and ended up at just shy of 55K.

This book is written wildly out of order, which I still feel I need to do emotionally, but that strategy also makes it harder to go on a consistent, beginning-to-end emotional journey with these characters. Regularly jumping from Point A to Point D to Point R to Point Z to Point L and back again means I don’t always remember important developments or details.

I finished the last chapter in Part II, and have finished most of Part III. I also did a smidgen of work in Part I, though my primary focus during Camp NaNo was Part III. Once that’s done, I’ll spend May going through from the start, editing, rewriting, and filling in any remaining gaps.

With my rate of progress this past month, I’m confident I can power through Part IV (about 25% done), and then work on these appendices I totally forgot I’d planned.

I also realized part of the reason for my admitted emotional distance (most glaring in Part I) was because I was trying to be too close to third-person limited. That’s just not my natural voice at all, even when a book is unusually (for me) focused on just one or two characters instead of a large ensemble cast.

Thus, I developed some of the secondary characters more, even though this isn’t their story. I also finally figured out what to do with Grand Duchess Anastasiya, who had zero lines in all those words. Her reaction to the traumatic cataclysm is to shut down and barely say more than five words at a time.

Her second-cousin, Prince Roman Petrovich (who survived in real life), has a marvellous effect on her, so much so her uncle, Grand Duke Mikhail (the Regent), realizes what a good marriage match they’d be. Prior, it was just announced they’d married in early 1920.

I do think a more formal voice works for this specific book, but as it stood, it was too emotionally distant. Better to find solutions for it now, instead of going through mental gymnastics to justify it and only belatedly realizing what a snafu that was.

Near the start of April, I changed my desktop picture to feature my protagonist and his sisters. Every time I look at it, I’m held accountable for finishing the damn book already! I have an obligation to the memory of the dead.

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Dealing with marriage age in historical fiction

One of many mistakes I was guilty of in the past was, by and large, marrying my historical characters off as teens, and almost always making them within a year of one another’s age. It’s not that there’s zero truth to this, but rather that it’s a widespread popular misconception.

Yes, on average, people (esp. women) did tend to marry far younger than they do today, and it wasn’t after years of dating and cohabiting. People “knew their place,” and as such understood the importance of settling down sooner rather than later, and courting or dating with marriage in mind.

It was also scandalous to cohabit out of wedlock, never mind getting caught having sexual relations or a woman becoming pregnant. Respectable people didn’t indefinitely court or go steady for years before marrying almost as an afterthought.

So what was the historically-accurate marriage age?

The ancient world:

Girls were deemed marriageable (and thus old enough for sexual relations and childbearing) upon menarche, which was probably about 13–14. Boys were old enough when they began growing pubic hair. Because marriage was a private family matter, relatively unregulated by the state, these guidelines weren’t set in stone.

The Roman Empire:

Augustus Caesar issued marriage laws in 18 BCE and 9 CE, declaring betrothal wasn’t valid if the man didn’t marry within two years of it. Girls were to be at least ten upon betrothal, and reached the minimum marriageable age after completing twelve full years.

Some families held off on arranging marriages for a few years, as they waited for greater political, social, or economic status. A more prestigious marriage could thus be arranged.

The Middle Ages:

In the 12th century, jurist Johannes Gratian wrote the authoritative Catholic text Decretrum Gratiani, which set the minimum betrothal age at seven for both sexes, and the lawful age for a girl to consent to marriage and carnal intercourse at twelve. Unusual circumstances rendered marriage valid at younger ages.

Other authorities declared a girl’s physical development, not age, determined marriageability.

A common stereotype about the Middle Ages is that girls routinely married at all of 12 years old, or in their very early teens. While this did happen, particularly among royalty and nobility, it still wasn’t the norm. Most poor and lower-middle-status women married between 18–22, while in some regions, women married in their early to mid-twenties.

In Eastern Europe, it was far more common for girls to be 12–15.

Renaissance:

The average Italian bride was 18, and married a man 10–12 years older. Englishwomen were 21. By the end of the 16th century, women were 25 and men were 27 in England and the Low Countries.

17th century:

Teen marriage was very rare in Northwestern Europe, and the Catholic Church dictated both sexes be at least 21 to marry without parental approval. Brides were most commonly 22, grooms 24. The average age was 24 for brides and 27 for grooms. Elizabethans believed marriage under 16 was dangerous.

18th century:

In Massachusetts, from the 1650s through 1800, average first marriage age for women was 19.5–22.5. Other colonies’ records indicate similar stats. The average marriage age in all colonies, pre-1700, was 19.8. During the early 18th century, it was 21.2, and in the late 18th century, it was 22.7.

In France, Germany, and England, women’s average first marriage age was 25.1 from 1750–99. In England alone, it was 26 for women and 28 for men by the end of the century.

Until the French Revolution, marriage age was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In 1792, it was upped to 13 and 15, respectively. The Napoléonic Code of 1804 raised it to 15 and 18.

19th century:

In France, Germany, and England, women’s average first marriage age was 25.7 from 1800–49. In England alone, it never fell below 22.

Working-class women tended to marry later than upper-class women, and royalty continued marrying in their late teens.

After the U.S. Civil War, women on average married from 22–24, a trend which continued till the 1940s.

Post-WWII:

This is the one era when many women did indeed marry very young. Many were shotgun marriages, but many other couples felt an overwhelming social and cultural pressure to marry and start families as soon as possible. It was what everyone did, and who wanted to be different and attract negative gossip?

By 1950, the average marriage age was 20.5, though many married much younger. Seventeen magazine had ads for china patterns, wedding dresses, and engagement rings, and in the case of shotgun marriages, many brides were underage.

Avoiding amateur writing mistakes (Hist-fic edition)

These are some of the things I’ve either been guilty of myself or seen in other historical books or films. Speaking from my own experience, these are honest mistakes pretty much everyone goes through. Some can also be applied to other genres.

1. Packing in everything but the kitchen sink syndrome. Prime examples are the TV miniseries The ’60s and The ’70s, which forced in every single major news story, social movement, political event, piece of pop culture, etc., of those decades. What are the odds every single person in one family or group of friends would be involved with every single thing that happened in a decade?

2. Not enough historical detail. So many of my earliest drafts had almost zero connection to their respective eras. This is the opposite extreme from gut-loading your story with every single thing that ever happened in that decade.

3. Clichés. E.g., thinking a 1920s story has to revolve around flappers, automatically setting your story about immigrants to the U.S. in the Lower East Side, or being unable to think outside of the Imperial Russian Court.

4. Gossip Girl in period clothes. I see too much of this in YA historicals published in the U.S. in recent years, and was guilty of it myself as a preteen. At least my excuse was extreme youth. Just make your story a contemporary and be done with it. Don’t pretend it’s a historical yet give all your characters very modern values, speech, and ideas, with cheap, lazy window-dressing like an occasional mention of popular music or news stories.

5. Assuming everyone in that decade had monolithic experiences. E.g., assuming every single person in the Sixties was a hippie and anti-war protestor. If your story’s set in a small, rural town far from a large city, that’s highly unlikely to reflect your characters’ reality.

6. Vague, generic, underdeveloped ideas. It’s good to have a general idea of where you want to go and what you want to write about, but even episodic stories that are deliberately slower-paced and more about character development need to be hung on some kind of arc. It’s not enough to aimlessly write about 1840s Boston, 1920s NYC, or 1780s Charleston.

7. Only focusing on the biggest events of a decade. While I’d look askance at, e.g., a 1940s historical where WWII is barely mentioned, or a late 1960s historical with no mention of Vietnam, it shouldn’t be the book’s entire focus. People had other things going on in their lives, and there were plenty of other major historical events! Your book doesn’t have to revolve around Vietnam, flappers, or the Spanish Inquisition.

8. Using contemporary hist-fic to waltz down memory lane. There has to be a real reason your story’s set in the last few decades, beyond happily name-dropping all your fave bands, movies, and TV shows, and rattling off jokes about then-current events. Don’t force all your memories and fave raves into the story.

9. Reading too much and understanding too little (i.e., failing to research important details). E.g., seeing a list of movies from a certain year, and having your characters see them months before they were in theatres, or having guys of all ages randomly being drafted to Vietnam. When I discovered how the draft lottery really worked, I had to make Ricky two years older than Adicia in Little Ragdoll. That important storyline wouldn’t have worked had they been the same age.

10. Assuming your setting’s modern-day demographics were historically true as well. Just recently I discovered Atlantic City had quite a large Jewish community in the first half of the 20th century, a far cry from its modern form. There were dozens of synagogues; many kosher restaurants, groceries, bakeries, candy store, and restaurants; religious schools; and Jewish hotels and other businesses.

11. Perpetuating popular misunderstandings. E.g., having everyone married by 18, and marrying your female characters to men several decades older. Outside of royalty, high society, and the American frontier, large age gaps weren’t that common, and most women weren’t married till their twenties.

Are there any other amateur mistakes you’d add?

An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part III

There’s nothing better than good old-fashioned time in a writer’s journey. We become better writers with the passage of time, and learn what our weaknesses are and how to edit our work. Excellent, experienced critique partners and the most esteemed editor in the world telling us such-and-such is awkward phrasing, an overused word, cluttery chat, overwrought prose, or infodumpy dialogue won’t mean anything if it doesn’t click in our brains. We have to see it for ourselves, not merely be told it’s a problem. Only then can we begin to understand how to improve.

Thus, I noticed a number of shortcomings while editing the second edition of Little Ragdoll. In addition to what I’ve previously mentioned, I also found:

1. Rehashing established information. We already know, for example, everything good Allen has done for Lenore since he gave her a safe place to stay when she was a 15-year-old runaway. Why be reminded of the main points every time Lenore reflects on or talks about their history together?

We also already know all the good things Father and Mrs. Murphy up in Yorkville have done for Lucine and Emeline, and how they adopted oldest sister Gemma’s birth son Giovanni after she divorced her abusive, unwanted husband and started over. There’s no need to be reminded again and again.

2. Pointless, cluttery chat adding nothing to the scene, or coming across like me putting my own viewpoints into characters’ mouths. At one point, Allen is talking about how his parents were very upset when Giovanni was adopted and taken out of their clutches, since they’d been planning to sell him for at least $1,000 on the baby black market. There’s no need to point that out when we already know how black-hearted they are and why Allen doesn’t want them coming anywhere near his kids.

In another scene, when Ernestine, Julie, and the three oldest Ryan siblings are comforting Adicia after her black-hearted, unmotherly mother coerced her into sacrificing her virginity to save her mother from returning to prison, Ernestine and Girl/Deirdre get into a discussion about the repackaging of Beatles’ albums. Though Adicia snaps at them to have this conversation later, and they apologize, it’s still really inappropriate they began discussing that during such an emotional time.

3. If a character is meant as an intellectual or someone very political, make sure that naturally flows with the overall direction of a scene or dialogue. Emeline just wouldn’t be the same Emeline if she didn’t constantly bubble over with chatter about books, philosophy, music, Eastern religions, and vegetarianism. Likewise, Girl/Deirdre, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Ernestine wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t so tuned into politics and social issues. They have to be discussing that for a reason, not out of the blue.

4. Some dialogues and passages don’t lose anything, and are made stronger, by cutting out the fat. This goes for removing overwrought prose, too many details, unnecessary lines, rehashing established information, and polemics which sound more like the author trying to work one’s opinions in than a character naturally expressing such thoughts.

In the scene of Ernestine and the Ryans riding up to Hudson Falls from Poughkeepsie for Thanksgiving 1972, I cut out everything Deirdre said about a certain topic. Now, Adicia begs to talk about something else after she feels Deirdre’s scathing critique of this subject is finished. I similarly cut out the dialogue Ernestine and Deirdre have when revisiting this subject during baking on Christmas Eve.

5. When a story is set during a very political time, conversations of a political nature are kind of inevitable. The first time the subject of the Vietnam War is broached, it leads into Lenore hoping Allen isn’t drafted, and then turns into the girls planning what Lenore will get Allen for his upcoming 21st birthday and trying to get Lenore to admit she has a crush on Allen.

Chapter 37, “The Year the World Went Up in Flames,” is about 1968, and so it naturally follows there will be discussions about things like the presidential election, RFK’s assassination, the feminist protests by the Miss America pageant, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Were I only starting over with this story today, I’d write certain things differently, maybe change wraparound narrative passages into active scenes. Part I in particular might be drastically different. But this is how the story came together, and I can’t alter everything in the impossible quest for perfection.