I have a new post up at The Criminal Element Today: Bond Girl: A Juvenile Fleming Reader, about when I first read the Bond novels.
I’ve been away recently on a family matter, but while I was gone, I had a couple new posts go live at Heroes and Heartbreakers: Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy and Stitch in Snow by Anne McCaffrey.
Please welcome my guest, Saskia Walker!
The joys and challenges of creating historical worlds
by Saskia Walker
As writers of historical fiction we aim to create historical worlds that are as believable and accurate as possible, in order to enhance the reader’s experience of the story. This is a challenge, but a rewarding one when we feel we’ve done a story justice. The scary part is getting it as accurate as possible, knowing that it’s so easy to slip up.
When I think about the historical world my characters are living in I tend to think of it from two different angles. Firstly there’s the everyday world, and this is the one where it’s easiest to make a slip up. We need to know and understand the minutiae of everyday living in the period in such a way that it becomes second nature to describe it appropriately, even when we are swept away with the writing of the story. Secondly there’s the external world, the greater history of the period and how that impacts on the character’s lives. Much like my hostess, Victoria, I enjoy researching both the minutiae and the greater historical picture. It’s part of the gift of writing, always learning and being able to share that through our imaginary worlds.
In my most recent publication, The Harlot, the central romance characters—Jessie and Gregor—are what I tend to call “grassroots” characters. They aren’t privileged, and they’re tough because they’ve learned to survive on their wits. Jessie is an impoverished Scottish woman who is under an accusation of witchcraft. Forced to become a whore, she’s trying to save enough money to escape to the Highlands, where people with “the gift” are not shunned the way they are in the Lowlands. Gregor is a man who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps after immense tragedy. He’s been away at sea, and has returned with his savings in order to reclaim land that was taken from his family a decade before. Both these characters have big personal agendas, but they don’t play an overt part in the history of their time. The history of the time does, however, impact their lives. This is the challenge of the writing, to indicate how the greater world affairs of the period impact even the lowliest people living in that world.
Jessie scarcely gives any notice to the greater history of the period in which the story is set—the union of Scotland with England—and yet the charge of witchcraft she is under is very much a product of the time. The Witchcraft Act was in force between 1563 and 1736, and nearly 4,000 individuals were accused of witchcraft in Scotland during those years. My story is set towards the end of this tragic period, when humanity and justice began to replace the fear and condemnation of the years before.
Gregor also exists largely outside the larger historical picture. He left Scotland a decade earlier and has had no part in its history during that time. Yet when he returns he inevitably looks for the changes that might have been brought about by the Union with England, and he encounters suspicion when he tries to buy land as a stranger. The man who Gregor considers his enemy is attempting to raise funds to support the battle for independence. Gregor is surprised when he discovers this because it is a cause he too supports, and he never believed they would have anything in common. He also discovers that the people who used to hold power no longer do so, and he wonders if his plan might be more difficult to implement as a result. It is this positioning of the historical character in their everyday as well as the greater world that fascinates me as a writer.
One of the best bits of advice I read early on was that your research should show as much as the tip of the iceberg—the bulk of your knowledge being the mass that underpins it—making it a seamless read that easily transports the reader back in time. That is a great analogy, and it’s helped me immensely to think of it that way. If you pick up The Harlot I hope you enjoy Jessie and Gregor and the way they interact with their world.
It is a Dark Era, one when a lusty lass will do what she must to survive. Even if it means bartering flesh for a palmful of coins…
Forced to watch her mother burned at the stake and separated from her siblings in the aftermath, Jessie Taskill is similarly gifted, ripe with a powerful magic that must stay hidden. Until one night when she’s accused by a rival, and Jessie finds herself behind prison walls with a roguish priest unlike any man of the cloth she has known.
In reality, Gregor Ramsay is as far from holy as the devil himself, but his promise of freedom in return for her services may be her salvation. Locked into a dubious agreement, Jessie resents his plan to have her seduce and ruin his lifelong enemy. But toying with Gregor’s lust for her is enjoyable, and she agrees to be his pawn while secretly intending to use him just as he is using her.
Thanks, Saskia, for visiting!
Two Hundred Years After
Trudging by Corbie Ridge one winter’s night,
(Unless old hearsay memories tricked his sight)
Along the pallid edge of the quiet sky
He watched a nosing lorry grinding on,
And straggling files of men; when these were gone,
A double limber and six mules went by,
Hauling the rations up through ruts and mud
To trench-lines digged two hundred years ago.
Then darkness hid them with a rainy scud,
And soon he saw the village lights below.
But when he’d told his tale, an old man said
That he’d seen soldiers pass along that hill;
‘Poor silent things, they were the English dead
Who came to fight in France and got their fill.’
–Siegfried Sassoon, The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, 1918
Last month, I read The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody, mostly because it was a lesbian pirate novel, and I’d never read one before.
Plot summary: “The Gulf of Mexico, 1702: When pirates of the square-rigger Original Sin steal ashore to abduct a doctor to tend to their wounded, they end up settling for the doctor’s attractive fiancée–Celia Pierce, the town seamstress.
Together with Gayle Malvern, daughter of the wounded pirate captain “Madman” Malvern, Celia becomes a reluctant participant in an unexpectedly thrilling journey through the Caribbean. For Gayle, Celia’s presence is at first a welcome and shapely distraction, but as her attraction to the seamstress deepens, she realizes that Celia comes to mean more to her than is prudent. As Celia and Gayle navigate the perilous territories of gypsies, prostitutes, mercenaries, and slave traders, they forge a partnership born of necessity that Gayle soon hopes will veer away from insurmountable danger–and instead detour directly to her bed.”
The book was a lot of fun, though I’m not sure it will appeal to all romance readers. To me, even though Celia and Gayle do fall in love, the book was more a commentary on pirate novels than a romance novel, offering suggestions as to how an abduction narrative would function if a woman pirate captain did the abducting, and if a woman were her captive who finds freedom and personal fulfillment through a buccaneering life.
The setup for the story isn’t totally unbelievable. Gayle has sailed on the Original Sin for years, since her mother’s death, because her father is the captain. She becomes captain only when her father is seriously wounded, and has to win over the crew; she succeeds partly because all agree her captaincy is temporary. Gayle’s subsequent derring-do privileges brains (clever ruses) over brawn, which both reflects her lesser physical strength and the whole idea of pirates as societal underdogs.
More unlikely to me, in the historical sense, is that Gayle’s sexuality is well-known to both the crew and to the townspeople they meet on land, yet it’s barely remarked upon. It’s part of the story’s fantasy–perhaps Gayle’s public lesbianism reflects the author’s avoidance of having to tell yet another Coming Out story. Instead she can get right down to the swashbuckling.
Celia is a fun character with a sarcastic pov. She’s a gorgeous young woman, in the tradition of the heroine abducted by pirates, but she’s also brave and self-sufficient. She does not cower from Gayle’s sexuality or her own; once her eyes are opened to the possibility of a sexual relationship with a woman, there are few romantic roadblocks.
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’
–Siegfried Sassoon, The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, 1918
One of the ways J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) uses to cue “it’s the future!” in the Eve Dallas mysteries is her portrayal of social/sexual mores. Though the future is noir, rife with horrible murders and serial killers (otherwise, no work for Eve Dallas!), it’s also a liberal world in some ways, though far from a utopia. Here’s the rundown, so far as I can remember.
1. Prostitution is legal if the person is licensed. “Licensed companions” are not universally successful, however. Robb shows a gamut running from Charles, who is high-priced and skilled, to various “Street L.C.s” who are not any better off for legality. The L.C.s come under legal fire in the first novel of the series.
2. Transsexuals are mentioned several times in the series. Though Dallas seems accepting of their presence, if I recall correctly they are always mentioned as either L.C.s or living on a lower social rung. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong!) Also, Dallas refers to them as “trannies”–not sure if that’s meant to imply the term is less offensive nomenclature in the future, or is simply because the author was looking for a coplike slang term and didn’t realize it was offensive.
3. One of the novels focuses on cloning, which is apparently Not On with most of the future society. I think it’s more because of the subsequent manipulation of the clones than an objection to the process itself, but cloning as a form of normal reproduction is never mentioned.
4. Homosexual as well as heterosexual marriage is legal, apparently in all states (the series focuses on New York, but gay couples are mentioned from other states, and I recall one lesbian couple in NY). No polyamorous marriages have been depicted so far. “Cohabitation” may or may not be a legal category; it’s unclear to me from the references to it in the text.
5. My favorite institution in the Robb universe is “professional mother” status. From various mentions in the series, the status is something that must be applied for, and seems to be paid by the government until the child is a certain age. Single mothers can hold the status as well as married ones. There’s no mention of “professional father” as a status.
6. It’s never been clear to me exactly how human the droids in this series are, and how self-aware. Some are apparently constructed for sexual purposes. From the mentions I remember, in the future society this use is known but not considered classy. But the series doesn’t delve too deeply into droid and their rights, if any.