Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Research-Plot Integration in Historical Romance Part 3

 Two weeks ago I introduced this odd hybrid historical romance trilogy, Rashi's Daughters:

Last week ...

... I made a few spoiler comments and showed you one of those bizarre karmic links that pepper my existence -- how Maggie Anton inserted a bit of dialogue in her third novel that had no business in her novel but was just about the most illuminating and important bit of data to randomly pop up before my eyes in decades.

Anton had researched the 1040 C.E. era to a fair-the-well, and given her main character of the third book, Rashi's Daughters: Book III Rachel, a task, a goal, and the ability to learn an entire craft and invent a business model for it.  She put Rachel into the textile industry and had her discuss wool cloth manufacture and dye. 

Readers of Sime~Gen already see my hair standing on end.  Coincidence abounds in this world, but folks, there's a LIMIT you know!

The datum that blew me out of the water was simply a reminder of something I had known for decades but had no memory of ever having learned -- that BLACK wool cloth is very difficult, rare, costly, and that at the beginning of the dye industry, the true black dye was a trade secret for each dyer. 

It was knowing that obscure fact about the early cloth dye industry that caused me to assign BLACK as the single most special color in the Sime~Gen novels, Farris Black. 

And those few lines of dialogue Anton wrote, which I quoted last week, prompted me to assemble my observations about these novels into this advanced writing lesson, the integration of Research and Plot which creates the foundation for every Paranormal Romance novel. 

The "paranormal" has an immense amount of non-fiction literature to research, everything from mythology to ESP research, and all the way into the depths of theology -- down deep enough to get into Kabbalah.  You can assemble facts to support almost any kind of worldbuilding you need for your particular Romance. 

Anton knew about wool dye what I had known long before building it into the Sime~Gen novel, House of Zeor, associating it with the Farris family, but Anton used her knowledge in a different way than I used mine -- and the result is a set of totally different reader responses.  I pointed you to those on amazon last week, and picked out two contrasting ones, one from her first novel and one from mine. 

As I've said, it seems to me that the Rashi's Daughters trilogy (he had only three daughters and no sons) should be classed as Paranormal Romance, and with only very slight changes in the stories, would fall right into the model for some of the very best Paranormal Romances. 

The Medieval world Anton has built includes all the beliefs and practices of  Jewish Astrology, and the demonology extant among the general public.  Disease was caused by demons and other supernatural influences, and could be averted or cured by charms, sigils and signs, and chanting. 

Anton even sites the first thing anyone starting on the Occult Studies path learns - that the more advanced on that path you get, the more of a target you become for the negative forces that abound in the world (and mostly leave ordinary people alone).  Rashi, being extremely advanced spiritually, was such a target as were his family members - simply for being his family members.  Once the daughters embarked on spiritual advancement, they too became targets in their own right.  That's a principle from Kabbalah.  But Rashi, himself, did not study Kabbalah.  Anton walked right by the most incendiary plot-elements her hard-fact research turned up.

Anton does have her characters cure or avert evil influences with Kabbalistic practices, but without internal consequences to the characters.  The actions don't adhere to what I've termed in my posts on plotting, "the because line."  Any one of these incidents could have supported the entire envelope plot for the trilogy, but because she has just inserted these simple facts, the plot events become incidents and vignettes interesting in themselves but without consequence to the story-line.  (remember plot and story are different, but must be connected by theme). 

To us, today, such ideas as disease caused by demons sound ridiculous.  But we have no problem with them when reading Paranormal Romance -- even television series incorporate witches and spells, otherworldly occurrences and magic.  For the most part, the worldbuilding behind Paranormal Romance novels is not nearly as coherent, interesting, deep, and plausible as the very real Medieval belief systems Anton only refers to briefly.

Few of the comments on amazon even mention the demonology, or criticize or critique it.  It's throwaway techno-babble to most general readers, even historical fiction experts.  Yet Anton walked right by a chance to explain that dimension of reality to modern readers, what it could mean in modern terms and what it means to those on a spiritual journey.

Maybe she didn't know how, or maybe she didn't explain it because Rashi, himself, is famous for his entry-level, beginner's explanations of the Torah, Mishna and Gemara.  Rashi didn't incorporate any of the far out, mystical, Kabbalistic material in his explanations.  Most of the literature on Kabbalah that we use today wasn't written down until a couple hundred years later, but there were scholars who knew and practiced it in Rashi's day.  

Anton does mention a Mezuzah scribe who uses some Kabbalistic knowledge, and has her characters use such a Mezuzah to protect and heal sick people and bring them back from death's door.  But then the incident just sits there - having no consequence to the inner, subconscious or spiritual life of the Daughters.  It's just that the person lives a little longer.  That's not plot, that's incident. 

How do you tell a plot event from an incident?

A plot event changes the main character's understanding of his/her reality.  That is a plot event affects the story-line.

An incident illustrates something the writer wants the reader to know about the main character's understanding of his/her reality, but does not change the character's behavior or the menu of options the character has to choose from. 

In a plot-event, the reader walks in the character's moccasins.  In an incident, the reader learns that something happened or how it happened, but it doesn't happen to the reader. 

Anton constructs her narrative line from the researched facts about the lives of this family, then inserts incidents along that narrative line, giving the strong impression of a plot without having an actual plot. 

As I pointed out last week, in the Rashi's Daughter's trilogy, interesting hard-fact details of Medieval life are tossed in on top of Anton's narrative about three women living in Medieval times who possess a modern feminist self-image and attitude -- pure fantasy, a kind of fantasy that works fabulously well with Paranormal Romance writing techniques and fails abysmally with only Historical Novel writing techniques. 

The incident-structure causes us to be informed that Rashi's Daughters had a modern feminist attitude -- but not how they acquired it, what their attitude did to them, and what they did to our world because of their attitude.  Because of the incident-structure, readers who don't already have a feminist attitude don't come to walk-a-mile as a feminist.  Readers who do have a feminist attitude may feel nice about having their attitude validated, but will not come away from these novels with a usable impression of life in Rashi's home. 

If the trilogy had a genuine trilogy plot-structure, all readers would come away from the trilogy with a good, emotional, non-verbal grasp of how Rashi's household lifestyle created feminist attitudes in all the women associated with it, and caused them to blossom into full realized, highly spiritual women. 

One of the researched hard-facts that Anton must have come across studying Mishna is that Jewish culture understands women to be on a higher spiritual level than men, just inherently more spiritually advanced (the opposite of Christianity), which is why men are commanded to listen to their wives.  Women carry a tremendously weighty responsibility because of that position of being closer to G-d (which is why women pray in a whisper when men shout out prayers -- because it's rude to shout right into G-d's ear) -- and therein lies the material for Anton's overall trilogy plot.   But she walked right by that opportunity as if she had no clue how to worldbuild to springboard a plot. 

Remember, we're talking about crafting Paranormal Romance here - not about the realities of Medieval Judaism.  You can replace the "Medieval Judaism" elements in Anton's trilogy with any fantasy world you are building to support your story.  If Anton had used world she built herself here, I'd be making the exact same comments about the incident-structure vs the plot-structure method of storytelling.

Anton's view of Medieval Judaism "works" in these romance books just the way any fantasy world would work. 

With application of the techniques for integrating research into plot, Anton could have "sold" her fantasy to her readers and made them suspend disbelief long enough to finish the trilogy and go off  with a furious hunger for finding out the reality behind the Talmud. 

Her fantasy Talmud would only whet the appetite.  As it is, few of the commentators on Amazon are talking about the Talmud itself or their experience of it in real life. 

Using the string of incidents structure, Anton manages to inform us that Rashi's Daughters loved Talmud as much as Rashi did -- but does not make us love Talmud the same way. 

The reader commentaries on Amazon about the trilogy show either a sense of outrage at  Anton's  "inaccuracies,"  a delight at the upstanding female characters and their stories, or the commentaries get all wound up in the Medieval background. 

Many readers found the second or third books disappointing because they didn't deliver on the expectations aroused by the first book.  Each reader is seeing only one level of this work because the "research" facts lay on top of the character-story like oil on water. 

"Shaken, not stirred" comes to mind.  There are writing techniques for creating a smooth blend of antagonistic elements -- like Talmud and sexuality, or sexuality and willful independence. 

Now keep in mind that I feel Anton intended to do with this series what other Romance authors have done with Historical Romance:  graft a feminist attitude onto female characters who lived in an oppressive world, were raised to be subservient and obedient, self-effacing, and never show their intelligence to a male.  That's alternate-history fantasy, and it's great fun to read, but can be misleading if the reader doesn't know it's a game the writer is playing, not an actual window into the past.

The way Anton's trilogy is written, I can't tell if she knew she was playing the alternate-history-paranormal-romance game with her readers.  The tantalizing thing about this trilogy is that Anton almost got it right, whether she knew what she was doing or not.

Some people need to know what they're doing in order to do it "right" (so they get the results they aim at) -- and some people really need to NOT KNOW what they're doing, how they do it, or possibly even that they're doing it, in order to do it "right."

That applies to how to write books, historical fiction novels, and most especially historical fiction romance novels. 

Knowledge is one level of cognition, but there are many others (intuition, emotion, assumptions) that all operate at the same time.

Each level of cognition can show up on special brain scans as "circuits" or whole areas of the brain energized or activated -- sometimes in one location of the brain, sometimes connecting several locations.  There are a number of studies ongoing now about how our brain functions, mostly with the focus on how to repair damage or correct birth defects.  These studies also have an application to the writing craft, to the understanding of how we respond to entertainment, how and why entertainment is a necessity not a luxury.

We can emphasize one level of brain activity over another,  but we can't shut off the other levels completely.  Consider all the studies you've read about brain damage and how loss of a part of the brain can affect personality, perception and judgement.  We use all of our brains all the time on everything we do -- we just shift the emphasis. 

That's why when we read books and novels, we want the input we're absorbing to trigger brain activity on all our levels -- but emphasize one level above the others, then orchestrate a changing emphasis in a pleasing way from one scene to another, one chapter to another, just as we experience in real life.

Note that word "orchestrate" -- reading a novel is like listening to a symphony.  Every word triggers associations (semantic loading) that light up pathways in the brain.  Every sentence, image, scene, emotional-engagement among characters, is a "voice" of an instrument in the symphony.  The writer is the conductor, bringing one section of the orchestra then another up to the fore (making them louder or softer with a gesture).  The audience feels their pleasure is from the players of the individual instruments (liking one character over another) -- but the actual source of pleasure is the conductor's skills.

The conductor's job is to gently, smoothly shift the way the pathways of the listeners' brains light up, producing pleasure. 

No orchestra is any better than its least skilled player.  But any orchestra can fail abysmally even with world-class players in every seat if the players aren't all playing the same score, or if the conductor puts each section of the orchestra in a separate soundproof booth so they can't hear each other or see the conductor.

That's what I think happened with the Rashi's Daughters trilogy. 

The research on Talmud, the feminism, the political world of Medieval France, the astronomy, the astrology, Muslim Spain, Muslim marriage customs, Medieval midwifery, plagues, textiles, dyes, inter-city trade, numerology, Christian Priests studying Bible with Rashi, the economics of Jewish merchants traveling with ransom money because Jews ransom other Jews, Jewish women in business lending money to other Jewish women in secret from their husbands, raising chickens, open sewers, -- all of that is like the individual instruments in an orchestra all playing different parts of a symphony at the same time, each trying to be louder than the other, grabbing center stage for a solo while all the other instruments scream for attention. 

It's no surprise to me that so many commenters on amazon couldn't make sense of these historical fiction novels.

It's an orchestra without a conductor.

I'm very familiar with this problem from a writer's point of view. 

The Rashi's Daughter's trilogy reads a little bit like the early drafts of my Sime~Gen novel, Unto Zeor, Forever.

As I mentioned last time, that's my first award winner, and it went through 5 drafts to get there. 

Here it is on Amazon in Kindle, but there are paper editions and a forthcoming audiobook edition (unabridged)

It is labeled, by this publisher as #2 in a "series" -- but it's not.  It's the second published in the Sime~Gen Universe, and many people have fallen in love with the novels by entering here. 

I lost the first few drafts, but a very close version of the 3rd draft has been assembled and posted online for free reading.  It's titled Sime Surgeon (like a Nurse Nancy which is what it was at that stage), and has a long introduction explaining the editing history. 

http://www.simegen.com/sgfandom/rimonslibrary/surgeon/  and click the links on the left for the various parts. 

Jean Lorrah commented extensively on the 3rd draft, and I made vast changes because of what she understood and misunderstood (just like the amazon comments on Rashi's Daughters).  Jean saw the "oil and water not mixing" in that 3rd draft, didn't quite know how to explain the problem or the solution, but with close study, I was able to see what she was driving at and made many changes.

The 4th draft was turned in to the publisher, and the editor, Sharon Jarvis, sent it back with numerous notations, plus the advice that if I would delete one character, eliminate one entire chapter, and shift the climaxes so that they rose in a smooth hyperbolic curve to the final one, then she'd publish it.  The Sime Surgeon climax structure rises, falls hard, rises, falls, rises to the end.  She wanted the falls removed by removing one character, which eliminated a lot of techno-babble.  Many fans love Sime Surgeon much better than the commercially smooth Unto Zeor, Forever -- just as some Amazon commenters love Anton's trilogy as it is. 

The final draft of Unto Zeor, Forever was published, and because of Sharon's insistence on unifying the theme, eliminating all elements distracting from the theme, deleting a lot of the researched real-world-facts and the imaginary facts, answering character motivation questions with show-don't-tell, that published version won an award -- essentially because it's shaken not stirred.

But Unto Zeor, Forever was never drafted as a series of incidents.  It had a plot from the first glimmering of an idea, a strong plot welded inextricably to a story that is essentially, at bedrock, a Romance of Helen of Troy proportions, just as Anton's trilogy depicts the Romances of Rashi's Daughters that produced the children whose Commentaries on Rashi shape what we know today of his Commentaries. 

Sharon Jarvis, as editor, could not have brought the manuscript of Unto Zeor, Forever up to publishable standards had Jean Lorrah not "shaken not stirred" the composition into a somewhat finer emulsion. 

Anton's trilogy was published at a development stage somewhere between Unto's 3rd and 4th drafts -- still in layers of historical fact and imaginary fact floating on top of a narrative but not integrated with it.

Her historical fact is what's known about Rashi and his writings, what's known about the world events at the time he lived, and what's known about the technologies and trade practices of that time, and of course the men the daughters married and the children the daughters had.  Her imaginary facts are the personalities and feminist attitudes of Rashi's Daughters.  Her plot is a series of incidents that may have seemed like "show don't tell" application of her research discoveries, but isn't.

It's as if, along with all her research on Rashi, Anton also researched "how to write novels" -- found "show don't tell" and then applied that with workmanlike diligence. 

Anton's trilogy does have a kind of wandering "because line" -- as I've explained in previous posts on plotting. 

Here are some of my posts on Integration that pertain to what's missing in Rashi's Daughters, discussing techniques one at a time:









That last post in the list is by Carol Buchanan who is a historical fiction writer whose product is so thoroughly blended you can't separate the layers at all.  And her work is precisely true to the Historical genre -- it's just about an era the big publishers aren't pursuing right now.  But that's true of Rashi's Daughters, also. 

If you've read Buchanan's Gold Under Ice as I recommended, use that instead of Unto Zeor, Forever, and think about it with Rashi's Daughters in mind.  Do a contrast/compare.  Chances are you know more about the Montana Goldrush era and the Civil War than you do about the very early years of the Crusades when Rashi lived. 

Consider the effect that a full blending of techniques can achieve and then decide which effect you want.  A professional writer needs to be able to achieve the effect he/she intends - not at random or by inspiration but on purpose.

Anton's trilogy isn't really romance, or really historical, or fantasy or paranormal genre.  The trilogy is a mixture, a "cross-genre" mashup, just as Unto Zeor, Forever was when it was published.

In the future, we may look back and see how Anton started a new genre!  If you find imitators of her work, please drop a note on this blog entry.  Separating "oil" from "water" may become a popular writing style, and if so, then you need to master it as well as "shaken not stirred."

To see how Unto Zeor, Forever affected one woman from the time it was published all the way to a re-reading after the field of Science Fiction Romance appeared, see my blog entry:


Where I wrote:
In 2010, I found my name mentioned (via feeddemon search) in an Australian blog and discovered a woman who had read UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER years ago, and only now, on re-reading realized that it is indeed SCIENCE FICTION ROMANCE and belongs with the modern books she likes. That's why UNTO stood out to the point where she had obsessed over it.  At that time, it was almost unique as an "Alien Romance" - and now it belongs to a genre.


(if that link doesn't work, look in the archive of the blog for the entry of May 13, 2010 )
----------END QUOTE-------------

Isn't it odd that this blogger's name is Rachel?  That's Rashi's youngest daughter's name, and the title of the book which mentions the Medieval techniques of creating black dye for textiles which I used in House of Zeor. 

And here's another karmic echo -- on lovecatsdownunder.blogspot.com Rachel wrote:

I’ve been reading historicals as my main genre of pleasure for a couple of years now. Thing was, I’d been resisting reading them because I was such a huge Jane Austen fan, and… well, I don’t know what I thought, but once I found them I was hooked and I realized I'd wasted heaps of years in not reading them!

Obviously I’ve been reading other genres in there as well, but more than 50% would have been historicals. I found some fabulous, fabulous authors who are now autobuys.

But I’m starting to get itchy feet.

I’m thinking the next genre I want to fall into will be romantic fantasy. Maybe with some romantic science fiction thrown in. I read a fair bit of fantasy and science fiction when I was a late-teen early-20’s gal—things like, Mists of Avalon (boy did I love that book at the time); Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (laugh? I *still* laugh at lines I read then); Unto Zeor Forever (the first book I remember being obsessed about, and then trying to glom the author, Jacqueline Lichtenberg); Dune (the whole series); plus a heap of Arthur C Clarke and other sci fi big names.

This was before I found romance. And looking back, the only one on the list that’s really a romance (and probably the only one of all the books I read at the time) is Unto Zeor Forever. Interesting that it was the romance that I obsessed about the most, yes?

--------------END QUOTE-------------------

So what is "getting to" these readers, getting under their skins, invading dreams and creating obsessions?

My answer is "shaken not stirred."

It's the Integration Technique that glues your real-world-research facts to your imaginary facts to your characters to your story to your plot.

The only way I know of to achieve the Integration of all these story telling elements is on the level of  Theme.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, the author of Mists of Avalon mentioned by Lovecatsdownunder taught me to start the final draft by stating the story in one sentence (screenwriting element called the pitch), identify whose story it is, and distill the theme (the point of the tale) into a single sentence.  Tack a 3X5 card (today make a "STICKY NOTE" on your monitor desktop) to the wall behind your desk and test every sentence, every word-choice, against that list.  Anything (and I mean anything) that doesn't exemplify the theme gets deleted.

In the more basic posts, I've examined what a theme is and how to identify it in novels that others have written.

Identifying your theme in a novel you have written is much endeavor.

A "theme" is not a single idea, a single voice in the orchestra.  A theme, just as in music, is a repeated sequence -- a sequence you play with, run variations on, uptempo and downtempo.  A theme can be a sequence of chords -- it can be very complex in music, but is easily identified by the trained ear. Think of the tiny bit of music that plays every time Captain Kirk walks into a scene in Star Trek.  Other shows do the same thing -- identify the appearance of the main character with a theme. 

In novels, a theme is a set of related ideas which trigger a set of related emotions.

In novels, the word-choice relates the theme to a set of emotions.  That's called semantic loading.

Just as in music, the "ear" of the listener may be well trained, untrained, or partly deaf in some frequencies and ultra-sensitive in others.

Readers experience chords of emotions -- whole swaths of related emotions conditioned into them by "life" as they have experienced it, and by their dreams as they wish to experience them.  (two levels - oil and water).  The brain "lights up" in the corresponding areas as the writer triggers those emotions in the reader, bringing first one then another to dominance. 

In Kabbalah there are seven "primary" emotions defined.  Fiction combines those seven in different proportions -- and again, oil and water. 

Think of the color scales and how we obtain certain shades by combining primary colors.

Emotion works the same way.  And like music, emotion has as it's backbone structural element, rhythm.

Rhythm is created not by the BEATS -- but by the silence between them.

Next week, in Part 4, we'll get technical. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
For more on Gemara, check this out:

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