Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Research-Plot Integration in Historical Romance Part 5

Part 1 of this series is:

Part 2 of this series is:

Part 3 of this series is:
Part 4 of this series is:

We're examining the potential of Maggie Anton's trilogy, Rashi's Daughters:

We ended off last week talking about how a writer uses philosophy to paint a picture for the reader of "life, the universe, and everything" that's different from the picture the reader usually sees. 

Anton nails several bits of philosophy with exquisite precision.  She shows how Rashi's family owned and operated a vineyard and produced exemplary wine.  She researched the details of wine production in that era and inserted a lot of detail about it, using most of that detail in the production of her fascinating incidents.  For example, at one point a character dies by being overcome by fumes from the grape juice as it's being extracted from the grapes.

Anton discovered that the town where Rashi lived was a trading center through which a wide variety of goods flowed.  She details how the taxes from transactions on the trade fares interacted with the prosperity of the Jewish community and its relationships with the surrounding Christian communities. 

Most readers who know anything about Medieval Europe remember the later centuries when Jews were prohibited from various activities, rather than these early years of the collapse of the Roman empire.  Readers of today still have their impressions of the 20th century colored by vilification of the Jews for financial dealings.  We all know stories of financiers who lie, cheat, steal, and trick their way to wealth.  Anton is no doubt well aware of this attitude toward financial dealings and business in general. 

She no doubt knows that, for her readers, the attitude toward business as a profession is as incendiary as the attitude toward uppity women.  Yet all three novels, though they depict Rashi's daughters as ambitiously engaged in business, walk right by all the Talmudic material on business -- mentioning it offhandedly, off-stage, involving other characters, and focus Rashi's daughters' attention entirely on their feminist issues.

Anton does note Rashi's famous training of his Talmud students in the art of the vintner because scholars must have a profession.  She gives us a lot on that art, and a lot on the physician's art, but not the driving emotional reality behind choice of profession.

That focus on feminism is a philosophical choice.  So for a moment, let's look at another philosophical point she might have lit up instead of darkening out.

-------------EXAMPLE OF A PHILOSOPHY--------

Let's consider a philosophical "pixel" from Tzvi Freeman. 

Here's a long item with much to think about:

--------Quote from Tzvi Freeman article -- Numbers refer to his footnotes--------------

There are those professions that society considers noble callings, such as doctors, judges and professors. Society respects them for what they do. Then there are business people. Society respects them, too—but are they respected for what they do, or for what they get? Do we respect their occupation, or do we see them as doing a worthless job—making money out of money?

Where is business respected? Take a look in the Talmud.

In the Talmud you’ll find spiritual and earthly duties lumped together in ways that sends the modern mind spinning:

    Rava said, “When a soul stands before the heavenly court, it is asked, ‘Did you buy and sell fairly? Did you fix times for Torah study? Did you attempt to be fruitful and multiply? Did you look forward to the messianic redemption? Did you debate matters of wisdom? Did you understand one thing from another?’”2

Do you see that? Marrying, procreating and making an honest living are good and wonderful occupations—in the same breath as Torah study, gaining wisdom and keeping the faith.

Why? Because they benefit the world. As in the common talmudic term for making a living, that dignified and ennobled phrase, “settling of the world”3 —for, as the prophet states, “G-d did not create emptiness; He formed a world to be settled upon.”4

Maimonides sums up the Jewish position with strong words:

    Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates G-d's name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.

    Our Sages declared: "Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world." Also, they commanded and declared: "Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with." Also, they commanded and declared: "Love work and despise Rabbinic positions." All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.5

And so, the laws concerning earning an honest living and thereby making the world a more settled and civil place also belong in the holy books.

The medieval Augustinian view, on the other hand, saw all these as curses of the snake, the product of original sin—since they were directed by man’s evil impulse.6 Such, as well, was the view of the ancient Romans and Greeks, who looked askance at craftsmen, merchants and others who lived by toil.

And so, whereas the Jew saw work as good for the soul and moneymaking as of benefit to everyone involved, the society which enveloped them saw it as a tolerable sin. Not lending money alone, but almost every form of business was labelled “usury”—using someone else for one’s own benefit.7

Life began to change radically when European society adopted the Jewish attitude—that which Weber prudently coined “the Protestant ethic.” The Jews, wrote Montesquieu, “set the stage for the rebirth of European commerce, and with it the beginning of the decline of prejudice and the rise of a more gentle, less ferocious way of life.”8

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

Remember, Maggie Anton authentically put the daughters of Rashi into "business" -- married to traders, the daughters of a Vintner  -- and that one became a money might be true or not. 

The women's business endeavors, while quiet and out of the spotlight for the most part, were not a source of conflict but just mere background, an excuse for them to run around and have technical conversations about things they already knew about. 

Business and earning a living in a Torah Yeshiva was not what Anton's story was about. 

A story's conflict focuses a story, and exemplifies the theme by how the conflict resolves.  The essence of story is conflict, but that's not enough if the conflict doesn't start, progress, morph, and resolve. 

Now reread or just remember my older posts:

And you might want to ponder:


As I've said in previous parts of Research-Plot Integration, Anton chose the annecdotal structure rather than an actual plot structure for her trilogy.  So she doesn't have a conflict that starts at the first chapter of Book One and climaxes at the last page of Book III, leaving the reader gasping and crying, yet understanding their own life in this real world much better.

Anton mentions the stark distinction between the Christian views of the surrounding community and the close and isolated views of the Jewish community.  But she shrugs all that off by saying during this interval there was relative peace between the two communities.

Yet, Rashi lived at the threshold of the Crusades, the paroxysm of Europe draining the strength of the young male population into a killing-field of the Middle East.

Could any setting be more ripe for an in-depth discussion of the philosohical issues between the Middle East and Judaism and Christianity? 

Anton gives us the impression that the (historical fact of) learned daughters of a towering figure of Europe knew nothing but the scrapts of war news that get tossed into this story with little consequence.  Yes, Anton tells us how Spain was more hospitable on the one hand, and more corrosive of Jewish learning on the other -- but to do that, she breaks viewpoint and follows one of the sons-in-law who gets caught up in the study of Astronomy in Spain. Fine.  Very interesting.  Another annecdote whose only consequence is the angst and misery of the wife left behind who invents a whole new business model to get her husband to stay home -- only to find out that he'd rather study Astronomy than Talmud. 

Each annecdote is very strong, composed of very strong material -- but ultimately leaves the reader floating weightlessly without direction.

So what could Anton have done instead? 

What would an envelope plot, beginning on page 1 of Book 1 and climaxing on the last page of Book 3 -- with each Book having a plot that begins on page 1 and climaxes at the end just before the plot-advance of the envelope plot -- have added to this trilogy?

Remember my post on nested plots 

Anton's problem -- "write about the little known daughters of Rashi" -- is just the sort of writing problem the nested-plot structure, built on the nested-theme structure, solves. 

But to create a trilogy using that nested-plot structure, you need 1 single theme from which you derive 3 separate themes that "harmonize" with it, poetically, (as in Poetic Justice In Paranormal Romance).  Given the Medieval attitudes toward demons and angels, the setting is perfect for a Paranormal Romance complete with magical practices that work. 

Each of Anton's "anecdotes" has a different theme, and few of them are related.  So the only thematic statement that comes through to a reader who has no suspended disbelief is "women should not be distinguished from men." 

This is exemplified in the emphasis on how Rashi's daughters (reputedly) wore Tefilin (a Commandment binding on men) and did other things women aren't forbidden to do, but are exempt from doing. 

More on Tefilin, what's inside the leather cases, the blessings for donning them, etc:

But mystical Judaism holds that the female soul is permanently and emphatically distinct from the masculine soul.  Mystical Judaism (which Rashi didn't pay attention to) holds that the feminine soul is a little closer to holiness. 

Instead of these practices being incidental color on the lives of three exceptional women, it is left to be the only point of the story without any real "show don't tell" exploration of mystical Judaism.  Rashi did not encourage mysticism in his household (that's fact), but the surrounding Jewish culture was peripherally affected -- mostly in a superstitious way rather than a Kabbalah studies way. 

Although they enjoy praying with Tefilin, (achieving that practice is an incident referred to repeatedly later), Anton's characters don't seem to find a deepened spiritual existence, a greater insight, a prophetess's wisdom, from the practice. 

Anton depicts the practice of draping Tefilin on the headboards of beds where women are being delivered, and indicates this saves women's lives.  We see many births, some disasters, but can't make the connection. 

Anton also has the daughters resorting to specially written Mezuzah scrolls that purportedly embodied the mystical dimension. 

More on the Mezuzah:
All the information Anton unearthed in research is there in these books - with incidents contrived to make it seem logical to include that information -- contrived being the operative world.

How do you cure the problem of the "contrived" effect?

What cures the contrived, and gets rid of expository lumps full of deliciously interesting information you just have to include because you worked so hard on it, is internal conflict.

If you rely on the incident structure, you don't have any real conflict that can be resolved -- it's just "this happened" then "that happened."

If you don't have a conflict, you don't have a plot.

If you don't have a plot, you don't have a story -- because either the story generates the plot or the plot generates the story, but they go together like two sides of a coin.  That's why most writers (and readers) can't distinguish story from plot. 

The story is generated by the internal conflict.

The internal conflict is the character motivation -- and it works best when the character does not know they have an internal conflict at all.

Real people don't usually know they have an internal conflict until it's resolved -- or just at the point where they can name it, then they can resolve it.

So characters who don't know what's driving them, what's compelling or impelling them, seem "realistic" -- and cause the reader to suspend disbelief and fearlessly explore the made-up world the character lives in.

The internal conflict drives the character to act.  The action (or decision) of the main POV character is what initiates the plot.

The main character acts.  The antagonist re-acts.  (that's how you can tell the hero from the villain -- that's how you can tell who to root for -- always the hero acts first because it's the hero's story.  When the villain acts first, the villain becomes the hero and is rooted for.)

The main character, the main POV character, is "playing white" to use a chess analogy, and moves first.

Or put another way, the writer joins the action at the point in the character's life where she ACTS, and thereby causes her world and the people around her to react.  At other times in her life, she's not the hero of her story but a pawn in someone else's story. 

Anton started her story at a very good point, where Rashi's mother had become incapable of running the vineyard, and his wife called him home to "take care of the business." 

So the whole Talmudic teaching on the relationship between learning and business, earth and heaven, could have made a terrific envelope theme over the 3 books.

So Rashi comes home, meets his nearly grown daughters, and begins teaching them -- which leads to the Tefilin incident. 

Note that - Rashi meets his daughters (he was away learning Talmud as they grew and came home for holidays).

See?  Rashi meets.  It's not the girl's story, it's Rashi's. 

OK, the girl meets her father -- a fine beginning, but what does she do?  She does not act.  She is acted upon at that point -- Rashi begins to teach. 

Anton contrived the narrative so that the eldest girl becomes intrigued and wants to learn what Rashi is teaching, so she takes her spinning work and sits and listens -- passively.

That's why there's no plot, only incidents.  There's no plot because none of the 3 Daughters has a point in their lives when their story starts. 

Now suppose Anton had solved the problem differently.  Suppose she'd set out to use the nested themes, what could she use as the overall trilogy conflict?

Rashi vs. Mystical Judaism

In the trilogy, Rashi starts out a fairly young man - at that time, one didn't start studying mysticism until the age of 40, maybe much older.

The trilogy ends just about the point where Rashi dies.

History records that he never quite finished his Talmud commentary -- his sons-in-law and grandsons took over. 

DEPART FROM HISTORY - with a fantasy "what-if?"  --

What if Rashi did indeed study the mystical aspects, knew them cold, and maybe that's why his commentaries weren't completed?  What if Rashi learned the mystical teachings, and flat out rejected them?

What if his DAUGHTERS embraced the mystical with a fervor and a passion they, themselves, never understood? 

Father-Daughter conflicts over huge philosophical issues. 

That would give you their internal conflicts, each individual yet derived from a main unified conflict, thus lending itself to trilogy treatment. 

The internal conflicts would prompt non-rational or supra-rational actions which the daughters wouldn't understand themselves, which would cause the world to react in ways that might be interpreted as mystical - or not - depending on the reader's bent. 

You would have an internal conflict generating an external conflict that could resolve neatly at the end of the third book. 

What Anton left out of this trilogy is the "story" and internal conflicts generating actions which produce meaningful emotional maturation.  If there were a story, there would be a plot.  The girls are older at the end of the trilogy, but not different than they were at the beginning.  They don't have epiphanies, about-faces, massive disillusionments with philosophical certainties, even when faced with marital infidelity.

Anton's characters don't "arc" in the way Hollywood characters must.  If sold to film these books would be massacred in the attempt to create character-arcs. 

The trilogy is a chronicle, yes, but not a story.  It reads like a diary or a record of events that occurred -- but does not give you that clear picture of a world that's the same world you live in, but different. 

Father vs. Daughters over a conflict that is rampant in today's world would produce that character-arc without the "contrived" effect. 

Just look at all the Paranormal Romance on the shelves, the fantasy on your TV screen.  Magic vs Mundanity is the core of Harry Potter, etc.  It's a hotter commercial topic than feminism, but actually does have its roots in feminism and many related societal concerns. 

What if, at his death, the Daughters, steeped in the paranormal, finally understood Rashi's response to the mystical and changed their minds completely about incorporating the mystical into life?

Of course, to achieve that as a reader-awakening the writer would have to understand Rashi's objections, all the counter-arguments that convince the girls, and finally the one argument Rashi might have left in an unpublished text that would change the girls' minds.  To do that, the writer would have to be able to think like Rashi.  May as well try to think like Yoda or Gandalf. 

What if, after Rashi's death, the daughters then expunged all trace of any mystical activities they had participated in during his life and taught their children to turn from mysticism?

What if that's why the Kabbalistic writings don't appear for a few more centuries?

It would be a rewrite of history, complete with cover-up, that would allow for:

a) Character Arcs
b) story
c) plot
d) a reader's journey through what it means to be Jewish and female
e) suspension of disbelief
f) Poetic Justice via karmic, paranormal, highly improbable event sequences

The list of points could go on and on. 

The author could not have achieved all that by "rewriting" these volumes.  It's a "toss it all away and start from scratch" situation.

An editor could not guide a writer through this kind of restructuring.  I don't know any editor who could even begin to explain explosive marketing potential in this concept to a writer who's stuck re-running the outworn feminist fight.  The books I want to read are not the books she wants to write.  She achieved her own objective and you can see the result in the comments on amazon. 

The difference I'm describing has to be generated on the conceptual level, the level of Idea that happens before the writer is conscious of the need to write that story.

So studying these novels can be of benefit to the student writer a few years before that writer is struck with the highly commercial Concept that will make or break their career.

Just in case you might be such a writer, read at least some of Anton's trilogy or something comparable.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
For more on Gemara, check this out:

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