Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Research-Plot Integration in Historical Romance Part 4

Part 1 of this series is:

Part 2 of this series is:

Part 3 of this series is:

This series is ostensibly about Maggie Anton's trilogy, Rashi's Daughters.  Actually, it's about how you can write a better historical novel than that trilogy (as good as any novel is, you can always do better). 

This blog series is most especially about how to craft Paranormal Romance.

My Jan 2012 release, The Farris Channel is extremely Paranormal, not so extremely Romance, and very "Future Historical" since it answers the fans' questions about the historical background, the worldbuilding behind novels set later in the Chronology.  So my thinking has been focused on Paranormal Historical Romance, hence this relentless pursuit of the inner mechanisms of the Rashi's Daughters trilogy. 

The question is how to lure hostile readers into a suspension of disbelief that will let you ask them a question they'll never forget.  If you can achieve that, readers will force their friends to read your novel because they can't talk to anyone who doesn't have that background reference, and they want to talk about finding the answer to that nagging question.  Posing questions is what "science" is all about, which is the core essence of what "science fiction" is about.  Posing those nagging questions about the Paranormal as it relates to Romance is much harder than posing questions about simple physics and he-man Action Adventure.   

So here we go with the 4th part of this series, exploring what a writer does with their mind to integrate Research into Plot using Theme as the integration tool, to break up the lumps of exposition to create a smooth, unified product, "shaken not stirred." 

Last week we ended off with this idea from a musical analogy:

A theme is composed of ideas (beats) but defined by the "silence" between them -- by what is not mentioned, by what is ignored, deemed unimportant or non-existent, by how the idea is spread across time.

Consider the pixels on a TV screen.  The clarity of the screen is created by the deepness of the black surrounding each lit pixel, not by the brightness of the pixel itself.  You can research that on amazon or just remember what the Sony Trinitron screen had that nothing else on the market had -- and that was true-black surrounding each pixel.  Today, it's the Panasonic plasma screen (tightly held patents) that lead in BLACKNESS. 

It's the lack of signal, the lack of picture that makes the picture comprehensible.

And so it is with philosophy, the mother of theme.  What does not exist lets what does exist come together in meaning.

This sorting skill is usually learned in the earliest experience in school of "writing a term paper."  You have to learn what to exclude as well as what to include. 

The fiction writer, though, is an artist whose medium is emotion. 

The fictioneer can't transfer their own emotion to the reader.  The writer must activate emotions the reader already has.

That's why children's lit is so different from adult fare -- as we age, we acquire more emotions, more mixtures of emotion, and more emotional triggers. 

A baby's eyes at first only distinguish the primary colors -- and the brain can only experience the primary emotions (mostly in isolation from each other - hence the ability of a baby to be distracted).  A baby really only does one emotion at a time.  Adults can experience all the primary emotions at once, and many mixed emotions each with an identify of its own.   

Here is some recently reported research you've all heard by now on the development of the teenage brain, which gives a clue why YA novels have to be different from those aimed at older people.

It now appears the brain continues to change into the early 20's with the frontal lobes, responsible for reasoning and problem solving, developing last.
The decade-long magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of normal brain development, from ages 4 to 21, by researchers at NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) shows that such "higher-order" brain centers, such as the prefrontal cortex, don't fully develop until young adulthood as grey matter wanes in a back-to-front wave as the brain matures and neural connections are pruned...

In calm situations, teenagers can rationalize almost as well as adults. But stress can hijack what Ron Dahl, a pediatrician and child psychiatric researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center calls "hot cognition" and decision-making. The frontal lobes help put the brakes on a desire for thrills and taking risk -- a building block of adolescence; but, they're also one of the last areas of the brain to develop fully.
 ---------end quote------------

Indications in this research are that the brain continues to change with age, and especially with usage.  Thus a teen who reads ends up with a different brain than one who does not.  A teen who reads THIS as opposed to THAT may actually end up with a different wiring.  Given that books (cold text) delivers different emotional experiences, it could be that subject matter actually does make a difference.  Sexual excitement induced by reading cold text may differ from that associated with images, and from that coming via reality.

It has already been shown that adult and elder brains can repair or relearn function after motor injuries.  So targeting your reader by age, and by experience is important in delivering the emotional roller-coaster ride a novel is expected to carry. 

The adult's emotional triggers are the hooks or handles by which the writer can take hold of the reader. 

Back to art, music and now dance.  The writer is dancing with the reader, rhythmically moving with the reader's emotions, leading them into other emotions, and onwards perhaps into unexplored territory and new emotions.

As with music, it is the pauses in the dance that give it meaning, just as the silence gives the musical beat it's rhythm.

A fictional theme is composed of abstract ideas, each one lit up like the pixel on a TV screen or computer monitor -- the clarity of the piece of fiction, it's penetrating ability, it's gosh-wow-gasp effect depends not on what is said but on what is not said -- on the stark, absolute darkness and silence surrounding each idea.  But the theme is not "art" unless all the ideas composing it add up to a picture of "Life, The Universe, And Everything" - on matters of ultimate concern. 

This can be done in many ways.  The bestselling way is to use the writer's craft to depict the universe in the exact way that the majority of readers either see it or wish it were.  The "genre way" -- the smaller, more defined audience way (i.e. Romance fans, History buffs, Geeks, Murder Mystery fans, Western Action fans) is to depict the universe in a way that the target reader has never seen or thought of before - to say something that has never been said in fiction, to astonish, mesmerize, and impress. 

If you have something new to say, genre rules and strict structure can give you the  backbone of a story which can be the vehicle for that theme.  By using an established structure the reader knows (like picking a "theme" for your email), you can showcase your idea in the forefront.  The security of already understanding the structure lets the reader focus on what you have to say.

If you're saying the same old thing everyone already knows, you invent a new way to say it, a new genre structure or variation, or you find a new setting against which to fling your old-hat idea as Maggie Anton has done. 

If you put a new idea into a new structure, the reader gets the impression of a "busy" field of view, a 'cluttered' page, something they can't sort any sense out of and so don't pay money for. 

To get rid of the "cluttered" or "busy" impression, the writer integrates the story-structure elements into a unified whole.  You smooth and blend, to get that effect, you shake not stir. 

So how do you "shake not stir" Research into Plot? 

What's the exact mechanism a writer's mind uses to achieve that smooth blend of hard facts the reader already knows and the Events in the story that happen to the character? 

What is it Maggie Anton didn't do with her novels?

She did take the old, worn, done to death, feminist vs. the establishment conflict and fling it into a new setting -- 1040 C.E. in Rashi's family. 

She astonished us by showing Rashi's family just barely resisting the feminist daughters who won all their freedoms with barely a struggle (while in the rest of their world, women were killed for less but Anton doesn't discuss that except via one character, the daughter of a parchment maker -- from whom we learn a lot about how parchment is made).  And Anton got the Rashi's Daughters trilogy published without a genre label. 

That's a fairly solid publishing success, but what do you do if you want to go Anton one better?

You ask yourself questions - certain HARD questions about the reality in which the characters are embedded and how the character would see the world differently than the writer would in the same circumstance.

Instead of projecting yourself onto your characters (Mary Sue) - you project your characters onto yourself and look for the life lesson to be extracted from the events, a lesson you wouldn't be aware of if you were living through the events because it would affect you subconsciously, not consciously.

The life-lesson is the origin of the theme; the events become the plot.

Here are some previous posts I've done on theme and how to apply it to plot and story generation:

which has links to the previous parts in that sequence.

The post topics are:

Believing in Happily Ever After Part 1, Stephen King on Potter VS Twilight
Believing in Happily Ever After Part 2, The Power of Theme-Plot Integration.
Believing in Happily Ever After Part 3, Standardization vs Customization
Believing in Happily Ever After Part 4, Nesting Huge Themes Inside Each Other

So I'm going to proceed on the assumption you've read those posts and the posts referred to inside them. 

Of course we're talking about HISTORICAL (actual, factual) fiction here, Rashi's Daughters.

We all know how unhappily ever after the European Jewish population lived.  We know that the era in which Rashi's family lived had been preceded by a number of really horrendous slaughters, and that more slaughters were to come.  That was Maggie Anton's problem - to depict convincingly the flourishing years of that historic community through the eyes of one generation of that historic family who knew the past and weren't oblivious to where it all was headed. 

Anton had the historic fact and the ambition to show us how strong, heroic women might have survived in and contributed to that  flourishing intellectual culture.  She had a feminist mindset to project onto historic figures, proposing the notion that our current feminist breakout may have had its roots in the spiritual heritage all Jewish women share. 

Anton hit on a hellishly commercial fictional CONCEPT -- like in "Hollywood High Concept" that I've written about at such length.








I wouldn't be surprised if these novels are made into films or a TV miniseries -- this stuff is high concept to the max.

Assuming you've got the principles discussed in those posts fully internalized, let's move on. 

Anton just didn't use the writing techniques to blend her HIGH CONCEPT into the historic facts without distorting them.  She didn't generate her fictional facts from the historic facts to create characters with enough depth to make readers such as I quoted in Part 2 of this sequence of posts suspend disbelief long enough to entertain the notion that Rashi's daughters might have been feminists in an anti-feminist society. 

The hard-fact research truth is that Rashi's daughters did not live in an anti-feminist society because that's not the kind of atmosphere Rashi's community generated -- as the commentator I quoted in Part 2 mentioned, that's the truth.  The surrounding Christian community, though, is a totally different kettle of themes. 

If Anton's research is as well done as indicated, Anton knows that truth.  In a number of places, she indicated that the customs lived in Rashi's times were different from the customs later introduced by an even more beleaguered Jewish community after even more slaughters, so I can only assume that she also knew that Rashi's community was not anti-feminist.  Even today, in a certain corner of the community that lives the world-view that Rashi chronicled in his commentaries, feminism is a non-issue because there's no oppression to spark it.  Therefore, to those in that community, Anton's novels seem to lack verisimilitude. 

But the novels didn't have to fail to engage that corner of the community if suspension of disbelief had succeeded. 

Remember the connection between plot and story is the character whose decisions and actions cause events which splash-back to affect the character.  Those decisions and actions are the only real clue the reader has about the theme. 

The story is the sequence of emotional states and reactions the character experiences when impacted by events that leads the character to CHANGE -- to "arc" -- to learn a life lesson in the school of hard knocks. 

The plot is the sequence of events that ensue BECAUSE the character acts prompted by emotion.

The story is the sequence of inner emotions the character experiences that CAUSE the character to act in specific ways, that cause the plot to happen.

The character's actions cause reactions which deflect the character from his/her intended course of action -- the plot is the sequence of events that take the character either back to their original target (achieving an objective) which is the "Likeable hero struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds toward a worthwhile goal" plot, or to a new destination that is either a) better than the original target or b) worse (in which case there's a sequel coming) -- which is the "Johnny gets his fanny caught in a bear trap and has his adventures getting it out" plot.

So where does theme come in?  How can theme integrate Researched facts with Imaginary facts (worldbuilding) and with plot?

The theme embodies what the character learns about life, a transcendent truth that becomes customized specifically for that character.

A life-lesson has a practical, concrete component, but it also has an emotional component.  After one of those hard-knocks that only "life" can delivery, our emotional triggers are changed, and we react differently to situations, colors, tastes, the sound of a voice, the flash of a camera in the face. 

For example, consider a rape victim learning to love and have sex freely again.  Consider a soldier who dives under the bed every time it thunders learning to walk in the rain and laugh. 

Those kinds of turn-arounds happen because of a deep and meaningful Relationship moving through various stages, impacting the person on many levels.  Those turn-arounds are the story, and what changes inside the character is emotional. 

What brings a reader into a story, making the reader want to suspend disbelief, and willing to work to shut off the mental jangle of "that's ridiculous" is the way the character's emotional responses connect to the reader's emotional responses. 

Where do emotions come from?

The various answers to that question that you as the writer have, and that your target readership has or wants to have, will determine how you work with theme. 

With my novel that I discussed last week, Unto Zeor, Forever, I used the theory that emotions come from your philosophy -- and vice-verso, your philosophy comes from your emotions.  Yeah, chicken and the egg -- they interact with and cause each other.

Think of that TV screen analogy again.  When the screen is turned off, the pixels are still there but they are as black as the surrounding background.  The screen still has a pixel array structure, but you can't see it without special instruments. 

The structure is a certain number of pixels in rows across and columns down - an array.  The pixels are all the same size, the rim around them, separating them is also uniform. 

That all-black pattern, or array of pixels is your philosophy.  It's a structure that is fixed and unwavering, a screen UPON WHICH you project your reality. 

The specific choices you make about story, plot, setting, characters, will light up the pixels, and each succeeding choice will reveal more of the whole picture.  But whether that picture is intelligible to your reader will depend on the blacks around each pixel.  In other words, your reader's suspension of disbelief depends on what you leave out.

You will "see" your mental reality only as clearly as the blacks around your pixels.  The smaller the pixels, the more numerous the pixels (or axioms and postulates of your philosophy) the finer your picture of reality will be. 

Some people work on their philosophy and achieve a picture quality like High Definition.  Some have LED quality screens, some have Plasma quality colors.  Some are still living with analog screens, large fuzzy pixels, a blurry picture of reality.

The artist's job is to show the consumer of the art how the world would look with deeper blacks around the pixels, with LED back-lighting, with clearer vision. 

The artist draws a picture of reality the consumer would never sort out by themselves by sorting the signal from the noise, and suppressing the noise until the signal reveals a coherent picture of life, the universe, and everything.  The artist distinguishes signal from noise by filtering the signal through a philosophy -- not necessarily the artist's own philosophy, though most beginners start there. 

The writer has a philosophy, her characters each have a philosophy, and the reader has a philosophy.  Very likely, all are different.

The writer's job is to know their own philosophy in order to know how it differs from the character's philosophy.  That's how you avoid writing a Lt. Mary Sue, who is just yourself idealized. 

Most ordinary people don't know their own philosophy -- don't know they have one, and barely have a notion of what the word means.  Normal people don't enjoy discussing philosophy.  Writers thrive on it.  Artists thrive on it.

The other thing writers thrive on is "research" -- most of us grow up reading the dictionary and encyclopedia for FUN not profit!  We love words, their meanings, their implications, their emotional nuances and semantic loading.  We collect facts like a dragon collects gems and brood on our hoard of trivia for years before hatching an idea for a novel using those facts.

Maggie Anton, in a comment on one of the reader comments on Amazon, says she studied Talmud for 10 years in order to make the story of Rashi's daughters authentic -- she believes she did it.  She also amassed a lot of information about the technologies and practices of the time period and location. 

So this week we'll leave off there and give you time to finish reading Anton's trilogy and/or the comments on Amazon or any other online source you can find.

Next week we'll finish up this study with a brief description of what Anton might have done instead, and how it could be done - what tools she might have used that you've seen discussed on this blog.

Remember, this blog series is about Research-Plot Integration, not a critique of a trilogy about a Medieval Jewish community.

Wherever the Jewish elements are mentioned, substitute the worldbuilding elements you might make up from the historic facts you might have amassed.

Soon, we'll talk a little about the Television Series, Once Upon A Time which has an odd thematic relationship to this Rashi's Daughters trilogy.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Welcome to the Future Again (Today)

We recently bought our first iPad. I wanted a lightweight, portable device for only two purposes, to watch streaming videos on something other than the desktop computer and to read e-mail away from home. My husband needed the iPad for navigational functions and other apps related to flying.

This wondrous gadget stimulated me to think about the technology in J. D. Robb’s Eve Dallas series, set around 2060. One thing I like about these mysteries is that they portray a future I can believe, for the most part, my grandchildren as middle-aged adults will live in.

I have no trouble believing in orbital space station colonies fifty years from now. We still don’t have the flying cars driven by Lt. Dallas’s police department and wealthy civilians (and would you really want them widely available, considering how much havoc some drivers wreak in only two dimensions?). But there’s no reason they couldn’t be built, and “smart cars” that drive themselves are coming soon. Experimental models already exist, whether they will ultimately need special highways (as in Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll”) or operate independently.

Eve’s almost magical handheld forensic gadget (similar to Dr. McCoy’s medical tricorder), which can even instantaneously read a precise time of death for a corpse, seems a little bit out there. However, the “link” that everyone in 2060 carries now looks awfully familiar. It’s essentially an iPad with a lot of futuristic apps and reduced to about the size of a phone. We’re almost there!

In Eve’s time people don’t watch TV. They watch “screen.” All their media access comes through the computer. Already in the present day, some people choose to get news, music, movies, and TV shows on their computers (and Robb’s novels started imagining this development decades ago). As hardware gets cheaper and the Internet more versatile, the routine integration of all forms of media into one outlet can’t be far behind.

One more futuristic invention in the Eve Dallas series, though, still seems fantastic to me: Robot workers (“droids”) that can converse intelligently and, at a glance, can hardly be distinguished from live people. I’m not so sure we’ll achieve those in fifty years.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cyber Robin Hood

     At least the Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest saw the so-called rich that he robbed. He could be said to have a good faith belief that if his victim dressed like a rich person, traveled like a rich person, spoke like a rich person, smelled like a rich person (etc, etc) he probably was indeed able to afford having the moneybags and jewels on his person at the time ripped off.
     Also, the Robin Hood of medieval times (if he actually did give to the poor) probably saw them, and could deduce from their clothes, deportment, speech, the state of their hands and feet (and so forth) that they were underfed and underpaid.
     Cyber Robin Hoods rip everyone off. They have no way to know, for instance, whether the "millionaire" author that they are ripping off is in fact a single mother, waiting tables by day or night to make ends meet, and writing every day at three am.

     Similarly, the so-called "poor" who allegedly cannot afford to purchase the movie and e-book treats that Cyber Robin distributes, nevertheless own e-readers, computers, high speed internet access and can afford to pay the pirate a nominal monthly subscription for access to his links. They can afford a subscription to the hosting site so they can quickly and efficiently download illegal copies of "complimentary" movies and e-books. Moreover, the advertisement aggregators obviously have a good faith belief (if one believes the pitch about life-style-targeted advertising) that these "deserving poor" can afford luxury cars and high-end tech products.

     Was Robin Hood the first romantic mugger? Why does literature of a certain type glorify pirates, highwaymen, spies and assassins? (Whether historical, modern, or futuristic). Is it simply because they live dangerous lives that make for page-turners and action-packed movies? Let's not forget modern computer games. What effect does Grand Theft Auto have on a person's morality?

     Give me my chess sets, Mancala, Reversi, and my Wii where the most violent and destructive game I play is careening into beach balls on a Segway with the intent to burst them!

By the way, if something as mild as SOPA caused such uproar.... maybe the reason is not all that meets the eye. It appears that many people signed The Petition multiple times under the impression that SOPA would take away their assumed "right" to "share" copyrighted e-books and movies. True. People were trying to stop the DMCA (from 1998) by petitioning against SOPA in 2011.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bujold on SF Romance

In the January LOCUS there’s an interview with Lois McMaster Bujold, who comments briefly on “hybrids of romance and science fiction.” She thinks creating such fiction is a difficult challenge because “the genres are kind of immiscible”—for this reason:

“One wants politically-driven stories in which characters gain status, and the other is more interested in romantically-driven stories where the characters gain mates. Different underlying biological drives are being served by these two different kinds of stories.”

I’ve never considered SF romance from that angle. I have reservations about Bujold’s analysis in that she seems to be defining science fiction too narrowly, focusing on only one of the many subsets of SF. Still, she makes an intriguing point.

As an aside, she makes an amusing remark about progressively narrower subgenre categories being like “overbred dog breeds that go past the point of being healthy anymore.” Not that she’s worried; she regards the process as an unstoppable “economic cycle” that, presumably, is self-correcting in the long run.

Any thoughts?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Research-Plot Integration in Historical Romance Part 2

Last week:
we looked at a trilogy of historical romance stories about Rashi's Daughters.

I'm discussing how Maggie Anton's trilogy of historical romance novels with paranormal, supernatural, and spiritual elements blended in, fails because of a failure of orchestration of advanced writing techniques, namely the technique of integrating techniques.

Anton's trilogy does not fail because of a failure of either research technique or plotting technique by itself, though her plotting technique is not one that I respond to or use.  But the two techniques applied separately produce an "oil and water" layered effect rather than an emulsion or a new chemical compound with unique properties (i.e. a Romance Novel).

I hope you have had time to consider these novels.  Here's a link to them on amazon:

Maggie Anton

I don't know Maggie Anton personally, and have no idea what went on with the writing of these novels other than what it says in the books.

Here is a reader response on Anton's first novel from Amazon to consider indicating that the author's imaginary Jewish Culture of the Middle Ages stood out from, made an oil slick on top of, and obliterated all the rest of the romance novel stories in the books:

3.0 out of 5 stars Good in general but Jewish life lacks authenticity, May 10, 2009
D. L. Lederman "leahiniowa" (Iowa USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Rashi's Daughters, Book 1: Joheved (Paperback)
I am an Orthodox Jew who happens to deeply enjoy history and well-written historic fiction. I have strongly mixed feelings about this book. I am deeply impressed with the research that went into this book as well as Anton's ability to compile an enjoyable story from her research.

Unfortunately, it is clear that Anton does not know enough about living the type of authentically observant life that Rashi and his family enjoyed to write about these people without over-laying them with a 21st century mentality.

Those of us who follow the traditions given down from parent to child over the generations know that Rashi's daughters did not wear tefillin and learn Talmud because they were rebels. On the contrary, they were very holy women who followed the law to the letter. Judaism is, at its authentic pure level, NOT a sexist religion.

Further, those of us who live the observant lifestyle are aware at a bone-deep level the benefits of abstaining from prohibited activities. E.g., the prohibition against mature, unmarried men and women touching at all (not to mention "making out" or "snogging" or what have you), along with the observance of the laws of married life, create an intense, passionate bond between husband and wife. No intelligent woman (or man) who has lived this lifestyle and learned significant amounts of Torah (the term Torah is often used to include the Talmud, Mishnah, Midrashim, etc. - basically all of the accumulated studies) would be foolish enough to put themselves in a position such as the female characters in this book found themselves with their "beaux."

To clarify what one of the other reviewers stated, yes, Jewish women at that time were mostly illiterate - especially as regards to Judaic studies. But so were most of the Jewish men. Only the special few - those with outstanding mental abilities or those with the finances to pay for an education - were able to learn enough to read and/or write Hebrew. And learning more than that was even harder to accomplish.

On the other hand, Anton's portrayal of Rashi's mother as an active, educated intelligent woman who ran her own business is strikingly accurate. Plus, I enjoyed learning about the lifestyle and history of Jews living during the time of Rashi.

I really would have preferred to give the book 3 1/2 stars or even 3.75 stars, because I do think it is very well-written and interesting. Unfortunately, books which do not portray Torah true Judaism accurately tend to do more harm than good. From the other reviews I have read, this already seems to be the case.

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

And here is a reader response posted on Amazon on one of my novels, House of Zeor, which indicates that applying the integration technique I'm discussing causes readers to be able to absorb the imaginary culture of imaginary characters even when it differs starkly from anything familiar:

5.0 out of 5 stars Only the beginning . . . of a great series, November 4, 2011
By J. A. Davis "firedrake54" (Ontario, CA)
This review is from: House of Zeor (Sime~Gen, Book 1) (Kindle Edition)
I can't tell you when I first read "House of Zeor", but it was back when I was thin and my hair wasn't. I found it amazing, when, last month, after not reading it for perhaps 20 years, I picked it up and was immediately transported back into a fondly (and well) remembered world. This book is one of the most complex, painfully realistic and memorable psycho-sociological thrillers I've ever read, and the foundation for an entire universe of stories, the complexity and beauty of which would definitely win awards at Arentsi (and you'll have to read it to find out what that means).

Ms. Lichtenberg, her eventual co-author for later books, Jean Lorrah, and the entire community of Sime-Gen worldbuilders have imagined characters, societies and situations that embed themselves on your brain and don't let go. I suppose it's indicative of something that I remembered many of the terms used in House of Zeor for decades -- mostly Sime-specific curse words, I confess, but they're used in context so clearly you have no problem knowing exactly what they mean.

I've been reading science fiction for nearly 50 years (yes, really). I can count the number of authors and series that have stuck with me this well easily on two hands, and I've read a LOT of SF in those years. The Sime-Gen books make you want to KNOW these people, and make you CARE about what happens to them . . . and their society, which comes painfully to the brink of collapse and ultimate calamity.

I've heard them called "vampire-analog" stories, "chick books" and more, but at base, what they are is good stories, well told, about characters you can get into.

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

House of Zeor illustrates how readers respond to a "new chemical compound" and how that response differs from the response to "oil and water."

There are also comments on Anton's novels from non-Jews and from Jews who know less about Judaism than most readers of this blog know about Simes.

In the comments on Anton's novels, notice how the Medieval Jewish culture - the truly "alien" culture - of a small town in France leaps out and dominates the reader commentary.

Most of the reader comments on Sime~Gen focus on trying to explain the background to prospective readers because that background is the compelling force that shapes the characters.  Readers feel you won't understand why the characters do what they do without that background, but it's the characters and their effect on their civilization that the reader wants to tell you about.

That's what I feel the effect the Rashi's Daughters trilogy ought to have because all the characters were shaped by Torah and Talmud study an even smaller minority interest in those days than now, and much less accessible then than now.

But the comments on amazon are not explaining points of Talmud that you need to understand the character motivation, or what the reader learned from the novel that they applied to life with some success.

On the SimeGen Group on facebook, fans are always talking about whether they "identify" with Sime or Gen.  Non-Jewish readers of this trilogy are not saying that for the time it took to read Anton's books they knew what it felt like to be a Jew in Medieval France.  They got a glimpse of life in Medieval France, they didn't live there for a time.

Fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels often relate how they "grew up on Darkover."

Note how Robert A. Heinlein's fans talk about how his novels inspired them to learn math and science.  Or Isaac Asimov's fans.  Fans of Star Trek talk about how Roddenberry's creation led them into career tracks.

The comments on Rashi's Daughters are not relating how  people are dashing off to learn the real Torah and Talmud after becoming enchanted with her fantasy version of Torah and Talmud.  How many are reporting they enrolled their kids in Yeshiva?  But science fiction fans who grew up on Heinlein have kids on track to become famous astronomers, N.A.S.A. engineers, etc.

Keep in mind, it's my opinion that Anton wrote these novels as a polemic in modern feminism touting feminism to young Jewish women, hoping they would become feminists not Torah scholars.  Oil and water.  Some readers react to the oil and some to the water.

There are technical, writer-craft, reasons for that contrast in response between Heinlein/Roddenberry and Anton.

It is not a difference in the basic material or the story.  No place or time could be more alien to the modern reader than a Jewish Quarter in a small French town during the Crusades and the fall of Rome -- Darkover was easier to relate to.

Anton's historical Jews are alien to the modern Jew, and the dangers of Medieval France are just the same as in any Historical Romance with knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, and arranged marriages.

It is a difference in the application of writing craft techniques.  It's not that Science is more interesting than Torah.  It's simply a difference in how the "researched" (or factual) material is used to generate the fictional structure.

Being a professional writer means being able to get the reader-response you aim to get by using the tool that triggers that response.

Maggie Anton has probably gotten the reader response she was aiming for -- but not the response I would have aimed for had I decided to write about Rashi's Daughters.

And I'm only guessing, but I think she may not have known that the material about the Medieval Talmud Academies she had become enchanted with could be incorporated into a historical romance novel using the exact techniques perfected by science fiction writers decades ago.

The "technique" I'm referring to here is the "integration" of two (and sometimes more) of the basic techniques I've discussed on this blog in previous posts.  The integration tool that's most useful is "theme"  which we've discussed at length.

Anton has a theme.  I suspect it might best be stated as "Feminism is not new."

To illustrate that theme, she's created an alternate universe fantasy history.  Since she failed to use the Science Fiction techniques I'm discussing (she may know them and just didn't use them) her readers are calling her down for inaccurate or bad history -- possibly because her readers haven't read a lot of alternate-history fantasy such as Katherine Kurtz pioneered.

Her readers are miffed at the historical errors because Anton didn't lull them into a "suspension of disbelief" by telegraphing that she knows the "real" history that the reader already knows, but will now play a fun game re-arranging that history to tell a story that will pose interesting questions.

She could have created Rashi as a cross between Spock and Sherlock Holmes that would have rocked this nation.  She didn't.  Rashi himself hardly gets a word in edgewise, and when he does, it isn't the word "Logical" which would have been the author's wink at the reader soliciting the suspension of disbelief.  

The readers who don't know enough to spot her historical errors believe her version of history and like it, maybe prefer it.  Other readers are distressed by ignorant readers being taught inaccuracies, with never a clue that this is actually fantasy.

And then there are the real nuggets of historical fact Anton has uncovered which contradict what people in the modern world think they know about Rashi's time and lifestyle!

The knowledgeable reader rejects those nuggets along with the warped facts, not being able to distinguish one from the other -- all for the lack of writing techniques, most especially Research-Plot integration.

All that could have been avoided by treating the hard facts, the warped-facts, and the imaginary facts with a science fiction writer's techniques.  Poul Anderson comes to mind.  Vernor Vinge.

The readers who are calling her down for her historical inaccuracies have completely missed enjoying the Romance stories in this trilogy because their attention was distracted from the foreground story to the background setting.

Please note that the number of reviews Amazon has posted on Anton's novels far exceeds those on my novels.  There are a lot of technical (internet world related) reasons for that (Amazon has erased lots of reviews posted on my titles as they upgraded their computers).

But there is also the fact that Anton's work hits a far more popular topic than I have ever tackled, and was very well published to its exact audience at precisely the time Amazon was growing fastest.

One would conclude I have no business dissecting her product, but should rather be emulating it.

But I have read Marion Zimmer Bradley's SF/Fantasy novels, especially the hottest Alien Romance novel I've ever read, her Planet Wreckers.  I have read the Lensman Series (oh, did I have a crush on Kimball Kinnison and a case of envy for his red headed Soul Mate).  I have read C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner and Chanur series.  I have read  Ursula LeGuinn's Left Hand of Darkness.  I have read all of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain novels, and a lot of her historical horror novels.  I've read a lot of historical novels (a certain Scotland based historical time travel series pops to mind.)  I used to be a Western Romance fan!  I have read dozens of Vampire Romance novels with varying "rules" for the Vampire species.  And I've read all of Robert A. Heinlein, and dozens of others who blend real science, imaginary science, and a special "take" on human personality seamlessly into their plots.

I somehow don't "hear" an echo of that kind of reading exposure behind the reviews of Maggie Anton's novels by those who liked them.

If you don't know what can be done with the Research-Plot integration technique, you won't miss it at all, and you'll think Anton's novels are really fine novels.

If you read the novels that are there, it's true that they are good.  But I'm a writer.  I read the novel that could have been there and compare it to the novel that is there -- if they're not the same, I try to figure out what to change to make them the same.

In this case it's the Integration techniques that are missing.

As I said above, the plotting technique choice didn't work as well as other choices might have.

Anton's books aren't actually "novels" in the structural and technical sense.  They are strings of anecdotes lightly glued together.  That's what produces many reader comments about "couldn't put it down."  The reader will race through the anecdotes with the feeling that the beginning of the story is imminent, and then find themselves at the last page of the volume thinking they've read a novel.   They didn't.  They read a book, yes, but not a novel. 

Perhaps I just have higher standards in Romance Novels than the readers who loved this trilogy because I found the structural and technique omissions glaring and jarring.

None of the writers I admire who have written novels  blending facts you can get out of an encyclopedia with imaginary characters, real historical characters, and a specific idea of how the world's affairs have been managed, are being managed, and might become managed, would ever have failed to make this integration of plot and research smooth and in-detectible.

As far as I can tell just from reading, Anton made no attempt to blend research and plot, nevermind  create a smooth emulsion.

I learned how to do that integration by hatching an ambition to write like those writers I listed above.  I dissected their work to find out how they did it, then applied that technique to what I had to say, and according to the responses I've been getting on the SIMEGEN Group on Facebook, I succeeded.

Most of you who have read this far must be very frustrated because I'm not laying out exactly how to do this Integration yet.  I'm going to try to explain it, but I am pretty sure many busy readers of this column need time to read at least one of the Anton novels and possibly to explore Sime~Gen.

Meanwhile here is an example from Rashi's Daughters Book III, Rachel -- of a bit of Anton's research which sits like "oil" on top of the emotional waters of her story.  And don't yell.  Last week I did promise you a spoiler and a connection to House of Zeor, and here it is.
---------QUOTE FROM BOOK III RACHEL p353 of the Trade paperback --The main character is talking to a trading partner who deals in dye and wool.-------------

..."But why are some black?"

"The abbess at Notre-Dame-aux-Nonnains was inquiring after fabric so I asked Simon to prepare some for her," Rachel explained.  Nuns took a vow of poverty, but the local abbess came from a noble family and refused to wear anything but the highest quality fabrics.

Simon turned to Pesach.  "True black is one of the most difficult shades to obtain.  Each dyer has his secret formula; mine involves lamp soot."  He motioned the pair back indoors, where he slowly unrolled a small bolt of brilliant purple.

Rachel gasped.  "This is exquisite."  She couldn't resist stroking the material.  "I thought Eliezer couldn't find any Tyrian purple, or did you mix scarlet and indigo?" 

Simon allowed Pesach to answer.  "I found some, although Eliezer judged it too expensive.  But the other dye merchants in Toledo said Tyrian purple was particularly scarce this year, so I gambled and bought some on credit."

-----------END QUOTE-------
Now there are some obscure facts about the beginnings of the dye industry that few people know, and it's inherently interesting.  It is related to the world of this novel because Rachel is in business with another of her sisters who raises sheep for wool and had to import rams from England to get the kind of wool that can take the expensive dyes of the time.  I know this stuff is true from other sources.

This snatch of dialogue advances the plot element of the side-business of cloth merchanting the lead character is in.  It's not wholly extraneous, and it reveals a lot about the trade-world around this little village.  Worse, all the characters in the scene already know all this and have no business talking as if they don't.  Maybe the scarcity and trade details might be discussed in dialogue - but there's really no dramatic reason for this dialogue. 

If you examine the scene this dialogue is in, and compare it to the discussions we've had here about scene structure and dialogue, you'll see that the scene isn't actually a "scene" -- there's no conflict driving the scene, no rising action, no emotional change, and no climax to the scene, leading to a hook onto the next scene.  The author may believe that all these elements are in the scene, because she tags the end of the scene with a worded thought about her husband who is neglecting the cloth business for his studies in astronomy.

See my blog post of DECEMBER 27, 2011 - Dialogue Part 2 - On And Off The Nose

Anton's Rachel character's husband (the son-in-law of Rashi) is, in this fantasy, involved in the studies in Spain where astronomers may have figured out that the Earth revolves around the Sun centuries before Galileo -- and very possibly those Moorish inspired Spanish Jews may be the source of Galileo's inspiration, or he might have originated the idea on his own.  You can see why I love this trilogy!

There's no reason for this scene, though, except to showcase some of the research the writer did.  You could cut this exchange about dyes and you wouldn't lose anything except that "window" into the "world" of Medieval France.  It's decoration.  It's nice.  But it's not essential.  It says to me that the writer just couldn't bear to leave out all that hard work she did, so she couched it in dialogue and used Rachel's business venture as an excuse to include it.  If I were the editor, I'd have cut it with a big red X through it.  (my editors did that to me a lot; I learned)

To me, personally, though, this  bit of dialogue is the best thing in the whole trilogy! 

This obscure bit about black dye being difficult, proprietary secret, and very easy to spot against the kinds of colors cloth had been able to hold in those days was, I thought, common knowledge for at least 10 years before I wrote House of Zeor and invented "Farris Black" as a special color.  I learned it so long before writing House of Zeor that I have no memory of learning it, I just know it. 

Jean Lorrah, who joined me writing Sime~Gen after Unto Zeor, Forever was written, did not know this historical fact about black cloth dye and I had forgotten how I knew it and couldn't prove it when she challenged me.

My fictional House of Zeor is famous in the textile business, in the crude bathtub chemistry of dye manufacture and wool dying.  They do all kinds of small-batch chemistry that's related to textiles, agrochemistry, and medicinals.  Nowhere in any of the 12 volumes in this Universe is there any dialogue even vaguely resembling this snatch I've quoted for you. 

When the Zeor Householding members are faced with the problem of identifying a particular genetic line of people who are medically vulnerable, Zeor does that by clothing them in this very special black -- it's used on edging, fringes, belts, emblems, medical case file flags and chevron stripes, and on entire clothing ensembles at different points in the several thousand years of Zeor's history. 

It's always referred to as Farris Black -- not just any black.  This is a special color, a shade that leaps right out at you.  You can't miss it.  Over the centuries of the Sime~Gen saga, it becomes the custom and eventually a rule with the force of law that ONLY those of the Farris genetic strain may wear this color.  Nobody else would want to -- it could be a life or death issue if you were treated medically as if you were Farris.  Later, when it's not so special, special shapes and items become the label. 

Nowhere in the Sime~Gen novels do two characters who already know all about the dye business discuss the sources or applications of dyes. 

So there's the Sime~Gen/Rashi connection I promised you last week.  Farris Black. 

Eventually here, we'll probably talk about the second published Sime~Gen Novel (a novel I modeled on the typical "Doctor Novel") Unto Zeor, Forever, (my first award winner) and the medical profession research I did for that one -- and what Robert A. Heinlein said about it after he read it.  Of all the novels I've written, that was the only one I deliberately did research for with the specific intent of crafting that particular novel from the research. 

All other research I've used in my novels has been like that Farris Black example, something I've known so long I don't know where I learned it.  Many times, though, I have had to go look up details that I wanted to include to fact-check before including.  In some instances, I've used astronomical calculators and programs that help predict the orbit of a world around another sun.  But Unto Zeor, Forever is a specifically researched-to-write novel.  I hope you won't find any evidence of research in that novel, though. 

So you might want to read Unto Zeor, Forever first and compare it to Rashi's Daughters. 

Rashi's Daughters also has a whole lot of medical research into medieval and Jewish Medieval medicine and especially midwifery larded into the text.  Some of that medical research is well integrated, and some is not.  Many times whole birthing incidents are incorporated simply to illustrate the midwifery techniques.  The birth of a child who will become a significant influence on the course of history makes it seem that the birthing scene advances the plot -- but often that Integration technique just isn't there. 

Perhaps you want to find pair of Historical Romance novels to compare.  You want to find a novel that has obviously been researched for decades, that the writer is so very proud of their research and the publisher is selling it on the authenticity of the research.  And then find one which has even more information in it but you can't tell it's been researched at all -- you can only see that some of the things in it are real facts, and some things obviously made up just for fun.

Your personal library may already have two really good examples to work on.

Once you've tried to figure out what one writer did that the other writer did not do (and which you'd rather emulate) -- then move on to the next Part in this blog series "Research-Plot Integration in Historical Romance."

By the way, I learned this method of deconstruction, dissection, and distillation of techniques to discover and apply writing techniques to my own work from a correspondence course on writing from The Famous Writer School (which I do not recommend at all!).

I've seen how Blake Snyder applied this dissection method to create his SAVE THE CAT! film genres -- and I don't think he got it from the Famous Writer's School.

You don't need a teacher to learn this.  But you do need a pair of books you didn't write, one of which represents the kind of book you want to write.  Find and study two such novels, and come back next week for more thoughts on how to learn and apply Research-Plot Integration to your own work.

Live Long and Prosper,
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Exile, Execute, Incarcerate, Enslave... or what?

How do you handle an undesirable prisoner? (In fiction, specifically in alien romance fiction.)

In Lexx (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lexx), criminals' organs were harvested on a mechanized assembly line without the benefit of anaesthetics or any other drugs (of course!) and the remains were utilized as organic fuel (food) for the dragonfly-like, organic spaceship, Lexx.

Some victors would play with their prisoners, or with their body parts. For instance, on the FIFA site, http://www.fifa.com/classicfootball/history/game/historygame2.html it claims

"One theory is that the game is Anglo-Saxon in origin. In both Kingston-on-Thames and Chester, local legend has it the game was played there for the first time with the severed head of a vanquished Danish prince."

That appears to be an isolated, and not particularly efficient solution to the problem. Possibly the Orcs use of
severed heads as cannonballs (in LOTR) was more practical, and also more demoralizing to the enemy.

Ancient Romans would either enslave prisoners, or make gladiators of them, or assimilate them. In one of the Star Wars Prequels (Clone Wars?) there were gladiator pits, but inconvenient prisoners were intended for amusing execution, rather than being given a fighting chance.

At one time, the British exiled prisoners, shipping them off to "the colonies" or "the Antipodes", for instance, which has always struck me as rather unfair to the native peoples. One of Anne McCaffrey's series (Freedom's Landing) used captives as experimental colonists, to demonstrate whether or not a new world was suitable for annexation.

At other times, the British housed prisoners in unseaworthy "hulks", or prison ships. Americans used islands... and still do. Russians sent prisoners off to Siberia. Captain Kirk was sent to an isolated prison camp to work in the mines on the frozen asteroid Rura Penthe, in The Undiscovered Country.

In theory, someone imprisoned on their own planet has a chance of escape without outside help. Space is an insuperable barrier to escape, unless one has rescuers, or magical time-travel abilities, or is able to overpower the guards and steal a space shuttle or stow away on a supply ship.

Riddick (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riddick ) is a good example of a science fiction convict who makes good --sort of-- without the benefit of organized rehabilitation.

Assuming that one wanted to write an alien romance about someone who had escaped from long term incarceration, would it also be a Revenge story, such as The Count of Monte Christo? Otherwise, perhaps they could have done their time, and been released legally. Or they could be pardoned, rightly or wrongly.

Here is an interesting comparison of slavery versus imprisonment: http://www.stalags.com/ and also an explanation of post traumatic stress disorder. It seems to me that being wrongly convicted, and forced to work in prison would combine the worst of both situations.

Here is an article about the need to rehabilitate prisoners.

That does not account for political prisoners. In a Machaivellian world, one might wish to turn prisoners into Manchurian candidates, or otherwise mess with their minds to make them useful. But, if they are celebrities, and recognizable, what does one do?

"The Man In The Iron Mask" would not be a plausible plot line unless one's world was a world of superstition, and one believed that to kill a king (for instance) would damn one's immortal soul, or set a precedent that might lead to one's own execution.

Honestly, if one were evil enough to frame an innocent man --or arbitrarily throw a rival into the science fiction equivalent of an oubliette-- is there any plausible reason why one would not kill them?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Time Cloak

Scientists have discovered how to “hide” a moment in time:

Gap in Time

True, this phenomenon was produced only on an extreme subatomic level for an infinitesimal instant, but raise it to the macro level and think of the SF possibilities. At one point the article compares the concealment to an invisibility cloak. I was reminded of Spider Robinson’s LADY SLINGS THE BOOZE and its predecessors on the same premise, stories of devices that can stop time (sort of). The wielder of such an instrument appears to vanish because he’s moving so fast compared to the surrounding environment that he can’t be seen, and everybody else looks frozen to him. The same idea appeared in a STAR TREK episode. This real-life “time cloak,” however, doesn’t use the acceleration method. Apparently the experimenters literally removed a tiny splinter of time from the normal time stream.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Research-Plot Integration in Historical Romance Part 1

Lately, we've been getting into what I consider "advanced" writing lessons. 

"Advanced" doesn't actually mean you can't do it if you haven't done the previous work.  But it does mean you have to be able to walk and chew gum, juggle some plates, wrangle a passel of kids, and shout at the mailman not to molest the dog, all at the same time.

Some people learn better under pressure, some people don't want to know how they do what they do, and some (like me) prefer to read the last chapter of the textbook first, then browse quickly through the first chapter and try the exercises and problems in the middle before deciding if there's anything worth learning in this textbook.

So here we are in the "middle" of learning to craft a novel, Romance or otherwise.  I'm just more comfortable with the Romance plot dynamics than with plain, pure, action, or the kind of Mystery where the detective isn't personally involved in the issues raised by the crime and criminal.

In searching for clear writing lessons for you, I've stumbled on a trilogy of books, published by PLUME an imprint of PENGUIN BOOKS (huge, international publisher - this is the big time publishing venue, folks!) which I'm sure the author and the editor believe are novels.  And now a lot of writing students will think so, too, just because these got published by a big publisher (and are selling well.)  They will be imitated. 

If you have objected to my explanations of the importance of structure in crafting a novel, you may consider the high profile publishing of these three books to prove your point.  But you might change your mind about that after you read some of one of these novels. 

Some people, readers not writers or editors, who've read these books think they're novels, too. 

In my judgement, they aren't novels, and I'm going to try to explain why I think that. 

The explanation may not mean anything to you unless you read at least part of one of these books and contrast it to something like, say Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain novels (or many of her Historical Horror genre items).  But I'm sure most of you have read dozens if not hundreds of good Historical Romances, not to mention alternate history and time travel Romance. 

These books are Historicals, set between 1040 and 1105 C.E.

Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels are set in that period (almost - she uses the 900's as a model) but in an alternate universe.  If you haven't read the Deryni series, you probably need to.  Start with Deryni Rising and move quickly on to see how Katherine's writing craftsmanship developed very quickly -- then contrast that with the 3 novels I'm talking about here. 

Katherine Kurtz structures trilogies correctly.  C. J. Cherryh structures trilogies correctly (though her earliest published work has a few nice flaws that you can learn from). 

This author, Maggie Anton, did not structure her trilogy with that kind of high-craft precision.  She used a different technique, also in wide use, but not nearly as effective.  I don't know if that's because she'd never read Cherryh and Kurtz or if she chose a technique inappropriate to her material on purpose, or if she didn't know there exists a plethora of techniques for handling this kind of material so she didn't know she had a choice to make.  I don't know Maggie Anton personally, though I know Cherryh and Kurtz personally and learned from them (we learned from Marion Zimmer Bradley and I don't know if Maggie Anton ever read MZB or met her). 

Maggie Anton on Amazon

That link goes to the product page on Amazon that lists 4 items by Maggie Anton, this trilogy and a book about the subject.  I couldn't find anything else with that byline, and I don't know if this author writes under other bylines. 

From the list of what I don't know, you can see that I can only discuss this trilogy on the basis of what's actually in the stories and how they are structured -- and what might have been done with the raw research material.  I can point you to where the various techniques I have discussed on this blog were not used, and so you can judge if the lack makes the text awkward or boring. 

The trilogy does contain arranged marriages and true-love marriages, accidentally marrying a gay guy (or maybe he's bi though others he knows are gay), and even a bit of Medieval applied magic to spur sexuality within marriage.  Each novel focuses on one of three sisters who have no brothers to follow in their father's footsteps -- the underlying theme is feminist.  In fact, it's a very strong feminist polemic in spots. 

There are some rather graphically detailed sex scenes, but not many.  If that's what you read Romance for, these books will disappoint. 

There are epidemic scenes where the disease is attributed to demons and the cures include blood letting and amulets against demons, and other standard practices in that time-frame.  Great material for modern fantasy or Paranormal Romance. 

Each of these three is billed as "A novel of Love" -- not specifically genre Romance -- "in Medieval France."  On that, it actually delivers.   

The trilogy seems to me to be even more awkward to market and sell than to write.

I'm going to discuss all three at once here, and I'll be rather more hyper-critical of the writing, the research, and the story itself than I usually am.  I may say some things that might seem somewhat unkind, perhaps undeserved, about the author of this trilogy. 

But I'm not talking to the author, or even about the author or editor since I don't know them.  I'm analyzing a swatch of writing that I think needed more rewrite before publishing. 

The other item in the pitch for these novels is the assertion that the research is good, deep and accurate.  And as far as I can tell, that's mostly true. 

Now to the third element in these novels that you need to keep in mind.

The novels are about the 3 daughters of a Talmudic scholar (the Talmud being the transcription of the explanation of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible, the story of Moses) that was given to Moses by God, the same explanation that was given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then on Mount Sinai for Moses to give to the people and lead them to the Promised Land. 

This Talmudic scholar, known as Rashi, is studied today, and most printings of the Torah have either footnotes or extensive commentary by Rashi.  Rashi also wrote a commentary on the Talmud, which is studied today.  Rashi wrote the introductory commentary, the elementary and literal commentary (not the esoteric commentary known as Kaballah).  It's almost impossible to enter the study of this material by any other route than by studying Rashi.

Studying Torah without having heard of Rashi would be like studying Geometry without having heard of Aristotle or Pythagoras. Or maybe like studying astronomy without having heard of Kepler.

So Maggie Anton picked out one whopping HUGE and important subject area to write about, the almost unknown 3 daughters of Rashi whose husbands and sons are also almost as famous as Rashi because of how they continued his commentaries, and commented on his commentaries, and founded Talmudic academy traditions of their own.  Their mothers, the 3 daughters of these novels, are lost in obscurity -- and now rescued by Maggie Anton in a monumental feat of research and meticulous deductive imagination. 

The research had to have been as difficult as what Katherine Kurtz did to write her George Washington saga, (during which research, I was treated to a blow-by-blow description of the feats required to gain access to obscure material)

Or her WWII novel about the magical battle for Britain against the Nazis.

To create the Romance novel trilogy, Anton had to create and add a great deal of material, just as these other writers had to do.  My theory is that Anton was in over her head. 

So here are Anton's novels.  In the next parts of this blog-series, we'll get into spoilers, and even note The Sime~Gen Connection to Anton's trilogy.  And there is a connection, but not philosophical.  It has to do with research into medieval techniques for making dye for wool!  Also for making woolen cloth, though I never mentioned that in House of Zeor. 

There is a Kindle version, but it's in that "overpriced" range at $12.99 at least at the time I'm writing this.  There are a lot of used copies, probably because they aren't rereadable or keepers.

I don't think these books are worth their price, in and of themselves.  If you can get them from a lending library, or find a used copy, so much the better.  You may want to take marginal notes as you learn from analyzing this material. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg