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

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