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

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