Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Blogging HNS2013: Locations in historical fiction

I learned the most damning news at the recent Historical Novel Society conference: visiting every country where my stories take place is NOT required. Shut the front door! What? Boo, hiss! Of course traveling to a story's location is required; how else can readers obtain an authentic feel for a place in time if the writer hasn't even seen the sites? Sensory detail; the touch, feel, smell and even tastes of a locale establish themselves in a reader's mind through thorough exploration. Now, how am I supposed to justify any little jaunt as "research" if I'm not required to go? This question took me back to a moment where my nephew suffered some major disappointment that really affected his two-year old life (something about some broken toy) and with the saddest face ever seen on a kid, he wondered, "Now, what I gonna do?"

Well, according to the presenters Sophie Perinot (The Sister Queens) Eliza Knight (The Highlander's Triumph), Kathryn Johnson and Adelaida Lucena de Lower (The Red Ribbon) and the moderator, Stephanie Dray (Lily of the Nile) of Location, Location: Transporting Readers to Historical Settings, authors who can't travel to their settings in historical fiction should still keep calm and write on. Ladies, you shattered my world (or at least the little lies I tell myself to justify certain repeated trips).

There are practical reasons why accessibility to a site is not always possible. As Stephanie mentioned, the locations of her novels are in ruins and underwater or in places where travel is not safe. Kathryn and Eliza suggested in those instances an author can relying on virtual tours, Google Earth and YouTube tours. While setting feeds into the authenticity of a novel, lack of access to a particular site shouldn't discourage an author. Adelaida added that it also possible to substitute a particular geographic location. If you can have access to a site, then details come alive. Sophie said jot down or photograph those things you won't see later (unless you can easily revisit), the feel of the building material or the streets beneath your feet, and the available vantage points from various locales within your setting.

All the presenters agreed on several points:
  • Even where the details aid a story, don't get bogged down in them. Your reader will be tempted and likely will skim the dreaded information dump, instead, include only those details of place and time which are compelling.
  • Historical settings change over time. If you're using a detail, make sure it’s pertinent and  did exist in the period you've chosen.
  • Balance the desire to convey information about a setting with the reality of your characters. He or she should not suddenly notice things that they would ordinarily take for granted, no matter how unique the item may be.
  • Location isn't just about setting. The emotions that characters experiences in a particular location can engage readers. If your character is imprisoned, mentioning the thick stone walls, iron bars and the small, confined space helps convey the proper mood.  
  • Your readers will fall in love with the setting if you have.
  • If you've done the research into a location well, you can establish yourself as an authority and thereby gain readers trust.
Next up, one of my favorite topics - historical fiction outside the mainstream. It's not just all Tudors and Regency, you know.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Blogging HNS2013: Swordplay and Its Influences on Culture

Ya'll know I'm a history nerd buff who loves to experience places and elements of the past, right? So, what's the best thing you can do for a girl like me? Apparently, if you just put a sword in my hand, I'll be on top of the world! As I so delicately supported the weight of this steel sword here, the weapon of choice for several of my male characters and one female character, one thing struck me. The metal is not as heavy as I imagined it might be. Makes perfect sense because if you're trying to survive a battle, can you be really effective with a weapon you can't even lift up, much less wield?  At this particular moment where the lovely J.F. Ridgley helped me by taking this shot, all I could think was, "Thank you, Jesus! I can now die a happy woman because I have held this sword in my hands." J.F. actually wanted me to pose with this beauty; I was more concerned about cutting my hair, dress or those purple manicured toes you can't see in my sandals. Oh yeah, and of course, the lives of other attendees too. Next time, it'll be jeans and sneakers for that kind of demonstration. It couldn't get much sweeter than this moment, folks. Well, it could (millions of daily sales on Amazon would just about do it), but very little topped the swordplay session during the recent Historical Novel Society conference in St. Petersburg.

Swordplay and Its Influences on Culture presented by David Blixt (Her Majesty's Will)
So, who do I have to thank for this amazing opportunity? The very wonderful and personable David Blixt is an author, actor and as soon became obvious, David clearly loves historic weapons and historical fiction. He also enjoys teaching authors how their characters would properly use such weapons. More on that later! David started off with an introduction to our enthusiastic audience on the history of swords and the mechanics of wielding a weapon.  First, he talked about the parts of sword. There’s the boss or pommel, the non-pointy, other end of the sword, which can apparently be used to bash someone’s head in (never had anyone do that in my books before, but will remember that for use in future titles). Also handy for keeping a  sword in one's hand.

The grip or handle that always seems to be covered in leather strips is followed by the crossguard, or as my Norman / French characters might have referred to it, the quillon. It's the horizontal piece of metal. Interestingly, at least to me, the crossguard does not appear in earlier weapons, as I found out in researching warfare between the Norman English and Welsh. The pommel, grip and crossguard make up the sword's hilt. The blade has different parts to it; the tang is the blade shaft that fits into the hilt and the forte is the section closest to the hilt. The fuller or the groove down the center is mistakenly called a blood groove, but I can't remember why - sorry. The foible, which for a geek like me suggested the weakest part of the blade even before I was told just that, and the tip of the blade follow. The tip's what Arya Stark would call the pointy end or most of us would say is the "business" end of the weapon.

David talked about the evolution of swords firsts used as hacking weapons. Leave it to the Romans to figure out that while their Germanic enemies were essentially wearing themselves out by fighting against armored soldiers behind shields in formation, the best weapon to use would be something that could be easily pointed and thrust into someone's exposed parts. The gladius was born! The Romans always fought right-handed so that the left could be defended by the shield. The broadsword and longsword developed later and could be used with both hands. Then come rapiers for slashing and stabbing. Another interesting tidbit is that English rapiers were limited to 33 inches so people wouldn't walk around the court of Queen Elizabeth I cutting each other to pieces. 

David also mentioned a neat tie between dance and fighting; Shakespeare's dancing masters were also trained in the swords and dances of the time reflected weapons training. The particular bow adopted where one leg was extended also happened to allow the hands to quickly grab a sword as soon a person straightened. It may be that from this action where we can find the origins of  the phrase, "Break a leg" or rather make a leg. In his wrap-up, David also mentioned fight books detailing moves by the 15th century master Hans Talhoffer and Fiore dei Liberi are available if authors really want to study the moves and positions.

But what's better for an author than training with the weapons our characters use? There were broadswords, longswords, rapiers, daggers and axes on hand at David's session. Even better, everyone of us who wielded something managed to survive and not kill our fellow attendees, which is always a plus - blood is so hard to get out of thick carpets! David showed us how to put weapons to effective use. For our characters, of course!


  

David also provided a link to Starfire Swords Ltd., which makes a variety of swords and daggers. I have now found the best looking Middle Eastern scimitar I have ever seen and of course, must buy it. For decorative purposes, of course. In addition to thanking David for an excellent workshop, I also need to pick his brain about a match-up for a future book: need to know when comparing the medieval swords used by Christian knights and the scimitars of the Middle East, the sort of advantages one type of weapon might have held over another.

Next up will be another of my favorite sessions on locations in historical fiction! 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Live blogging from HNS 2013: Religion in Historical Fiction

Well, sort of live blogging. Hello from beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida! I know you might be thinking, "Wasn't she just on vacation in Barbados? What's she doing in Florida now?" Or not. I am very happy to be attending the 2013 Historical Novel Society's 5th Annual North American conference. This one is occurring at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort. I've been to the HNS conferences before, but after several years' lapse, I'm here and a member of the society again. I missed the Friday night banquet due to some luggage and travel issues - miffed, but I got over it. The setting has veered between being hot as all hell to a torrential downpour in a matter of minutes. Gotta love that unpredictable Florida weather! To make up for all that, the sessions have been spectacular! I'm sharing a few highlights of each one I've gone to so far.

Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction, presented by Stephanie Dray (Lily of the Nile), Kamran Pasha (Mother of the Believers) and Mary Sharratt (Daughters of the Witching Hill), and moderated by Teralyn Rose Pilgrim. 

As you may know, I have written about Muslim, Jewish and Christian characters, so I'm particularly sensitive to this topic. I'm a huge admirer of author Sherry Jones, but each time I write part of the Sultana series, I can't help remembering the tribulations Sherry so graciously endured when her Jewel of Medina was published. How does an author tread the fine line between engaging readers and courting controversy by discussing religion in novels?

As the discussants all mentioned, religion matters. Belief has shaped society and given it purpose. Authors at times are afraid to offend or think the characters of various religions will seem almost alien and won't foster connections with readers. Stephanie talked about how ancient world religions are foreign to most, yet she discovered in writing about Cleopatra's daughter that Isis worship is a forerunner to Christianity and many would be surprised at how some of its practices mirror those of the past. Scandalous! Kamran, as a practicing Muslim, is quite conscious and sensitive to the need to write with authenticity about his own religion, as well as the others he depicts. The biggest takeaway he offered was about overcoming one's own prejudices to write about belief faithfully. In his words, "Be cool with what you got" which means that if you are grounded and comfortable in your own convictions as an author, you can write with ease about other religions. There is the image we each hold of a religion and then there is the experience of that belief system, two very diverse concepts. Mary suggested that in writing about religions, authors refrain from criticism of beliefs which diverge from their own; personal conviction should be treated with respect because everyone has different POVs. Sound advice.

As with any controversial topic, some readers are liable to take offense where religion is involved. The panelists all suggested that this risk only adds to the discussion, so authors should not be afraid to take on the topic. Religion divides and unites universally. I think Stephanie put it best, "All spiritual people seek the same thing. Religion is a human experience."

Do you read or have you written works that incorporate religion and practices of faith? What do you think of novels that do this? How have your own personal beliefs been affected by what you have read? Are there recent novels you can think of which have handled religion very well?

Later, weapons in historical fiction, with pictures! Yours truly got to handle a broadsword, rapier and axe (I swear, no fellow attendees were harmed in this attempt).       

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