Writerly Wednesdays–The Literary Allusion

Writers are not just writers: they’re readers, too. Or at least, you have to assume they are. Exactly how much a writer reads, and what he or she reads differs. I, for instance, tend to read nonfiction because I don’t have a lot of time and I have to make my reading count towards my research. When I do read fiction, it’s usually historical fiction. What a writer reads reflects on their literary tastes (obviously) and influences both what and how they write (also fairly obvious).

Often, these influences make it into a manuscript in the form of allusions. This can be subtle–a few words that only an aficionado would recognize–or quite explicit–quotes, for instance. One of my least favorite (and non-literary) example of allusion is Barrack Obama’s constant quoting of Abraham Lincoln or words said about Abraham Lincoln. Look, I like the Lincoln as much as anyone else (okay, probably more), but give it a rest and get your own lines.

Which leads me to point one: no one wants to be beaten over the head with allusions. If you as the writer can slip allusions in there on the sly so that they either go past unnoticed (except by those who are in-the-know) or they become a seamless part of the narration/dialogue, then . . . great! Trying to show how clever you are: not so cool.

Hopefully, I am not in the latter category, because I have plenty of allusions in my recent manuscripts. There weren’t many in my Diamond-Necklace-Affair manuscript, nor in the recent Civil War novella I wrote. But my previous novel–Channing–and my current work-in-progress–a prequel–have more than a few.

The Channing allusions are to Abraham Lincoln. So maybe I should take it easy on President Obama, huh? In one case, it’s a straight-out quote of the House Divided speech, which a character sees in a newspaper. In another case, a different character paraphrases something that was said about Lincoln: Augustine calls Everett “a first-rate second-rate saint.” The allusion is to Wendell Phillips, who called Abraham Lincoln a “first-rate second-rate man”. I have another allusion to “whither we are tending”, which is a phrase also from the House Divided Speech (“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do and how to do it”). I don’t expect most people will recognize these allusions, though I suppose more than a few will.

I also reference a few important works like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. There is a quote from the Bible, which is presented as such. Those aren’t exactly shocking.

In the novel I’m currently plugging along at, there a lot of references, this time to Shakespeare. I can’t claim to be a great Shakespearean scholar: I’ve seen or read all the major plays and recognize the well-known quotes, but I don’t know all the plays and can’t quote at length. This work-in-progress happens to center around an actress named Emily and a theater called the Obsidian in the late 1820’s. Then as now, Shakespeare was a big draw, and actors who wanted to become major, respected stars performed Shakespeare. So, naturally, there’s a lot of Shakespeare going on. In fact, I pretty much shoved any contemporary plays out of the way to make more room for Shakespeare (the Obsidian is all Shakespeare all the time). It becomes a kind of motif. Emily and her love interest quote little snippets of Shakespeare to one another. They even perform Othello on stage together, and in one scene there’s “real” blood (gasp!). The use of Shakespeare in this project clearly goes well beyond “allusion”. It’s integral to the plot itself. To give myself a leg up, I’ve been watching as many adaptations as I can–in the last few months I watched The Hollow Crown (which includes Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) and Hamlet. I don’t want to come to a place in my writing where I say, “I need a Shakespeare quote here! Let me go find one.” I want the quotes to pop into my head as I go along; it’ll come out much more organically that way.

Historical fiction is more likely, I think, than other genres to go for the allusions. It’s part of establishing atmosphere, place, and time. It’s similar to trotting out a famous character for a cameo (“Look, Queen Elizabeth I just walked through my Tudor story!”). Of course, whether it’s with cameos or allusions, they can’t just be a lame excuse for world-building. They have to be supported by actual knowledge and sensory description of the setting. And hey, if you can weave it into the plot (like I did! go me!), even better!

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