I’m cross-posting again with my other page, www.elizabethhuhn.com. Please see my newest blog entry, about Butler Island, Georgia, the place that inspired my (as yet unpublished) novel, Channing.
In case you’ve been in a coma, you’ve heard about Hamilton: An American Musical by now. It’s a Broadway show that’s become a cultural phenomenon. First, let me get one important thing off my chest: it’s bloody brilliant. It is a work of genius that approaches a historical subject with real wisdom and insight, with humor and pathos (I think it’s impossible to have the one without the other). And yes, I am as obsessed as the next person with Hamilton. In fact, I have a rather possessive feeling about it, because it’s a piece of historical fiction and, well, I’m a historical fiction writer. Getting people psyched and enthusiastic about American history? Jesus Christ, yes please!
I saw Hamilton yesterday, and I was blown away (see what I did there?). I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda or much of the original cast, but the entire show was spectacular. The audience was alive with shared enjoyment. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths, awaiting every moment they knew was coming, almost disbelieving that they were really there. A special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought I’d write up a blog because writing is what I do (albeit not with Hamiltonian prolificness).
As a writer and consumer of historical fiction in every medium, as soon as I decided that Hamilton was genius (for the record, that happened when I first heard King George informing his colonists that they’d be back), I started pondering why. Not why I was drawn to it, in spite of the fact that I’m not really a fan of musicals or hip-hop. That was pretty clear: it was about American history, and I do like music, and everyone was raving about how wonderful it was. No, what I was wondering was why it was so effective. What made it tick? What made it, as historical fiction, connect so profoundly with so many people?
A short answer was the language, which I mean to talk about later. But that wasn’t all of it, because the language and music are entirely anachronistic, with a few notable exceptions. Yet, in spite of the words being from the wrong era, they feel right. They seem to paint each historical person with an accurate light, according to what we know of their character. Why?
It took me a while to puzzle out the exact mechanism here, but I finally came up with this: subtext. Obviously, Jefferson didn’t run around chanting, “Never gonna be president now!”, but one imagines that that’s what he thought. And Washington almost certainly never said, “Can I be real a second, for just a milisecond?”, but one suspects that it was simmering in his mind. That’s the beauty of it: although the characters are singing to us aloud, what we’re hearing is the workings of their minds, the messages that were passed back and forth through body language, through shared history, through the subtle texture of diction and grammar that, at the remove of two hundred forty years, would elude most of us if it remained in its original form. Yet for the living, breathing people being represented, it was clear as day: there was much more going on than just spoken or written words.
That’s where music comes in. What’s being expressed is the subtle interplay that was never put into words. It functioned at a level below verbal language. So by bringing this to the surface, you can use whatever language can best express it to you audience, which is what music does best. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, this was the language of hip-hop and Broadway musicals.
Perhaps most telling as regards this particular theory: there are a few (mildly altered) direct quotations from the primary sources here. And if you pay attention, you notice that almost all these quotations are spoken, not sung. Think of the Reynolds Pamphlet, or Washington’s Farewell address, or when Washington says, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” These are spoken, or at most said in a singsong. We’re pulled out of the melody, setting these bits apart, which of course delineates what was said from what was thought (which in this case is sung).
Also, the most glaring “subtext” is the giddily bitchy King George, who struts in and reminds us that running through and above and below everything the Founding Fathers said and did was the real possibility of failure, and the reality that they were treading new ground.
Of course, Hamilton is genius for using the subtext to illuminate historical figures’ conflicts. But the actual use of language is genius as well. Miranda uses idiomatic English to perfection, brilliantly mixing touches of 18th century formality with the no-holds-barred language of a rap battle. It’s pretty extraordinary, to dip in and out of such disparate registers and dialects so freely and effectively.
As a historical novelist, I envy Miranda. Not only does he get to use music–which gives emotional cues and amplifies the meaning of the words–but he also is free to–or rather, freed himself to–use whatever words he wants, historical accuracy be damned. Because we’re being presented with subtext, and because frankly this is a musical, he can really let loose with all the linguistic skills at his fingertips (to great effect). The audience sees a stage and hears music and knows this is an interpretation.
Novel-writing is a different beast. You set down words on a page in a book, and people assume and expect it to be literally accurate. There’s no stage or music to draw attention to the fact that it is staged. There’s less leeway for novelists because, except for certain genres, your audience is expecting an accurate depiction of the world as it is–or was. Historical fiction in particular carries the expectation that the authors is presenting the real world, not a version of it. Take one look at the stage or cast for Hamilton, on the other hand, and you know that what we’re seeing is a version of the story.
So, yeah, I kind of wish I could get away with having an eighteenth-century character say “okay”, but then again . . . there are a million ways to say the same thing. A modern vernacular is effective, but it’s only one way to get that subtext across.
Pulls no punches.
One of the most striking things I noticed when watching the play last night was that the characters pull no punches. A disadvantage of having a great control of language is that you can lacerate other people with it. (I’m thinking of a story about Abraham Lincoln cutting down his political opponent so ruthlessly as a young man that he had to apologize for it later; not a naturally cruel man, he couldn’t really control his tongue at that point in his life.)
And here, Miranda is able to use language viciously. “Daddy’s calling.” “Call me son one more time!” “I’m not here for you.” These are cutting, cringe-inducing phrases. They work precisely because they’re so cutting. It feels like a lot of television and movies these days are afraid to use language as a tool, to really show how cruel people can be to one another with words. It takes a lot of wit to be that brutal, and a lot of wisdom to use it in the right places. One imagines that Miranda has to contain a lot of smart-ass remarks in real life.
There’s a hell of a lot of historical fiction out there, and a lot of it’s about the Revolutionary War. But the Federal period has been given short shrift. I’ve thought for a long time that it was a fascinating time, particularly the period around the creation of the Constitution. What these men were doing, and what they accomplished, is truly remarkable. From where we stand, it seems inevitable and immutable, but for them it must have felt like they were bumbling through a thicket in the dark.
It’s refreshing to have a piece of popular historical fiction address such a fraught time period with such thoughtfulness and devotion to historical accuracy. No, not everything is accurate, but within the framework of a Broadway musical, that would be impossible. What is shown is faithful to the historical record, and especially to the spirit of the record. No major events were changed or greatly rearranged. What was changed had particular narrative purposes. It’s clear Miranda respected the history and wanted to do his best to represent it onstage.
The most interesting and important part of Hamilton, though, isn’t even the history it gets right; it’s the approach it takes to history, the historiography. Anyone who studies history knows that how we understand the past alters with the present. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. He’s undergone a lot of ups and downs in the eyes of the American public; currently, he seems to be on something of a downswing. It’s also important to recognize that there is a lot that we will simply never know, which Miranda clearly recognizes. Hell, there’s a whole song about how “no one else was in the room where it happened.” We’re reminded that, like Burr, we are on the outside looking in, that not even the people of the time necessarily knew all the details.
Then there’s the recurring theme of legacy: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Hamilton died relatively young, and his rivals ended up telling much of his story for him. Again, those familiar with history will know the importance of sources. Here on this blog, I’ve talked about Jeanne de La Motte’s memoirs. She’s not exactly a reliable source. She tended to make up stories from whole cloth. What’s interesting is that in her own time, she was listened to and believed, while the queen, who never directly addressed the suspicions that she stole the diamond necklace in question, was widely believed to be culpable. Yet, today, the reverse is believed.
What we leave to future generations will be interpreted and reinterpreted, and we have no control over any of it. That’s a caveat for consumers of history, as well as for those who believe they themselves are making history.
“Lafayette’s a smart man; he’ll be fine”; or Minor Miscues
While Miranda’s faithfulness to history is laudable, and his clear message about the nature of history itself is remarkably astute, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I would like to point out. There are others, but bear with me:
-Jefferson’s personality. Now, I enjoy the character of Jefferson, and I can see why he was written as he was. But, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a man of the people, and though he picked up some French habits while minister there, he didn’t dress flamboyantly, and he certainly wasn’t the type to strut around a cabinet meeting. He was a soft-spoken man who did not give public speeches and avoided conflict like the plague. He was unfailingly polite and charming. Rather a far cry from how he’s presented in the musical.
-Jefferson in France. This one really gets to me. In the musical, Hamilton calls out Jefferson for not fighting in the war because he was off in France. But Jefferson became minister to France after the war. During the war, it was John Adams and Ben Franklin who were in Paris. If you recall, Jefferson penned a little thing called the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so he was in the new United States during the thick of things. In fact, he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner when Redcoats arrived and drove him and his family from Monticello in the middle of the night. He was governor of Virginia during the war. So while he didn’t command troops in the field like Hamilton did, he was very much a part of the war. He wasn’t off getting high with the French (and if he were, so what? someone had to wine and dine them to keep their support).
-“Lafayette’s a smart man, he’ll be fine.” Sigh. No, not really, unless you count being imprisoned for many years to be “fine.” Lafayette was caught up in the madness of the France’s own Revolution after he returned home from the American one, and though he tried to roll with the ever-changing tide, it eventually caught up to him. He was frankly lucky to survive.
Those are the ones that really bug me. There are smaller ones (like the fact that Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children), but often there are clear narrative reasons for them (what on earth would one do with all those children?).
Everything else about Hamilton is basically pure magic. The show was amazing, and if I had another pile of cash to throw down, you bet I’d go see it again. If you are the oddball who hasn’t listened to Hamilton yet, please do so. Now.
Inspiration is a persnickety thing. It doesn’t come when bidden and often comes when not wanted. Take for example all those time I’m brushing my teeth, taking a shower, or just sitting on the toilet, only to have an idea come to me out of the blue. It’s like a piece of me that’s been missing. Aha. There you are, I think. The solution has always been there, or it feels like it has, lurking under the surface. When the idea strikes, it’s not always possible to run to a computer and write. Sometimes, it’s an idea for much later in the story, so it isn’t time to act on it yet anyway. So, in order not to forget things, I keep a notebook in my purse that has bunches of notes about various things, as well as lists for edits and important dates I need to keep straight. Anything I may forget–and I do have a tendency to forget things–has to be written down.
Aside from my notebook, I also have sticky notes stuck to the walls around my desk, which is in a corner. Some are plot ideas or bits of dialogue, some are questions to myself. Here is a sampling:
This one is an opening to a novella. The beginning of the sentence stayed the same, but I added the character’s name (Hamilton) and slightly changed the end of the sentence. This novella came to me pretty well-formed already. I only had to fill in the (admittedly large) gaps. One of the clearest things that just came to me, like a bolt of lightning, was this opening.
These are ideas for Channing. So as not to spoil anything, I will only say that a few of these things happen in the story, and the rest did not.
And none of these things ended up in the story.
And here, for fun, is one of the quotes I have on my wall for inspiration:
And here’s a view of my wall:
Although I took all of last week off (I already had off Christmas Day and the day after), I felt pretty harried most of that time. There were presents to wrap, goodies to bake, research projects to work on, paintings to, uh, paint, and so on. I’d been storing up all these plans, and they just didn’t fit into one week.
I did, however, find time to complete another editing pass of The Cotton Wars (that’s the working title). As a bit of background, this novel is the story of the parents of three characters in my (as yet unpublished) Antebellum novel, Channing. It takes place between 1829 and 1837 in Philadelphia and Georgia. And because of the backstory told in Channing, it was always clear to me that there would be four main characters: Charles Daniels, his twin brother Archie Daniels, a young actress named Emily Everly who works at their theater in Philly, and a slave woman named Betty. All four are equally important, and I consider them co-main characters.
As I got going, I decided to see how much face-time, so to speak, each character got. In my Excel spreadsheet, I marked from whose point of view each chapter was told and in another cell the word-count.
[Aside: I left chapter 1 blank because it was ambiguous whether the POV was Charles’s or Archie’s. This worried me at first, but as I went along and marked down the POV characters and word count and main events for each chapter, I realized something: it made perfect sense for the first chapter to be more ambiguous. After all, at the beginning of the novel, the brothers are basically indistinguishable to outside observers and are very much in sync with one another. Needless to say, that changes.]
When I reached the end of this round of edits, I had an interesting dataset on hands. Oh, Excel, you sexy beast, you, spitting out data on the fictional characters I created. Ahem. Uh, yeah. With the data, I could show how much of the story was told from each character’s perspective: how many words, how many chapters, what percentage.
Out of 104,100 words (I rounded each chapter to the nearest fifty; Word tells me the total word count is actually 103,950):
38,800 words or 37.3% were from Archie’s POV; he has 19 chapters
29,600 words or 28.4% were from Emily’s POV; she has 13 chapters
20,050 words or 19.3% were from Betty’s POV; she had 13 chapters
14,750 words or 14.2% were from Charles’s POV; he has 10 chapters
900 words or .8% were ambiguous; this is 1 chapter
Which I have to admit reflects, to some degree, my opinion of the characters–not necessarily as “people” but as characters. Archie is extremely fun to write, and I think is the most honest character in the manuscript. But he screws up multiple times and really wouldn’t be the kind of person I’d want to spend time with. Emily is slightly out of her mind and given to saying and thinking and doing startling things. She gets boring after a certain point, and more or less drops off the map–poor girl–until she’s needed again to die. Betty is a fascinating, complicated character, but because of who she is, she doesn’t have a great deal of agency (she’s a slave). That limits me with her, plot-wise, and a lot of the time we spend with her is in her head–which is fine, but spending too much time in anyone’s head without any actual action can be tedious. When she finally takes charge, she gets interesting and the story turns more fully to her. That is where the bulk of her word count comes from. As for Charles, well, he’s a deluded bastard who barely ever realizes his faults. I don’t like him very much, though I think he wants to be a good man and just doesn’t really know how. It’s ironic that he’s the one with the lowest word count even though he’s the only one of the four still alive at the end.
Oh, damn, did I spoil it? Well, that’s okay. If you’ve glanced at Channing (The Cotton Wars is a prequel), you’d pretty much know everyone’s fate. And anyway, they were all born around 1800. Clearly, they all died at some point.
Using a spreadsheet proved to be a nice way not so much to rearrange the plot (I already had it where I wanted it) but to lay out what I already had for analysis. It helps to have one list of chapters, POVs, and events, on one page. It also gives me a place to make any notes of little things I need to fix or check on (to eliminate continuity errors, for instance). It was a really useful exercise, and I might just do the same thing with Channing . . .
If you’re a writer with a manuscript, this kind of analysis might be helpful or at least interesting.
This exceptional article about accents and Shakespeare (a great read by the way; it turns out Shakespeare may have sounded more American than British) got me thinking about the treatment of accents in historical fiction:
Now, it’s very common on TV and in movies to have any story set before the 19th century be populated by folks who speak British English. Indeed, it’s very difficult to find an American accent in a period drama unless that period drama is actually set in America (and even then, if it’s before the 19th century, it’s back to British accents). There’s even a TV trope for this:
Obviously, Ancient Romans and Egyptians (à la the HBO series Rome) spoke with various British accents. And of course, so did Frenchmen in the 17th-century world of The Three Musketeers (choose your version). It just makes sense, right?
Well, no. Because technically, the ancient Romans spoke in vulgar Latin, the Egyptians in Coptic (or Greek, or sometimes Latin), and Frenchmen in the 17th century spoke French. But, unless you’re The Passion of the Christ, you don’t want the entire movie or TV show to be subtitled.
It’s one thing to have ancient Romans speak British English because, hey, they have to have some kind of accent, and if the BBC is producing it . . . well, when in Rome (or, whatever). . . . The choice becomes blurrier when you reach the 18th and 19th century. Until about that time, there were only British accents, because only folks on the British Isles spoke English. Granted, there were scattered colonies, but the colonists were all fairly recent imports from the English-speaking homeland. I’m no linguist, but I’d have to assume that small communities of marooned pioneers sitting on the frontier weren’t big on changing the way they spoke.
By the 1700’s, the American Colonies were establishing themselves as separate from the mother country. They had their own governments (largely autonomous, given the vast distance between the colonies and Parliament), way of life (log cabins! opossums! coon skin caps!), and traditions (Puritans were very serious about observing the Sabbath, for instance). As the piece above notes, this is when the two dialect groups began to branch off: it was, ironically, the British dialects that began to change, while American English retained older pronunciations and forms.
So if you are, say, a TV show set during the Revolutionary War (like, I don’t know, the AMC show Turn), how are you to suss out the accents? Did they sound like modern Americans? Like modern Brits? Like neither? A little like both? Frankly, we have no idea what they really sounded like, though we can have some idea. In Turn, there’s a veritable medley of accents, especially amongst the Americans—they’re kind of Irish or from Northern England or somewhere in between. The Red Coats are speaking the Queen’s (or King’s) English because, well, they’re Red Coats and what the hell else would they be speaking? (To answer that question, 18th century British soldiers might actually have spoken quite differently from modern Brits—see the link above—and might have had all kinds of accents instead of just Received British Pronunciation.)
The examples of shows and movies using British accents when, quite frankly, an American accent would do just as well is long: everything from the aforementioned Rome to silly teenage television shows like Vampire Diaries (yes I watch it; no, I don’t think “Viking” vampires would speak with British accents). Why so many British accents? Well, a linguist would probably tell you that there’s no reason to value a British accent over an American one, but I’m not a linguist. And I think British accents just sound cooler. And there’s a caché. Fancy people—and everyone from the past was fancy!—should have fancy accents, right? And what’s fancier than the accent of the Queen of England? Oh, and there are the many centuries of history the Brits have under their belts, as compared to the piddling 238 years the United States has existed. (For the record, American history stretches back beyond its official founding, and though brief is at least as rich as any European country’s history.)
Counterexamples tend to prove the point that British accents carry particular cultural baggage. The movie Marie Antoinette (directed by Sofia Coppola) is an example. The stodgy old guard at Versailles speak in very posh British accents, while the spirited young folk—Marie Antoinette and her friends—all speak in American accents. Hardly an accident.
Yes, you are saying, but you write novels, not scripts. TRUE. That is true. But the written word is just as subject to dialect as the spoken word. There are differences in word meaning—tell a Brit that you got a stain on your pants, and they might look at you funny—and slang—Brits will say “cheers” as a way to end a conversation, but an American will not—and syntax—have you noticed that Brits will shorten “I have two good reasons” to “I’ve two good reasons” but an American will not?—and cadence—the ebb and flow, the emphasis and rhythm. All of those things are equally as much about the words on the page as the way the words are pronounced.
So far, I’ve written mainly in two eras: pre-revolutionary France and Antebellum America. As far as accents go, the second was an interesting challenge in its own right. After all, Americans of the 1850s spoke substantially the same kind of English that we speak now. They used the same syntax and even slang. The challenge is that it’s very close, but just a little different from 21st-century English. And readers have expectations of what they think people sounded like back then (words like “reckon” and “chaw” and overall folksiness).
Perhaps more interesting, however, was the novel I wrote about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, set in the 1780s in Paris. Naturally, they spoke French, but I don’t. I had a choice to make. Given the narrator’s occupation—prostitute—it might have been fitting to use colloquial English. After all, this was an uneducated, poor young woman who probably spoke the colloquial French of her day. Why not translate it into the colloquial English of today? I have to translate it to something, so why not to something with the same kind of cultural feel as the language she would have used?
I was stopped by reader expectations and by my own preferences. Readers don’t expect someone from the 1700s to start saying things like “dude” and “whatever”. They expect a certain cache to go along with their historical fiction (see above reasons for use of British accents in TV/movies). Also, I didn’t really want my character to come across as too frivolous or too accessible. She makes some pretty cunning moves, and I want her to come across as canny. Her personality is rather chilly, and her narration slightly detached. So, at the very least, I was going to use a less colloquial form of English.
So—British usage, or American? This was also a bit of a toss-up. I’m not British. I couldn’t get away with writing a whole novel in the guise of a Brit. I’m sure I’d mess up something because I’m just so used to American English. I’m an Anglophile, however, and am pretty aware of the usage differences. Spelling was never a question: I cannot and will not spell words like color with a “u”. No can do. Diction was a somewhat murky area: most of the things that Brits and Americans disagree about (suspenders/braces, toilets/bathrooms) just weren’t things in the 1700s. For those things that did exist, I used the European (ie, British) term. So a man wore trousers instead of pants, and it is referred to as rubbish instead of trash. Syntax is probably where I skewed most towards British conventions. I tried to make the sentences a little crisper, with prepositions and sentence modifiers in different places and contractions put to use for different purposes. This is all about voice, of course, which is notoriously difficult to pin down. (I had a discussion with someone who had been told their voice was too “young adult” for the adult market but didn’t know how to fix it. The answer is to comb through sentence-by-sentence, analyzing every choice. It’s an indefinable something that affects each word.) What I chose for Grove of Venus was intermediary: American spelling and punctuation, a few Britishisms, and some more formal British constructions. I hope that the resulting voice comes across as neither strongly British nor strongly American. I want the reader to be able to imagine a slight, charming French accent. Looking back, I think skewing towards British syntax and diction helped achieve this. (I think it was effective, but let’s see if the novel ever gets published!)
I have written another story, set in Roman Britain, which has since been trunked. Pretty much everything but the spelling there was British, to the best of my ability. These folks I imagined speaking in British English, because, well, The Queen’s Latin, that’s why.
In a lot of genres, figuring out what form English to use isn’t an issue: you generally write in an American mode if you’re American and a British mode if you’re British. Rarely do the two cross. But in historical fiction, the lines are a bit blurred since we’re delving into the past, which is, as L.P. Hartley said, a foreign country.
So, I’ve talked about openings, which seemed like a very good place to start. But just as important as beginnings are endings. Endings are what really make a good story, for me. The beginning can get me hooked, but the ending will leave me wanting more, will send me back through the story to think over what I saw or didn’t see, will give me a feeling of awe. It doesn’t have to tie things up in a neat bow, but it has to give a sense of completeness. A complete story is a beautiful thing and is entirely dependent on the ending.
In my estimation, there are a few broad categories for endings: happy, sad, and bittersweet. Different genres tend to skew towards one over another (romance is almost always a happy ending, for instance, and literary tends to skew towards sad because the characters often don’t get exactly what they want).
Some people like happy endings (and I don’t mean the kind that follows a “massage”; funny joke, huh?). I don’t necessarily think that happy endings require the main character to ride off into the sunset on a white horse. Sure, you can have the Beauty and the Beast ending, where the bad guy is defeated, the curse is broken, and everyone is overjoyed. But I think of a happy ending as an ending where the character’s main goal is achieved. Sometimes the happy ending could be getting that job, or solving the case, or marrying the guy/gal. In this vein, most mysteries would be “happy” since the objective is almost always achieved (the mystery is solved). It can be difficult to define an ending as happy if the main character’s central objective is not well-defined. If the writer is good enough and the reader is paying attention, though, the main character should have one overriding aim. Let’s take Beauty and the Beast again as an example. The Beast’s main aim is to break the curse; done. Belle’s main aim is to find “something more” for her life; done. (Isn’t it nice how neatly most Disney films define these things? That’s part of the reason for their success.) Now, let’s take an other example: Shakespearean comedies. All the characters (well, the non-evil ones) in Much Ado About Nothing, for instance, end up together with the person they want to be with. Happy ending!
I like a happy ending from time to time, if the story up that point promises it. For instance, one would be hard-pressed to think a sad (or even bittersweet) ending would be appropriate to a story like Beauty and the Beast, which includes singing dinner plates. One would also be a bit shocked if, after all the banter, Beatrice and Benedick didn’t end up together or if, after her humiliation, Hero weren’t vindicated.
But, mostly, I find happy endings a bit boring. They’re fine, but what I really like is a bittersweet ending.
What I mean by that is a happy ending with caveats. The main character gets what he/she has been gunning for the entire story, but at a tragic price that may make the victory an empty one. Usually, there’s a lesson. And I like my stories to have a lesson, to have some moral complexity. Without paying a price for it, what is success worth? What have we learned, who has changed? In the real world, nothing really comes easily. I like to feel that bittersweet bite in my literature, too. Take, for example, one of my favorite endings: Jane Eyre. Jane gets what she wants, and you might consider it a happy ending. Except that Mr. Rochester is blinded and lamed, so it’s not exactly an unalloyed rainbow-and-unicorns kind of happiness, is it? Or, take for example one of my favorite series as a kid: Animorphs. The war against the invading army was won but at the price of many lives and at least one character’s mental health.
There’s another kind of bittersweet ending: the happy-for-now ending. This is different from happily-ever-after because of the strong implication that though the character got what he/she wants, he/she is going to have to struggle to hold on to the things he/she values. I think a great example of this is Wolf Hall. Bear with me. I think we all know how that ends (just jump to Wikipedia to find out how Thomas Cromwell died), but this wonderful novel stops well shy of his death. When it stops, Cromwell is in the king’s good graces, he’s successful, feared, and admired (in some ways). Yet, even if we didn’t have Wikipedia to tell us that everything definitely will come tumbling down, we would know that at a moment’s notice everything could come tumbling down. Also, if you like, Jane Eyre could fall into this category. Yes, reader, she married him, but I think we all know what happened to the last wife.
Finally, of course, we have the tragedies. These are the big ones, the dramatic ones the stage-littered-with-bodies ones. The classic examples are Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. But there are plenty of more recent examples, too. Incidentally, one of the best books I read in the past year (an older book) is a novel-length treatment of Macbeth by Dorothy Dunnett called King Hereafter. Unsurprisingly, it has a tragic ending. The king–called both Thorfinn and Macbeth in this version–overcomes staggering odds in the hopes of creating a unified Scotland. In the end, he dies and the kingdom he created basically falls apart for several generations. So he didn’t get what he wanted; tragic ending.
So do my stories have happy endings? No. But neither are they tragic. I’m okay with a tragedy now and again, but I prefer happiness with a hint of healthy pessimism. My stories tend to end with a kind of wistful acknowledgment that the struggles of the last x chapters are over, and the characters have achieved y goal(s), but there are more goals and more obstacles just ahead. Or maybe there’s an acknowledgment that though the character(s) won, it may not have been worth it.
Witness the end of Grove of Venus, about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. When we finish the story, the main character, has gotten what she wanted: the diamonds. She has a healthy, happy son. But outside her window a revolution is unfolding that she had some part in beginning. Internally, she’s ill and dying, so that whatever she’s accomplished is clearly temporary.
Or take, for example, my more recent completed project, Channing. The guy and the girl get together at the end, but it’s at the price of two deaths. And we’re reminded in the last few lines that the guy has a penchant for purposefully putting himself into danger. Oh,yeah, and there’s a war coming . . .
Do those endings work? Well, I think so, but the jury is still out since I have yet to clinch myself an agent (dear random agents who stumbles upon this blog: I got two full manuscripts ready for you to look at!).
Let me leave you with some words of wisdom from Chuck, the character from Supernatural who just happens to be God (he’s God, okay? don’t contradict me): “Endings are hard.”
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!