[Warning: This blog talks about the incidence and aftermath of sexual assault and rape.]
Like most readers, I have my habits. In the service of exposing my readers to a wider perspective, I have interviewed Christina Cox, fellow book lover, about a recent read she enjoyed: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn.
VL: How did you come to read Any Man?
CC: I’ve been a fan of Amber Tamblyn for a long time, but not for her writing — for her talents as an actor. When I found out this book was coming out, it piqued my interest immediately. Then I found out she was going to do a reading at Fountain Bookstore (down the road from me), and I knew I had to get it!
VL: Is it typical of the books you read?
CC: Not at all; it’s much more intense than the books I typically read. From its jacket description, you can see why:
A violent serial rapist is on the loose, who goes by the name Maude. She hunts for men at bars, online, at home— the place doesn’t matter, neither does the man. Her victims then must live the aftermath of their assault in the form of doubt from the police, feelings of shame alienation from their friends and family and the haunting of a horrible woman who becomes the phantom on which society projects its greatest fears, fascinations and even misogyny. All the while the police are without leads and the media hound the victims, publicly dissecting the details of their attack.
What is extraordinary is how as years pass these men learn to heal, by banding together and finding a space to raise their voices. Told in alternating viewpoints signature to each voice and experience of the victim, these pages crackle with emotion, ranging from horror to breathtaking empathy.
As bold as it is timely, Any Man paints a searing portrait of survival and is a tribute to those who have lived through the nightmare of sexual assault.
As you can see, it’s a dark premise. It’s shocking to read at some points, but Tamblyn does a really wonderful job of introducing lighter parts when you need them.
VL: What did you like best?
CC: Tamblyn began as a poet, so the book is written as a mix of poetry and prose. The writing is breathtaking, and she does a great job of conveying a lot of information and emotion in fewer words. So many pages gave me chills.
VL: What did you like least?
CC: It was hard to read such an intense book; at times I needed to put it down for something else. But at her Fountain reading, she talked about our society’s history of ignoring survivors of sexual assault/rape or sweeping their stories under the rug. I think this is an important story, and an interesting take considering a woman is the perpetrator.
VL: Would you recommend Any Man to family or friends?
CC: I would (and have), but I would do it with the caveat that it’s very difficult to read in parts. I’m careful with whom I recommend it, because you never know if this story will hit too close to home.
VL: Have you read other books by this author?
Tamblyn has several poetry books under her belt, but I haven’t read them yet. They’re definitely on my list!
Yesterday, November 5, I met with Spotlight, the Colonial Heights High School club which focuses on literary and fine arts. I talked with these young, creative teens about fiction in general and historical fiction in particular.
Stating the obvious: in historical fiction, the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. What may not be so readily obvious is that beyond that, anything goes! Although this umbrella covers theater, opera, cinema, TV, etc., and my comments likely apply there as well, my focus has always been on the traditional: historical novels and short stories.
Historical fiction can be any genre and format. Romance, action/adventure, mystery, children’s literature, young adult novels, sci-fi, literary fiction, fairy tales, fables, satire, comedy, horror, even epic poetry—anything you can come up with is fair game. And it can be any length, from flash fiction to multiple-volume series.
The foundation of historical fiction is good writing. Therefore, start by mastering the craft. Ursula Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft is short, readable, and excellent instruction (although my personal opinion is that the sailing metaphor gets a bit trying by the end). But beyond that, consider what will give your writing authority and make it believable. So, here, in no particular order, are sample questions you would do well to answer.
What did people eat? People must eat. Beyond that, nothing is static. Food fashions change. The availability of various foods changes. Cooking methods and utensils change, how tables are set and what constitutes good table manners change. Even the timing of meals change—such as when the main meal of the day was eaten. And what was eaten: one example, a full breakfast is a staple of British cuisine, and typically consists of bacon, sausages and eggs, often served with a variety of side dishes and a drink such as coffee or tea. Prior to 1600, breakfast in Great Britain typically included bread, cold meat or fish, and ale. On an American farm table, pie for breakfast was common. You can search history of breakfast online and retrieve lots of valuable information by period of history and country.
How did people talk? The basic here is vocabulary, the words for ordinary objects and actions. Then, too, a word may not mean the same thing it once did. “Compromise” had a very different meaning for a couple in Jane Austen’s time compared to opponents in a political intrigue set in 1990. But phrasing comes into it, too: at some point, people became less likely to say “pardon me” and more likely to say “excuse me.” Besides the historical period, consider language specific to action; for example, carnival workers or mobsters.
What did things cost? Everyone knows prices change. The basic point here is how much things cost during your time period. And perhaps even more interesting, what was bought? For example, in 1905 a household was likely to buy stove polish (at twenty-five cents a can). Or during the Great Depression in the United States, a man might berate his wife for “driving all over the county, like gas doesn’t cost ten cents a gallon.” Inserting a few such details gives a story authority as well as richness—assuming you get it right. The latest edition of this book (the 5th) is available from Amazon, $155 new and $25 used. For your purposes, new probably isn’t necessary, and library discards come available for a dollar or two.
What did people wear? For example, did women wear underpants? Had bras been invented? Were corsets still in use? And related questions having to do with where the clothing came from, how much of it a person was likely to have, and how it varied by socioeconomic status.
What was involved in birth, death, and marriage? Most historical fiction will touch on one or more of these nearly universal events. Where did births take place and who attended? What about funerary practices? Would bodies be embalmed, burned, put on a scaffold for birds of prey to clean the bones? For marriage, consider age, who consents, what the ceremony likely entailed. For women, what rights did she lose and/or acquire with marriage?
What was happening in the world at the time? Some awareness or mention of major events is unavoidable. For example, if your story is set in 1863, the American Civil War was a relevant event whether or not it was the focus of your plot, and even if your story is set in London or Paris. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and finding the body in 1932 was similarly followed worldwide. For an excellent one-volume history of the United States, try Jill Lepore’s These Truths.
Doing your research. The above questions are just examples of things you need to know to make your historical work of fiction live for the reader. The list is endless: recreation and entertainment, mode of transportation and the time it took to get from place to place, weapons, toys, houses or whatever dwellings, how tall people were, hair styles. . . If you know the question you want to ask, online searching is convenient and inexpensive. Personally, any information I’m likely to want to refer to repeatedly, I like to have in physical books. Reading about the time of your plot is extremely valuable. And I find it fascinating. I have many books like the ones pictured above to get an overview of life during the period of interest, presenting answers to most of your factual questions in one convenient package.
Last but not least, read books written during and set in the time you’re writing about. Read extensively—meaning both a lot and broadly. It will give you a feel for tone, pacing, and (probably) things to avoid in your own writing!
BOTTOM LINE: Besides the foundation of good writing, historical fiction is built on research. Enjoy!
It seems like everyone is watching television and movies through streaming services now — especially Netflix. Each of those streaming services boasts a wide array of original shows and movies, and of course some of those are born from books.
So many of those book-to-movie adaptations (or book-to-tv adaptations) are taking the world by storm. Here are a few to check out (keeping in mind I’m not counting comics like Riverdale or The Defenders). These are in alphabetical order by Netflix show/movie name.
A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Alias Grace, based on Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Altered Carbon, based on Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Anne With an E, based on Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Girlboss, based on #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso
Hemlock Grove, based on Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy
House of Cards, based on House of Cards by Michael Dobbs
Kiss Me First, based on Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach
Mindhunter, based on Mindhunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas
Orange is the New Black, based on Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Shadowhunters, based on City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
The Last Kingdom, based on The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell
13 Reasons Why, based on 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
A Wrinkle inTime, based on A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, based on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Lovely Bones, based on The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, based on To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
I’m sure there are movies and shows I’ve forgotten. Don’t see your favorite on the list? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook!
On several dimensions important to me—and to most writers—Ursula Le Guin has excelled almost beyond comprehension. One thing I admire, which doesn’t fit into any particular category, is that Le Guin’s writing is a spiral rather than a line, i.e., she didn’t write one way and then move on to another, never looking back. When you examine the list of her publications at the end of this blog, you’ll see that in any given year, she was writing in several directions, and in later years she circled back to earlier series.
Wonder Woman for Breadth
Although best known for science fiction and fantasy, over a writing career that spanned more than half a century, she wrote all sorts of things for all sorts of readers, across genres and formats. Her first publication was a poem, “Folksong from the Montayna Province,” in 1959. She continued to write poetry over the decades, but she would never have labeled herself a poet. The New York Times (2016) called her “America’s greatest living science fiction writer,” but she preferred to be known as a novelist.
Besides poetry, science fiction, and fantasy, she wrote children’s books, short stories, literary fiction, non-fiction, literary criticism, and blogs. Among her non-fiction writings are books of advice for writers, which grew out of her work as an editor and teacher (at Tulane, Bennington, and Stanford, among others), the best known of which is Steering the Craft. BTW, within the last nine months, this guide has been recommended to me by two separate and independent writing teachers.
Wonder Woman for Social Justice
Writing during years when what was socially accepted was evolving, her fiction often depicted alternatives seldom spoken of regarding gender options and alternatives, religion, race, sexuality, politics, the natural environment, and culture. Perhaps this was the legacy of having an anthropologist father and a mother trained in psychology who later turned to writing. According to Wikipedia, her writing contains many recurring themes and ideas: the archetypal journey, cultural contact, communication, the search for identity, and reconciling opposing forces. This is as I remembered her fiction from years ago. I think it’s about time to revisit Le Guin!
Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) has been called her first contribution to feminism. Le Guin created, for example, a planet where humans have no fixed sex. Her work brings to the foreground on an ongoing basis equality, coming-of-age, and death.
What I call her “sociological/cultural” approach is what appealed to me, as opposed to sci-fi/fantasy that depends on technology, genetic modification, mind control, robots, and similar machines of domination.
Wonder Woman for Achievement
Le Guin graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe and was awarded three Fulbrights. In 2002 the U.S. Library of Congress made Le Guin a Living Legend in the “Writers and Artists” category.
A PEN/Malamud Award
American Library Association honors for young adult literature and for children’s literature
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Lifetime Achievement Award
The Maxine Cushing Gray Fellowship for Writers from the Washington Center for the Book
The Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation
National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (a lifetime Achievement award)
Gandalf Award Grand Master of Fantasy
Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association
Induction into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Grand Master of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
North American Society for Utopian Studies Lyman Tower Sargent Distinguished Scholar Award
Awards for Specific Works
1 World Fantasy Award.
4 awards in short fiction
19 Locus awards voted by magazine subscribers
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
Finalist for 10 Mythopoeic Awards
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Hugo Award for Best Related Work
PLUS: other annual “Year’s Best” awards
Wonder Woman for Productivity
See for yourself below. And this is only an approximation! I’ve marked award winners by *. For more than one award, multiple asterisks. Disclaimer: I’ve done my best but I’m sure I’ve missed both publications (particularly short stories and novellas, which often don’t make lists) and awards. Still, it’s pretty impressive!
Celebrate it on Goodreads! Here you will find their list of the 50 most popular horror books on Goodreads, “From Mary Shelley to Stephen King.” You can also read the Ghastly Horror Subgenres (sic), Book-to-Scream Adaptations, 13 True Tales of Terror, and—just for fun—The Nightmare Generator. My worst nightmare is supposed to be an incompetent vampire in the nursery. For my husband, it’s supposed to be a paranoid cannibal in the attic. FIND YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE!
Edgar Allan Poe is only one proof that well-written horror is well-written literature. It’s timeless. And every set of tips on how to write horror includes the observation that good writing, and all the elements thereof, are the foundation with horror being an add-on. “Horror” means an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.
Now Novel is a good place to start if you are thinking of dipping your toe into this genre. According to this blog, the 5 common elements of the best horror stories are these:
They explore malevolent or wicked characters, deeds, or phenomena.
They arouse feelings of fear, shock, or disgust as well as the sense of the uncanny.
They are intense.
They contain scary and/or shocking and scintillating plot twists and story reveals.
They immerse readers in the macabre.
The blog then goes on to discuss six tips:
How to write horror using a strong, pervasive tone.
The importance of reading widely in your genre.
Giving wicked characters credible motives
Using the core elements of tragedy
Writing scary novels by tapping into common human fears.
The difference between terror and horror.
If you want even more advice, you can find it at The Ramble. According to Chuck Wendig, horror is best when it’s about tragedy. It contains subversion, admonition, and fear of the unknown. Horror works on our minds, our hearts, and our gut. It can be gross, but that isn’t necessary. What is necessary is for characters you love to make choices you hate. “SEX AND DEATH ALSO PLAY WELL TOGETHER.” You should never tell readers they should be scared. He writes much more than this, of course.
In my opinion, one of the best sites is Bustle. It includes comments from ten authors, including Stephen King, who discusses gross-out, horror, and terror.
Advice from others includes:
Shirley Jackson: Use your own fear.
R.I. Stine: Get inside your narrator’s head.
Tananarive Due: Don’t worry about being “legitimate.”
Ray Bradbury: Take your nonsense seriously.
Anne Rice: Go where the pain is.
Clive Barker: The scariest thing is feeling out of control.
Linda Addison: Just start writing and fix it later.
Neil Gaiman: Tell your own story.
Helen Oyeyemi: Keep it real (kind of).
And the advice goes on. Bottom line: This is the week to read and/or write a little horror!
I’m picturing and talking about Kindle here because that’s what I have, but I assume other e-readers have the same characteristics. No doubt some of the points I make will be already known to you—for example, portability and convenience. As you can see in the above picture, my Kindle currently contains 338 books. That’s hundreds of books at my fingertips—i.e., hundreds of choices, virtually anytime, anywhere.
Then, too, any book can be read in large print. Sometimes, depending on fatigue, people who don’t usually need larger print temporarily do! Then, too, one can control the brightness to read comfortably in varying ambient light. And, not insignificantly, new e-books cost considerably less than their physical counterparts. (One can often find great prices on old books, overstocks, books in library book sales, etc. The downside is often not being able to get the book you want, when you want it.)
I recently started rereading Mary Renault. She was a favorite of mine years ago, and I decided to revisit her work and see what I think of it now that I write fiction myself. I’m not disappointed! She writes well: strong verbs, vivid action, good sensory appeal (especially visual), a well-rounded protagonist, and excellent weaving together of myth and archaeological evidence.
But, frankly, I don’t know how I made it through the physical books! For example, The King Must Die has a cast of thousands (only a slight exaggeration), references to gods who are (to me) only vaguely familiar, complex family relationships, unfamiliar geography, and lots of references to antique items and geology. KINDLE TO THE RESCUE! By holding my finger on an unfamiliar word, I learned that keeking means peeping surreptitiously, porphyry is a reddish igneous rock, greaves are shin armor, and hundreds more! Where in the past I would have skimmed the unfamiliar or approximated meaning from context, my e-reader gave me a much richer read.
The King Must Die was such a joy, I’m now on the next. Indeed, I’ve downloaded every Renault Amazon has available. (FYI, I binge read authors I really like.) And I believe every reader of the unfamiliar, whether fiction or nonfiction, can have an enhanced read on an e-reader.
Bottom line: Reading on an electronic device is an opportunity to broaden vocabulary, deepen general knowledge, and make the esoteric available to the non-expert!
I’ve recently read several novels by a U.S.A. Today best selling author, and the quality of the writing/editing drove me nuts. How can someone who does these things be a bestseller? These are Regency Romance novels, if that helps put my complaints in context.
What’s wrong with these books?
Across novels, the following happens repeatedly.
The women step so fast that their skirts flutter about their ankles.
A curl is forever falling over her eye (or sometimes his).
The male love interest is invariably over six feet tall (in the early 1800s) with a chiseled body to rival Greek statues.
Someone is often willing to “trade her [littlest] finger for . . .”
Fingerfuls of brandy are splashed into glasses, which are usually then filled to the brim.
Oh, so often, something really isn’t well done.
Someone (usually male) often rubs a lock of hair between thumb and forefinger.
Stray locks are often tucked behind her ear.
People turn their heads so fast they wrench the muscles of their necks.
Tense characters grip the edge of a table or the arm of a chair hard enough to leave crescent marks. (Sometimes those crescent marks are on palms.)
People have thick dark hooded lashes.
When angry, characters often grit their teeth or clench their teeth so hard that pain radiates or shoots up their jaws.
And then there are the awkward or erroneous constructions.
his head reeling to the side
eldest vs. elder when there are only two
to not get
two very entirely different
where she was far safer to his senses
there, with but the risk of a patron passing by away from ruin, he kissed her
most unfavorable of light
to their respective box (or chair)
there is nothing unordinary
still bore the blunt of his fist
as always, entirely, too cheerful
I came tonight at the bequest of my sister
So why is this a bestselling author?
The heroines are NOT universally gorgeous, perfectly proportioned, and virtuous.
Heroines are smart, active, resourceful, and brave.
Often minor characters in one book become the principles in subsequent books, offering continuity.
And there are usually breaches of the class lines of the period.
So maybe this is a case of readers reading for story, not for style. Oh, sigh.
Perhaps you already know that I enjoy the odd, unusual, bizarre, and humorous. You surely know that if you’ve read Different Drummer! But it goes beyond my writing. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of weird stuff!
One really good overview of weird is this book by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman, first published in 2004. In it, you can read about The Mutter Museum, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which is filled with medical oddities. Such exhibits as outdated medical tools (e.g., a brain slicer), a wall of wax reproductions of eye injuries, and actual skeletons abound.
Open the book at random and you can read about The Paper House in Massachusetts, built in the 1920s, or The Goat Man of Prince George’s County. The book is organized by topic, so whatever sort of weird phenomenon fits your story line, you can find several examples here.
The main drawback to this collection of weird is that if you want weird-by-location, that info is hard to come by. The index is alphabetical by name with the state location in parentheses, but there are no listings by state, per se. But not to worry! There are dozens of books out there to fill the geographical gap.
I have the books about the three places where I’ve lived most of my life, but there are tons more out there. In this particular series (in no particular order): Louisiana, Oklahoma, California, New Jersey (2 volumes), Kentucky, Michigan, Massachusetts, Indiana, the Carolinas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Washington, Illinois, Oregon, and New England, plus Hollywood, Las Vegas, and England.
Based on the three I own, I believe all are organized in the same way, so here again, it’s difficult to narrow the geographic location based on the index. Although there are a ton of books out there containing esoteric information, most of these are organized by topic, also. If you go to Amazon you will find whole sets of “strange but true” and “weird but true” books in which the book is devoted to a particular topic, such as sports, animals, the human body, history, etc.
But persevere! If geography is what you want, it’s out there.
These two books by Neil Zurcher and Sharon Cavileer are organized by geographic areas within Ohio and Virginia, respectively. I’m sure there are other states as well.
If you’re at all inclined to write and/or read about the offbeat, there’s a book for you!
Summer is a big season for literary magazines to publish big work. Many publications take submissions in the spring and fall, and post their issues in the summer and winter. That being said, so many great literary magazines have put out new issues this season. Here are just a few:
“Another way of putting it is that when Americans read, we mostly read for story, not for style. We want to know what happens next, and not to be slowed down by writing that calls attention to itself. According to one familiar indictment of modern literature, today’s literary writers are unpopular precisely because they have lost interest in telling stories and become obsessed with technique. In the 20th century, this argument goes, literature became esoteric, self-regarding and difficult, losing both the storytelling power and the mass readership that writers like Balzac, Dickens and Twain had enjoyed.”
Do you agree? Why or why not? Let me know, please.