Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What is a Book?

Last night on Marketplace I heard a short piece by Jennifer 8. Lee on the future of the book. (The middle initial is not a typo. I am reminded of the Peanuts cartoon when a boy named Five came to visit.) Lee’s was mostly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s gotten me thinking about the format of publishing, and how different it is today than it was in the early modern period, and how it could be in the future. As she notes in her commentary:

we are seeing an new explosion of companies that are publishing shorter-form things that are designed for lower prices... the change does have something to cheer about: We can alter the way we tell stories. There are new ways to follow our imaginary characters. In the same way television is different than movies, these new short stories could be different from traditional novels. It could be the return of the novella.

This observation put me in mind of the wild world of early modern publishing, which featured everything from thousand-page religious works, to Shakespeare’s folio, to cheap pamphlets detailing monstrous births, horrible murders, or some other remarkable happening. While there still exists a great deal of diversity in the literary marketplace, we short stories as stand-alone pieces have gone out of fashion. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t great short stories being written, but they exist either in collections or on the pages of a much longer magazine or literary journal.

The cause of this (to my mind, and I could be wrong) is two-fold: rising literacy rates and changes in the print industry. While figuring out the readership of cheap pamphlets is tricky at best, the consensus is that they found a very broad audience. More to the point, the working poor with only basic literacy would only have read short pamphlets. They were affordable and simple enough to be understood by all comers. In short, until the “rise of the novel” in the eighteenth century anything that can be called “popular literature” was, in all likelihood, short and inexpensive. Now that the vast majority of the book-buying public has the time and literacy necessary to make their way through 4000 pages of Harry Potter, the short story is no longer in demand the way it was in the early modern period. The changes in the industry (over the last four hundred years!) are a bit too much to go into here, but I think it is safe to say that a publishing house that tried to print, market, and sell individual short stories would not last long.

The question this raises, is how the E-book has changed this. Granted at this point I am a novelist and had long assumed I would remain a novelist. (Why? The same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks.) But then I noticed the short story (novella?) “Trechary” by Andrea Cremer, which is only available as an E-book. This made me think more about options besides the novel. Once I’ve established my series (Ojala!), why not dedicate a few weeks and a few pages to some of the supporting characters? There are a few whom I like quite a lot, and I would welcome the opportunity to get to know them better. And since my novels are in the first person, the short story would give readers the chance to see the world through another character’s eyes. What’s not to like?

Granted, I’m new to publishing, and the E-book really could be the end of everything for everyone. But for now, it seems like an intriguing opportunity for novelists to break away from long-form writing, and experiment with characters and plotting in ways that have been off-limits (or at least difficult to access) for quite some time.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

History of Cromwellian Christmas

A fascinating podcast from BBC Magazine, on the history Christmas under Cromwell. (As a bonus, it includes a tour of the passages beneath Exeter, and the deadliness of water in Tudor England. (Spoiler alert - it has nothing to do with disease!)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bloody Good Trials

One of the harder aspects of writing about those outside of elite circles is that because most people could not read - and even fewer could write - they leave only a scant mark on the historical record. The challenge the becomes finding these people in the archives. Where can we "hear" those who have left behind no historical record?

To my mind, the best answer to this is in court. You did not need to be rich to be charged with a crime (indeed it could help!), or to be called as a witness, and the records of England's religious and secular courts are full of fascinating descriptions of ever day life. Social historians have been mining these archives for years and have made amazing discoveries.

This is all well and good if you happen to live in England, and have the time to head to the archives for a few days. But what if you're not?

The answer (or at least one answer) is the Old Bailey Online. It is a collection of criminal trials running from 1674 to 1913. The search function is nothing short of amazing - you can search for crimes ranging from "Breaking Peace" to "Violent Theft" with many others in between. You can pull up all the cases resulting in whipping (public or private), execution, branding, or anything else the Court could dream up.

The amount of detail varies widely, from a summary of the case to detailed testimony, but with a little digging you can find some fantastic material with which to work.

(As an aside, my favorite case is of a midwife who, in order to satisfy her husband's desire for a child and to shake off rumors that she was barren, sneaked a dead newborn into her bedroom and pretended to give birth to it. Her cunning ruse soon was discovered.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Confessions of a Genre Writer

In 2006, in my first online fiction workshop, I submitted two chapters from the historical thriller I’d begun writing. My fellow students critiqued my work; I critiqued theirs. The instructor, “T,” weighed in as well.

At the very end of the workshop, “T” sent me this email: “I'd love to see you produce some more material that seems a little ‘closer’ to you personally, closer to the bone. I mean, you're writing crime thrillers and historical novels, but how about trying to write a story that was closer in spirit to your own time, your own place, your own experience? I'm just saying, Please don't be afraid to write your fiction out of your own sense of character and personal concerns: these genres feel a little uncomfortable to me, and perhaps you haven't really discovered what your subject matter as a fiction writer is. All Best, T.”

This is not the sort of email a budding novelist wants to get.

I kept working on my historical thriller. This was what I wanted to do. I took more classes, determined to improve my craft. “T” had made genre sound like a dirty word but if I belonged in the genre sandbox, so be it. I enrolled in the mystery-writing workshop run by Gotham Writer’s Workshop and taught by a terrific guy named Gregory Fallis. Greg had been a medic in the military, a counselor in a women’s prison, and a private detective. Yes, the man had lived. To my tremendous relief, he didn’t look down on my Tudor England mystery thriller, set mostly in a Dominican priory outside London. In fact, he liked it. A lot. I worked on my chapters and read Greg’s assignments, novelists ranging from Dorothy Sayers to Walter Mosley.

I was working fulltime as a magazine editor and raising two young children, and when things got particularly crazy for a stretch my novel went into the proverbial drawer. Home sick with a fever in the autumn of 2009, I was seized by a sudden desire to go back to my thriller, only half written. Perhaps it was the 102-degree temperature talking, but I staggered to the computer and enrolled in the very next Gotham Writer’s Workshop course. It was “Advanced Fiction,” taught by a man named Russell Rowland. After I’d put through payment, I looked him up—Russell had a MA in creative writing and had written two highly respected modern novels, In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years.

“Oh, no,” I moaned, my head sinking into clammy hands. “He’s going to hate me.”

He didn’t. Russell was a supportive teacher from the start: astute and no-nonsense but never, ever patronizing. What’s more, in this class I found a group of fellow writers who gave me valuable feedback. This was when my book truly came together. I pushed through the middle and then, exhilarated, raced to the end. I finished the novel on my birthday, June 16th, 2010, and signed with a literary agent the July 4th weekend. My debut novel was sold in an auction at the end of the month to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster. The Crown will be officially published on January 10, 2012 in North America, and seven foreign countries through the rest of the year.

And yet yesterday I thought of “T” once more.

The memory was triggered by a Wall Street Journal article written by screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas, who has crafted the scripts for “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “Wanted,” and “3:10 to Yuma.”

The article began this way: “I'm sometimes asked to speak to a class of film or literature students at a university. Inevitably, a 22-year-old hipster with designer-chic black glasses and a permanent pout will raise his hand and ask, ‘What does it feel like to sell out?’ I smile. I tell the students, ‘Sell out? Are you kidding me? I sold in!’ "

Haas’s story resonated with me—of always wanting to write thrillers but facing “an upturned nose and haughty eye,” as he put it. “Write what you know,” he was told over and over. Come up with stories of “deep, dark emotional conflict.”
What my teacher—and the “write what you know” proponents Derek Haas faced—could never accept is that crafting a thriller is not a default mechanism for those of stunted gifts. Some of us want to write those sorts of books and scripts. I have always been enthralled by works of psychological suspense: Henry James’ The Innocents, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.  One of the oddest aspects of “T’s” criticism was that only in modern stories could I infuse my work with “personal concerns.” I think Robert Graves, Mary Renault, Margaret Atwood, Caleb Carr, Ken Follett, and Patrick O’Brian have found ways to create complex and relatable characters—people churning with concerns--in historical settings!

Last week I opened a large padded envelope and pulled out my hardcover novel. My editor sent me the one fresh from the printer. I caressed the beautiful deep-gold and burgundy cover, and ruffled my 400 pages.  It was a moment of unadulterated pride.
You know what, “T”? This writer has found her subject matter.