Category Archives: writing

Thoughts on “Medieval Imaginings”: Medieval History and Historical Fiction at Northwestern University

MedievalImaginings
The books have been signed, the taxis boarded for O’Hare, but before we all move on to the next adventure, I wanted to write about few of the things I learned and lessons I valued from yesterday’s conference, “Medieval Imaginings: A Celebration of Historical Fiction.” Organized by Barbara Newman as one of the last events sponsored by a Mellon grant that has brought so many exciting ways to think of the Middle Ages, not only to Northwestern University, but to all of us in the Chicago area, the day gathered together students and teachers, historians and literary scholars and writers, as well as a few people who were all of the above.

Cecelia Holland, last but not least, was my favourite part of the day. She read a few passages to us from her 1997 novel about the Templars, Jerusalem, and every time she stopped, I wanted to shout, “No! Keep reading! I have to know what happens next.” But even more than that, she talked about how, when you write about the past, the past must connect to the present. The past is gone; we are here, and it is for us that we are writing. Before she started reading, she spoke about the place she was in when she began the book, about teaching prisoners how to write, about how she loved them and how they were desperate and hardened, hopeless and full of longing, and how writing gave them the chance to be themselves again. We could see those prisoners in the Templars she described, Rannulf and Mouse the rest.

I learned other things too. From a thoughtful discussion of sources and the uses we make of them between Paul Strohm and Bruce Holsinger (whose Invention of Fire we eagerly await), I discovered that I am more fearful of the claims made by historical biography than historical fiction. I know this comes from reading Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone as an impressionable youth. Its twin story lines of biographer and subject force us to recognize all that the biographer can never know. I learned that my own initial stirrings of an idea to write a novel about the medieval pilgrimage to Compostela must have begun very close to my reading of Sharan Newman’s novel with the same theme, Strong as Death.

We spent a little too much time talking about Dan Brown. We don’t get upset when someone writes something wrong about the Middle Ages that sinks like a stone; we get upset when it sells a lot of copies and makes a lot of money. My own explanation, not voiced at the conference, for the popularity of The DaVinci Code (and 50 Shades, and Harry Potter) is that they are easy to read, their themes and claims are big, and they satisfy a longing we have for a shared text, now that the Bible no longer fills that space. One question that came up over and over again was whether we are doing the right thing, drawing on the past for the needs of the present, slicing it up and making stories out of it with beginnings, middles, and ends; with character arcs and conflict resolved. What if people read what we write and…believe us? And what if we’re wrong? As we are, as we all are because, remember what Cecelia Holland said: the past is gone. My serious answer to this question is that I would not put my name on any piece of writing I was not prepared to stand behind, with all of its longing, and failure, to hear and convey a voice that is not my own. This is as true of my historical as my fictional writing. My flippant answer (But felt no less strongly. Maybe felt more strongly.) is that, who cares if it is wrong and they believe it? The only problem would be if, “and they believe it,” meant, “and so they stopped telling stories of their own.” Of course it is wrong. I read a history and I tell a history, then you read it and out of that your own history emerges, and together a great chain of stories continues to grow, connecting us and allowing us to share in each other while becoming more thoroughly our selves. Long live stories, and the people with the courage to tell them, and believe them.

I think the writer at the conference may have been the best historian in the room.

PIlgrimage, History, and Historical Fiction

When I would tell fellow academics I was writing a historical novel about my period, their eyes would widen and the questions and comments would come, always friendly and supportive, maybe a little wistful:

–Really?
–Is it hard?
–I could never do that; I don’t have enough imagination.
–How do you find the time?

(Answer: you make the time)
Reading historical fiction as a child (Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer…) was a huge part of why I became interested in history, so the link between historical writing and fiction was there from the beginning. Now my friend David Perry (another medieval historian who pushes his own writing beyond the confines of the academy) has written a thoughtful essay on fiction and scholarship that discusses my novel, Pilgrimage and Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book:

Fictionalizing Your Scholarship: Writing a novel is hard to do well, but it can serve as a powerful way to share your research with a wider audience

Review: PILGRIMAGE

Julianne Douglas has written a wonderful review of PILGRIMAGE on her blog, “Writing the Renaissance.” I say “wonderful” not only because it is positive, but even more because I think she really captures in her review what this novel is about and what I was trying to do. I can fairly say that if this review appeals to you, you will probably like the novel. You can check it out here:

Review of PILGRIMAGE

And do keep Julianne’s blog bookmarked. It is a great place to catch up on the latest historical fiction. Julianne performs a real service to the HF reading community with her thoughtful reviews and interviews. I have been turned on to a lot of great novels I would not have known about otherwise on its pages. But more than that, it is a place for Julianne to explore her own writing interests in Renaissance France. Recent posts have been on John D. Rockefeller (yes, UChicago people, that Rockefeller) and the excavations at Fontainebleau; the illuminations in Claude de France’s prayer book; and a gorgeous nineteenth-century stained glass image of Renaissance poet, Louise Labé.

And check Julianne’s blog again tomorrow, when she will be interviewing me about the novel

Walking the Camino

MV5BMTU4ODIyNTc4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTg0ODM3MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_I saw this documentary, “Walking the Camino” last night at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think what moved me more than anything, beyond the beautiful scenery which I am already familiar with for the most part, was the way the faces of the pilgrims were transformed as their journey progressed. They all radiated a kind of peace and clarity you hadn’t known they were missing when they left. It is the advantage of watching a documentary with real pilgrims, rather than a movie like “The Way.” You can’t perform that kind of internal change; it must come from within. The film is on for one more night in Chicago, so catch it before it leaves. It is also showing elsewhere in a number of Canadian and American cities.

I have been interested in the Camino since by chance I read Laurie Dennett’s A Hug for the Apostle back in the 80s. She did her walk before Paulo Coelho’s Pilgrimage and other popularizing accounts transformed it from an almost forgotten walk known to enthusiasts and Spaniards into the huge phenomenon it is today. I loved the book, read everything I could about the road, medieval and modern, and dreamed about doing the walk some day.

But I haven’t done it yet (this is the first question people ask me when they discover I have written a historical novel about the medieval Camino so I might as well get it off the table) and I don’t know if I will. It is not the physical challenge that scares me; that I welcome (though I may be deluding myself). There is the problem of fitting it into an academic schedule of course. Once, it was the fear of the frustration of missing some medieval gem a few kilometres off the road because I am tired and have to get to Pamplona or Ponferrada by nightfall. But I return often enough now, that should not be an issue. I have criss-crossed the road numerous times in different places on research trips to Spain, reading medieval manuscripts in towns where medieval pilgrims once walked and modern ones trace their footsteps. I was going to add “and as a tourist” but if I want to be honest, I am never just a tourist in Spain. Everywhere I go, I am thinking about the country’s past, learning its history from its geography. And that, I think, is the real problem. I fear I know the land too well, that I won’t be able to bring to the Camino the open heart I need, ready to learn all it has to teach. I’ll be the annoying one in the albergue, debunking the myths. I worry that to be a true pilgrim, I need to go to Japan or Mexico or somewhere less freighted for me.

But it still calls to me. I still want to do it. And one day, maybe I will.

PILGRIMAGE is out!!

Pick-Cover-Sized-A.inddAt last! My historical novel about the pilgrimage road to Compostela in Spain in the 12th century was released on Monday. I’ve been telling people all over the internet about it, and even added a page here, but this is my first chance to do a full blog post. So I have a whole bunch of links for you.

First is the book’s Goodreads page. If you have an account, do drop by and take a look. Reviews are always very welcome.

Next, I made a Pinterest page showing images from the different places my heroine visits on her journey, all keyed to a map. If you zoom in on the map, you get a better idea of the different locations.

I joined Twitter. My handle is @lucykpick. If you follow me, I will follow you, la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la.

And last but not least, here is a link to the publisher’s website where you can buy a copy all your very own with free shipping within the United States. Yes, it will be available in bookstores, in Canada, and as an ebook very soon. Believe me, I will let you know!

NaNoWriMo Recap

Well, I didn’t “win,” in the sense that I didn’t write 50,000 words. I was doing very well, getting about 2,000 words a day, and was ahead of schedule but then, as I knew I would be, I was derailed by a visit from my mother, Thanksgiving, and, above all, a deadline on an article that was due on November 30th. But I did get 35,677 words, and I am thrilled with that.

So what did I learn? I learned that I can write academic prose and fiction in the same month, though not at the same time. It doesn’t matter if I have “free time” to write the other in while I am writing the first. If my headspace is occupied with one project, it can’t divide itself in two for another.

I have a good seven chapters begun on the new novel, and I feel like it is solid stuff. Many of the things I learned were things relearned from previous NaNos. Writing 2 000 words per day does not mean you have to sacrifice quality. It does mean your story will live in your head 24-7 and will generate connections and developments seemingly without your involvement. That is always fun. Characters will grow before your eyes.

I think I do my best writing under this regime. I think 2,000/day is too much for me to sustain for longer than a month, every day with no break. But I know that when i get in a rhythm of writing, say 1,000 a day, the work stays fresh.

I already can’t wait for next year.

NaNoWriMo

Or National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated. And yes, it should be International Novel Writing Month, but InaNoWriMo sounds a little — inane. Anyway, with November 1st upon us, it is that time of year again. Time to put aside knitting, novels, and house cleaning in favour of writing 50,000 words of a novel in one month. That’s 1667 words a day, for those who are counting. I’ve got 500 words so far, thanks to a meeting I didn’t realize was scheduled for next week, rather than for today, but I thought I’d take a brief break (blog word counts not included in total, alas) to share the madness with all of you.

I’ve been doing this since 2005, with more, or mostly less, success. The first year I cracked 50,000, and the second year I finished a novel. Since then, other deadlines have got in the way and though the discipline of the month got me moving, I wasn’t able to go full out. That’s not the case this month. I’m beginning a new project one I am really excited about — medieval historical fiction as usual, but with a great fantasy twist — and the discipline of daily writing will be perfect for starting me on my way.
Good luck to all fellow WriMos!

An Interview with Alison Pick

I am very excited today to be able to bring you an interview with my very own cousin, Alison Pick, about her most recent novel, Far to Go, published just recently by House of Anansi Press. It can be ordered from Canada, and will be released in the States by Harper Perennial in summer, 2011. Don’t sorry, I will be reminding you when it comes out in the States! Far to Go, inspired in part by the lives of my grandparents and my father, is the story of one Jewish family’s experiences during the lead-up to the Nazi occupation in 1939 in Czechoslovakia. Paul and Annaliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces. Desperate to save themselves, they manage to secure a place for their six-year-old son, Pepik, on a Kindertransport to England. Far to Go is also the story of how what happened to the Bauers is remembered by those who survived, and the stories that are told about them.

The events of 1938 and 1939 unfold through the eyes of Marta, the governess, a woman uncertain of her own origins.  Why did you decide to make her the viewpoint character?

Good question. Truthfully I can almost never remember why I did anything in a particular way, beyond the fact that it felt intuitively right. But the idea of an unreliable narrator was appealing. I often turn to Jack Hodgins’ ‘A Passion for Narrative,’ – my novelists’ bible – and I think it was his suggestion to view the main characters, in my case Pavel and Anneliese, through outside eyes. That said, through the process of writing Marta grew to become a main character herself. She is a liminal character, not Jewish but close with Jews (and, as you point out, unsure of her origins, so with the possibility of being one); not the mother of a child sent away but close enough to understand a mother’s perspective. She is both on the Bauers’ side and, if only accidentally, against them. I wanted this tension to work in concert with the plot so the reader wouldn’t be certain what they could trust. The desire to keep reading would be to discover how the story turns out but also how Marta—who is still young and naïve—resolves as a person.
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Sex Sells?

(Oh dear, the google hits on this blog are about to get really thrilling with that title!)

A staple of contemporary historical fiction is the novel about the famous man or woman, and a staple of those novels is some speculation about said famous person’s love life. Why not? That’s exactly the kind of information the academic historian is in a poor position to discuss, and it allows the author to reveal the personal, emotional side of a character, which is the reason many come to historical fiction.

But how far can you go? How far should you go? One answer to that question is that you can write whatever you like and speculate as much as you want as long as you do it well. But what if, as an author, you really want to stay close to historical fact, or at least plausible legend and contemporary rumour? The fact is, we can’t prove who loved whom in the past about anyone. We can’t even prove who was whose father if we go too deep in time.

There is a good deal of discussion about this question out there on the intertubes. Susan Higginbotham has been fighting the good fight to save Margaret of Anjou’s reputation. Kathryn Warner is fighting the good fight over on her blog to defend Edward II against the most outrageous attacks. And a really interesting discussion over on Historical Fiction Online about who Alison Weir’s recent Captive Queen and who Eleanor of Aquitaine may or may not have slept with is what started my interest in this whole thing. I can’t speak to most of the rumours used by Weir in her book because they cover Eleanor’s later career and I just don’t know enough about the sources. But in a future post (soon!) I want to discuss the original charge against Eleanor, that she had an affair with her uncle while on the Second Crusade. Today, I want to talk in a general way about how an author might deal with what counts as evidence about a medieval person’s romantic dalliances. An author is of course free to do what he or she likes, as long as it works. But what can an author use, and still claim that she or he is following history?

Rumours that emerge after, say, 1500 are extremely suspect. They usually come from academic circles, not really the best places for buried oral tradition to surface. Stories that are contemporary with a given person’s life are obviously the most deserving of credence. But that doesn’t mean they are true. Historians in the Middle Ages didn’t write because they wanted to get the facts down, and we make a mistake when we treat their works as simple unfiltred repositories of information. The wrote to make an argument and they used standard tropes and moral lessons, one of which was the wayward queen whose lust/greed/jealousy brought down the kingdom. So ideally we will have more than one piece of independent evidence that will confirm what we say.

But, to argue for the other side for a moment, how often do we have more than one piece of evidence about anything that happened in the Middle Ages? Often the chronicler who is the only one to tell us the queen was a bit naughty, is also the only one to tell us exactly what went wrong at the battle of Damascus. Does it make sense to dismiss the rumour, while taking the Damascus account unquestioningly as gospel truth? Not really. We must constantly ask why our sources write down everything they tell us , whose agenda did it serve, how the different stories support each other, and how credible we find their tales. Well, this is why writing history, fictional or non-, is difficult. But also why it is fun!

Next post: Eleanor and her uncle as a case study of how to read our sources.

Historical Novel Society Conference

I spent last weekend in Schaumburg at the Historical Novel Society conference meeting old friends and new, and thinking hard about what it takes to write a compelling historical novel. I was going to write a full post about the conference but all my procrastination has meant that Julianne Douglas got there before me, and I must concur with everything she said. She even went to most of the panels I attended, so go on over there if you want to see what I thought!