Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Influences, Part III

A while ago, I talked about the books that influenced me to become a writer, from Judy Blume to Marion Zimmer Bradley; I then discussed the works of speculative fiction I feel most influenced that aspect of my writing life. Today, I'd like to discuss the flip side of that: historical fiction.

After spec fic, historical fiction is my favorite subgenre. Non-fiction tends to put me to sleep; sadly, most of what I know about history probably comes from fiction.

My love for historical fiction began in two ways: first, my mother has always loved Arthuriana, and she passed that on to me. I found that "The Once and Future King" wasn't enough for me, and it didn't take long to find works of Arthuriana more rooted in the history of Dark Ages England than in fantasy. Second, my ninth grade world history teacher once assigned us to read a work of historical fiction; influenced, once again, by my mother, whose favorite book growing up was "Exodus," I read the 400+ page book in two weeks, at the age of 14.

And that's all it took. I fell deeply in love with historical fiction.

About 90% of what I read falls into the speculative fiction, historical fiction, or historical fantasy categories. The other 10% tend to be feminist theory or what's known as "literary fiction" recommended to me by my husband. The most recent of the latter was "White Noise" by Don DeLillo, which I found seriously lacking in dragons and/or zombies.

Here, then, are the works of historical fiction I have found to be most influential in my writing life.

Exodus, by Leon Uris

You know when you read a book, and you love it so much that you pretty much never stop reading it, even when you're with friends, and you tell your friends about the book so much that even they can't wait to hear what happens next, and for years and years later and probably the rest of your life scenes from the book will just pop into your head? Yeah, that's "Exodus" for me.

For my mom, who grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school for 12 years, reading this book at the age of 13 helped her make the decision to convert to Judaism when she was 20 years old. 

When my husband and I first met and began dating, I gave him this book (and another, below) as gifts, and even he loved it. I loved it so much I read it again, 12 years after I first read it in junior high.

"Exodus" centers on Israel's struggle for independence, a topic which resonated strongly with me fresh off my Bat Mitzvah and my first trip there. It was also the first book I remember which was told in multi-person POV with long, lingering flashbacks. This set the stage for a lifetime of appreciating stories told from a wide variety of character points-of-view.

Also? The movie version has a young and hot Paul Newman in it as our moody, flawed hero (swoon!) Ari Ben Canaan. So, there's that.

I mean, come ON!

Here Be Dragons/Welsh Princes Trilogy, by Sharon Kay Penman

I bought this book because I liked the title; it has the word "Dragons" in it, and that was all it needed to catch my attention. When I read the back cover summary and discovered it took place in 12th century England and Wales, I was reeled in. And when I started reading it, I was a smitten kitten.

If you'd asked me before I read this book, sometime in the late 1990s, whether or not I was interested in reading an entire trilogy devoted to the history of Wales, I probably would have said, "Put it in my to-do list." But I started reading the book anyway...and had to rush out to buy the next book in the series, "Falls the Shadow," and the last book, "The Reckoning." Once again told in multiple POVs, full of rich historical details without info dumps, and absolutely sweeping in medieval military strategy, I've never been able to hear the title "Prince of Wales" the same way again.

Dreamland, by Kevin Baker

I cannot overemphasize the influence this book has had on my entire life. Not just my writing life, but my life. I read it during a period in the early 2000s when I was unemployed, single, and pretty much spent my days alternately writing and reading and watching Yankees games. 

Because my own family history includes Eastern European Jews arriving in New York through Ellis Island in the late 1800s/early 1900s, this book captured my imagination in a very real way, and never let go. Fourteen years after I read it, I still can't ride the Cyclone at Coney Island without thinking of Esther Abramowitz, and her wild ride. I took a class at NYU in the former Triangle Shirtwaist building where she worked, and some of my father's family lived in the same Lower East Side neighborhood where many of the book's scenes take place. How could I not be inspired?

When I met my to-be husband, I gave him this, along with EXODUS, and he loved it.

More recently, this book helped inspire me to write my own tribute to the immigrants who came through Ellis Island, THE HOLLOW QUEEN. 

Long live DREAMLAND.

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones

There are three specific reasons why I have to include THE KNOWN WORLD on this list.

1. This book beautifully combines what I consider the two parts of writing: craft and story. Some writers are more about "craft," trying to be clever with turns of phrase and tight prose. Others focus on story. I can forgive a lot of bad writing in the name of a good story. Thankfully, with this book I got both. Really excellent writing, and a truly mind-blowing story that kept me hooked from start to finish. It's pretty much a perfect book.

2. The story blew my mind. I'm the product of a pretty half-assed public school education, and so I never knew that there were black slave owners in America. I found Henry Townsend's story by turns horrific and hopeful. It does what I love most about historical fiction: highlights a little-known sliver of history that, once you know about it, you wonder why it isn't considered a bigger deal.

3. I read somewhere that it took Jones ten years to write this book. TEN. YEARS. Whenever I feel slow, or lose hope, I remember that, and remember how it was all worth it -- at least, for me, the reader.

The Kingmaking/Pendragon's Banner Trilogy, by Helen Hollick

I've mentioned before that my mother and I are deeply into Arthuriana. We're always looking for a good King Arthur story to read together. For a very long time we coped with books that didn't quite scratch that itch for us. I won't name names, but it included, among others, at least one entire series that we stuck with only because it involved an enormous amount of historical detail. Maybe too much detail. (I've since spoken with others who agree that this particular series could have easily been done in a book or two.)

Then, shortly after my oldest child was born, I saw this book on display at Barnes & Noble. I texted my mom, we both bought it...and were both in love.

Helen Hollick has a talent for building her world by highlighting the ways in which Dark Ages-era Britain was so similar to today's modern world, while including plenty of gritty details illustrating how very strange and foreign it was, too. She's a writer who has done her research and knows when to add detail, how to set a scene, how to make the 5th century come alive. Arthuriana is hard to do. These characters are so well-known, it's easy to fall into hyperbole or caricaturization. In this trilogy, Hollick brings the humanity to Arthur and Guenivere, following them from childhood to old age. There's no Lancelot. There's no silly love triangle. Arthur is a flawed hero with an amazing amount of depth: he's a philandering son-of-a-bitch who is too smart for his own good and too cunning for any enemy stupid enough to stand in his way. He loves his family beyond belief, loves Guenivere even though he has a pathological inability to stay faithful to her. Guenivere is strong-willed, proud, intelligent, and stands up for what she knows is right. She confronts her own rapist. She loves her children. She cannot help but forgive Arthur, again and again. These are real people, living real lives, told in a seamless tapestry of asides, POVs, and historical detail. This trilogy is the very definition of when we call writing a great lie, and in the middle of that lie is the truth.

What are your favorite works of historical fiction?


  1. For a long time, I read everything - crime fiction, thrillers, literary, speculative fiction. When I jumped back into the world of SFF I read exclusively that for a while, now I'm intentionally aiming for 25% or so, and broadening out. I kind of want to read everything (fiction). I definitely think that you don't have to be "steeped" in SFF to write it - what do you think? Of course, part of what I mean is that as a guy who reads a couple of books a month, being "on top" of what's coming out really isn't an option, anyway.

    At any rate, I'm the same way about non-fiction. I really want to read it, but I just don't enjoy it. Part of it is the way my brain works: I don't absorb information well unless I'm using it, so a bunch of facts are interesting at the time, but I won't retain them if I don't integrate them.

    So of the books you listed, which would you most recommend? Do you think any of them would be dated, today?

  2. Good questions!

    I do recommend all the books listed here, especially Dreamland and The Known World. If you like Arthuriana, the Pendragon's Banner trilogy is my new favorite. Are any of them dated? Probably. Even by fiction standards, I think Exodus might not stand up, not with the politics going on in Israel today. Then again, right now might be the perfect time to remember how Israel got its start as an independent nation and what threats it faced from the very get-go.

    I wish I could read more non-fiction. I wish my reading tastes were more diverse, but, like with the menu at my favorite restaurants, I know what I like and I've been too disappointed too often when I venture outside of that. Recently, I've been happily surprised to discover that one area of non-fiction I enjoy is autobiographies or memoirs of female comics. Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling: they're funny, they're insightful, they aren't boring. So, there's that, I guess. :-)

    Every year my husband has a "reading project" he assigns himself, and this year I made my own: spec fic by women of color. I've been toying with the idea, for next year, of doing subgenres of sf/f/h that I don't normally read: steampunk, space opera, epic (second world) fantasy, cyberpunk, etc. What do you think?