03/27/14
chickenroad3

“You … you … skelm!” And other problems.

A quick vent-post about the problems I often encounter with language in historical fiction.

Those of you who read my previous post on historical language know that this is an ongoing thing with me.  But tonight, I was looking for a word that means ‘scoundrel’ but isn’t ‘scoundrel,’ because ‘scoundrel’ is a 16th century word.

So I settle on “rogue.” But Rogue is also 16th century. How about “ruffian?” Yeah, the 16th century had all the good words.

Eventually, I find “caitiff” which is a 14th century word for “scoundrel,” but is about as lively as an anvil. “You’ll not be paid a penny, you caitiff!” Doesn’t have quite the ring I was looking for. And even if I use it, half of my readers will stop, look at the camera (am I the only one who’s life is followed by movie cameras?), and say, “huh?” And the other half will just skip over it and silently curse me. No. the search must continue.

Skelm! Perfect! It’s got a nice Saxon bite to it and sounds absolutely perf… oh. Curse you, 16th century! Curse you to hell!

*mental note: My next novel will be set in the 16th century*

So, after far too long spent searching (so long, in fact, that I can’t really remember why I’m looking for the damned word), I stumble upon “Poltroon.” Good. Sounds like an insult. “You won’t get a penny! You will get justice, you poltroon!” I like it. Readers won’t know what it means, but they’ll get the gist. Think of Jesse from Breaking Bad going, “Oh, snap! He called you a damned poltroon!” In fact, I may start calling people poltroons. Help me out. Let’s bring back poltroon. Start using it in ever day life. Let’s see how long it takes for a celebrity to use it. Um… where was I? Poltroon! I check the date…Yes! It works. Happy day! It only took 20 minutes and a venting blog post about language to find one! Wait a minute. Wait a damned minute…

…in the 13th century, “poltroon” was spelled “poultron.” It was only spelled “poltroon” in the — say it with me — 16th century. Sigh. The gangsta-snap, you-been-dissed quality of “poltroon” gets completely lost when it’s “poultron.” It has that sophisticated Frenchiness that defies street cred. “Ahh, non, non. You will not get a franc! You will get zee justeese, you poultron!”

Can I just use the 16th century spelling? Of course I can. Will I be accurate? Not really. But does it really matter? Unless I write the entire book in Middle English, it will never be 100% accurate. And God knows I’ve done my homework on this word.

I’m going to use it. Damn it all to hell, I’m using it. And when some poltroon decides to post a public tweet saying: “@robertocalas, in Emaculum, you used word poltroon, but in 13th c. waz actually spelled, poultron. just saying.” I am going to call them a filthy, damnable skelm.

Although it will have to mean filthy in the physically-unclean sort of way, because the “morally unclean or obscene” meaning of that word wasn’t around until …Yeah. You know the rest.

 

 

03/24/14
Surprise3

Surprise! And other tools for writers.

Hello everyone. I know things have been silent on my end for a bit, but I have been hard at work on Emaculum. I’m on Episode 6 at the moment, so only two more to go before it gets released into the wild. Since I’ve been writing and thinking about writing quite a bit lately, I thought I’d talk about one of the most powerful tools writers have in their arsenal: Surprise.

***A word of warning: The first part of this piece has a spoiler for The Scourge. And the second has a spoiler for Nostrum. Proceed at your own peril.***

Not that sort of eargasm.

Have you ever had an eargasm? You know, that moment when you’re listening to a song and suddenly get chills? It could be a particular lyric, or a lilt of the singer’s voice. But often, it’s an unexpected change in tempo or pitch. A change-up, so to speak, that catches us by surprise.

Writing is very similar. In fact, pretty much all artistic media operates on similar principles. An artist should strive to keep his or her work fresh. To give his or her audience something new. If you’ve read my previous post on writing with flourish, then you’ll remember I spoke of Maximus, from Gladiator.

“I will give them something they’ve never seen before.”

Maximus should have been a writer, because that’s exactly what writers need to strive for. Anyone can write a story. But readers don’t just want to read a story. They want to be entertained. They want something they’ve never seen before. They want to be kept off balance, never knowing exactly what will happen next. Never allowed to get too comfortable. As George R. R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) knows all too well, if you surprise and shock your readers, then they will truly fear for your protagonist.

But surprise is not just a way to scare the bejeesus out of readers. It’s also a way to keep the story fresh and fast paced and entertaining. I’ll use a few examples from my books, as I usually do, because I know them best and I’m too lazy to find passages in books by authors I love.

So here, first of all, is a scene from The Scourge, where Sir Edward, Sir Morgan, and Sir Tristan run up against an ocean of plaguers and Tristan gets caught in the horde. Edward thinks his friend has been torn apart. But the guilt and sorrow give way to joy when he sees Tristan rise up and climb into a tree. Cue the happy music. Smiles all around. But it’s precisely at those moments, when the sun is shining and the angels are singing, when surprise works best. You have to gouge the needle across the record so the happy music screeches to a halt:

I watch as Tristan pulls himself from the saddle and wraps his legs around the limb while the afflicted swipe at him. I watch as he flattens himself against the bottom of the branch. And I laugh as he gives two fingers to the mass of plaguers that reach for him and rip apart his horse. I must have kept my eyes open for too long because I feel them tearing up. I wipe at them and laugh again.

Tristan is alive.

“Stay in the tree!” I scream it as loudly as I can manage. Tristan rolls himself up onto the bough and sits. He can’t see me so he leans low to look through the downy branches and blows me a kiss. “Stay in the tree, you idiot!” I try not to smile as I shout to him. “We’ll come back for you. You’ll be safe in the tree!”

He holds up a thumb and I think he nods. And before I can respond, God smites the earth.

That’s what it sounds like. An explosion so unearthly that for a moment I am certain God has come down to earth to finish the job he started with this plague. The sound echoes across the hills so that I can’t tell where it came from. Plaguers near the willow fly into the air like daisies chopped by a sickle. One of them is split into pieces and each of the pieces flies in a different direction. Something skims off the grass with a resonant thud, then slams high into the willow branches.

There is silence. Even the plaguers stop moving.

Surprise! The story was settling into a happy lull and the danger faded. But fading danger equals fading tension, and tension is the heartbeat of any story. I actually tried to write that scene without the smiting stuff. Edward and Morgan were going to regroup and figure out how to get Tristan out of the tree, and possibly talk to the men and women they rescued. But the scene started to feel flat. And that’s another time when surprise can be used very effectively — when the story seems to be slowing down, or when the rest of the scene is becoming too predictable and not interesting enough. If your story is not interesting, you are dead in the water. Be anything you want as a writer, but never be boring. Surprise will often help you inject life into a slow scene. I think it was Raymond Chandler who said it best: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Here’s another surprise from the Scourge books. This one is in Nostrum (book 2). Everyone knows Tristan is a wise-ass, but he’s often the voice of reason, as well. Readers begin to expect him to provide that voice of reason. And when readers get too comfortable with something, it’s time to surprise them. In this scene, Edward and Tristan have found a group of villagers throwing a woman into a river. They say they are sacrificing her to a “dragon” that has been threatening the area. Their actions enrage Tristan, who enters lecture-mode.

Tristan looks at the bound woman in the river and raises his hands. He turns toward the crowd.

“When will you people stop acting like sheep? Your priest tells you there is a dragon in the area, so you allow him to tie up your women and throw them into the river? Is that what Christians do these days?”

He points to the woman in the Stour.

“This river is probably tidal. You will go home and, during the night, the river will rise and she will drown. Her body will be carried out to sea. You will come back in the morning and she will not be here, and this priest will tell you a dragon took her. And you will believe him, won’t you? And you will allow him to murder more of your women! If you have any left, that is. Do you people have no minds? Do you truly think a dragon simply swoops down and … Satan’s hairy cock! Holy Christ almighty! House of fucking Gemini!”

Tristan staggers backward as a dragon bursts from the forest and roars. I am too stunned to react, and so is everyone else. The dragon leaps into the river, hisses, then snatches up the woman in its toothy maw.

Surprise! This works on a few different levels, I think. The first is that, this time, Tristan is not the voice of reason. He is dead wrong, and so the events have defied the readers’ expectations. This also works, I think, because Tristan gets what he deserves for his smugness and preachiness. He often ridicules people of faith for preaching and trying to push their views on others, and here he is, doing the same thing. And it comes back to bite him. Literally. And lastly, I think it works in a rather obvious way; a goddamn dragon just leaped out of the forest in medieval England. Surprise!

Okay, so it’s not *truly* a dragon, but the reader doesn’t know that at the time. And so it’s a shock. Which electrifies the reader. It’s a change in pitch. A change-up. An eargasm for the mind. And hopefully it keeps the readers wanting more.

Oh, and one last thing, like any tool in the writer’s quiver, don’t overuse it. Surprise is just an occasional spark. A dash of red among the grays and greens. The singer’s voice breaking at the climax of the song. God smiting the earth on a happy summer day. If you do it too often, the reader then expects a surprise. And it’s hard to surprise a reader expecting a surprise. Except maybe not surprising the reader at all. And a story without surprises is like a loveless marriage between reader and writer.

And there are no eargasms in a loveless marriage.

03/6/14
Adam Portrait 2013

Guest Post: Historical Fiction Writer Adam Haviaras

I’ve had Adam Haviaras on the site before and I always jump at the chance to have him visit. Adam is a historian and a writer of historical fantasy. This week, he’s releasing a new book in his Roman Empire series, Eagles and Dragons. Please have a look at the series if you are interested in Roman history or tales of politics, prophesy and adventure. (Look here for the Kobo version) The new book will be called Killing the Hydra and I’ll have a link as soon as it is published. Today, he talks about the research and travel when writing historical fiction.

Get thee to a Castle (if you can)! – Historical Fiction and Site Visits
One of the things I love about historical fiction is that it transports you to another time, place, and way of life. All from the safety of a cozy arm chair.

However, the challenge for the writer of historical fiction is to make the story as realistic and accurate as possible. This involves a lot of research, and hey, if you love history, that part is fun!

I’ve lost count of all the hours I’ve spent in libraries or my own stacks of books at home, sifting through primary and secondary sources. I’ve done the slow museum walk until my back ached and all I wanted was a glass of wine in a sun-drenched café. I’ve been all over the internet until my eyes bled from looking at photos, maps, Google Earth and Street View.

Amphitheatre of Thysdrus

And those things are extremely useful, but not so much as one thing in particular: site visits.

I love to travel, but for my fiction, it isn’t just for fun, it’s essential. I’ve found that I’m in the writing ‘zone’ when I’m describing a place I’ve actually been to. It isn’t just about what you see in a place, it’s about what you smell, and feel with your hands and feet. When you visit the actual place where your story is set, you get the sensation of the wind on your face and what it sounds like blowing through the trees and over the rocks.

You can’t get that from the internet. Not yet, anyway. Not until someone to creates a real holodeck.

Adam, about to lick the Saharan sands

I was once told by an author of historical fiction that when researching his novel on the Templars, he visited sites in the Holy Land and “licked” the stones to get a sense of their texture, shape and taste. He said this helped him a lot, though the locals looked at him strangely.

I don’t recommend licking stones, but touching them with your hands definitely helps.

In the past months, Roberto (our gracious host and slayer of spiders) has shared many pictures from his own travels to sites that figure largely in The Scourge. I’m curious what he has to say about his site visits…

Roberto? Did your site visits add a lot to your understanding of the world of The Scourge?

(Roberto: Absolutely Adam. I was reading your first few paragraphs nodding my head madly. You gain so many intangibles when you visit a place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a site visit is worth a hundred-thousand pictures. I find my best scenes are the ones that take place in the sites I have been to the most.)

The streets of Thugga

Those were great photos by the way. They really help to root the story in reality, even in the face of a zombie plague.

In my own research for Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, one of the most important things I did was go to the Sahara and walk barefoot over the dunes. The desert itself is a character in the books and being able to feel the sand underfoot, to pick it up and let it fall through my fingers, was fantastic; it was smooth, like sifted flour.

The archaeological sites I was able to roam through allowed me to map my story out, street by street. In Thugga (in central Tunisia), I walked with my character to the Capitol to make an offering, then to the forum where we purchased provisions, and then to the brothel where, well… you get the picture.

Actually, those site visits were worth eighty thousand words, easily!

Thugga Brothel House of the Cyclops. Where Adam . . . um . . . researched.

Of course, travel to a site is not always possible. Parts of my novels take place in what are now Libya and Algeria. Not really holiday destinations.

Apart from the fact that many ancient sites now lie in war-torn countries, the cost of getting to places is often inaccessible to most writers’ meager budgets. Sadly, travel isn’t cheap.

When I lived in Britain, it was much easier to fly to Italy from Bristol, than it is from Toronto. How about a £60 return special to Venice for the weekend? Fantastico! But now that I live on the other side of the Atlantic, those prices are not available to me.

As writers we must always find a way to put ourselves in the places we are writing about, be it in person, via the internet, books, documentaries, or by speaking with others who have been there.

The Sahara

If you are writing an historical fiction series, it’s definitely worth your while to save and make at least one trip to the place where your story is set. If you ever get the chance to go, do it. You won’t regret it and the sites and sensations you experience will carry you and your writing for a long time afterward.

The good news is that there has never been a better, more exciting time to write historical fiction than now, when so much information is at our fingertips.

Until you can get on a plane, however, keep on researching and writing, and allow your longing to get to a faraway place to fire your imagination and enrich your story.

Adam Alexander Haviaras is an author of historical fiction/fantasy set in the ancient world. He has studied history and archaeology in Canada and the United Kingdom and his both his Eagles and Dragons and Carpathian Interlude series are available from Amazon and Kobo. Adam blogs weekly on his website, Writing the Past, about ancient and medieval history and historical fiction. You can Tweet him at @AdamHaviaras or find him on Google+. He loves to hear from readers, writers, and fellow history-lovers, so don’t be shy. Contact him!