Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Art of Writing Biographical Fiction - Part I

This week I start a new series about the challenges of writing novels about real historical figures.

While I have been writing historical fiction all my life, I only started to focus on biographical fiction after earning my PhD with a biography of General Friedrich Olbricht.  Combining the skills of a biographer were those of a novelist is an even greater challenge than combining the skills of an historian with those of a novelist. History provides a context for fictional characters, but leaves the novelist almost infinite freedom to fit their characters into the general historical framework. Biographical fiction requires a higher degree of discipline and forces a novelist to operate within a more rigid structure. The rewards of evolving an internally consistent and legitimate interpretation of a historical figure are, however, almost indescribable.  

The fact is, for most historical figures information about what went on inside their hearts and minds is scarce.  We might have the odd letter or two, or if very lucky a diary, but the farther back in history a person lived, the less likely we are to have authentic, first-hand material.  Most of what we know about historical figures was recorded at best by contemporary chroniclers, and more often by observers who lived decades or even centuries later.  Many historical records come from foreign sources – Athenians writing about Sparta, Christian monks recording the raids of the Vikings, or Frenchmen decrying the atrocities of the English in the Hundred Years War. Even where we have contemporary, domestic sources, these may be hostile to the subject, for example the interrogation records of the Inquisition describing the Cathars or Gestapo memos on the German resistance to Hitler. 

What this means is that the best information we have about historical figures is usually their actions.  My father always told me to judge a man by what he did, not what he said, but this can be very difficult across the distance of 500 years or more.  And, of course, in certain situations we cannot even be sure that deeds attributed to one personality or another were in fact committed by them.  Did Richard III order the murder of his nephews or didn’t he? The sons of Edward IV disappeared while Richard III was king. Bones have been found that appear to match boys their age. Carbon dating suggests a death date within the period of Richard’s short reign. Yet anyone familiar with the Richard III controversy knows there are powerful arguments against Richard’s guilt and a number of other historical figures, who could have committed (or ordered) the murders.

In short, while a novelist writing biographical fiction has to keep to the known facts, he/she still has a great deal of leeway.  In most cases, there is almost unlimited freedom when it comes to describing emotions and attitudes, and these in turn determine the nature of relationships and – ultimately – the character of an individual. With the identical set of facts, two good historical novelists could create equally convincing and yet virtually opposite characters. Sticking to my Richard III example: the bald fact is that Richard married Anne Neville, the widow of his arch-rival, the Lancastrian prince Edward. Depending on how one interprets this fact, he either forced himself on a helpless, grieving widow or he rescued his childhood sweetheart after her father bartered her into a hated first marriage.

It is all about interpretation, a phenomenon that actors will recognize well.  In a play, the same actions, even the same lines, can be transformed by interpretation – and that is what makes writing biographical fiction so much fun.

Envoy of Jerusalem won the Pinnacle Award for Best Biographical Fiction 2016.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cast of Characters: Beatrice and Constance

I wanted to end my series on the fictional characters in my Balian d'Ibelin series with the sisters Beatrice and Constance d'Auber, the daughters of Sir Bartholomew, because of their importance to Envoy of Jerusalem. 

Although fictional, these two characters are as important to Envoy of Jerusalem as Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. They were created to give names and faces to the tens of thousands of real women who went into Saracen slavery when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was overrun by Saladin's forces. They also represent -- and are intended to remind us of -- the Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS, the Syrian refugees sold into illegal marriages in Turkey, and indeed every trafficked woman in the world today. 

Beatrice and Constance are the thematic mortar of Envoy of Jerusalem. It is the fate of the captives that haunts Balian from start to finish of the novel. Without Beatrice and Constance and their children, the novel would be gutted of meaning; the reader would not be able to fully understand what Balian does and why. 

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Cast of Characters: Sir Bartholomew

Introducing the Fictional Characters in the Balian d'Ibelin Trilogy:

Sir Bartholomew is an indispensible character. He is as essential to the novel as vassals and tenants were to feudal society. And like the army of "good vassals" he can get lost in the background, be overlooked or forgotten as flamboyant nobles and imperious princesses take center stage. But Sir Bartholomew is "the salt of the earth" and without him Envoy of Jerusalem would have less heart and less relevance.

On the one hand, Sir Bartholomew represents the "rear vassals" and household knights that were the backbone of army of Jerusalem. There were never more than a couple score of barons in the crusader states, and the feudal levee never fielded more than 1,200 knights -- including the militant orders. The bulk of those 800 or so secular knights were men like Sir Bartholomew, men with a small land-holding from which they earned enough to outfit themselves, a squire, and their horses. (Recent archaeology, by the way, has uncovered a number of "manor houses" for such knights, proving conclusively that the Latin elite did not live exclusively in the urban centers.) The importance of men like Sir Bartholomew was that they gave the Kingdom of Jerusalem a heavy cavalry capable of delivering a crippling blow on Saracen armies many times longer -- provided they were well led and the cavalry charge was properly timed and directed.

More importantly, however, Sir Bartholomew represents all fathers who have lost or have missing children. He embodies the terrible suffering of survivors of a catastrophe, which has carried away loved ones. He gives a voice to the spiritual doubts that all men feel when confronted with loss and grief that goes beyond what they think they can bear. 

Sir Bartholmew's importance to the novel is enormous. He is a constant reminder of the human cost of defeat. 

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cast of Characters: Alys

Today my series on the fictional characters in my Balian trilogy continues with Alys. 

Like Godwin Olafsen, Alys was an unintended character. I never intended to write about her, but once she had sung her first notes in Envoy of Jerusalem it was impossible to ignore her. When Alys steps into the tavern in Tyre to sing for her supper to avoid selling her body, she has a song to sing, but defeat and poverty have robbed her of her dreams -- indeed of her ability to dream at all.  She is tottering on a precipice. A innocent victim of defeat and poverty. 

No, I had not envisaged Alys when I wrote the outline for Envoy of Jerusalem because she isn't part of "history." How can the daughter of an obscure (and dead) saddler compete with the likes of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin? But Alys does have a song to sing -- for all her sisters trapped in a hopeless situation after a lost war. Alys sings for the Syrian refugees, and those from the South Sudan and Somalia, as well. She represents the millions of women who have lost their homes, their families, their livelihoods, and have nothing left to sell but a song -- or their bodies. 

Envoy of Jerusalem is as much about Alys as it is about Richard the Lionheart because a central theme is the role of women in society. In powerful women like Maria Comnena, the Queens Sibylla and Isabella the novel examines the various ways in which women were active and influential even in a world at war, but it must also expose the helplessness and vulnerabilities of those women without status, titles and wealth. Envoy of Jerusalem seeks to show the strengths and determination of "ordinary" women -- and that is Alys' role. Altogether, the novel seeks to encourage the reader to think about how women shape society itself and what the position of women tells us about the society in which they live.

In Envoy of Jerusalem, a queen and a prostitute sit side-by-side in a church and find common ground. 

Oh, and Alys gives us the best love story of this novel.... 

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Cast of Characters: Sister Adela

Introducing the Fictional Characters of my Balian d'Ibelin Trilogy:

My fictional character Sister Adela is woven into the latter two books of the Balian trilogy, rarely playing a prominent role but often voicing an important perspective. Like Mariam, she is an independent woman with considerable power in her own sphere. Through Sister Adela the reader learns about the fate of orphans, the conditions in hospitals, and is reminded of the extensive network of charitable institutions run by various religious houses that were such an important part of medieval society. Sister Adela also personifies the greater authority and respect accorded women by the Knights Hospitaller as opposed to the Knights Templar--that never had associated sisters or convents.

Sister Adela is another character who deserves a book of her own, but she prefers (as is befitting a self-effacing nun) to remain in the background and rejects center stage. I feel I have to respect her wishes on this, but I hope my readers will recognize her many merits in her cameo appearances in the latter too books of the Balian trilogy.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cast of Characters: Haakon Magnussen


Introducing the fictional characters in my Balian d'Ibelin Trilogy:

Because of the importance of naval and amphibious warfare in the period covered by Envoy of Jerusalem, I wanted to include a "nautical" character. A Pisan or Genoese sea captain would have been more representative of the age, but the Italian city-states came to the Holy Land as much (if not more) for commercial advantages as for religious reasons, and I didn't want to get into that can of worms. I was intrigued, however, by the fact that the Norwegians sent a large contingent of crusaders at this time. I also liked the idea of reminding my readers that the Norsemen had been Christianized (for the most part) by this time. It also seemed appropriate to have a Norse ship's captain as a character in order to describe the kind of vessel Richard the Lionheart chose as his flagship -- a snecka -- which was essentially a Viking warship that had been adapted over the centuries. Besides, I've lived in Norway and my mother's family was Danish, so I grew up loving Viking ships and Viking myths. So Haakon Magnussen was born -- full-grown and out of the foam of a stormy sea.

Haakon himself represents the "independent" crusader. Although we tend to think of the crusades as organized events led by kings and nobles, the majority of "crusaders" were individuals who made an armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land to fulfill a vow, atone for a sin, or simply contribute to the defense/restoration of Christian rule. They might join up with others, sign on with a local lord, travel in the train of an organized crusade, or they might, if they had the means, just come out on their own. Who could better represent that independent spirit than an Norseman?

In the novel, Haakon is also a device to get Balian out to sea and a means of moving him in an environment where the Saracens controlled most of the hinterland behind the few Christian coastal strongholds. He also has a voice and perspective of his own, generally irreverent. One of my test readers liked him best of all the fictional characters, and I strongly suspect he deserves a novel all his own....

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Cast of Characters: Mariam, the Syrian Femme Sole

Introducing the fictional characters of the Balian d'Ibelin Trilogy: 

Mariam, the Syrian Femme Sole, doesn't make her appearance in the Balian d'Ibelin trilogy series until the third book. I wish I'd thought of her sooner, though, as I would have loved to include her in the earlier books as well!

Mariam came to me in all her robust and hearty maturity in the middle of the night just after I'd finished writing Defender of Jerusalem. I was disturbed by poor Godwin Olafsen and his horrible fate. Yes, Balian had bought his freedom at the last minute, but he was still penniless with a crippled son. I didn't like leaving him like that. And then I had the image of Mariam, heard her scolding me in a cheerful voice, and I knew she was the answer. 

Mariam also has the important role of representing the Syrian population in the crusader states AND the many empowered women in the middle ages who were businesswomen and master craftswomen. Mariam is a native, Orthodox Christian, an ethnic group that made up a substantial minority in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. She is also an astute and successful businesswoman as was quite common across Europe in this period -- contrary to common myths about women being "mere chattels." Her role may be comparatively small, but I hope my readers enjoy Mariam's brief appearances.

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