Category Archives: Making History

Italians Without Wine and Olive Oil

Olive oil being pouredIf you write historical fiction, I highly recommend Ursula K. LeGuin’s essay at the end of “Lavinia” about the research she did writing the book, a retelling of the Aeneid, and the choices she made about how to portray life before the Roman Empire. Here’s an excerpt:

Like Vergil, I call the towns of the Bronze Age cities, and their people probably saw them as cities, but to us they might look like a walled or stockaded huddle of huts around a fort. Their people went out into the fields to herd sheep, goats, and cattle, and plant and tend barley and emmer wheat and vegetables, fruit and nut trees. They probably had no cotton or linen yet; the women carded, spun, and wove wool into the togas and pallas they wore (not all that different from a sari). It’s possible that they knew only wild vines and the inedible wild olive, and couldn’t afford to buy wine or olive oil from the Etruscans, who by then may have had them. But I couldn’t imagine Italians without wine and olive oil. If it’s any excuse, neither could Vergil.

Image courtesy of


Thanks for Nothin’, Newsweek. And 5 Favorite Historical Fictions.

Newsweek recently featured Booker winner Hilary Mantel’s five favorite historical novels. Sadly–or happily, depending on how you look at it–I hadn’t heard of all but one of them. More books to add to the “maybe read” list!

But the magazine sort of pissed me off by saying that Mantel “elevates the field [of historical fiction] with her new book ‘Bring Up the Bodies.'”

OK, first it’s annoying to introduce a writer’s favorite books by implying she’s better than them. (Obviously, it’s Newsweek not Mantel I’m griping about.)

Second, Mantel lists “Things Fall Apart” as one of her picks. So obviously, the field needs no elevation.

Third, I can name offhand two Nobel laureates who’ve written historical fiction. So I’ll repeat: Obviously, the field needs no elevation.

Whatever. Here’s a list of some of the novels I love that happen to be historical:

  1. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
  2. “The General in His Labyrinth” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. “Away” by Amy Bloom
  4. “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
  5. “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje

The Rules

As a first-time novelist, I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of “rules” in writing.

There are no rules. Rules are meant to be broken. Make your own rules. Trust your gut.

On the other hand: Fiction writing has certain techniques–let’s admit it, rules. Learning those techniques can make one’s writing better.

On the other-other hand (I love that other-other hand): If you’ve ever been in a writing program or a writing workshop, many of the things people tell you not to do have been done before. (By very talented people, with great care, but nonetheless.)

As they say, You have to learn the rules before you can break them.

I’ve started a little project to reread books that break the rules. My goal: Find out how certain authors get away with rule-breaking.

At the moment, I’m a little over 100 pages into Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Here’s one rule Rushdie flouts: A first-person narrator can only relate the things he or she sees/hears/tastes/smells/feels. The main character, Saleem Sinai, has so far narrated more than 100 pages covering events that happened before his birth–in great detail, much more so than could be accounted for by his having heard family stories. Rushdie explains this simply: The narrator reveals that he has a supernatural ability to know everything.

Oh, of course.

Midnight’s Children is a comical, satirical, and often magical novel, and that helps Rushdie get away with his conceit of an omniscient first-person narrator. Plus, Rushdie’s book is about the birth of a nation, but it’s also about fate and the impact of history on individual lives. The point of view he chose promotes those themes perfectly.

I’ll be back with more rule-breaking from the book … In the meantime, tell me about your favorite books that “break the rules.”

‘Even as he felt his throat try to puke up his heart’

If you read the New Yorker or you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard of the magazine’s 20 Under 40 issue. I’ve been making my way through the stories, and ZZ Packer’s “Dayward” really grabbed me, perhaps because it’s historical fiction, and my novel-in-progress is also set in the past. Or perhaps because–well just because.

I’d gotten to paragraph four before I realized the story was set in the post-Civil War South (“Two years free, Lazarus was hoisting himself up a pine like a runaway”). Writers take different approaches to weaving history into their fictional works. Books like “Sea of Poppies,” and a lot of the more “popular” (excuse the scare quotes) historical fiction, pile on the historical details. I think a lot of readers, especially history buffs, like their historical fiction strong on the history. Many people like to feel they learnt new facts while also getting a good story.

Other novelists go light on the historical detail. “The Known World,” “The General in His Labyrinth,” and Packer’s New Yorker piece take this approach. Though historical setting is integral to these works, their minimalist approach to creating a historical world enables them, I think, to speak eloquently toward contemporary, even universal, themes. (Racism, poverty, and the yearning for a better life; imperialism and growing older; coming-of-age, family, and escape.)

I don’t think one approach is better than the other, but as a reader and a writer I favor the latter. When a friend’s wife heard I was writing a historical novel, she said, “You must really like history.” Um, no. I don’t love history. Don’t hate it either. But it’s a means of saying what I want to say, rather than a passion.

The beauty of Packer’s piece is how she gets into the emotions of her 15-year-old main character. Stuck up a tree, needing to save his younger sister from the vicious dogs sent after them, he thinks

It was all his fault that they were in it like this. Ever suspicious of a God who hadn’t spoken to man, woman, or child in more than a thousand years, he nevertheless sent up a pinprick-brief prayer, even as he felt his throat try to puke up his heart.

Ah, if I could write one image that vivid in my entire life, I’d be happy. Reading as a writer, I found Packer’s writing intimidatingly good. (Self-improvement resolution of the day: Turn feelings of intimidation into aspiration.) Reading as a reader, I found the story ignore-your-toddler-until-he-starts-whining-and-then-feel-annoyed-at-the-guilt-that’s-keeping-you-from-getting-to-the-end good.

It’s good to see historical fiction in the New Yorker. Not because that’s a mark of approval from the powers that be (literary historical fiction has been in vogue for quite some time now), but because I do like a good dollop of history with my fiction from time to time.