Posts Tagged ‘historical novels’

Digging up history for a historical novel

April 21, 2022

How far in the past does a novel need to take place for it to be considered “historical fiction?” That question came up recently in an online writing discussion group that I follow, and the answers were both varied and revealing.

Varied: Some people suggested a fixed amount of time, such as fifty years in the past. Others suggested it simply needs to be distant enough that many readers didn’t experience the era. Still others offered specific criteria: Before cellphones, or before computers, or before the most recent war….

And revealing: For some of us, it was boggling to think that parts of our own lives—the 1960s, the ’70s, maybe even 9/11 ?—might now be shelved with historical fiction. 

Historical fiction… isn’t that Ken Follett writing about medieval cathedrals? Not me shopping for bell bottom jeans as a teenager in Greenwich Village! Am I now as antique as a Gothic cathedral?

Nothing says “historical fiction” like an 1,104-page novel about a cathedral

With the new novel I’m starting, though, there’s no question that it’s historical. It’s set in the 1600s in the Jewish communities of Europe.

And that’s requiring a level of research beyond anything I’ve done before.

My non-fiction book on U.S. girls’ schools certainly required historical research—lots of time in school archives—but nothing from before the early 1800s. All the sources were in English, and the stories took place in a world that was different from mine yet recognizable.

My forthcoming fantasy novel has characters from the deep past, such as pre-colonial Africa and the edges of the Roman Empire, but those are all secondary figures. The main character is from 21st century San Francisco: I’ve walked the streets she walks and eaten the burritos she eats. Though I had to research those other characters, I only needed enough for brief walk-ons—not enough to carry an entire book.

With this new project, I need to know 16th century life in the lands we now call Germany and Italy and Turkey. I need to know how Jews and others dressed, what their homes looked like, what they ate. I need to know how their streets smelled and sounded. I need to know how they got from one place to another.

How a Jewish woman in Istanbul might have dressed in 1574, from “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” (published by Golem Santa Galerisi)

That last question has preoccupied me for several weeks. My character travels from Hamburg to Istanbul. But how? Does she go by land, sea, or some combination? What is her exact route? Would she have ridden in a coach or a wagon, and, if so, what did vehicles from that era look like? What did ships from that era look like? How many passengers on a merchant ship and where did they sleep? How many miles per day would her coach or ship have travelled? How did Jewish voyagers interact with Christians during their travels? And so on. 

Images of ships from a 17th century Haggadah

Yes, it’s fiction. Which means I can make everything up: There is no single right answer. But some answers are more plausible than others. I need to learn enough about travel logistics of that era to make her journey believable and historically accurate.

I don’t want to be like some 25th century writer recreating the year 2022 and saying that the heroine flew from California to Paris in an hour and a half!

The 1600s are what historians consider the “early modern era” of Europe. Because of developments like the printing press, there are more written documents available from this period than from prior centuries. But photography hadn’t yet been invented. Unlike cathedrals and palaces, few “typical” Jewish homes still exist with their 17th century form and furnishings. And while I’ve found some artistic depictions of 17th century ports and cities, they are far less numerous than, say, in the 19th century when every young painter aspired to do a Grand Tour of Europe.

So this is challenging. But it’s also a great treasure hunt. The subterranean stacks of U.C. Berkeley’s main library are one of my favorite places. I’m finding treasures such as Alfred Rubens’s oversized A History of Jewish Costume. (It weighs almost four pounds.) Or a history of coaches and carriages first published in 1877. Or a recent book by a Brown University professor on “the great Jewish refugee crisis of the 17th century.” 

A History of Jewish Costume

I slogged up the stairs from the stacks this week lugging about 15 pounds of books. (Rubens’s tome wasn’t even in that batch!) It felt like physically unearthing past centuries and raising them into the afternoon Bay Area light.

It’s strange to be writing a novel where I will spend a year or more at work before typing a single sentence of story—before I even know my character’s name—but I need to understand the backdrop in order to figure out what happens to her.

Very occasionally I wonder, What did I get myself into? But mostly I’m having a lot of fun.

In praise of Philippa Gregory

August 25, 2010

This week I tore through the newest novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Philippa Gregory.

A lot of other people apparently did too. Her new book The Red Queen started its published life in the number two slot on the N.Y. Times Book Review list of hardcover best-sellers, just below the third Stieg Larsson book. Meanwhile, her prior novel The White Queen is number 22 on the Times’ paperback trade best-seller list.

Gregory certainly has sales. But I don’t think she’s gotten the literary attention she deserves. Like Stephen King for so many years, I suspect that her popularity leads critics to assume that her work is hackneyed or formulaic.

But it’s not. 

Gregory does a superb job at personalizing history, writing about the sweeping conflicts of the Plantagenet and Tudor courts through the eyes of women. If you gave me a traditional history text listing all the Henrys and Edwards and Richards who took the throne, and the Warwicks and Nevilles and Buckinghams who plotted against each other, my eyes would glaze over. But when Gregory carries you into the life of a young girl in court circles, whose marriage(s) are part of those power struggles, it all becomes vivid and makes sense. 

Her books are history, not romance, despite their popularity among romance fans. They’re all about “who gets the throne” rather than “who gets the man.” 

But they are history through women’s eyes. She shows the terror of being married off for political reasons at the age of 14, the frustration of being an ambitious woman stuck in a rural estate during times of upheaval, the crushing pressure of being a queen unable to produce a male heir to the throne. 

Gregory and her publisher never use the “f word.” But her books are deeply feminist in that they call attention to the lives and experiences of women, which have too often been ignored by male chroniclers of the great and powerful. 

She’s not a showy writer. She’s not someone who stops you in your tracks with the brilliance of an unexpected metaphor. But she’s psychologically nuanced and has an eye for small details, both of historical setting and human interactions. For me, a good historical novel needs grit and garbage as well as gowns and armor. 

Here is Gregory writing in The Red Queen about 14-year-old Margaret Beaufort, newly married for political reasons to a distant cousin in a castle in the hinterlands of Wales:

I flush and look down at my plate, heaped with overcooked and unrecognizable bits of game. They hunt better than they farm in Wales, and every meal brings some skinny bird or beast to the table in butchered portions. I long for fast days when we have only fish, and I impose extra fast days on myself to escape the sticky mess of dinner. Everyone stabs what they want with their dagger from a common plate, and sops up the gravy with a hunk of bread. They wipe their hands on their breeches and their mouths on their coat cuffs. Even at the high table we are served our meat on tranchers of bread that are eaten up at the end of the meal. There are no plates laid on the table. Napkins are obviously too French; they count it their patriotic duty to wipe their mouths on their sleeves, and they all bring their own spoons as if they were heirlooms, tucked inside their boots. (P. 29)

Now, with The Red Queen, Gregory’s done something new (for her) and impressive. She’s built the entire novel around an unsympathetic, power-hungry character who shows no self-awareness. Fourteen-year-old Margaret’s childish piety and family loyalty harden into an unquestioning conviction that God has destined her son for the throne of England. She’s kind of a 16th century English version of an Al-Qaeda partisan. If Margaret Beaufort didn’t murder the two little princes in the palace, according to Gregory, she sure as heck would have done so if she had the chance.

And Gregory pulls it off. I liked Margaret Beaufort, and I was appalled by Margaret Beaufort. I kept reading to see if she would triumph, and also with a horrific fascination to see the train wreck that would happen with her triumph. It’s not an easy thing to build a successful novel around a character whom neither you nor your readers like.

But she does it. 

I would love to see a New York Times Magazine profile of Gregory, like the ones they’ve done of Margaret Drabble and James Patterson.

Cruise ships to the Jewish past

April 8, 2010

There is no frigate like a book To take us lands away

-Emily Dickinson

Over the past few months, I’ve started seeking out historical novels with a Jewish theme. I’m defining “historical” arbitrarily as pre-20th century: No Holocaust books. No Israel books. No bildungsromans a la Call It Sleep set on the Lower East Side. 

I’m looking for books set in a past that is too distant for journalism, too distant for handed-down family stories.

I’m looking for novels that will bring to life parts of Jewish history that I barely know. 

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a wonderful example. I read it years ago when it was just becoming a

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

word-of-mouth bestseller. A reinterpretation of part of Genesis from a woman’s perspective, it tells the story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Diamant paints a vivid picture of life in tribal Canaan, including the red tent where women secluded themselves during their menstrual periods. She’s written other novels since then – including a new one called Day After Night about Jewish refugee women who immigrate illegally to Palestine in the 1940s – but none, in my opinion, as good as The Red Tent

Some others I’ve read in the past year or so: 

  • David Liss’ economic mysteries – Jewish protagonists in early mercantile Europe (1600s to early 1700s). I love these! Three of Liss’ novels feature a former boxer named Benjamin Weaver who has a love-hate relationship with the Jewish community that he grew up in, and a wonderful noir-type outsider’s perspective on the aristocratic ballrooms and fetid slums of London. The first novel in this series is called A Conspiracy of Paper. In addition to the British series, he  has a novel called The Coffee Trader set among the Portuguese Jewish commodity traders of Amsterdam.
  • People of the Book. Geraldine Brooks wrote a non-fiction New Yorker piece in 2007 about the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was written and illustrated in Spain in the 1300s and amazingly survived civil wars, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain etc. With People of the Book, she uses fiction to imagine the people who might have created and preserved the Haggadah. I’ve loved Brooks’ other non-Jewish novels – March and Year of Wonders – and this one was interesting historically but didn’t quite work for me as a story.
  • Rashi’s Daughters by Maggie Anton. I was so excited to stumble across this – the first book in a trilogy about the women surrounding the famous 11th century Talmudic scholar Rashi. “Another Red Tent!” I thought – but I was disappointed. There’s lots of detail about daily life in the Jewish quarter of a medieval French town, but very little plot. Basically Rashi’s oldest daughter grows up, studies Torah with him, gets married: Things move forward without any narrative arc, no driving conflict, no build-up to a climax. Plus the writing was pedestrian. I didn’t like it enough to look for the sequels.
  • The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia. Another one that gave me high hopes – Jews! Prague (where Sam and I are going on vacation this summer)! Sixteenth-century political intrigue! Murder! But alas, another disappointment. The lead character is a young Talmudic scholar, and Wishnia did a good job in integrating Talmudic references into his thoughts. But I felt there were gaps in his portrayal: I didn’t quite understand his past or what was going on with him internally. And the murder-solving part of the book seemed to involve a lot of rushing hither and thither, without much ingenuity.
  • As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg. Rabbi Steven Chester, with whom I’m doing my Bat Mitzvah study, calls

    As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg

    this the best Jewish historical novel ever. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I just finished it and really enjoyed it. It’s set in the rabbinic era of Jewish history – the early 2nd century when Rome occupied Palestine but Jewish legal-religious structures such as the Sanhedrin were still functioning. The lead character is a young rabbi who is torn between faith and reason, between his Jewish roots and Greek philosophy. I must admit this period of history had been a grey fog to me – I’ve never really known what people meant when they talked about “the sages” or the Sanhedrin or people like Rabbi Akiva – and As a Driven Leaf really made this much more visible and clear. The author, Milton Steinberg, was a brilliant American rabbi who died in 1950 at the age of 47 and had a pulpit at the Park Avenue Synagogue, across the street from where I grew up in New York.

That’s all for now! I just ordered a thriller called The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (set in 1506 Spain), and am trying not to set my hopes too high. I’ll give you a full report once it arrives and I’ve read it.

How about you – do you have favorite literary frigates that have carried you happily into the seas of Jewish history?

Or maybe a Titanic that you wish you’d never boarded?