Lessons from My Reading

M. K. Theodoratus, Fantasy Writer, blogs about the books she reads--mostly fantasy and mystery authors whose books catch her eye and keep her interest. Nothing so formal as a book review, just chats about what she liked. Theodoratus also mutters about her own writing progress or ... lack of it.

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Friday, February 7, 2014

Historical Fiction Writers, Do Your Characters Live in Their World or Yours?

Fantasy writers get dissed a lot for creating massive info dumps as they create worlds for their characters to act in. I'm no different. My critique partners often say I don't have enough action in my stories.

To my mind, historical writers as a group handle the problem worse. Seems like more of them either write fluff or lead. One bunch hasn't done enough historical research or don't understand the facts they wrote down. Others layer on so many facts that their characters get lost. 

Oh, for the writer who creates a living, breathing world.

I just hit it lucky again with Vicky Alvear Shecter's young adult historical novel, Cleopatra's Moon. Yes, that Cleopatra, the seventh of her name, figures large in the book, but this novel's main character is Cleopatra Selene, her daughter. Set during the civil war that changed ancient Rome from a Republic to an Empire under Octavian, the novel is laced with politics as Cleopatra Selene and her two brothers struggle to survive after their loving home in Egypt is destroyed, but it's never dull.

Yeah, the book is well researched and draws wonderful comparisons between the civilized Egyptians with their animal-headed gods and the uncouth Romans who stole so much of their culture from the ancient Greeks. [Okay, I know the Etruscans were part of ancient Greek civilization, if not the actual refugees from the Trojan Wars lead by Aeneas, but the Romans conquered them too.] 

After their parents and older brother die, Cleopatra VII's three younger children must then navigate the corruption of Octavian's rule to survive, especially Selene who hopes to return to Egypt as queen with the help of the worshipers of Isis. Selene tries to protect her younger brothers as she tries to choose which member of Octavian's household will best help her reach her goal of becoming queen.

Shecter builds well-rounded characters. A passage from the scene where Cleopatra offers her own life for her oldest son, fathered by Julius Caesar, shows how deftly she weaves historical facts to draw a three-dimensional secondary character. "Octavianus stood and crossed his arms, a cold grin on his face. 'Very noble of you, but I need you for my Triumph. And I cannot let any blood-son of my adopted father live to contest my legacy, can I? Two Caesars are simply one too many.'"

The motivation for Octavian's actions are neatly tied up in one bit of dialog. Add to that the light airy descriptions of Alexandria and the fetid depictions of Rome, Selene's headstrong maneuvers to return to Egypt as queen, and a choice between two attractive men. You end up with a plot that twists and turns enough to create suspense even though the historical facts are well known. [Cleopatra Selene survived to become the client queen of what's now northwest Africa.]

Think I have an advantage in knowing the era over most readers since I took three years of Latin in high school as well as reading a lot of hard history over the years. Maybe more important, I've re-read I, Claudius by Robert Graves several times. Shecter's writing is awesome and well worth five stars for the way she motivates her characters, though I think she let Livia off easy.

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Question. What do you write first 

I tend to set up dialog first and then fill in the setting, descriptions, and motivations. Then, I have to go back and add my character's doing something.

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Got a surprise from the Grumpy Dragon. They've given my stories set in my alternative California worlds a tag line: "The Andor Chronicles". This is my editor/publisher's reaction when I told her that my short story, Crossings, is threatening to become a novella, which I might self-publish if she didn't mind.

I'm still waiting for the final edits for There Be Demons, but they have been promised by the end of this week. When they arrive, she's going to get another story to glance at, The Noticed One, also set in my alternate California. Even though it's darker and deals with emotional vampires, it's set in the territory and wouldn't take much revision to fit into Andor.