Thursday, October 15, 2009

The rest is history...

by Ashley Lister

I can't write historical fiction. The following examples illustrate my problems.

***

April 14th 1865, Ford's Theatre, Washington DC

John Wilkes Booth smacked Eric in the jaw. Eric went down like a sack of potatoes.

“You can't stop me now,” John Wilkes Booth declared grandly. “I'm going to go and assassinate President Abraham Lincoln!” With that said, John Wilkes Booth rushed out of the dressing room, locking the door behind him.

“Damn!” Eric thought, miserably.

Eric was still a little groggy from the blow. He got up and tried the door but it was firmly shut. If only he had a way of communicating with the president's staff, he thought desperately. If only he had some sort of telecommunication device, some sort of device that would allow him to (maybe) dial a number, and then talk to one of the president's members of staff, and give a warning that an armed man named John Wilkes Booth was on his way to the president's box intent on assassination.

Eric stopped himself from pursuing that line of thought, sure that such imagined devices were nothing more than the trickeries of speculative fiction and an overactive imagination.

From outside the stage door he heard the sound of a gunshot followed by a shrill scream...

***

I hit these sorts of problems regardless of the era in which I'm writing.

***

1601, The Globe, England

William Shakespeare stared at the broken quill and sighed heavily. “Cheap, imported piece of shit,” he muttered. “How am I supposed to finish this really good play called 'Hamlet' when these bloody quills keep snapping?”

His anger faded to a speculative mood as he wondered if there would ever be a time when, instead of having to write words in longhand, using only a quill, ink and parchment, writers would have machines with keyboards and LCD screens that had a function that allowed the backlight to reduce radioactive glare, and maybe access to some sort of huge worldwide library of information that anyone could go ogle online, whenever the need touched them. For an instant he could picture a sublime future where entire manuscripts – and more – were held in small digital drives so small they were no bigger than a man's thumb.

“Nah,” he mumbled unhappily. “That's never going to happen, is it?”

***

Perhaps it's something to do with technology? Maybe I'm a closet technophile and I rely on it so heavily that I can't move my fiction back to a period when it didn't exist?

***

Exodus (revisited)

Climbing down Mount Sinai, Moses wondered what God had been thinking. Forcing a man of his age to carry two humungous stone tablets down the side of a mountain had to flout every health and safety regulation ever written. There was the unlevel ground to consider, the risk of personal injury in being forced to carry such weight, and the fact that the instructions he had been given were tantamount to a dictatorship rather than being a democratically agreed code of practice negotiated by the leaders of the Hebrew community who were expected to adhere to these regulations.

It crossed his mind that, when he did get back to the base camp, it wasn't just the fatted calf that was likely to get slaughtered.

“Oh! Lord,” he mumbled. “Can't you hurry up and invent the internal combustion, and maybe a fork-lift truck to go with it, before I reach the bottom of this damned mountain? The weight of these stone tablets is stretching my arms. If they do much more damage I'm going to be able to scratch my athlete's foot without bending down...”

***

Maybe I went too far back in time with that one. What if I try something from the last century?

***

August, 1944, Amsterdam

Huddled with her family inside the Achterhuis, the secret annexe that kept their presence unknown to the occupying Nazi forces, Anne Frank said a silent prayer of thanks that she didn't live in a world with mobile phones, which would have an annoying habit of beeping and whistling and playing their shrill ringtones at inconvenient moments, the sound of which would be likely to alert the Nazis to where she was hiding. Admittedly, if she did live in a world with mobile phones, Anne Frank guessed that the technology would exist to put the phone on silent alert, or maybe vibrate. But she knew, like with all technological advances, the element of human interaction that came from remembering to put the phone on vibrate or silent alert would remain a key issue.

***

Which, all goes to show - I can read and enjoy historical fiction – but I can't keep my mind in the past long enough to write a story. Congratulations to all of those authors who have the tenacity to do the necessary research and recreate bygone eras. You're doing far more than I could ever hope to accomplish.

12 comments:

  1. Those examples were awesome and made me laugh for about fifteen minutes straight. A good pick me up during an extra extended nightly writing session. Thanks!

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  2. Excellent examples, Ash. I think you've hit on something that I couldn't put into words earlier in the week. When Shakespeare got frustrated, I bet he didn't mutter, "Fuck me," like many of my cops do. If I tried to write this stuff, I'd get really hung up on exactly what was available at that time period- (I guess that's called research!) but I'd never get anything written, I just know it.

    I would read these books by you, I really would. And I'd enjoy every minute. *shakes head* Anne Frank and the cell phone. LMAO! And Moses certainly could have called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he had a legitimate complaint!

    Thanks for the chuckle Ash.

    ~ Jenna

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  3. Elise,

    I'm glad my incompetence made you laugh :-)

    Seriously, I hope your extra extended nightly writing session has gone well.

    Thanks for reading & responding,

    Ash

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  4. Jenna,

    I'm with you. I find it difficult enough to write contemporary stuff as so much modern technology has connotations that reflect on the character. A Rolex is a sign of affluence. A fake Rolex is a sign of a character who wants to appear affluent. Trying to impose those subtle details on antiquated technology is something that goes beyond my abilities.

    However, I do enjoy reading it when it's done well.

    Thanks for reading & responding,

    Ash

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  5. Still chuckling. I so agree with you! If I can't have my cell phone (Poor Anne) as well as health care...etc, I ain't playing. Hehehe!

    A lot of this boils down to interest. If we can't in some way identify and be interested in our work, I'm not sure we'd carry on writing. Hmm, that was VERY difficult to type. Maybe we would, but it'd be very bad stuff.

    Oh, I'd also read these if you wrote them in the comedic style you've shown.

    Fun post, Ash, thanks so much.

    Hugs

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  6. My dear Ashley, what you need to be writing is ALTERNATIVE HISTORY, where you can muck about with things like this. You obviously have a talent for it!

    Good post, and loved the stories. My kids have no idea why I'm laughing ;)

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  7. Hi Ashley!

    Really good. Especially Shakespeare. Imagine what he could have done with some online writing courses.

    You could always go the Harry Turtledove route and write alternative histories too. Or steam punk.

    Anyway, this was fun.

    Garce

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  8. Hello, Ashley,

    Now that I've stopped laughing... Brilliant post! Helen beat me to it. I was going to suggest that perhaps you might address your considerable writing talents to science fiction.

    I do remember one historical story you wrote, however, set in the Victorian era. Somebody's hand - "Victoria's Hand"? Anyway, it was excellent, one of my favorite stories in the collection. It didn't focus on the historical aspect, but I didn't find anything to pull me out of the time period, either.

    Giggling,
    Lisabet

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  9. Jude,

    You've hit the nail on the head. Author interest is paramount. I think you and I are both in love with contemporary technology and the idea of a world without mobiles or emails holds little interest - certainly not enough to commit to writing regularly in the genre.

    However, as I said before, kudos to those who can manage this task because they produce some outstanding work (and your own glimpse of fin de siecle New Orleans proves that).

    Thanks for reading and responding,

    Ash

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  10. Helen,

    Alternative History? OK, here I am, claiming to be in love with all things contemporary, and I've never even heard of 'altenrative history' as a genre. You do know, I'm going to spend a weekend googling and learning all about this, don't you?

    Thanks for reading and responding,

    Ash

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  11. Garce,

    Imagine Shakespeare with a laptop, wifi and broadband access. He would have been able to live in Stratford (sorting out his relationship with Ann Hathaway) yet still write his plays and email them down to the London theatres.

    Now that would have been a 'brave new world.'

    Thanks for reading and responding,

    Ash

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  12. Lisabet,

    I'd forgotten about Victoria's Hand. That was set in the Victorian period. However, even when I was writing that piece, I always thought that Victoria's attitudes were anachronistic in that she was very much a 21st century woman with her views on equality and sexual liberation.

    I also wrote a story (published in Mitzi's 'Wicked') about the Marquis de Sade trying to pitch his first novel to an agent. But again, instead of being 100% faithful to the time period, the Marquis was an unworldly character and the (female) agent was a sexually dominant predator who seduced him and told him to 'sex up' his manuscript.

    The 'alternative history' route does seem tempting since I can't seem to play by the rules when my writing goes back to a different time period.

    Thanks for reading and responding,

    Ash

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