Helping an Old Friend Move

BookmanWay, way, way back in the day, I was a free-lance ad writer/fiction writer living in Southern California. And any day of the week, I could go down to Acres of Books, a Long Beach institution, and browse the shelves. I particularly remember the huge, cavernous back room of that used bookstore that would (or probably should have!) been closed by the Fire Dept. It was also rumored that Ray Bradbury would occasionally stop in to browse too, but I never saw him there. Apparently, they kept about 1 million titles in stock at any given moment! And had no air conditioning! What a magical place!!!

Acres of Books was, lamentably, closed down permanently in 2008. {NOTE TO SELF: If I ever get super-rich, I’m going to buy that building and re-open that store!} But it lives on in YouTube videos and the hearts of its old patrons (myself included). But there was, and is, another used bookstore I would go to, not too far down the road: Bookman.

I have also spent time patrolling Bookman, searching for lost classics and just whiling away a solid afternoon browsing their huge collection. Located a few miles away in Orange, Bookman (surprise! surprise!) is now having trouble surviving. In fact, they’re being forced to move (higher rent maybe?) to a new location nearby.

But here’s the good news: They have set up a GoFundMe page to help with the move. This writer has already donated to the move so that we can keep “one of the last true ‘brick and mortar’ used book stores in Orange County” going. 223 people have already joined me, but they are less than half way to meeting their goal. So, PLEASE, PLEASE, consider making a small donation (even $5 will do!) to this worthy cause. And if you have social media accounts, please amplify and spread the word!

This writer will give you a heart-felt “thank you” for your donation and next time I’m at Bookman (fingers crossed), whiling away another afternoon among the books, I’ll know you all are one of the reasons it’s still here.

Until Next Time,

Darius


PS… This article on Ray Bradbury’s last visit to Acres of Books is a real heart-breaker. In fact, I couldn’t read it to the end. But I’m posting here in the hope that you do.

Key quote:

“I can get a complete education in this bookstore. I wouldn’t have to go to a school. All the books that I need, I’d pull off the shelf, one after another, I’d open them up and there I would be. I come to this book store for the revelations of myself and I will find me in this bookstore.”

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How to Write Better Historical Fiction—In Four Easy Steps

Right now, I’m writing a piece which blends historical fiction and fantasy fiction in a historical setting. I’m hoping you might find some of the advice below useful, whether you’re hoping to write literary-fiction or genre-fiction in a historical setting.

Crusade Number 4

Today, I’ll give you four easy steps I used to make my historical settings richer, deeper and more true-to-life. It’s those little details that you use in world-building which can make a big difference and can really wrap your readers up in the world you’ve created.

(SIDE NOTE: Oddly enough, your humble blogger here, has a college degree in…History! Cue: Gasps by my followers. So, I like to think the following is (semi)-expert advice.)

Here are my Four Steps to Writing Better Historical Fiction…


1. Pick a Date and Place
This is the easy part. Or should be. Once you have a character in mind. You need to set about finding a time for them to live in. Now, this all kind of coalesces at the same time usually, I get that. But once you have someone in mind you have to start really focusing in on specific dates and places.

For example, in my latest story, “The Number Thief,” I chose my character Yusuf and I knew he lived in 13th century Muslim Spain. Then, I focused on the date 1236 and specifically Cordoba. Bam! I had a date and a place.

2. Gather and Read Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are books looking back at a time period. That is, history not written during the time period itself. They are great for giving you an overview, the total landscape of the time. They’re an essential first step to getting your bearings and starting to understand what actually happened. But they shouldn’t be your final step.

So, getting back to my example of Spain in 1236…Some of the good examples of secondary sources for the period are:

In each one of these books a modern scholar looks back and gives their take on a certain time and place. But one of the big drawbacks is that they’re including their own interpretation and point of view, which leads us to…

3. Gather and Read Primary Sources
Now that you have the lay of the land, it’s time to dive into what the people of the time actually thought and experienced. You need to read primary sources, those things written at that time by the actual players in history.

And this is where, I find, you get the real insights. Historians really do a good job of bringing things together and explaining larger trends, but you need the actual players in these historical dramas to explain their inner motivations and desires. And to us, as writers, that’s what is really important! That’s what gives these characters the breath of life—the yearnings and fears which animate and drive them.

What really makes someone want to go on a Crusade? Or join a jihad in opposition to a Crusade? Or embark on a risky commercial venture trading goods across a dangerous piratical-infested sea? Or give everything up to join a convent or become a wandering mystic? Well, thankfully, we have written records from people who did just that.

So again, Spain in 1236…Here are some of the primary sources I’ve used to get me into the mentality of that time:

  • The Song of the Cid by anonymous (Great for getting the mentality of a Spanish crusader and freebooter of the Reconquista!)
  • The Ring of the Dove by ibn Hazm (Great insights into the luxurious court life of Muslim Spain)
  • The Proofs of Prophecy by Abu Hatim al-Razi (A debate between two Muslim philosophers of the time is priceless for what I’m writing! I could almost cut-and-paste the dialogue here—but did not!).

There you go! Your primary sources should give you great insights into your time period from the people who lived it.

4. Capture Your Notes
As you’re going, you should be marking up passages, highlighting things and making mental  notes. (I do!). But then, you have to collect all these notes together and drop them into your piece somehow.

Essentially, there are two ways to do this. First, you can create a separate physical notebook or a Word document. Or you can do what I do, which is simply pepper some of these details into your working outline, as appropriate. And then recall and remember useful bits as you write. The bottom line is that you  have to become a student of that time period. If you’re reading all the right materials, certain important points will stick out and seem to  raise their hands (“Pick me! Pick me!”) at just the right point in your narrative.  Then, you just have to put them in.

For example, through my readings, I learned that the Republic of Pisa had a governing council. This council had the power to vote and approve certain measures. As I looked for a way to wrap up “The Number Thief,” I knew having the last scene where they passed judgment would be perfect. So, I wrote the last scene to incorporate them. It turned out great!

I have also found creating a simple chronology of the time period helps you to not get lost. You can also combine fictional elements into this chronology, if that helps.


That’s it for today! Four easy steps to help you improve your stories which use an historical setting. I know this one is a bit esoteric, but I hope someone out there finds it useful!

That’s all for now. Until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

El Cid’s Infinite Loop

So, lately, I spend a lot of time writing and editing. And doing a little research on top of that. The stuff I’m writing now follows a thread and a character (Yusuf) who first appeared in The Ghul of Yazd, a short story I wrote on a whim. That character lives in medieval Islamic Spain, Cordoba, to be precise.

El Cid

I’m still writing pieces in this vein, so I do a lot of research on 12th century Spain. I read secondary sources (meaning historians looking back at that time), but more and more I’m delving into primary sources (pieces written at the time). I will get more into this primary/secondary divide later, but for now I will only say this: If you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy, the real insights come from primary sources. They’re the only thing that will get you in the mindset of the people who lived all those years ago. Their motivations,  hopes and fears. And as a writer, that’s what you really need to know to breathe life into your characters.

One interesting thing I came across in my research was the personage and fiction of El Cid, the great Christian warrior of medieval Spain who became a national myth. El Cid is not my focus at all, but The Song of the Cid comes from that time period. So I thought, why not read it?

And here’s the most interesting thing: I cracked it open and it begins with El Cid being betrayed at the court of the Castilian king and sent into exile.

They spurred their horses, let the reins hang low,
To their right, leaving Vivar, they saw a hooded crow,
But as they reached Burgos it flew to their left.
My Cid shrugged his shoulders and shook his head:
“Let it be a good sign, Alvar Fanez, for now we’re exiles.”

They ride on into the next town, but everyone shuts the doors and goes inside.

My Cid, Ruy Diaz, rode into Burgos.
His sixty men carried spears, hung with banners.
Men and women came out when they appeared;
Merchants and their wives leaned from their windows, staring
Weeping, overcome with sorrow.
And from their lips, all of them, fell the same prayer:
”Oh God, what a wonderful servant, if only he had a decent Master!”

Sound familiar yet? The horsemen ride on through the town, but the people are afraid to act.

They would have been glad to ask him in, but no one dared;
Don Alfonso, the king, was far too angry.
He’d sent the city a notice, received the night before,
Sealed in dramatic passion, and urgent:
My Cid, Ruy Diaz, was to be turned away,
Given nothing. Whoever dared to disobey
Would lose whatever they owned, their eyes would be torn from their heads.
And their bodies and souls would be lost forever.

Right about here it hit me: “Where have I heard this before?” And I realized that this was, essentially, the setup of every cowboy movie I had ever seen: A just and honest man has been done some injustice. He is cast out physically and/or metaphorically from his home. He has taken his horse to the next town where he will seek to right the wrong. But the townsfolk there, though they support him in their hearts, are afraid to do so.

This is almost exactly the plot of the classic High Noon (yeah, its cliché but you should all watch that Cold War classic!). And is similar to the plot for The Magnificent Seven and many, many other classic cowboy movies. In fact, the opening of A Fistful of Dollars, is not too far from the start of The Song of the Cid.

Now, a lot has been written about archetypes and the collective subconscious and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And the BBC has boiled all stories EVER WRITTEN down to six basic plots. Sheesh!

But this is what struck me the most about El Cid: Here’s a radically different culture than ours: medieval Spain. With a completely different political/economic/social/cultural system than ours. And yet the first pages of that story could almost be copied verbatim and used as the start to a cowboy or science fiction or adventure movie today.

I guess as a writer that tells me that these tropes, these structures, these myths tap something deep inside us and don’t change much over time. This is why Gilgamesh, the man who wanted immortality, still touches us. Why Ulysses, who just wants to get home, moves us. Why Arjuna, throwing down his bow and refusing to fight his own kin, unsettles us still. And why a Spanish knight, seeking to simply right the wrongs he suffered at the hands of his enemies at court (in modern parlance, “at the office”), is so moving, 800 years later.

So, note to Writer Self: KEEP IT SIMPLE. The same stories that spoke to people a thousand years ago, speak to people today. Great ideas are important, yes, they always will be. But sometimes, in the pursuit of the latest idea or stylistic innovation, we lose sight of simple, good storytelling. Those primal things (injustice, longing for home, family, the desire to leave something behind after we’re gone) are what really drive human beings. And what drives human beings is what drives fictional characters. And what drives characters is what drives great stories…

Something to think about…

Until next time,

Darius