The world I built

 

Fact, historical fiction, & fantasy, oh my!

It might be because I grew up in a land where history is still lurking behind a sheer veil, always present and within the reach of not so much individual as a tribal memory, that I look on it a way not easy for a Western mindset to understand.

To me and so many people of my blood and ancestry, history isn’t just a dead account of ancient battles and who whacked whom when. It’s WHY the whacking took place. It’s WHO did the whacking and WHO got whacked. In my head, history isn’t a dead letter, it lives. I can close my eyes and BE those people who once walked the ground on which I took my own first toddler steps. My umbilical is tied back to something greater and vaster than just a single gentle mother

I am a child of my people and of my past, part of something much bigger than myself, a mosaic in which I am just a single tessera but which, seen as a whole, makes for a huge complex picture of a world.

I can close my eyes and BE those people who once walked the ground on which I took my own first toddler steps. My umbilical is tied back to something greater and vaster than just a single gentle mother.

Hold that thought for a moment, and let me step back a little here.

The Secrets Of Jin Shei By HoshiakaWhen I wrote the novel, “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, it was not my own historical background that I referenced, but that particular time frame and setting, a land inspired by Imperial China which I called Syai and it became the foundation of an entire alternate world.

I wrote it as historical fantasy – as a sweep of history which takes place in an imaginary country – and I succeeded so well that I have been rapped on the knuckles for being “wrong” about some historical detail despite there being no historical detail to be wrong about. What this said to me is that I got the SENSE of history right, a sense of this being “real” in some aspect of it, that people feel that it has been rendered with enough verisimilitude for them to be able to believe that it (or something very like it) must have REALLY happened.

I fast-forwarded my story 400 years and wrote “Embers of Heaven”, which is set in the same land as “The Secrets of Jin-shei” but after four centuries have wrought their changes on the people and the social fabric of that country. A lot can change in four hundred years, and much – too much! – did change, here; This second book was still inspired by China but this was the China of the Cultural Revolution, much harsher, much more visceral than the first novel set in Syai – and yet, and yet, “Embers” has some of the most lyrical passages I have ever written, some of the most tender scenes of love and caring and passion that I have ever conceived. Set against the harshness of the milieu, these scenes shine.

But more than that – I extended the geography of this world. There are other countries in this world I am creating, just as there are countries which are not China in this our own familiar world. I introduced Ellas, which to anyone reading the scenes set in it can simply be nothing other than what maps in OUR world is Greece.

And having established the fact that my imagined world is is a complete world, I then wrote a third book set there. “Empress” is a historical fantasy just as lush and lyrical as the previous two, but this time set in the glory days of the empire of Byzantium, a story based on the immortal tale of the relationship between Emperor Justinian and the Hippodrome-bred actress and courtesan who became the Empress Theodora. If you pay attention you will notice a tiny detail in “Empress” – there is a caravan which is preparing to set off for exotic lands far away to pursue trade in silks and spices… a land called… Syai.

I am drawing a map here.

Six hundred and fifty years after the events of “Empress”, the empire which I called Visant still exists – it is old now, and rotting from the inside, and ripe for all kinds of disasters and outside influences… and I come full circle here.

Go back to that first paragraph. Read it again. Read it carefully. Because here is what I am writing about now: a historical fantasy about 14th century Balkans, my own history, my own past, rich rich rich with story. The novel is already well wrapped in the layers of history and of drama, but here’s the thing.

When I wrote the Jin-shei novels, editors and booksellers sometimes INSISTED that these things were pure historical fiction, which they weren’t, and marketing them as such tended to doom them because the history buffs got annoyed when I committed “faux pas” atrocities against known and accepted historical fact. And the fantasy buffs who would have loved those liberties, never found them because they didn’t look for this book where it was shelved, with “real” historical fiction.

When I first offered “Empress” for publication, I was given to understand that it would be considered much more acceptable if I went back and reversed my careful filing off of the serial numbers and retold the story as a straight historical fiction, without inventing an empire called Visant or an Emperor and Empress called Maxentius and Callidora, or a religion which I coldly and deliberately created so as to be parallel but NOT identical to Christianity.

I declined. This wasn’t THAT world, our world, the real world. This was a parallel world of my own creation where I had the freedom to follow what history I needed to but then to people it with characters and incidents and events and faith and social constructs that I required to tell the story that I wanted to tell.

Writer Bernard Cornwell was asked in a recent interview whether he saw the boundary between historical fiction and historical fantasy as being a blurred line or clear and distinct, and he said that he believed it to be totally distinct, that writers of fantasy have “a freedom which an historical novelist doesn’t enjoy… A fantasy writer might well ground his or her work in a real historical background, but they have no duty to that history. The historical novelist does!”

Cornwell is right.

It isn’t that I don’t feel as though I have a “duty” to history. I do. But I also feel the necessity to be able to break from the “real” history if I need to make a change to suit my story – in “Empress” I took two real historical incidents and I reversed the order in which they occurred because that was the way MY story fell out better, and it worked just fine; I also melded a little bit of two historical characters of the era, the scholarly bookish Justinian and the great general Belisarius, in order to create the character of Maxentius who would be a little of both and his own man who just happens to be in the shoes that a “real” historical character might have occupied in the annals of our own accepted historical record.

Now I have been urged to write my current novel – the 14th-century Balkans one – as a “straight” historical, because honestly, I couldn’t invent some of the stuff that was going on back then and there seems to be plenty of material in the raw history for me to play with – but it’s already bigger than me, and this story is part of the larger body of alt-history which I am building for that other world in which I write, and this is a part of the history of THAT world as much as my own forebears were part of the literal historical 14th century Balkan backdrop.

I NEED to mythologize and to render larger-than-life. I need the freedom of that empty canvas, not one already painted with a backdrop to which I absolutely have to hew. I need the space for my mind’s wings to spread out, for my imagination to soar, for my vision to see things that may or may not have been “Real”.

You might say that it would be all too easy to do something like that in a 14th century setting because primary sources are few and often iffy. That is true; researching details behind this story turned up stuff in the crevices of the stuff I already did know, osmotically, as part of my upbringing, stuff that astonished me and is almost too hard to believe. Bur a lot of such stuff is directly contradicted by other period accounts. I can literally pick the history I WANT to be true and I wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s still constraining. I don’t know these characters, these real characters, well enough to write their true motivations, and I balk at the idea of trying.

Make them semi-mythological, however, and I can get inside their minds and their hearts and their souls, I can imagine what they thought and they believed, and I can make something true spring up to hold and support them. That is my gift, the creation of worlds; if I use a historical base, a sourdough starter if you will, to bake the bread of my tale that is something that I use as a foundation – and what I create from that starter, from that foundation, is something that I have made from raw material mixed with pure imagination. It is what I love about creating stories like these.

There are many ways that history is taught “wrong” in our schools. Our children are never made to feel as though history is a part of them, only that it is a boring record of What Went Before and has nothing to do with their here and now. Who cares who was king when and which battle was fought where or who won, not when those facts are something that you have to learn by rote and regurgitate on command as a litany of “facts” as dull and dry and dusty as ashes. Our students are never shown that history as the fire that preceded those ashes, are never made to feel as though they themselves belonged in it.

The way *I* was raised – it is easy to reach out and lift the veil and look upon the years and the centuries that had gone before as being just someone else’s present, things that are happening to people JUST LIKE US but simply of another place or time. History can be a huge unifier for the human race because we are all living it, different parts of it that make the whole. Instead, it’s been as divisive as anything can be. History is iconically written by the “winners” of those battles which the children are forced to learn and remember; the “losers” of those battles find their voices stilled, silenced, erased.

There are many stones in the landscape of history which would reveal incredible narratives if they were permitted to be turned, and what lies underneath them to be examined.

This is the basic constraint of what we consider to be historical “fact”, and therefore also of what is strictly considered to be historical “fiction”, a novelized account of something that really happened and is on record as having happened. Because historical fiction that is true to historical fact is inevitably only true to that accepted account, the “winners” account. Deviate one iota from what is “known” to be true, and you’re already writing fantasy, because there is no way any more to document that other narrative that you want to tell. The loser’s side. Because of the silence in which it is wrapped.

But all the stories need to be told. And that’s why I choose to wrap my truths into the silver tissue paper of lies which is called “fantasy” by some. Because my stories aren’t a regurgitation of history-as-was. They are a retelling of an emotional and empathetic and wide-eyed greater truth – the things that didn’t “really” happen out there, but “really, REALLY” happened in here, inside the human heart and mind and vision. The stories that will resonate because on a fundamental level they are truer than the truth. That is the gift of fantasy. That is the world in which I choose to walk.

Watch for the latest installment of the history of my world – coming soon.

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ALL fiction is fantasy

Alma’s Bookshelf: “The Secrets of Jin-shei”

One of a series of essays on writing referencing my own books for examples

I spend half my life living in dreams, in alternate realities.

That might sound bizarre to some, even verging on pure lunacy – but it applies to every writer of fiction out there. Whether you’re writing contemporary thrillers, historical bodice-rippers, science fiction or pure fairy tale, you face one simple truth – whatever the world you’re in, it’s a world created by YOU.

There are places out there that feel like they have been torn out of the gritty gray reality of our own workaday world, where you can smell the smog in the streets and hear the squeal of brakes. It’s the kind of pure “reality” on which a lot of writers have built careers.

And then there are those, like me, who like to just make it all up.

The very first book I had published was a series of fairy tales, literary stories modeled rather more on the emotional and subtle and almost mystical fairy tales as told by Oscar Wilde. But every single one of those stories had one thing in common. They were set like tiny gems into a setting of their own particular world, a setting I took pains to build and create, a setting in which I lovingly breathed life into every leaf and every rose petal and every drop of sea foam I wrote about.

Worldbuilding is one of the most exhilarating, heady things that it is given to a writer to do. The process of building a world – star by star, tree by tree, shimmering piece of magic by shimmering piece of magic – is unsurpassed by anything that it is possible for the human mind to achieve.

True fantasy is extremely hard to do well, because you cannot rely on the familiar scaffolding of the world that your reader is already familiar with in order to tell your tale. The setting of a fantasy has to be so strong, so unbreakable, so seamless, that it is invisible – much like the real world is in a contemporary novel – and leaves its readers, at the completion of the book, waking up as if from a lovely dream.

But there is another kind of fantasy, one which I value even more highly, “historical” fantasy – the kind that magically invokes an otherness that is almost painfully familiar.

Historical fantasy is the kind that you read knowing, just knowing, that this IS in fact your own world… only different. The kind of book where the author has done a LOT of research into the details of his or her chosen period, and although choices were made for the sake of the story that may not match perfectly with the original historical events, those events are recreated in such a manner that the provenance of the fantasy itself is immediately warmly familiar.

The Secrets of Jin-shei coverWhen I began “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, this is the kind of book that I was writing. I took the rich tapestry of Imperial China, and I unraveled it thread by thread, and then re-wove it into a different world, a different China, my China, one that never really existed – but which owed everything to the time and place of its inspiration and which breathed the same mystical oriental air.

I researched meticulously – but this is not the kind of research that is done for a purely historical novel and aimed at checking facts. I was not going to exactly recreate the facts, I wanted to re-create the sense, the feel, the atmosphere.

My China, a land I called Syai, shared a lot of things with ancient China – not least a religion based on the Tao, and an Imperial court full of beautiful wives and concubines dressed in scarlet brocades and jeweled embroidery.

Most importantly of all, my central premise – the secret women’s language I called “jin ashu” and the bond of sisterhood known as “Jin-shei” that gives the novel its name — is real. There is a women’s language passed from mother to daughter over generations which has survived to the present day in this magical form, although the last of the women who learned the language, nushu, organically at their mothers’ knee are now almost gone. There was a sisterhood, known as “Jiebai Zhimei”, which sometimes linked women in strong bonds of friendship and which had its roots in this secret language that the women shared.

But Syai, my ‘China’, is NOT the real China.

In the real historical China women did not have the kind of power that the women in Syai do. In the real China the women’s language and the secret sisterhood had considerably less global influence than portrayed in the Syai of my novel. I took the reality, unraveled it, re-wove it into a fantasy cloth rich with myth and legend and tradition and history – but only the memory of reality.

Syai is not China, any more than a painting is a precise likeness of a photograph.

When I first submitted the novel for publication, the response was that it was something that “transcended fantasy” – and the novel was subsequently sold to a publisher far more mainstream in outlook than I might have expected it to go to. Reviews have stated that the book is a “genre-buster” and have called it “mainstream fantasy”. It has been published in 13 languages.

And yet I was afraid that there would be people out there who would inevitably pick it up as a “pure” historical novel, and who would shred the culture and milieu of Syai on the basis of the historical inaccuracies on which has been built. Indeed, that happened. For example, one reader wrote in her blog:

I need another recommendation for a good book. The Secrets of Jin-shei turned out to be a pretty good book being female-centered and all. but I still don’t agree with how the author changed so many things with the Chinese culture … I can’t help comparing it to Memoirs of a Geisha…(I felt)l like I was enriched with the Japanese culture… after reading Secrets I couldn’t help but feel cheated. China was never a matriarchal society and yet that is how she portrayed it…”

But “Jin-shei” was never meant to be a factual representation of a culture or a world in the manner that “Memoirs of a Geisha” was.

“The Secrets of Jin-shei” is a dream, not a reality.

It is true, of course, that all fiction, even if set in the ‘real’ world, is fantasy, a story told about a place that seems real, but is not. But it is here, in the realm of fantasy, that this becomes something very important.

Think of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, if you like, as a Westernization of an ancient oriental fairy tale – of the kind that took the world by storm when ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” made its explosive debut on the cinematic scene. (One of my favorite reviews of “Secrets of Jin-shei” , from a place that went by the completely appropriate name of China Books, cited that movie: “Combine ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ with ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ add elements of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,’ and you have this astonishing novel.” )

It is a dream. An alternate reality. A place that could have, might have, should have existed… but never did, except in my heart and my mind.

Buy “The Secrets of Jin-shei” HERE

A fuller version of this essay appeared on the Book View Café HERE

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Badass Women

History, historical fiction, historical fantasy   When worlds collideAt Bustle, Hannah Jewell offers us

14 Badass Historical Women To Name Your Daughters After

Take Nancy Wake, for example:

Nancy Wake photocommons.wikimedia.org(1945).jpg / Creative Commons

Wake was a spy, a journalist, and a hero of the French Resistance during World War II. Would you like your baby to be exceedingly glamorous? Then name her Nancy.

Born in New Zealand, Nancy ended up settling in Paris, where she worked as a journalist and passed her time in the enjoyment of “a good drink” and handsome French men. When WW2 broke out, she joined the Resistance and saved the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers and downed airmen by escorting them through occupied France to safety in Spain”, and later joined the British Special Operations Executive as a spy.

One time, Nancy got her parachute stuck in a tree. A nearby Frenchman said he wished all trees could bear such “beautiful fruit”, to which Nancy responded, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

Just think, these could be your baby girl’s first words, Hannah Jewell suggests.

Read about all these amazing women HERE

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When worlds collide – History, historical fiction and historical fantasy

A couple of years ago, I blogged about ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei,’ a novel I wrote as a historical fantasy. Its roots lie in Imperial China and the secret language of women that then existed, but it is NOT China – I called my world Syai — and it is NOT a straight historical novel. It was never intended to be.

But HarperCollins put on a cover for the American edition which was far more mainstream than fantasy. Despite the earnest protestations in the Author Note in the novel, there were  bookstores that placed the book in the history section – and, inevitably, those readers and reviewers who expected real history were in for a disappointment. A few readers and reviewers have faulted my ‘historical research’, even demanding to know precisely WHICH Chinese Imperial dynasty my book is supposed to reference, as  though the world of my imagination is really the historical China of our world.

It isn’t. It never was. China was an inspiration for the fictional fantastical land of Syai, not its direct historical antecedent.

That all came to mind because of an essay by Disha Jani in The Toast

Who Tells Your Story? Historical Fiction as Resistance

Jani is talking about real historical fiction, set in a real world, not my China-that-never-was. But I found her article fascinating because I too have loved historical fiction.

“What drew me to reading about the past in the first place” Jani writes, “…is fiction in the literal sense. Specifically, children’s historical fiction presented as the diaries of girls my age, living through various periods in Canadian and world history.

“The librarian at my elementary school pointed me towards the one about Marie Antoinette one day, and I was instantly consumed. The Dear Canada and Royal Diaries books meant that I could hunker down with a friend who was escaping to a New York tenement from Russian pogroms, or being shipped to Quebec as a fille du roi, or studying with the imperial Chinese because her tribe needed to establish diplomatic relations.

“Today, I continue to love anything about a badass genius woman in an old-timey world.”

Hmmm. Maybe she should read my “Empress” when it comes out. Except that once again… the ‘historical’ in that book is very much tempered with the ‘fantasy’.

Fair warning. I love history and the depths of its roots but I prefer not to be constrained by the exact “and this is what happened” boxes when I am writing a story – which is why the historical fantasy field is something I am so delighted with. I’ll meet you all in the not-quite-REAL lands of my imagination…

Read the whole Disha Jani article HERE

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A ‘Happy Gent’ At 100

Herman Wouk has written an autobiography entitled ‘Sailor and Fiddler, The Reflections of a 100-year-old Author’. The sailor represents his life as a writer, the fiddler his spiritual side.

Herman WoukStephanie Diani/Simon & Schuster

Wouk quickly became a best selling author with such novels as Marjorie Morningstar and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Caine Mutiny, which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart as the unforgettable Captain Queeg.

Growing up in the Bronx, Wouk wanted to be a writer, but Judaism was always important to him as well. He loved Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas, and he also fondly remembers listening to his father read the stories of Sholem Aleichem on Friday nights.

Read the whole story HERE

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THIS & THAT    

At Bustle, Sadie L. Trombetta selected

10 Jane Austen Tattoos For The Classic Lit Lover In You

including this one from ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Austen TatSee the other nine HERE

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A bookseller recently emailed me that she had sold out of my books at Rustycon, adding that she had hand delivered a copy of ‘Random’ to a customer in Keizer, Oregon on the way home.

The customer was the member of a book club which was about to discuss the novel and she wanted to get it in time to read it before the meeting.

“Since she’s apparently a night owl,” A. Carpenter (AmyCat.BookUniverse) wrote, “she was fine with me delivering it on my way home. Thus, I ended up delivering a copy of your book in Keizer at 2 am!”

Over and beyond the call of duty.

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Write what you know means ‘before you write about something, know it.’ As a living human being, you must constantly learn new things anyway, or you are obsolete and will be replaced with a newer model. Make one of the new things you learn what you want to write about.” ~ Jerry Kindall

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At Buzzfeed, Alex Alvarez has discovered

31 Funny Tweets That Are Way, Way Too Real For Writers

e.g.
When fantasy writing is contagious:
Writers TweetsSee all the tweets HERE

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Quote of the Day

The difference between an optimist and a pessimist? An optimist laughs to forget, but a pessimist forgets to laugh.” ~ Tom Boddet

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Alma Alexander       My books       Email me
 
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Which door would you pick?

Something going the rounds in LiveJournal posits this: You find yourself in front of seven identical doors. A voice from above tells you, “These seven doors lead to seven different places: Narnia, Neverland, Wonderland, Hogwarts, Camelot, Middle Earth, and Westeros. Which door do you go through?”

I would add two more doors that lead into my own worlds:

Syai, the China-that-never-was-but-might-have-been, either in “The Secrets of Jin-shei” or the book set in the same world hundred of years later, “Embers of Heaven.”

Worldweavers, the home of Thea Winthrop and Elemental Magic, where you could walk and talk with Nilola Tesla and Corey the Trickster.

Okay. My answers on the original seven (because asking an author which of her own worlds  she would choose to live in is like asking her which of her children she loves best):

First off, the obvious NO: Westeros. I’ve never read the whole entire series of books, and from what I’ve seen of the TV show basically tells me that unless I step out of that door on the far side as ALREADY a queen (and even THEY often don’t fare all that well), my life would tend to be short sharp and brutal and thank you very much but I’ll pass. Besides, for some reason, what I HAVE seen of George R R Martin’s epic I’ve enjoyed on the level that it’s a punchy story that rolls you forward but on some deep and fundamental level it just never did satisfy me.

Narnia – if you has asked me this question when I was fourteen I would probably have run, not walked, to Narnia. Particularly if I could meet Aslan (who was not, after all a TAME lion). There was just… something. Something magical. But then I fatally read, or was educated about, the stuff between the lines, and Narnia has sort of lost its gloss after that. I can still love it, and enjoy it, but there is a tight wary part of me that wants nothing to do with the allegorical layering within it and I do NOT want to end up where I think I would end up if I went there, with Aslan magically transforming into one of those religious-postcard blue-eyed Jesuses with an expression of inexpressible beatitude and an attitude of “you will be just fine if you do what I say you do and think only what I say you think”. I’m sorry, but I’m way beyond that. I have my own ideas. If I could be guaranteed Aslan and ONLY Aslan, I might consider it. Otherwise….

Neverland and Wonderland share a particular characteristic which means I’d love to visit but not stay there longterm – an overwhelming preponderance of the twee and the whimsical. In the case of Alice – particularly in the Looking Glass books – you might say that it all means an entirely different thing and that if you pay attention you might actually understand this and have an experience that is vastly different from what you think you are seeing. And while I do ADORE Lewis Carroll’s obvious and irrepressible love of language – if I had to LIVE with that I’d be insane in short order. I’d probably TURN into a Jabberwock and start eating people.

Hogwarts – oh, I don’t know. There are wonderful things in that world. There are also things that make me roll my eyes mightily and go, oh, REALLY?!? And learning pig latin to do spells… would lose its charm fast.

Which leaves us with Camelot, and Middle Earth.

Camelot was an enduring love affair, for me. I LOVE the Arthurian cycle (well, the parts of it before it turns into a Christian tract and the only thing that matters is finding the metaphysical equivalent of selvation in the shape of the Holy Grail. But it had a power to it that I responded to, the power of PEOPLE living a MYTH. When I was 19 I even wrote an entire novel from the POV of Guinevere (and discovered that it was a damnably difficult thing to do because she could not POSSIBLY know half the things that I needed her to know in order to carry the plot forward, without resorting to silly little-girl tricks like listening at doors…) Given a chance to go through that door and find myself in Camelot… ah, well, the rub here is WHICH Camelot, and what I will find there. But this one would tempt me. Tempt me hard.

In the end there is only one door for me, though, and I am sure those of you who know me picked this one for me right from the start.

I am a Tolkien girl.

For a very long time I have lived and breathed Middle Earth.

I may not know Quenya, but my heart speaks that, and Entish, and knows how to sing “Misty Mountains” in the original tongue of the Dwarves who wrote it. I understand this world, and I treasure it. In fact, I hardly need to open that door and step through… because I am already there. I’ve been there for as long as I know.

So, then. Which door would you pick?