Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is historical fiction intimidating?


Part of the mix of classes I teach in the Writing Department at the University of Central Arkansas is one called Forms of Fiction. It sounds like a literature class, but it isn't. It's a writing workshop, albeit one that requires more reading than your typical workshop--and one in which I make the students draft stories in specific fictional forms, whether they want to or not. "Learning by doing," as I tell them. For each of the forms we cover, we spend a whole class beginning stories in our journals. Four of these journal entries the students later type up, polish, and turn in as one of their formal assignments. I taught two sections of Forms during the spring semester, and for the first time I included historical fiction in the mix of forms we covered. You might be wondering what took me so long to include it, especially if you know that I've been teaching the course since 2005. I can hear you thinking: "You're the historical fiction, guy. It's the subject of your blog. Why avoid it in your Forms class?" Why, indeed. Exactly what I said to myself while planning last spring's classes.

Interesting outcome. As with the other forms, we read and discussed example stories, and we talked about the challenges and excitements of the form. But then I gave them something else to do. I asked them to select a specific century or period in a specific country's history. Then I gave them a list of very practical questions to answer about that period. A few were broad questions, such as "What type of government was in place at the time?" But most were purposefully more specific and more quotidian, e.g., name a popular hair style, describe a popular hat, list three food items that would typically have been eaten for dinner during this period. I told them this wasn't supposed to be a major research project. They should just go on the internet and track down answers that they could express in a few sentences. The point of this quicky research was not to just arm them with some political and sociological facts about the period, but to generate pictures in their heads. Because from pictures come stories. And because I knew there was no way they could have ideas for stories set during the American Revolution, let's say, or the Ming Dynasty, or World War II Germany, without some grounding in the period first. The sheet of questions was homework. In class, we started stories in our journals, my hope being that once they decided on a protagonist and course of action some of the information they came up with through their research would be of creative use to them.

The results? They all, more or less, carried out the required fact-finding. And they all, more or less, dutifully started stories in their journals on our journal writing day. (Although there did seem to be more huffing and groaning and sighing than usual.) But when it came time to turn in their next formal assignment, almost none of them chose to do historical fiction. Out of two Forms sections--30 students in all--only two students finished their historical stories. This was quite disappointing. I had hoped they would find themselves newly engrossed in some fascinating historical period and driven to compose a story set in that period. What happened? You might think their disinclination stemmed from a lack of interest in history generally. But that isn't true. A number of students, whether due to work in other classes or simple personal interest, were very curious about the time periods they researched, which ranged from ancient Egypt to medieval Japan to 20th century Guatemala to footballer culture in 60s England. And on journal writing day, when I went around the room asking them what they had started, many of the stories sounded marvelous to me. When I expressed my disappointment that so few of them had gone on to finish their historical fiction pieces, the only response I got was that the form seemed "too hard." A bit more illumination came in their end of the semester statements in which a few of them admitted to being intimidated by the challenge of researching history and then accurately reflecting that history in an imagined story. It seemed like more than they cared to take on in the middle of a busy semester.

Okay, fair enough. I'm glad that's cleared up. (Perhaps the fear of hearing comments like these is why I dragged my feet on including historical fiction in this course.) But the results do make me wonder, How many people who might want to write historical fiction are simply scared off by it? A colleague of mine at UCA has a terrific idea for a historical novel set in early 20th century Italy. But he says he's not sure he has the wherewithal to see his way through the research and then the writing that would come out of that research. (Actually, I'm sure he does have the wherewithal.) At the risk of sounding naive, I find the idea of historical fiction being intimidating mildly surprising. For me, the challenge of bringing alive history in all its sights, sounds, smells, and attitudes is the fun of historical fiction. And, really, once one has found one's story, and is locked into it, the whole process isn't much different from writing any story. You just want to make it as engaging and concrete as you can. (Okay, so might find yourself doing a bit more fact checking everyday. But that's part of the fun.) I worry now that my students thought I was expecting them to become historical experts, and their stories to be flawlessly researched tomes exemplifying the periods in question. No. Not at all. If that's what they thought, I must do a better job of explaining myself in the fall. Because what any historical story is finally about is never the period of history but the person at the center of the story. And exploring people is exactly what should warm the hearts of storytellers all the world over. Even 19 year old ones.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I'm back! And with titular news


I know. It's been so so long since I added a new entry to this blog. Readers probably suspected that Creating Van Gogh had gone belly up. Not to worry. CVG is alive and well. But certainly much has happened out there since last I posted five months ago. Where to begin: NWP is still up in the air; Republicans are still angling to blow up the federal government figuring that Obama will be blamed for it; the last space shuttle flight is over and done (are you really sure you want to do that NASA?); March Madness happened and the College World Series, the French Open and Wimbledon; and the annual Tour de France--I hope to see it live someday--is almost finished. But what about me you ask? Well, not surprisingly, I've been busy as well. I finished a novel I started last fall; I traveled with my colleague Garry Craig Powell and five UCA students to Lawrence, KS to participate in a faculty and student readings exchange with the University of Kansas; I successfully completed a French 1320 class that I sat in on during the spring semester (much thanks to instructor Veronique Odekirk); I started and finished a great summer 1 Forms of Fiction class at UCA; I wrote a proposal for a Forms of Fiction textbook; I drove my oldest son to Durham, NC so he can participate once again in the wonderful Duke-TIP program; I've taken up some duties as the new Associate Editor of the journal Toad Suck Review (formerly The Exquisite Corpse); I've listened to Await Your Reply (Dan Chaon) and Miss New India (Bharati Mukherjee) and Selected Shorts (NPR) and Coffee Break French Season 3 (members version) on my iPod during my daily sweatfests, and I've spent the last week trying to endure the mind-numbing Arkansas summer heat with my youngest son--i.e., fighting with him to get off my computer and take the dog out to pee--while my wife is away at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow finishing up the novel she has worked on for so long. (Congrats, sweetie.)

Of more interest to readers of this blog, however, will be some quiet but important developments in the life of my Van Gogh novel Yellow. No earth-shattering announcements yet. But there has been progress. I've been working closely with a kind and wise literary agent who has pushed me to sharpen and improve the book in important ways. What in its first typed form was 1250 ungainly manuscript pages is now a tight, focused 550 and includes some relevant and hopefully useful appendices, namely a chronology of the life of the real Van Gogh (my Van Gogh sure feels real to me, of course) and a detailed explanation of what sources I used and how I used them. The most obvious change is that my book now has a new title. I have to admit that this decision was a hard one for me. Since I first conceived of the book some ten years ago, I've only ever had one title in mind: Yellow. Not only is that the color most typically associated with Van Gogh's paintings, especially the paintings he created during what I consider his finest, most luminous period--when he worked in Arles, France--and not only did color and colors become a crucial stylistic element and organizing principle to the novel, but "yellow" seemed to speak to an important psychological tendency in Van Gogh: his eager pursuit of extremes. And I must say that I also like the title's directness. Easy to say; easy to remember. Long story short, it was actually quite hard to think of any other title being attached to my novel. Literally for months I remained stymied--and stumped. What else could I call this thing? Finally, at the end of May, after much sturm und drang, I came up with something: Days on Fire. The agent I'm working with likes it, and I must say that I do too. I like it a lot, actually. It keeps some of the same associations as Yellow, but with more linguistic and imagistic energy. What do you think, dear readers? How does the new title work for you? Does anyone out there have title-changing stories of their own?

From this date forward I will now refer to my novel as Days on Fire. Yellow is now officially kaput. And I promise not to be so long in updating the blog next time. I am going away on vacation at the end of next week, but I have a few entries in mind to put up before then or even while I travel!