We finished workshopping last week in my historical fiction workshop class. This week I receive final portfolios that will include revisions of the creative work along with a paper on a particular aspect of the craft of historical fiction writing. I'm very much looking forward to those, and seeing what about historical fiction the students find either the most intriguing or the most debatable. In the meantime, though, I'm simply happy to report that in a very full semester, one in which I asked a lot of them and on top of that many of them--both grads and undergrads alike--were faced with various personal, professional, and departmental challenges, they produced a considerable amount of intriguing and promising work. With a few exceptions, none of the students had written historical fiction before; and, going in, just about none regarded it as a genre through which they eventually hoped to define themselves. They were amateurs, gamely trying, thrusting themselves into into historical eras they had not personally seen but somehow had to make real on the page for a reader. Not surprisingly, all but three of them chose twentieth-century subjects exclusively. And two of those three split their stories between twentieth-century and nineteenth-century subject matter. (The students were given a choice of writing three separate fictions or one long sustained fiction.) Only one student wrote a story set deep in the past; in this case in biblical times. And while I'm glad she did that, she was clearly motivated by a story she knew well (the standoff between Rachel, Leah, and Jacob) and that could provide her with several key details both for her plot and her setting. It's not as if she chose that era on a whim.
Aside from the emphasis on twentieth-century stories, the most apparent thread between the stories was an emphasis on war or, more broadly, disaster. And again, this should have come as no surprise to me, even though I hardly predicted it before the semester began. After all, if one has only a cursory knowledge of a particular time period, the wars are what is likely to stand out. More to the point, wars, disasters, and violent conflicts are innately dramatic and can come fully embedded with countless side stories to engage a fiction writer's imagination. As I said half-jokingly to the class this semester, "Thank God for World War Two. There are so many stories to be found within that big huge story that we'll never run out." And I think that's true. It's impossible to count the number of fine stories, novels, plays, memoirs, movies, and television series that have already come from that conflict. And they keep coming! It's worth noting too that one of the model short stories we read--"Delicate Edible Birds" by Lauren Groff--was a World War Two story, set against the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of France; one of the model novels we read-- The Good Lord Bird by James McBride--told the story of John Brown's violent exploits as he tried, years before the Civil War, to single-handedly free the slave population. And another model novel--The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan--referenced in its enormity both world wars as well as, more importantly, the explosive social and political climate in mid-century India as that country struggled to throw off first British rule and then its own inherited tradition of caste hierarchy. In other words, there was a lot of violence in what we read to stimulate violence in the students' own stories.
Here's the final tally on the war/disaster/violence front: one Vietnam story; four World War Two stories; two World War One stories; a story featuring ritualized cult killings; a story featuring a physically and sexually abusive husband; a story about a runaway teenager who almost certainly is dead (we don't know for sure); a story about a labor riot in the 30s; a story about the Titanic, a story about slavery; and a story about Joan of Arc and her call to arms. That's a lot of violence! And on the whole I'm quite impressed by the care the students took--given the short amount of time they had--to try to make sure the details of their stories historically accurate. Their research efforts ranged from interviews with relatives, little known books, archival film footage, television specials, history volumes, and, of course, the ever trusty (or untrusty) internet.
The most successful of their stories refrained from trying to portray events that are well known to the point of being overexposed, and instead approached their events from unexpected angles. For instance, one of the World War Two stories is all about the struggles of the family back home after it has learned that their father and husband has died; another of the World War Two stories explores the long term effect of any incident that happened before the husband even left to go to the war; the Vietnam story shows that war through the exploits of a young Associated Press photographer who has recently landed in country. The less successful stories replayed territory that felt very familiar already--e.g., the fall of Paris, the D-Day invasion, the sinking of the Titanic, the difficult lives of slaves in the American south prior to the Civil War. But I'm satisfied that through the workshop experience the writers of those stories received suggestions for how to make those stories feel new again. For instance, one student wisely counseled the writer of the Titanic story to begin her fiction, and not end it, with the ship sinking. With the fact of James Cameron's movie still too large in the collective consciousness, it seems pointless to try all over again to make the sinking of that ship seem dramatic, unexpected, tragic. The stories that have been told far less often are the stories of what came next. I'm embarrassed to say it did not occur to me to offer this piece of rather obvious advice. But someone in class did, so fortunately the lesson was transmitted.
For a class of newcomers to historical fiction, my group made several remarkable strides forward even if occasionally they descended into the cliched or outworn. Best of all, having tried historical fiction once, they can, and I expect will, try it again--maybe soon--and only do it better.
Next week: The students speak!