Monday, January 5, 2015

A great Hands On experience

I've discovered a new conference!  And it's in a great city: New Orleans.  I traveled down there shortly after Christmas for what, I found out, was only the second running of the Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball.  It could not have been a more pleasant, more friendly, more genial event--aptly organized and warmly administered by New Orleans native Jennifer Stewart-Wallace--and I found it unusually nourishing.  First of all, because the conference is only in its second year, it's still a very manageable size.  Only two sessions to choose from for each time section, one being a craft talk and the other a reading, with plenty of time allowed, and occasions provided, for socializing and interacting with new colleagues.  And not so many of them that you run into them only once and hurriedly in the hallway of some enormous conference center, or that you can't remember their names.  No, no.  The Hands On Festival is a much cozier affair.  Many of the participants had past or present connections with either the University of New Orleans or  Louisiana State University; several of them knew each other already, which created a kind of lovely reunion atmosphere at the festival.  But by no means was it an exclusive / "no new faces wanted" kind of affair.  In fact, not only did I feel welcome, but I felt I made some important new professional friends.

I also heard some excellent presentations.  One in particular sticks in my memory and is relevant to this blog.   The theme of the session was "Using Research in Long Form Writing."  Not all of the comments related to historical fiction, but some of them did.  One participant, Lania Knight of Eastern Illinois University (pictured on the right), is currently working on a novel set one hundred years in the future, a period that in her novel has suffered through considerable ecological turmoil and vast social upheaval.  What I found most interesting about Lania's presentation, however, is that nearly all of her comments were about the past and how writers understand that.  One of Lania's credos is that if one is writing about the future it is supremely important "to get the past right."  She's found in her own reading of futuristic novels that the authors' visions of the future are often drastically different, a difference she claims stems from their very different views of the past.  It only makes sense that how one interprets the past will invariably affect how one perceives the future, but the thought had not crystalized for me until Lania said it during the session.   Some authors, for instance, Lania explained, perceive the past purely through a white, European, neocolonial gaze; others perceive the past more broadly. She has been attempting, as best she can, to perceive the past comprehensively and accurately.  So her research for the novel has not been only or even mostly a matter of reading a lot of futuristic science fiction (although she has done quite a bit of that) but reading nonfiction that explains the nature and history of the various ecological phenomena that play an important role in her novel.  She stressed repeatedly that she "wants to get the past right" in order to make her vision of the future credible.

One of the other presenters was Daniel Wallace (pictured on left), fiction writer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.   Daniel is working on a novel set in eighteenth-century Scotland.  He outlined many issues he was having with how best to use the research he has carried out for the novel.  But one concern seemed most pressing: that of spoken language.  Daniel explained that at the time three separate languages would have been commonly spoken in the country: a less-than- modern-sounding version of English; Scots, a Germanic language variety only distantly related to English and spoken in the Lowlands; and Scottish Gaelic, spoken in the Highlands.  If Daniel were to be completely faithful to the facts of history, his novel would need evidence speakers of all three types.  He's worried that this could be quite confusing to contemporary readers, especially when he begins to represent these different dialects on the page.  He was not at all happy about this prospect, yet he clearly did not feel entitled to ignore the facts of history.

Of course, here again we are faced with one of the questions I've asked repeatedly on this blog: When and where is it appropriate to ignore or even alter history when writing a novel supposedly drawn from history?  In regards to Daniel's case, other conference goers came to the same conclusion I did; i.e., unless he intends to market the novel solely to a society of linguists, Daniel cannot and should not attempt reproduce precisely how his characters in real life would have spoken.  Understanding one alien dialect can be confusing enough for a reader--along with the ever-present risk that the dialect will render the character a caricature, that the reader will see only a dialect and not a person.  But multipy that by three and you only have chaos.  One possibility, given that Daniel's intended audience is native English speakers, is that he aim for a neutral form of English, one that a) is readable, b) comes across as natural for the characters, and c) is stripped of any giveaway slang or anachronistic cultural references.   I remember years ago hearing Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, explain that this was her strategy for that novel.  She didn't try to imitate seventeenth-century English just because her novel was set in the seventeenth-century (in Holland, though, not England), but instead she aimed for a brand of English that sounded believable to the modern ear yet was free of obvious anachronisms.  Another possibility suggested to Daniel was that when he first introduce a character he suggest that character's language through a few choice phrases or words, thus putting the idea in the reader's mind that this character speaks in a given way, but then not to push it very much for the rest of the book.  This sounded like a different but workable solution to the problem, and one in which the underlying strategy is similar to what I usually suggest: When writing a novel, what your novel needs is paramount, not what history needs, because a reader won't care about your novel's accuracy to history if he or she can't read it--or doesn't want to.   Which is not to say--not at all--that history should always be jettisoned.  Often, one gets the best, sharpest ideas for a novel from the historical record itself.  But I've blogged about that fact in the past and I expect I will in the future too.  So we'll save that discussion for another time!

Just one example of the interesting talk that went on at last week's Hands On Literary Festival.  Can't wait to next year to go back.

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Blog tour starts!  My new book of short stories, Island Fog, has already been featured on several book blogs and websites, but today marks the start of my officially arranged "blog tour." Over the next eleven days, not counting weekends, eleven blogs will publish reviews of my book, one per day.  It's an exciting and somewhat anxious prospect.  I have no way of knowing if they're going to like it!  But given that so far the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, I'm going to hope for the best.  In my next post, I'll provide an update on how the tour is going, with links to the individual blogs.

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More thrills--my wife's book club!  Tomorrow night my wife's book club meets at our house to
discuss--you got it--my book.   Talk about pressure!  Wisely I think, the club likes to pick books if they know they have special access to the author and thus will be able to ask the author questions.  Sometimes they Skype with authors; in my case, I'll be sitting in the room with them.  Again, I can't know in advance if they liked the book or what their questions will be, but it's sure to be a memorable evening.  


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