Connie Willis’ BLACKOUT: The Power of Historical Fiction

I’ve never found history a dull subject.

Walking into the highschool classroom, all geared up to begin my student teaching, it was apparent that I was in the minority.

Some freshmen and sophomores slumped in their seats, eyes glazing over in preparation for a lecture-induced coma. Others gripped pencils, grimly determined to make the grade, however painful the process might be.

No problem. After all, I was twenty-two, in my fifth year of college, and therefore knew everything I needed to motivate and excite them with THE WONDER OF LEARNING!!!

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Sigh. Young Anne. You have so much to learn…

 

Why is that highschool reaction so common? Why does it seem that so many people expect history to be dull?

Maybe it has something to do with the way it’s traditionally presented.

After all, history teachers have a great deal of information to impart in a brief period of time. Great world events are, by necessity, boiled down to bullet points, lists of dates, and a few ageing photos.

While I don’t intend to debate teaching styles, I think it’s fair to say that oftentimes the people who lived history get buried in minutia, and with them is buried a chance for the modern learner to connect and empathize with the past.

Tales of heroism and cowardice, of kindness and cruelty, can engage even the most skeptical learner.

Of course, anyone who perceives history as dull and dry is unlikely to seek out non-fiction books to find these tales.

Therein lies the power of excellent historical fiction.

I was recently introduced to Connie Willis’ novel Blackout and the sequel All Clear. (Many thanks to Sarah Higbee and her Brainfluff blog.)

I was attracted to the books by the WW2 photos on the covers, but what sold me was the twist in their storytelling- a change from my diet of nonfiction to historical science fiction.

Oxford in the year 2060 sends historians to study history first-hand, via time travel. The process has been perfected, and all (well, nearly all) of the experts are convinced that the historians are unable to affect history’s outcome. However, when Polly, Mike and Eileen are stranded in World War 2, it appears that this philosophy may be entirely wrong.

Now, I like my historical fiction with an emphasis on the ‘historical.’ (Am I the only one nerdy enough to be wee bit disappointed that I didn’t learn anything new about World War I while watching the otherwise entertaining Wonder Woman? No one else? Sigh.)

 

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“Now, let me explain some of the inciting incidents for this particular war…” (Hm. Ok, that probably wouldn’t have worked.)

 

Ms. Willis packs in a tremendous amount of early World War 2 historical detail. I’ll confess, I suspected at one point during the first book that a few of the POV changes existed for the sole purpose of including some of her research.

Hmmm. This story is primarily set during The Blitz Ambulance drivers and Operation Fortitude fit in…where? 

I’m pleased to announce that my suspicions were unfounded. By the end of book two, (in which I felt the pacing moved along a bit better,) all plot threads were accounted for in a most satisfying way.

Of course, incorporating a great deal of factual detail risks pulling the reader out of the narrative. Long info-dumps can weaken the most fascinating story.

I felt that Ms. Willis avoided this pitfall. Her main characters were visitors in the past, so conversations and observations about the period made sense. She didn’t lean on this ‘free pass to lecture’ overmuch; information was woven into the story as the characters lived the Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuation, and caring for evacuees.

A history lecture on these events might fail to excite skeptics.

I enjoy learning about history, and I still find the facts and figures blending together at times.

Books like Ms. Willis’ give an opportunity to experience history in a different way.

We readers can briefly slip on the shoes of her characters and walk the rubble-strewn streets of London, struggle through crowded tube stations as threatening cacophony fills the skies overhead, and meet the everyday heroes who survived the struggle, one day at a time…

…and it’s all hidden in a time travel sci-fi novel.

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Side notes: Teaching history ended up being great fun. Every time I did something besides lecture, it was like I was a teaching ROCK STAR! 🙂

I enjoyed the stories and the fresh look at history that these books provided. Due to the harrowing nature of the Blitz and some language used in response to the dangers, this one’s not for the little ‘uns. 🙂 I’m planning to blog on historical fiction for younger audiences next time. (Ahem. Younger in theory. I still like them.)

At some point I’m going to get some more non-fiction on here, when I can climb out from under the piles of sheet music I’m trying to learn…

Thanks for visiting!

 

 

 

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Exploding Rats Didn’t Fit

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Photo by Michal Jarmoluk via Snapstock

“And remember, lecture is the least effective method of teaching.”

My class dutifully noted this point, then settled in to listen to our professor’s extensive lecture on the other methods we ought to use.

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The temptation to slip into lecture-mode is strong for experts on any subject.

This includes writers.

Who doesn’t like to go on a bit when given the chance? If you’re like me, you do your research, your background work, your world-building, and quiver with excitement as your little paper universe finally takes shape. It is so tempting to stand before your audience and share, share all of it!

It is tempting to forget that perhaps they don’t care about all of the background details- the minutia of shoe styles or the history of farming techniques etc.

I love reading history. I love finding interesting tidbits to tuck into my writing. I don’t love how easy it is for these tidbits to pile up into blocks of text that choke the flow of the story. Researching my current project, set in 1939-1946, presented waaaay more information than I needed, but I wanted to use it ALL!

I was fascinated by ways the people on the ‘Home Front’ adapted to restrictions and rationing. Of course I would have to write about wedding dresses made from old parachutes and knitting projects using pet fur…somehow!

Then there were the ‘cloak and dagger’ stories. Spies! Code breakers! Exploding Rats! (Yes, I said EXPLODING RATS!)

Flail tanks! Oooh, I’d never heard of flail tanks!

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Of course, I realized that flail tanks didn’t factor in to the areas I was writing about at all, for obvious reasons…

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Cartoon by Bill Mauldin

At that point I realized my danger, and asked the big question. Where does detailed world-building morph into eye-glazing lecture?

The answer is simple, even if the execution is not.

Information shared for world-building, whether historical or fantastical, must serve the story.

If it doesn’t serve the story, it needs to go.

As fun as it might be to have a character just happen to walk past a flail tank, and have them ask about it, and have someone else give a detailed description…well, that doesn’t sound fun at all, does it? It sounds forced and stilted.

Interesting background details that require long explanations and do nothing to forward the plot loose their interest value quickly.

I have read numerous books and articles which will contribute nothing to my current project, but I don’t count that as a loss. I learned from them, got a stronger sense of the era I was writing about, and maybe I’ll finally get someone into Norway in another book. Or into a tank. Or stopping baddies with exploding rodents!!!

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A pest, a pet, or a weapon?!

Sometimes a bit of lecture is unavoidable.

My male lead ends up at Monte Cassino, a MAJOR battle site on the Italian front. The story in this section of book would make no sense without an idea of the landscape, the history, etc.

My first attempt was dry. Rereading it, I could almost picture myself at the front of a classroom with a chalkboard an pointer.

I asked a few questions of myself, which helped improve the writing.

Rather than a big ‘ol block of text, could the information be woven into the story, or at least presented in shorter paragraphs and phrases?

Could the information be better conveyed by a conversation?

Could the reactions of the characters set the mood- for instance, rather than the old monastery on the mountain looking “threatening,” perhaps the characters could move or speak in a way that shows fear.

It all comes down to the ever popular bit of writing advice, “Show! Don’t Tell!”

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“Show, don’t tell! Snarf, snarf!”

NOW, like most advice, the above is subjective.

For instance, I had a couple of professors whose lectures I loved. One would tell us about his expeditions to Antarctica. Another would occasionally slip jokes into his lectures hidden under a perfect dead pan- only those of us who kept sharp knew how funny he was.

There are popular authors who give immense lectures in their books. I immediately think of one who writes military fiction and one who has warned us about the inadvisability of dinosaur theme-parks. Both have been successful and had movies made from their work.

How do we decide on the strongest way to tell our stories? One of the best pieces of teaching advice that I received was, “Do everything with a purpose.”

Whatever style of writing we employ, we should do so purposefully, to best convey our story and to share the joy of it with the readers who come along on the journey.

Writers, have you found any techniques to keep lecturing/ info-dumping tendencies in check?

Purple Hedgehogs Can Be Villains Too

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Is THIS the face of a super villain?

I’ve just completed my annual collaborative writing project!

For the past five years, my children and I have assembled a comic book to present to their Daddy for Father’s Day. They are the stars, acting as themselves and their alter egos, “The Super Kids!”

It’s been a journey. This started with one little 3 year old who improvised a superhero costume and stood where I told her as I took photos of her and the baby and used Publisher to add some speech bubbles.   This year’s production included pictures taken ‘on location’ at a local park, and all three heroes:  Gargantu-Baby, Skater Girl and Skunky.

As my kids have grown, so have their opinions, and their desire to direct the production. I try to keep it moving in plausible directions, (No, honey, we can’t actually have you fly,) but they do most of the creative work.

And it IS creative…

I wouldn’t have thought of a small stuffed rabbit being a ninja in disguise who secretly tries to trap us.

I would NEVER have thought of a giant, purple, spike-shooting hedgehog as a villain.

Nor would I have named my son “Skunky” and given him the power of shooting skunks out of his hands.

Part of the joy of the process is the adventure of seeing what will happen when imaginations run wild.

I think that this is applicable to writing in general.

Creativity can be a scary thing as we leave childhood. It means taking risks. It may mean writing outside of our comfort zones (as in my last post!)

It’s easy to get caught up in thoughts like, “this is what my genre demands!” or “this is what agents want” or “that article said that the way I started my story is all rubbish! It’s OVER!!!!”

I’m NOT suggesting that all writing advice be thrown out. Still, I’ve found that becoming too fixated on ‘the rules’ rather than on the joy of creating a story can be crippling.

Writing would be much more fun if I approached it like my kids do. Just tell a story. Think of a fun plot, and go for it, even if it’s unconventional. Try a crazy idea, even if it’s not currently popular.

The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work, we had some fun, and we can move on to something else.

And, if all else fails, just ask a 5 to 7 year old for help. They have PLENTY of ideas.

Writing: “El Paso” and the Flawed Protagonist

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With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve rediscovered a cd that my husband assembled a couple of years ago. We call it “Dad” music, because it’s a compilation of random songs that we listened to with our fathers.

(Tangent: Our families didn’t know each other before we met, but both being Midwest kids, we find a lot of familial similarities. For instance, if the word “well…” is uttered in front of either of our fathers, he will invariably reply, “Deep subject.” Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s my dream to get them both in the same room, say “well,” and listen to them do it at the same time. Someday…)

The opening song on the cd is “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins. My husband summed it up as “a four-minute western,” old-style storytelling in song. It’s also an excellent example of a character who manages to be sympathetic, in spite of his failings.

It shocked me a bit, listening to this song as an adult, to realize that the narrator is really the antagonist, or if not the antagonist a protagonist who is clearly in the wrong.

The song opens with a love story- ahhh, unrequited love. The narrator cherishes a passion for the girl Feleena. It doesn’t seem she has shown him any attention whatsoever, though he does call her ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’- I wonder if she ever toyed with his affections?

A third party enters the picture- a handsome young cowboy, interested in Faleena. Does she return his interest? Apparently, since the narrator challenges the cowboy, fights, and kills him.

Let’s pause here. What reason do we have to ‘root’ for the narrator at this point? Well…he loves the girl. Apparently. Though we don’t have any evidence of this except for the fact that he shoots someone who she’s interested in…and then runs. Maybe in the second half?

He steals a horse and flees, but his self-imposed exile is short. He must return. Why? Remorse? A need for justice? Nope. He wants to see the girl again.

Well, he’s faithful- you’ve gotta give him that!

The flight for the cantina, the description of his injuries, and his final reunion with Faleena drive the tragic story to it’s conclusion, closing the story arc neatly in four minutes and change.

Here’s what I find interesting. I like stories where the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good and things work out reasonably well in the end. There are exceptions, but generally speaking I do not gravitate towards the ‘bad boy’ tales.

In spite of this, I can’t help rooting for Marty Robbins’ narrator.

How does he do it?

It may be partially that I grew up hearing the song and feeling sorry for the poor narrator, gunned down just as he finds the girl. The catchy melody doesn’t hurt either, but I think the real answer lies with the way the story is told.

Robbins sings the song in first person. (My eldest just asked today, “How can he sing the song if he’s dead?” Time for a lesson on POV!) We listeners hear some of the thoughts and motives of the narrator. He knows what he is doing is wrong. He calls the murder a ‘foul, evil deed.’ His desperation is evident as he steals the horse and flees.

And yet, he can’t stay away. The despairing words- his life being worthless, nothing left- demonstrate the narrator’s mindset as he turns back to his certain destruction.

Even his thoughts as he’s dying aren’t the thoughts of a desperate criminal. In the end I picture him as a kid, not too bright, who made some pretty stupid choices over a girl and pays the consequences.

Therein lies the ability to sympathize with the character. His actions are evil, but his motivations aren’t deliberately so. How many of us haven’t made foolish choices, gone down roads we know we shouldn’t, because of love or pride or simple stubborness?

Flawed characters have an ability to resonate that perfect characters lack.

What gives your readers the ability to empathize with your characters- what strengths or flaws make them human?