Trolled by the Future

Yesterday I wrote a thought piece about writing. When I wrote it, I was thinking about what I write, basically, which is serious literature. I used the word “serious” to mean, you know, serious. Serious, not better, not important, but serious. Anyone who’s read any of my books knows they are serious shit. Leprosy? The Protestant Revolution? Depression and the Crusades? Crossing the Atlantic and dying enroute? Betrayal? This is about as serious as it gets, I think. I’m kind of writing a novel now and am having a hard time figuring out some important things like which of two characters is the protagonist.

Most important about the now deleted post, it doesn’t make a point at all. It’s me thinking.

In the trolled post (since deleted) I mentioned how, at a book-signing a conference of writers of historical fiction I attended, another writer pointed out that most of the historical fiction represented there was “bodice rippers.” I’d never heard the term before. He made the point that he didn’t think that’s what I wrote. I wrote about the (rather disturbing, surreal) image of suddenly (at the end of the reading) women suddenly appearing in costume, most of which involved corsets worn outside their clothes or approximating Victorian underwear. They were having a great time; I wasn’t. I envied them and was simultaneously disgusted by them. It was very uncomfortable and still inexplicable. Anyway, I left and had dinner with friends.

I wrote about how I think I’m a pretty decent writer, but no agent or publisher has picked up my books which, of course, makes me doubt myself. Is it because what I write is so serious? Who really wants to read about leprosy or the Protestant Reformation? I don’t think anyone wakes up thinking, “Oh man, if I just had a good story about a leper.” I wrote that my editor (whom I pay) described my writing as “sophisticated,” and I wrote that I don’t know what she means. I don’t, and when I asked her, I didn’t get an answer. Do I think my writing is sophisticated? I have no fucking clue.

I wrote about how I’ve been watching film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, how Jane was unknown in her time and now? What would she think if she knew? If she saw such leading lights as Kiera Knightly or Emma Thompson traipsing around in period garb on the big screen? Her novels look at the people around her, daily life is well represented, and while many of the characters hang on some rung of minor nobility, they are not kings and queens. Great matters of international destiny are not addressed in her books — not directly anyway (see Mansfield Park which obliquely contends with the slave trade in Barbados). Austen writes from and within a world that was once called “the woman’s sphere.”

One of her books — Northanger Abbey — pokes gentle fun at “gothic novels,” the bodice rippers of her time. She doesn’t criticize the novels; her criticism is leveled at people who believe they represent reality.

Expecting to hear about women writers who took a male nom de plume or wrote using initials, I then wrote about a writer — A.C. Barnard — who made a living and supported the family — mother, father and sister — by writing serialized gothic stories. Then, one day, this writer wrote straight from the heart, and out came a book that has been made into at least 15 filmed versions — big and little screen — as well as an opera and stage plays. The first film version was made in 1912 and the most recent in 2019.

Never did I say “bodice rippers” or their cohort, “romance novels,” are inferior to what I write. I don’t think so. But they are not serious. They are not meant to be. And if they were suddenly, serious, they would be something else altogether. My “troll” went off on a whole rant accusing me of being “elitist” and various other post-1980 terms used in academia to address the socially privileged, stuff written by “dead white men.” She appears to be from the generation that was taught to look at Hemingway as a misogynist rather than looking at his writing. Uh, sweet-cheeks, no. But…

Some literature is intrinsically better than other literature. I’m sorry. I know you were taught otherwise, but yeah. Some literature is fantastic, but so of a historical moment that its greatness fades in time. I’ve seen that happen with a lot of books over the course of my life, books like Black Like Me that end up being read in history classes or studies of “1960s American Literature” or something like that. Jane Austen’s work is an example of what I would call really great literature. She — all on her own without any social support for her work — found the pulse of the human heart. Does she tell “great” stories? Serious stories? Not really. Really good literature entertains — and even now the adventures of Odysseus have that power. And what is entertainment? Something more than the genitalia must be engaged, yet something more than the brain must be engaged. The great literature has the ability to exist in the domain of the bodice ripper and the domain of more serious themes.

She accused me of writing a “humble-brag,” and no, it wasn’t. I think anyone who is serious (oh that word again) about their writing is going to care about where their work fits into the world of finished work, especially, maybe, when they embark (as I have embarked) on a new project. It’s a very vague moment — who am I as a writer? What do I do? What do I want to do? What do I want to do differently than I’ve done in the past? Anything?

So…I naturally checked out her blog. Very erudite, very focused on popular literature and its value (which I don’t dispute — my thesis was basically on popular fiction of the mid-19th century) and a kind of oblique vindication of romance novels. Well, sweet-cheeks if you’re reading this, first, romance fiction doesn’t need to be justified. I can’t write it. I’ve tried. People should read and write whatever they want and derive from it whatever is there for them to derive. The historical bodice ripper? I can’t do it. There are some chapters in my serious novels where people get blow jobs and have sex with their brother’s wife, other scenes when their long-term yearning results in the miracle of requited love, but those scenes don’t drive the stories. You made the (salient) point that anyone who reads (or writes) romance novels has first and foremost to be interested in romance. I’m not. No judgment there, it’s just not a “thing” for me. I completely agree that the yearning for love and sex drive the world on every level for every species, but it’s not my metier in life or in writing.

Anyway, I ended up feeling really crappy after reading that comment. I felt like I had collided with a future I didn’t like when it was in the process of emerging. It was a future that made me happy I didn’t teach literature. I saw that future on the horizon when I first saw The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature. How did the more-or-less accidental appearance (or non-appearance) of certain genitalia turn into a literary genre? I honestly couldn’t fathom it. To me — then and now — literature is apart from the writer because the writer and his/her world will pass into oblivion. The writing might remain and those who have sense of historical responsibility will attempt to learn what they can about the world in which that writer lived, but we can never know the assumptions, beliefs, struggles or anything, really, about the back-story of the existence of people in the past. To me that matters. I abhor slavery but I also realize I’m not living then or there, in the Maryland of my ancestor who was a slave-holder. That man’s descendant went on to marry the daughter of a lineage that first opposed slavery in Pennsylvania. How in the world could I ever comprehend that? And can I judge it? I don’t feel I have the right.

Love Songs

This is the first time in decades I don’t have a story to work on. What I thought might be a good idea is looking more and more doubtful. I’ve been reading about and in the work of the Goliards and it’s — they — are notable for being priests who wrote love songs. 

Whoop-dee-do. And songs about drinking, the corruption of the church, the absurdity of doctrine, and poverty. But mostly love songs. Sometimes naughty love, but love. And if you’re a priest, is there any other kind of love? Maybe these are not my people. 

Sixty-two years ago when some crooner was crooning on the radio in the family kitchen, I asked my dad, “Why do they sing about love all the time?”

My dad gave me a startled look, like, “She’s only four, WTF?” then said, “Because love is the greatest thing in the world.”


“Helen, can I have a little more coffee?” 

Way to change the subject, Dad.

I’m not convinced that romantic love is the greatest thing in the world. There are lots of other really great things like the range, horses named Old Paint, exploration, adventure, art, and nature. It’s true there are a few anti-love songs, but love is still the main subject.  

One of the things I’ve always liked about Punk Rock is that while there are love songs, there are songs about other things. The more hard-core the Punk, the less likely there is to be a love song. It’s awesome. Often, when a Punk band sings about love, it’s not sappy love but something else. The Dead Kennedys’ best love song is “Too Drunk to Fuck.” Sorry, but there it is. Realistic, funny and ironic. 

I’ve been listening to The Pretenders a lot lately, and Chrissie Hynde has a few sappy love songs, but her love songs are mostly not. 

“I wanna do it, do it on the pavement.” That is not sappy.

Anyhoo…. Since I find all this love song stuff de-inspiring, I don’t know what’s up next. I’m not anti-love or bitter on the subject. I congratulate — and have deep respect for —  all of you who found your great love and are busy living happily ever after. That just isn’t my story. 

But why?

The model in front of me growing up wasn’t particularly happy, that’s one thing, probably, then I never wanted kids. I wanted adventure. For a while I thought a boyfriend or husband would also want adventure, and we’d go off into the world adventuring, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Even the most adventurous men I knew longed for wife and family, the ties that guys like in the movie K2 struggle against. Except one. He wanted adventure more than wife and family, and I think his romantic life has gone pretty much like mine. There is a kind of love between us, maybe a shared love of mountains, adventure and words, mutual esteem. Anyway, I treasure it, maybe partly because it’s love that doesn’t show up in love songs. 

In any case, I wonder what the protagonist will do so that I can write his story? I see him influenced by Goliard love songs, in a moment of heated passion impregnating a girl, then facing the betrayal of romance, thrown out of his monastery, sent wandering over the Alps to teach Martin to paint and then in his own Paul on the Road to Damascus moment realizing there is no better lover than art and returning to the monastery, seeing it as his best bet for a life as an artist. Maybe he’ll go that way. 

Ars longa, labilis est dilectio

The Wonderfulness of Ignorance and the Limitations of School

I was a teacher. I even — as a student — mostly liked school. BUT I had a dad who was maybe a little unusual. In second grade when I decided to become an archeologist, my dad handed me the book, Rivers in the DesertIn second grade, I couldn’t read it, but I could KIND of read it and I thought it was GREAT that I was lying on my stomach kind of reading a grown up book about archeology in a place very far away. The Negev Desert — what the book is about — showed up again later in my life when I was ten and saw David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Of course THAT led to my first love, T. E. Lawrence, and reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom. ❤ Good times.

I didn’t know what foundation all that was building until grad school, which I hated. By then I had learned that I am a self-directed learner and the greatest thing I got as a kid is curiosity and the willingness to do research. The best thing I got in grad school was a refinement of the research skills I’d learned all through school.

School is bullshit except for the things it teaches you how to do. You might learn some interesting stuff, too, you might get a foundation in the mainstream basics of everything (I did and it was great!) but, as I used to try to explain to my university students, anything you WANT to learn you’re on your own. Godwilling you have good tools.

One of the things that happened to me as a student in university — undergrad — was the discovery of an interest in what people in the past were ACTUALLY doing on a more individual level. You can’t get much of that in a history class.

Human life is a tapestry; even looking at my OWN life I see that. Maybe this will make sense. Today I spent alone, in pain from physical therapy yesterday, I was tired, but I walked the dogs which was nice, I fussed on my front flower beds and talked to the mailman and planted my second Scarlet Emperor Bean in a pot. I had contact with friends via computer and I missed a phone call. BUT — an example of just one design — in Colorado Springs, at the hospital where I will have surgery, they’re busy trying to get me organized for that. In the background, a nurse is planning a phone call because I don’t want to drive 3 hours for the pre-surgery class and 3 hours back and board the dogs. MY part of the tapestry (that they weren’t aware of) is where I live. THEIR part is to get me ready. WE have to come together and work that out. I will answer the phone at 10 am and we’ll weave our parts together for a little interval.

That’s how I think about the past or the lives of characters in my novels. I am interested in what ordinary individual (probably fictional) people were doing in an ordinary day. That isn’t taught in school. Martin of Gfenn is full of details of life in Zürich in the 13th century. To write it, I had to become a medievalist. I wasn’t before. I’d “specialized” in 19th century American literature, but that’s minor. It was the way I learned to do research. And how did I get interested in something like that, anyway? I was following an Irish monk (St. Gall) whom I’d just learned about and my friend’s mom said he should take me to see the little medieval church in the village of Gfenn. It was nearby, so why not? Well, turned out the pamphlet explained (in German which I could barely decode) that it had been part of a leper community in the 13th century.

I knew nothing about the 13th century, leprosy or Swiss history at that moment but my curiosity was piqued and I had been struck by the paintings on the walls inside the little church.

In my new role as a medievalist (Swiss medievalist to add absurdity to absurdity) I was frustrated because I couldn’t answer questions. It was only when I found — and hung out with — a Swiss Medievalist Historian who was interested in the same period in the same place, that I understood, “We don’t know.” We were “in” the 13th century, and the further back you look through time’s reverse telescope, the less certain knowledge there is.

To make it worse (better? more interesting?)  history like all other aspects of scholarship these days, is making giant strides thanks to technology. What was believed to be true about lepers in the high middle ages at the time I began writing the novel (1998) had been disproven by paleohistorians by the time the novel was pretty much finished (2005). In MY case, because I prefer primary sources — the words, paintings and artifacts of people living at the time — it wasn’t much of a problem for me. Nothing in the primary sources said ANYTHING remotely resembling the common view of the medieval leper as it was perceived in 1998 (marginalized, shunned, and persecuted). Nothing.

The most important thing is never what we KNOW but what we don’t know and how curious we are to learn more. I do a lot of research because I write historical fiction and I care a LOT about capturing the moments of people in my stories. I don’t write historical romances or didactic, polemic fiction to push an agenda. I have no agenda and romance is (to me) just pretty boring.

I don’t know why I write historical fiction. No idea at all. But when I get into a “new” world I love it. It’s like a great glowing labyrinth I can just wander in and glean what I need for the “world” that will (hopefully) live between the covers of a book. All the schooling I’ve brought with me to my novels is how to read, write, and do research. The facile superficial present-centric stuff that passed for history in my education doesn’t begin to help me — but every once in a while some little bit of it gleams, “Hey! Look at me! I’m useful!”

The biggest moment of THAT was when I was living in China in the early 80s and WISHED I’d paid attention to that paragraph in my sophomore world history class on the Boxer Rebellion. BUT the humiliating recognition of how my juvenile hubris betrayed me later in life was a lesson in itself.

As a teacher, I believed the best thing I could offer my students was something worth pursuing — they were already trained to pursue a grade, but an idea? Or a fact? Or a better answer? That was (for a lot of them) something new. But that was the best thing I got out of my time as a student — the desire to learn and the drive to pursue what I wanted to know. As for why I’m a writer, I have no idea other than I like it.

The upshot is that I know a lot of weird stuff no one needs to know and that isn’t useful to anyone but me. The way I see it, everyone else knows weird stuff that’s useful to them and useless to me (until I find I need it, then I will seek you out whether you’re dead or alive). That’s the essence of the great tapestry of human knowledge and experience. Ignorance — which is so often derided — can be — is! — the launching pad for curiosity.


I haven’t been reading or responding much to others blogs because I’ve been in thrall to the novel I’m working on. I now have a complete draft meaning I know who the people are and where the story goes, but the characters are incomplete as people.

I thought it would be useful to me (and anyone who might read the book later!) to find out what readers (you) like. I’d be very grateful for answers to the following few questions regarding what you like to see in characters, especially (but not only) characters in historical fiction.

If you could respond in comments it would be great. The most useful way for me would be something simple like V – 2. Other comments are also very much appreciated.

Thank you!

I. How important is it for you to know what the people in the story are wearing?
1 — very important
2 — useful in understanding the era
3 — doesn’t matter to me at all

II. How much detail do you want of how the people live?
1 — I want to know everything
2 — Just enough to get a sense of the time
3 — I only like enough detail to move the story along

III. How much do you want from the author about the personalities of the characters?
1 — A lot. I want the author to describe the characters personalities in detail
2 — Just enough to get a sense of how the characters might act in certain situations
3 — The author should stay out of it and let the characters reveal their personalities through their choices and behavior

IV. How much do you want to know about what the characters look like?
1 — I want detailed description of the appearance of the important characters
2 — Just enough so that I have a sense of who each character is; I’ll fill in the blanks with my imagination.

V. How much description do you want of settings in a story?
1 — Give me a detailed description of every place the characters go. It’s the past and I don’t live there.
2 — I want a sense of the appearance of things — enough description that I know how they conduct their daily lives but not so much that I feel I’m in a museum
3 — I like descriptions of things as the characters themselves notice them because their world is normal to them.

Non-Fiction in Fiction

IndieBRAG has invited me to write several posts on their blog. Here is the second:

“Non-Fiction and the Brothers Path”

My consuming interest as a writer of historical fiction is to get as close as I can to the daily life of my characters who are, usually, just ordinary people. I’m most interested in how these sweeping events that are sketched for us in “history” were in their lives. With The Brothers Path I had some very intriguing facts on which to hang the story.

Here is the first post, Inspiration’s Mysterious Power.