Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

 

There’s a certain era of British history that writers write about maybe more than the medieval era. This era witnessed unprecedented growth and change for the British empire, as well as many of the greatest contributions to literature in the past three hundred years. Not to mention a whole lot of material for bodice rippers and horror stories.

I’m talking about the Victorian era. Named, rather obviously, after Queen Victoria, who sat on the British throne from June 1837 until January 1901. This has long been an era of interest to authors of a number of different genres, as well as among the general populace. Every year, hundreds of works of fiction come out set in that era: novels and short stories, movies, TV shows, comic books. We also have at least a couple of new books on any given topic of the era, and there are Victorian enthusiasts all over the world who research that age like crazy and even like to dress up as Victorians.

But what is it about the Victorian era that entrances people? Why do so many authors visit this age to write?* Well, I have a few guesses as to why that is:

  • The romance and glitz of the era. I think this is our first association with the Victorian age. I don’t know where or when this association popped up, but it’s the main reason. More than any other reason, there’s a romanticism to that age. Perhaps it might have something to do with the number of famous novels that came out during that era. A number of them have romance as an important plot or subplot. And as many of these books have endured the test of time, they’ve colored our associations of that age.
    Which brings me to the next point:

  • The literature. While I’m not the biggest fan of the Victorians’ writing style (racism aside, if he weren’t a halfway decent writer, I’d give up on Lovecraft for taking too much after them), it’s undeniable that many of the authors from that age left quite a mark on our modern literature. We still read Charles Dickens in classrooms across the world, and there are countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol out there. The Bronte sisters have all created works that have been held up as timeless romances for generations of readers. And as my good friend Angela Misri will tell you, no character has become more synonymous with the word “detective” than Sherlock Holmes. Truly the literature of the age has had an effect on our view of it.
  • An era of widespread change. Victorian Britain went through an amazing number of changes during Victoria’s reign. The most obvious, of course, was this was the age of the Industrial Revolution. Factories and manufacturing became the hub of the economy, and millions moved to the cities to find work. This change also contributed to a number of new work practices, as well as contributing to the overcrowding of cities and the widening gap between the rich and the poor that we still see today. This was also when Britain spread its empire across the world and into new territories, including parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
    But there were other changes. For example, who was allowed to vote was widened, women gained many more rights, and education became available to the lower classes. And that’s just scratching the surface of the number of changes that occurred while Victoria was on the throne.

And of course, Jack the Ripper’s the perfect embodiment of the age’s dark side.

  • Victorian Britain had a dark and dirty underbelly. While most of us associate the era with glitz and romance, there’s a darker side to Queen Victoria’s age. Poverty was widespread, and many people struggled to make ends meet. Women often had to turn to prostitution just to get a bite to eat or a place to sleep for the night. Many turned to alcohol or opium to numb their troubles. This was the background that allowed Jack the Ripper to hunt down those prostitutes.
    On top of that, medicine, cosmetics, and foods were more likely to kill out of you than help you. Opium or arsenic in your gout cure, lead in your foundation, poor refrigeration and rat droppings in your meat. Hell, your clothes could choke you to death and the dyes could stain your skin for months. People bathed only once a week, and the rest of the time they used heavy perfumes to mask the smell. And if you lived in London, you could expect mud and shit to line the roads rather than bricks!
    And God help you if you had a mental illness. Or a woman who wanted anything more than being a dutiful wife and mother. You could get locked up and have cold water dumped on your head from great heights while doctors came up with all sorts of crazy reasons for why you were mad. Common reasons include not being religious enough, having faulty menstruation, or masturbating.
    Yeah, you laugh, but imagine having to live through it. Pretty nasty, right? It was even worse if you were Irish. The Irish potato famine was going on around this time, and let me tell you, the folks in Parliament could’ve done a lot more to help out with that.
  • It lends itself to many genres. This is probably the biggest reason of all: it’s adaptable to many stories. Historical fiction, obviously, but you’ll find the Victorians appearing in many different kinds of stories. Romances are often set in that world, but also science fiction (steampunk especially), horror stories (Gothic and ghost stories especially, and some cosmic horror too), fantasies (especially ones with fairies or little girls falling down rabbit holes) and of course, mysteries and thrillers.

All these and more are why the Victorians enjoy such staying power in our media. It’s a perfect storm of factors for making a time period not only endure in literature, but give it a special cast that makes it interesting to the writer and average person alike.

I actually first fell in love with the Victorians while in college. I read a manga set in Victorian England, and while it was heavy on the romance and glitz, it got me interested. I’ve kept reading since then, and found out quite a bit more. And seeing as during my research, I’ve come up with more than a few ideas for stories, all that research will definitely come in handy.

If you would like to dive into the Victorian world and learn a bit about it, here are my recommendations:

If you want a good intro to Victorian England, this might be a good gateway drug for it.

  • Emma by Kaoru Mori. In no way related to the novel by Jane Austen, this historical romance manga was my first real introduction to the Victorian period. Beautiful art and a simple yet engaging story.
  • Victorian Britain from The Great Courses. Narrated by Professor Allitt of Emory University, this series of lectures is a great overview of the period for the average visitor.
  • The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow. You want to know the most about the most notorious serial killer in history and cut through all the rumor and bullshit? This is the book for you.
  • How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman. You want to know what the average life of a Victorian was like? From rich to poor, this is the book for you.
  • Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson. A friend from college sent this to me as a birthday present. It’s a rather eye-opening look at Queen Victoria’s life and reign.
  • Unmentionable by Therese O’Neill. Want to know all about Victorian bathroom habits, and the stuff they don’t talk about in the bodice rippers or polite society? You will laugh yourself silly with this one. Trust me, I just finished it yesterday, I would know.

Well, I’ve about talked your ear off on this age. But can you see why? It’s a fascinating era, and it’s one that’s going to continue to show up in fiction for years to come (especially if I can write a good story or two in it). And it’s amazing how just one woman’s reign, the first in centuries in her country that nearly never happened (seriously, read how she became heir to the throne. It’s insane!), has endured as much as it had. Whether romantic and shiny or dark and seedy, there’s a story in this era just for you.

Do you enjoy or write about Victorian England? Why? Why do you think it’s so popular?

What media do you recommend for anyone wanting to learn about the era?

*I’m not suggesting, by the by, that this age is visited more than any other. One needs only look at the breadth of literature to see that storytellers are drawing from all of known history and even from dark prehistory to tell stories. I just chose Victoria’s reign because that one has special importance to me, as you can tell.

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I saw the trailer for this new Netflix film several weeks ago, and got intrigued. A British horror film taking part in Edwardian England and involving an isolated cult? Where do I sign up? So last night I made some popcorn and logged in to check it out.

Holy shit, I think we have a winner here!

Apostle follows Thomas Richardson, the prodigal son of a wealthy family with a past who comes home when he finds out that his sister has been kidnapped for ransom by a cult living on an isolated island off the coast of Wales. He goes undercover and joins the cult to save his sister, but finds that things on the island are not all that seem. Thus begins a twisted descent into insanity, religious zeal, and blood that will leave no one untouched.

This movie is wonderfully fucked-up. It starts out slow with very few hints of anything off, but over time throws in hints of how messed up things are, mainly strange actions on the part of the characters. As the film goes on, these hints become more obvious and horrific, involving blood, strange sights, and much worse. It creates this very unnerving atmosphere al a The Shining, only by the final third the film can sustain the intensity and somehow keep building on it. Just when you think that this film can’t get any more horrifying, it throws something new–a revelation about the characters, body horror, etc–to throw you for a loop. There were more than a few times I felt myself gripping my computer with white knuckles because of what I was seeing on screen.

The acting is great. I forgot that I was watching people in roles and thought they were the people they were playing for most of the film. And I especially liked how the film mainly relied on practical effects and only used CGI for minor touches. I prefer practical effects to CGI in most instances, and it’s good to see the director, Gareth Evans, seems to share my preferences. And a good thing too, as all the practical effects give this film’s body horror elements a realism that makes it especially disturbing and which would’ve lost their power if CGI or some other trick had been used.

If this film does have an issue, the plot does seem to meander at times. There are numerous subplots that are woven into the film, and while the majority of them do get resolved, a few don’t (what about that oath? Why wasn’t that picked up?). That might work better in a novel, where we can see the characters’ thoughts and that sort of thing can be explained, but in a film it’s a problem. So some people might find the story slow or boring because of the way the plot is set up.

All in all though, Apostle is a terrifying and powerful film and possibly a new classic of the genre that will stay with viewers long after they’ve logged off Netflix. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Apostle a 4.6.  If you’re brave enough, go check it out and begin your spiral into a world of trauma and terror that is rarely put to film.

Also, I wish the director Gareth Evans, who only has one other horror credit on his director’s belt, comes back to the genre soon. If Apostle is anything to judge by, I look forward to seeing what else he can contribute.

I have not been blogging much in the last week or so, though I’ve read just about every blog post that shows up in my inbox. This is partly because I haven’t had anything I’ve felt passionate enough to blog about and because of time constraints, but it’s mostly because of the story I’ve been working on lately. You see, this story is challenging me as a writer, and the challenge has me engrossed, more so than a test engrosses Hermione Granger around exam time (oh Harry Potter, you always give me something when I ask). It’s so engrossing, that it’s taking up all my creative energies, leaving me unable to blog or even come up with new ideas for stories (though I already have more ideas than I know what to do with, so that’s not a huge problem).

Some of you may remember that I started working on a story I thought might become a novelette or novella in between drafts of Rose back in October or November. After finishing the short story Do-Over the other day, I started working on this story again, and as I said, it’s been challenging. On a number of levels, actually: for one thing, there’s an anthology I’ve heard about that’s looking for stories of a certain word length, so I’m trying to write this story to keep it within the anthology’s word limits. Yeah, I know I should let the story be whatever length it’s meant to be, but after expanding Rose to twice its word length last year because it was suggested I do just that, I feel like I can aim for a certain word count and still get a good story out of it.

Another reason it’s challenging is because of the narrator. Like Rose, I’m telling this story through the eyes of a first-person narrator, which means I’m reliant on her as a narrator to tell the story and to create a good horror ambiance. But at the same time, she’s got a history, a personality, and observations that she’s putting into her story. It’s less like I’m writing the story and I’m channeling my narrator as she’s telling the story, though I do have the power to go in and make changes as needed. And creating that horror ambiance while balancing my narrator’s voice and what she feels is necessary to put into her story, such as her interactions with her husband, isn’t that easy.

Did I mention that this story also takes place over thirty years before I was born, in a state I’ve only visited once? Well, it does, so in addition to being a horror story, it’s also historical fiction, and I’m working hard to recreate an age and place I’ve never experienced, with all the fashions, technology, and attitudes in place. It’s a lot of work, to say the least.

And on top of that, you have all the normal challenges of storytelling: making a story interesting, pacing, showing vs. telling, dialogue, word choice, et cetera, et cetera. I’ve got my work cut out for me.

But honestly, I think it’s all worth it. Because in my experience, if a novel challenges the writer, it’s going to be a better story in the end. Look at Rose: that novel challenged me every time I worked on it. The first draft alone, I had to go back to the very beginning and start over again because I had to totally reroute the path the story was taking. During the third draft, I added forty-thousand words, a whole new plot line, and even a character or two just to make the story not only longer, but better. And in the end, I created one hell of a story that I feel has a great chance of publication. Hopefully with this story I can get a similar outcome.

Stories can be challenging to write sometimes. It may be difficult to get the words on the page, but in the end, with a lot of work, I think it can lead to a really compelling story. And I’m looking forward to seeing if, after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, I can wrangle out a good story here.

I’ve mentioned plenty of times before on this blog how much I love manga and anime. I’ve even written before how writers should check it out for a boost to their creativity. Well today, I’d like to talk about my favorite manga series, Red River by Chie Shinohara, which ran in Japan from 1995 to 2002. I absolutely love this series, and have since I discovered it prior to entering college seven years ago (and for numerous reasons, it took me nearly that long to get each volume and read it). I’m actually rereading it now, and I’m still in love with the story.

With the awesomeness of this series, it’s one I actually don’t see a lot of people talking about, so I thought I’d do a review to spread the word a bit. I don’t know if this post will get a lot of reads, or if the review will get a lot of people interested in reading the manga, but you never know. So without further ado, let me tell you about Red River:

The manga follows Yuri Suzuki, a Japanese teenager who finds herself pulled through time and space to the Hittite Empire in ancient Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). She’s been brought there because Nakia, the current queen and the emperor’s third wife, needs to make sure her son, who’s rather low in the succession order, attains the throne and a special sacrifice is needed. Yuri is meant to be that sacrifice, and narrowly avoids being killed thanks to the intervention of Prince Kail, the third Hittite prince. Together, they try to find a way to get Yuri home, while also circumnavigating not only Nakia’s schemes for power, but the schemes of others who would do them and the Hittite Empire harm, and at the same time finding something in each other they couldn’t find in anyone else.

This is a story of the same stripe as Game of Thrones: struggles for power in a grand empire, magic, history, battles with swords and chariots, romance, an exotic setting and a rich culture, and some great characters whom you grow to love and root for (and somehow remember a lot more easily despite the Mesopotamian/Biblical names).  And the characters are the best part:

First off, there’s Yuri, our heroine. I love this sort of character. While she starts off as a damsel-in-distress, she grows throughout the story, showing strong nerve, cleverness, and a desire to do what’s right, which allows her to save herself from difficult situations and gain several followers along the way. Prince Kail, based on the historical Mursili II, initially comes off as a playboy prince, but over time reveals a young man with the weight of the empire on his shoulders. He’s a brilliant politician and tactician, occasionally rash and impulsive, but above all loyal to those he loves and will go out of their way to help them if he can. And Queen Nakia is the villain Cersei Lannister aspires to be: while she’s beautiful, she doesn’t rely on her looks. Instead she uses a combination of magic, political power, brains, and manipulation to accomplish her goals. She doesn’t necessarily even need Yuri’s death to accomplish those goals, it’s just Plan A. And believe me, if she sees an opportunity, she’ll develop a Plan B, C and D.

A full-color shot from Red River.

The storytelling is also phenomenal, taking actual historic events and people and weaving them seamlessly into a story that also manages to balance intrigue and romance very well. In addition to Nakia, there are other enemies, usually enemy states and their leaders, who attempt to conquer the Hittite Empire or just to the characters themselves. Throughout the series, suspense is kept high with a variety of plots against the characters, as well as numerous twists that keep readers on their toes. And the romance is never too sappy or idealistic, but often shows how the leads have to struggle not only to make their relationship work, but also to make it legal in the eyes of the Hittite Empire (politics, am I right?).

And finally, there’s the art style. It’s meant to be quite appealing to readers, with characters having proportions similar to what they might have in the real world. There’s also plenty of attention to detail when it comes to locations and attire, which one would expect for a series like this. It all comes together in a visually pleasing package, which is what manga artists go for, so good on that.

Sadly, Red River never had an anime produced, but the manga is available in the United States and Canada (I think, anyway). If you want a story that encompasses ancient Middle Eastern history while filled with intrigue, magic, and romance, this may be the story for you. Check it out, and dive into what could definitely be called a whole new world.