Writing

  • Historical fiction as a time machine

    Historical fiction as a time machine - Vanderbilt mansion, Fifth Avenue, 1910
    Fifth Avenue, Vanderbilt mansion and Plaza Hotel, 1910

    Historical fiction as a time machine

    What is the appeal of historical fiction – does it function as a time machine?

    If you’ve ever pored over an old photograph like the one above, it might be the mystery and appeal of a lost world.

    There’s something romantic about vanished buildings like the Vanderbilt mansion – the largest private residence ever built in New York City.

    No one will ever walk up those steps to the entrance ever again. No one will ever walk the hallways. No one will ever pull aside the curtains and look out onto Fifth Avenue.

    It is a ghost house that recently drew my attention when a coloured version was posted on a Twitter account.

    The family who lived there are all dead. The maids who dusted and cleaned are long gone. The street looks very different today.

    The only way to visit this world is to study photographs. Or to read accounts of the area and the vanished house itself.

    Of course, with fiction, we can not only visit the past but use it as inspiration for new stories.

    What if there was a similar mansion belonging to a fictional family? Who might this family be? How did they build their fortune?

    And what dramatic events might take place in the house? What mysteries and secrets? Not just among the family, but also among those who worked there.

    Lost houses and mysterious houses are a common theme in fiction.

    Cornelius II Vanderbilt Mansion

    The real house was built in 1883, along the west side of Fifth Avenue to West 58th Street. It was a product of the Gilded Age and possessed 130 rooms.

    The owner, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was the eldest grandchild of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune.

    It wasn’t the only house Cornelius II owned, and 13 years after moving in, he suffered a stroke. His last three years were spent in a wheelchair.

    The house was six stories tall, not including the basement. On the first floor, there was a two-story ballroom and a two-story dining room, plus a salon, a smoking room, a den, an office, a library, a breakfast room, and much more.

    His wife’s bedroom, boudoir, bath, closet and dressing room were on the second floor. Cornelius’s bedroom was also there, along with his bathroom, dressing room, closet, and private study.

    In addition to the 130 rooms, there was a stable and private garden next door.

    After Cornelius’s death, his wife Alice lived on at the mansion with the 37 servants required to run the house. But she no longer entertained guests. Eventually she sold the house in 1926. Since the developers were only interested in the land, and not the house itself, it was demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store.

    Vanderbilt mansion, 1908

    The Gilded Era

    In The Age of Innocence (1920), which is set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton describes a house of this type early on. I’ve bolded anything relating to the description of the Beaufort house:

    The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott’s and the Headly Chiverses’); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought “provincial” to put a “crash” over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.

    To be able to shut up a ballroom for 364 days of the year is a sign of pure luxury… and pure waste. Further down the page, Wharton says:

    … and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort’s marriage it was admitted that she had the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort’s heavy brown-stone palace, and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot-house flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing-rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing-room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: “My wife’s gloxinias are a marvel, aren’t they? I believe she gets them out from Kew.”

    And further down still:

    The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball. The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and the ball-room chairs. They had also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess’s bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said that he supposed all his wife’s friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffees when they left home.

    Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.

    Newland Archer, as became a young man of his position, strolled in somewhat late. He had left his overcoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockings were one of Beaufort’s few fatuities), had dawdled a while in the library hung with Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few men were chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, and had finally joined the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufort was receiving on the threshold of the crimson drawing-room.

    Edith Wharton’s book was written long after the 1870s, but it still acts as a time machine. Wharton herself described it as “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”

    In an article in 2020, Hillary Kelly wrote that Wharton’s “status made her story more than believable—it made the story real … Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of The Age of Innocence and weaponized it.”

    The Age of Innocence is available on Project Gutenberg for anyone who wants to read it. The excerpts above are from Chapter three.

    Wikipedia article on the house.

  • #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    Are you currently engaged in National Novel Writing Month? Have you been furiously writing away and watching your word count build as the days go on? With the middle of the month approaching, maybe you’re already suffering from #NaNoWriMo Burnout?

    Maybe you’ve even fallen behind or dropped out. Due to that one or two days when you couldn’t get any writing done… You felt like you’d failed and you dropped out.

    Or maybe you picked up your thread again, but those missing days still bug the hell out of you.

    Don’t heap unnecessary pressure on yourself

    The truth is, with everything else that’s going on – Covid, lockdowns, restrictions, job worries – you don’t need the added stress of writing obligations.

    Or a feeling that you’ve somehow failed.

    #NaNoWriMo is great for getting people engaged in an activity for a fixed period of time, where you can also talk to other participants.

    But if you find it’s all getting too much, it’s perfectly okay to drop out.

    Your health is more important than a word count

    First of all, your health and wellbeing come first. Secondly, your writing won’t necessarily benefit from you feeling stressed out and under some kind of obligation to produce.

    If you feel that NaNoWriMo is the boot up the backside you need to get you motivated, there are others ways to get the same results. And they don’t involve the same short-term pressures.

    If you can find a writing group – including an online writing group – that would certainly help motivate you.

    You could also try and find some accountability partners. It can be one or two and then check in with them periodically. Set reasonable goals for the next check-in.

    Never set unreasonable goals. You’re just setting yourself up to fail and feel bad about it.

    And that can keep you trapped in a negative downward cycle of ‘what’s the point’ and ‘I can’t do this’.

    One technique I found helpful in the past

    One thing I’ve found helpful in the past is writing down a word count for each day. Even if it was just 30 words. Tiny word counts were fine because there were other days when the count would be in the thousands.

    Momentum was the key.

    I could count up the words at the end of each month, each quarter, each half-year, and each year.

    Over the years, the overall word count went up dramatically.

    At first, there was novelty and enthusiasm. Then there was the sense of obligation and the grind of having to do it. This is why even allowing small word counts can help. After a while, I had to write and if I didn’t there was a feeling of dissatisfaction. I didn’t associate it with a sense of failure or duty either. It had more to do with the feeling that writing was such a part of my daily life that I missed it and didn’t feel right when it wasn’t there.

    Nevertheless, we’re all allowed breaks.

    If you feel that a month of writing isn’t for you, it’s fine to take a step back. Never mind what other people are doing. Writing is not a competition – though it might feel like it is sometimes when you’re on social media.

    Still intent on finishing #NaNoWriMo?

    If you’re feeling a bit burned out, but you still want to continue, remember to take breaks. Go for a walk. Listen to music.

    If you need help concentrating, you can use a social media blocker like Cold Turkey.

    You can also use a Pomodoro timer to pace yourself.

    Whatever you write this month is just a jumping-off point, not the end goal. You can rework it later. Or even run off with a side character and live happily ever after in a new plot/novel!

  • Fear of exposure in first-person narrative

    Fear of exposure in first person narrative
    Fear of exposure in first-person narrative can lead to self-censorship

    Have you ever struggled to write a story based on personal experience because you fear revealing yourself in some particularly vulnerable way? While there are writers who prefer to deal with fictional stories, others weave in the events of their lives, including painful experiences, traumas, and things they’ve never spoken about before.

    They give these experiences to fictional characters, in possibly fictional settings, distancing the narrative from the real-life details. And yet, in spite of these distancing techniques, for the author it might feel just a bit too uncomfortable.

    Self-censorship is often a problem for writers. Even when it comes to fiction, a writer may fear readers will assume a biographical element. One reason is the way literature is often taught in school. We’re encouraged to explore where a writer’s themes and subject matter may intersect with their own life.

    You can see it with writers like Fitzgerald. His history with Ginevra King and her influence on characters like Daisy Buchanan and Judy Jones can lead to readers assuming writers, in general, use real people or events as inspiration. However, it would be a mistake to assume too much about what is and isn’t true. But knowing some readers have those assumptions might give a writer pause.

    Another issue is how much more personal a narrative becomes when it’s written in first person. Even when the character is completely fictional and not a fictionalised version of the writer, there is still the fear of exposure or discovery. An author might worry about what family and friends will think – this is especially true when it comes to erotic writing.

    But when it comes to actual traumatic events and experiences, writing in first person might get closer to the experience. Yet sometimes it can be too painful, or too risky. It can seem like crossing from a fictionalised account into something closer to memoir.

    And when it comes to painful subjects, writers might prefer to maintain some distance. You can achieve this by using third person. This might help achieve some objectivity, and possibly allows the author the space to explore things without self-censorship. When you’re worried readers and family will assume something is true, you might find yourself hiding the truth and hiding too much. And then you can run into a serious writing block.

    This is why it’s worth considering a third-person point of view to get around these issues. Writers might be put off using third person because it seems more distant. This is because a lot of third-person narratives can be an over-the-shoulder perspective that doesn’t really dwell much in the character’s head.

    But it’s totally possible to dig deeper using deep third. Here the character’s thoughts and the narrative merge together to become the narrative. It also avoids the problem of writing thoughts in italics or using thought tags and other filter words.

    You can also tackle painful personal topics by changing the gender or age of your main character. You can set your story in a different time and/or place. This can help you establish a safe distance if you feel that’s necessary.

    You can also use a mixture of strategies – third person/different age/different location or time period.

    Fear of exposure in first-person narrative is a real issue. But if you really want to write about an experience without self-revelation you have a range of options. You don’t have to self-censor if you don’t want to. You don’t have to allow fear of exposure and the judgement of others to silence your voice.

    Other IndieCat Editorial posts that might interest you

    When dialogue ruins your scenes.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    Are you wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?

  • How to order the stories in a collection

    How to order the stories in a collection.
    How to order the stories in a collection

    How do you order the stories in a short story collection? What kind of strategy should you be using? Time to get out a pen and paper!

    The reason this subject is dear to me right now is based on two things:

    • I am currently trying to put together my own collection of stories that have been previously published in various journals and online sites
    • I am currently engaged in a daily short story read – which will run either for a month or, if I keep it up, for an entire year

    So, I’m going to break this down into different parts.

    Let’s start with my own collection. I have a choice between literary, magical realism, and genre fiction. The first two go together. The second two might go together depending on which particular stories I choose.

    But all three don’t go together.

    There’s too big a jump in atmosphere, style, etc. And one thing I don’t want is to introduce disruption or speed bumps for the reader.

    I decided to read through the rough manuscript from start to finish. I wasn’t trying to figure out the order at this point so much as what didn’t belong.

    Sure enough, there was one story that didn’t seem to fit with the others. I had already removed some others, so it was a matter of refining it further. This did not decide the order, but it did give me an idea of what will fit and what won’t.

    I will probably go through this process a few times just to keep checking. Especially since there are one or two stories still to be added.

    In terms of fitting in, it’s not about whether it’s good enough. It’s whether it just seems out of place. Stories that aren’t good enough shouldn’t be included in the first place.

    Of course, one temptation is to mix the best stories with some fillers – that way you can save some of the other best stories for another collection, along with more fillers. This might work if you’re prioritising publication over quality.

    If you’re playing a slightly longer game, you can add and remove stories over time, until you feel you’ve reached the ideal mix. This means not committing to publication too soon. You might still have some new stories that will fit in better.

    One important thing to remember about a short story collection is that it’s like a calling card for the rest of your writing.

    Of course, the rest of your writing might also be shorter fiction. Alice Munroe is famous for her short fiction. And writers who excel at the short story don’t necessarily do as well with novels.

    So, while a short story collection could act as a calling card for your novel, it might just be an introduction to more of your shorter fiction.

    Short story collections are hard to publish via the traditional route. This is where indie publishing is a great option. But as an indie writer, you also have to decide on what to include, and the order in which the stories will appear.

    And you might find yourself perplexed by the options – what to include, plus the order.

    Do you start off with the best story? The title story?

    And now that we’re talking about titles, do you name the collection after the best story in the book?

    Or do you take a title from the collection that best illustrates any themes in the book?

    Or maybe you have a title that isn’t referencing a story at all.

    Even there, the title should in some way reflect what the book is about. Are the stories in a particular genre? Are they love stories? Science fiction stories? Are they stories all set on Mars? Are they steampunk tales? Do they all centre on the same theme?

    Unless you have a definite title in mind early on, you might want to put the title problem aside while you deal with the final list of works and the order in which they appear.

    So, what’s the best order?

    One thing you can do is look at the choices made in other books. During my daily short story challenge, I looked at order choices, and sometimes it’s interesting and other times it’s not helpful at all.

    For writers whose work has been released as an entire collection, the stories might be arranged in chronological order. The Elizabeth Bowen collection I recently purchased, which runs to 880 pages, is arranged from First Stories, to The Twenties, The Thirties, The War Years, and Post-War Stories.

    I’ve seen other collected works with chronological ordering. But for a first-time collection, this is not your best option. Though, if like Bowen your writing covers a long period of time, there might be a reason to do it.

    Then again, she’s famous and her reputation was well-established before the collected stories were published.

    So, what about other authors and collections?

    In an edition of Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F Scott Fitzgerald, the title story is the first in the collection. The second story in the collection is a pre-Gatsby story and one of his best, so it can be said that this book gets off to a strong start. Which is exactly what you want in a collection.

    If a reader starts at the beginning, you want to wow them from the start. Especially if they’re sampling your book on Kindle (the opening pages) or in a bookstore.

    In Alice Munroe’s Runaway, the first story is the title story of the book. But in Barbara Gowdy’s classic collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, the title story is the second last in the book. It’s also the most memorable and was made into a film.

    In Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, the title story is the first in the book. It also benefits from having been adapted to the screen. It’s a famous story further boosted by a famous and classic film.

    In Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection, the title story is the very last one in the book.

    While Tanith Lee’s classic feminist fairy tale collection, Red as Blood, has the title story as number two in the list.

    Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection, which includes The Company of Wolves, starts with the title story. Meanwhile, The Company of Wolves is second last, showing again that collections benefit from strong endings.

    Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others has the title story (later filmed as Arrival) as number three in the contents list.

    Back to Tanith Lee and the title story in The Gorgon is the first story in the book. And in Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, the title story comes first again.

    And so it goes on.

    I found other Tanith Lee collections where the title story came first.

    And others where the title of the book did not match any story. And this is not unusual either. Sometimes a title comes from a quote or is meant to represent in some way the theme of the collection.

    In Women as Demons, there is no story of that name in the book, but the first story is The Demoness. Which is the nearest to the collection’s title.

    In Anna Gavalda’s I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere – no story comes close to the book’s title.

    So, using a pre-existing story title is a popular choice. It’s also common for that story to kick off the collection or be close to the beginning. It can also be close to the end.

    This then brings us to the overall structure of a collection.

    In a novel, you want a powerful opening, a strong middle, and a memorable end. A collection should work the same way. The final stories should leave the reader wanting more. The middle shouldn’t flag. But you can include quieter stories in the places in between – just don’t have a bunch of them together, dragging down the pace.

    Besides, you should be choosing the best stories anyway. This can include much shorter fiction.

    This then brings us to the problem of readers ignoring the chosen order of a collection.

    I admit that I’m one of those readers. I study the contents list and choose on the basis of intriguing title, or length.

    I’m particularly likely to pick a shorter story if I have less time, am feeling tired, or I’m just getting to know a writer.

    If I know I really like a writer’s work, then I’ll tackle the longer stories. Of course, this is something of a generalisation. However, it does introduce a wild card into the ordering of the stories.

    You just don’t know what the reader will start with. But you do know if they’re sampling on Kindle, they will be looking at the opening pages. So, you absolutely want those to perform well. Likewise, with any book, you want a powerful ending.

    What about grouping together stories that are very similar? This could work really well – you could even divide your collection into sections, like the parts of a book. However, if they’re too similar, putting them together will lead to monotony.

    And putting stories that are very different back to back could work very well, or be too disruptive.

    When you’re experimenting with the order, try reading stories together to see how they bounce off one another. Play around with the order. And get some beta readers or friends to give you feedback.

    Ultimately, there is no right way to go about it, but there are some basics to keep in mind.

    It’s common to name the collection after a story in the book, but not absolutely necessary. You can come up with an alternative and even better title that fits in with the overall themes.

    You want your collection to get off to a great start. At the very least the first two to three stories should be very strong. Likewise the final stories. You also need a strong middle. Include your best stories, but they also have to be the stories that best fit the collection.

    If you find quite a few of your stories follow a theme, this will give you some ideas for the overall title or even the order of the stories.

    Also, if you have strong stories with a shorter word count, they can be a great introduction to new readers who are dipping into your collection for the first time.

    Another thing worth remembering is to focus more on previously published stories. This is because new stories should usually be sent out to magazines or online sites first.

    If you can get your stories published at a journal or magazine, you can use this as PR for your later collection. You can also use newer stories you’re just getting published in magazines to promote an existing collection – via the author bio that comes with your story.

    If you want a second opinion on what to include or the order of stories in the collection, feel free to contact me to discuss your project.

    Other blog posts that might be of interest:

    When dialogue ruins your scenes.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    Are you wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?