Thursday, November 1st, 2012

My Misbegotten Historical Romance

As National Novel Writing Month gets underway, here's the first in a month-long series about the novels that we started writing but, for whatever reason, never finished.

In the fall of 1998, I was at UC Berkeley, mired in the early stages of a history Ph.D. program that, even in a best-case scenario, would last until 2003 and then spit me out into an increasingly tenuous academic job market—and my performance in grad school so far didn't necessarily promise a best-case scenario. I had few friends and had just had my heart broken rather badly; the latter, thankfully, served as a catalyst for some life reforms. 18 months later, I had left school with a fig-leaf master's degree, spent the money I had saved for tuition on a month in Italy, got a new job at a dot-com (it was the Bay Area in the late 90s), moved out of my grad student digs into a great new apartment, and found a new social circle of fun people who were not depressive future academics.

I was happier than I had been in years. And yet, I still felt a nagging sense of failure. I had spent a considerable amount of money (mostly my parents', admittedly) getting a history degree, and now I was editing articles about Java and Linux and not using any of that knowledge, either to better mankind or to make money. So why not write a historical novel, I thought? And since I've left academia behind, why not write the only kind of historical novel that sells: a historical romance? Thus was hatched my idea to write a book in a genre I'd never read, which would be set in a time period I hadn't actually studied, and would have a plot that hinged on the interpretation of a story from the Old Testament. It was, as far as I was concerned, a plan that could not possibly fail.


Let's start with the genre: historical romance. I did zero research about how lucrative writing a historical novel would be; I just made a bet, comparing the number of titles in the Historical Romance section at the local Barnes & Noble (dozens) to the number of historical novels elsewhere in the store (very few), that this was a market with room to break into. I also made the extremely presumptuous and almost certainly sexist assumption that a historical romance novel would be easy to write. I had failed to come anywhere close to writing a doctoral thesis, but surely I could churn out some sexy historical schlock that would pass the muster of the bored housewives who read this stuff! (I'm pretty sure I used the phrase "bored housewives" in my head, which fills me with terrible regret now.)

I picked up a couple of books off that Historical Romance shelf, more or less at random. (I wasn't quite so arrogant as to think that I could write a historical romance novel without actually reading any.) I started with the The Last Knight. I didn't like the title—it took place in the 1180s, and nothing in the book or actual history indicated that knighthood as an institution was going to end anytime soon—but other than that I enjoyed it! It was about a feisty young woman, Attica d'Alerion, who disguises herself as a boy for reasons I no longer remember (something about saving her brother?) and hooks up with brooding knight Damion de Jarnac. They spend most of the book travelling to the plot-resolving destination together, and they butt heads, and eventually he figures out she's a lady, and they fall in love. I think he impresses Henry II somehow at the end and is rewarded for it.

The second book I didn't like and didn't finish. It took place in antebellum Florida and involved a rich man's daughter being kidnapped by a Seminole "half-breed." It was kinda rapey and really racist, and by this time I had sort of lost interest in reading these things anyway. I had gotten through about one and a third historical romance novels! It was time to stop dreaming and start doing.


I needed to come up with two things before I could start writing my historical romance: A setting and a plot. Since I was writing this book with the explicit intention of cashing in on my hard-earned historical knowledge, this should have been a simple matter of picking a book off my shelf and weaving a plot atop the events described therein. There was only one problem: my specialty had been the late Roman Empire and early middle ages. This time period had once sort of fallen forgotten between the classicists and the medievalists, but by the 90s it had the exciting new label "Late Antiquity" and was in vogue and considered quite sexy in historical circles. Unfortunately, this did not translate into sex appeal of the sort beloved by historical romance enthusiasts. In fact, many of the people I had spent a lot of time studying were bishops and thus completely unacceptable as romantic protagonists, under my understanding of the somewhat straight-laced rules of the genre.

From my extremely half-assed Barnes & Noble research, it seemed to me that the two most popular historical romance subgenres were "European knights and ladies from the 1100s on" and "The American South, 1830-1865." The former was closer to my interests. I eventually settled on a setting that was on the fringes of Late Antiquity but also close enough to classic medieval Europe as to be wedged into the usual marketing: Spain in the early 700s, just after the Muslim conquest, in the inaccessible mountainous north of the country where a few Christian principalities still held out. The slight hitch was that I had never studied this period and knew next to nothing about it, but I figured my version of next to nothing was several steps ahead of the average reader's next to nothing, plus I still had my Berkeley library card.

And anyway, this gave me a chance to build on a Biblical story that had been rattling around in my head. It's found at 1 Kings 3:16-28, and even if you've never read the Bible you probably know it as the "judgment of Solomon." The gist: Two prostitutes come before Solomon with a baby, each claiming to be its mother. Solomon decrees that, since he cannot tell which woman is lying, the baby should be cut in half, with part given to each. One of the women instantly recoils and agrees to give the baby to the other; Solomon declares that she is the true mother, since she'd rather see the child live than killed.

It's usually read as a parable about love, or maternal love specifically, but there's an alternative political interpretation. The story appears in the Biblical narrative soon after Solomon becomes king of Israel; his older brother had just briefly and unsuccessfully made a bid for the throne, and there were still scions of Israel's original royal family, the one that Solomon's father David had displaced, lurking around. By spreading this story to his people, Solomon is essentially saying that he was more than willing to cut the baby—the country—in half in civil war. If you love Israel, you let the false mother—him—stay in charge.

Now jump back to early 8th-century Spain. Spain had been ruled by the Visigoths up to the Arab invasion in 711. After the conquest, all that was left of Christian Spain was the Kingdom of Asturias, a tiny statelet in the Pyrenees, ruled by Pelagius, a nobleman of obscure origins who was not related to the former royal family, at least not closely. So I suddenly had a hero: A Visigothic prince, who understands that unity in the face of the Saracens is necessary to Christendom's survival, but still smolders with resentment because he had to swear allegiance to some minor noble when the throne should rightfully be his. Smoldering is, after all, the key quality for a romance novel love interest. (The fact that Visigothic royals tended to have distinctly unromantic names like "Wamba," "Erwig," and "Wittiza" would have to be reckoned with at some point.)

The heroine would be a plucky, headstrong peasant girl who would meet up with our fallen prince, and the two of them would travel across rocky northern Spain to some destination and argue a lot (sound familiar?). At some point the King Solomon story would come up in conversation (hey, they're Christians, they'd be familiar with it), and the heroine would talk about a mother's love and how much that tale meant to her, and the prince would laugh and mansplain the secret political meaning, hard. But the heroine wouldn't know that he was a prince yet, and only later would she find out and realize why he's so angry all the time.

At some later point, the heroine would be captured by a Muslim raiding party and brought to the Arab general, who would actually be an OK guy and not, despite what I thought might be genre conventions, ravish her. She and he would sort of have a meeting of the minds a bit, though he would be distant and not a romantic rival for our prince. Later, she would escape and negotiate a truce between the Arab general and the Christians, under which her home village would be protected because the Visigothic prince would take it over and swear ill-defined loyalty to both Pelagius and the Arab general. This would be the heroine's idea, and she and the hero would get married and have babies that were not cut in half and live happily ever after.


Needless to say, I never wrote this book. In fact, the murky outline I've presented here is literally as far as I got in the planning process. You might notice that almost all of the concrete details that I did come up with have to do with things that I find interesting, whereas the falling-in-love storyline—the thing that the potential readers of this book would like, presumably—had only been vaguely sketched out and was in form mostly cribbed from another novel. This would not have been a good or successful book.

I wish I could say that it had been derailed by a sudden epiphany, that I realized how insulting it was to assume that, based on five semesters of middling graduate study and a certain facility with the English language, I could break into an established genre and become a professional. (Oh, did I mention that I had already picked out my pseudonym? "Jacqueline Primavera," because "primavera" means "spring" and so does "Fruhling" and yes, I am cringing as hard as you are right now.) I thought it would be easy to write this specifically because I held my imagined audience in contempt. This is, I think it goes without saying, a terrible reason to write a novel.

But I didn't actually realize that until years later. At the time, I just lost interest and didn't write it. Don't let anyone tell you that losing interest in difficult tasks is always a sign of sloth or lack of character. It can also be your mind's way of stopping you from embarking on monumental but misguided tasks. I did get one concrete thing out of the whole experience: a friend was setting up a new forums section for her tech site, and hired me on the sly to put up some fake seed posts to make it look like people were using it, and I borrowed names for my online personae from The Last Knight. So I spent a week or two having Attica d'Alerion and Damion de Jarnac squabbling about computer stuff, complete with sublimated romantic yearning. This was a thing you got paid to do, in the year 2000.

Would you like to read about some romance novels that did get written? Romance Novels: The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing

Would rather read some writing advice instead? Here you go: 21 Lies Writers Tell Themselves (And How They Can Stop Lying To Themselves And Become Awesome!) and Ask Polly: How Do I Beat Procrastination

Josh Fruhlinger is writing a novel now that will be done by late next year and he promises not to lose interest in it. Then after that he might start shopping this one around. He has a Tumblr and a Twitter.

9 Comments / Post A Comment

Huge blunder, dude. To me you will be "Jackie Primavera" from here to eternity.

Antennapedia (#161,290)

So, I was reading this aloud to my husband, and when I got to the "Late Antiquity" being fashionable in the late 1990's-early 2000's bit, his exact words were "Yes, and this is why we got the movie Gladiator."

Come to think of it, it's probably why that woad-daubed Kiera Knightly version of King Arthur got made, too…

questingbeast (#201,738)

Slightly tangential, but I've never understood why American PhDs are supposed to take such a long time. I've asked some American arts postgrads and their answer was basically 'well, you have to learn a language'. Which seems like a) something that should have been done earlier or b) something you should be doing in your spare time; I can't see how that's part of a research degree. So presumably there's a better reason? Or is it just that universities like the money?

wrappedupinbooks (#239,139)

@questingbeast Technically, I am not in the midst of an American PhD, but a Canadian one. I'm pretty sure they're fairly similar though, so imma go ahead and respond to you.

Yes, you're right! Universities DO like money. so much! But also, we have a lot of other tasks we need to perform, that go way beyond learning a second language (by the way, that part's not that hard… all i had to do was pass a super easy reading comprehension test). I assume you're a UK or EU scholar? I did my MA in London… and dude, it was substantially more lax over there. oh, how I wish I had stayed! In these here parts, we have all sorts of hoops to jump through. Two very large ones: the field exams that need to be passed. Oh lord, those are frightening and the reading lists for them are unwieldy. Like those scrolls in comedic movies that keep on rolling and rolling. We also have coursework, believe it or not. At my uni, we need 18 credits to qualify; most try and get this out of the way in the first few years. It's basically like another MA program tucked inside of your PhD one. Fun, right? I also had to spend like, a year developing my diss-proposal because we had to attend workshops for it. Oh, and we teach throughout the year in order to make a meager sum of money! I had almost a hundred students last year, and since the course I was TAing was divided into halves, it meant TWICE the marking. (Don't ask me how this works, it hurts my head.) So yeah, things get slowed down. You can indeed finish in four years if you're a magical wizard (and as it turns out, such people exist), but most finish in seven or eight. I'm on track to finish in six, which is when my guaranteed funding runs dry.

Anyway, the more you know.

jfruh (#713)

@questingbeast Well, if you're studying ancient history like I was learning Greek and Latin really is part of the research degree, since that's the language much of what your study subjects are writing in. Plus, there are many areas of study where the worldwide community of scholars working on the subject do not all speak English, and you're at a disadvantage if you don't know some modern languages as well. So, for instance, scholarship on ancient Rome is almost as likely to be written in German and French as in English, so to be a competent scholar you have to know (and demonstrate compentence in) those languages to get your PhD. "Demonstrate competence in" is a relative term, referring specifically to reading scholarly articles written in a language, articles written on a subject you're already familiar with. I was able to read articles and pass my Frenchy exam based on high school French and a one-semester brush-up class specifically for undergrads, but as I found to my horror when I travelled to Paris, I was less than useless at actually speaking to French people. (I could read all the explanatory material at the museums great though!)

As for whether this is something you should be doing in your "spare time", I guess that's sort of the question? What exactly makes it your "spare time" when you're a full-time scholar, and you're studying something that you need to know to get your credential and work in your field? I do think that some people have better facility with languages than others, and mine is quite poor, so I always felt a need to at least be auditing Latin and Greek classes to improve my skills, even though it took time away from other higher-level studies. This is definitely on the list of reasons why I left. I remember taking one class where one of my fellow students did this presentation comparing different material in different cultures — he distributed a handout with excerpts from material originally written in Latin, Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Old Irish. Only slowly did it dawn on us that he had done all the translation himself. He later told me that he tried to pick up a language a semester, but that he was going to set aside a whole year to learn Sanskrit. I was not in that guy's league.

LHOOQ (#18,226)

@questingbeast The short answer is that British PhDs are very specific/narrow, and American PhDs are meant to be broader (in terms of background) and represent "more" mastery of the subject.

notfromvenus (#232,002)

@questingbeast Out of curiousity, do British PhDs involve teaching 2 or 3 classes a semester at the university in addition to research and coursework?

LHOOQ (#18,226)

@notfromvenus Not necessarily, and they are more likely to be given the opportunity to run seminars rather than give lectures. PhDs in arts subjects tend not to be funded, so teaching can be a welcome means of income.

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