Writing About Writing: Current Events … In Fiction

by Michael S. Katz

I’ve never been much of a fan of espionage fiction. Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler … I’ve always thought the plots were just too convoluted for my more simple tastes, I suppose. So when I started reading my first Daniel Silva novel, I didn’t expect to complete it.

Surprise. A year later and I’ve finished the eleventh Gabriel Allon novel. Maybe some of the entertainment value—for me—is that these read like spycraft procedurals, rather than infinitely looping mysteries. I love to learn about the inner workings of the Mossad, the CIA, and MI5 (among other agencies). According to Silva, much of his writing is based on true facts. I recently read Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal, and can see how much of the background material about the Mossad finds its way into these novels (although modified by Silva for his purposes).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I like historical fiction because I like to learn at the same time I am being entertained. One can never have too much knowledge. Silva sets his stories in the present, but often provides a great deal of history by way of background, and also discusses current events (at least at the time each book is written). I have learned a great deal from reading Silva’s work.

For example, in Portrait of a Spy, not only are connections between Saudi Arabia and terrorist networks delved into, but Silva also describes how oppressive life is for women in Arab countries, inhumane living conditions among the working classes, political snafus caused by the American government’s dependence on Saudi oil, and the growth of jihadist elements in European countries. All this is icing on the cake—the cake being an entertaining story focusing on an interesting character with real human emotions, one who has grown along with the series.

It also interests me to no end that this character—Gabriel Allon, a spy for a fictional version of the Mossad—has been able to anchor a bestselling series in a world where anti-Semitism is still way too prevalent. I don’t want to go off on a tangent here; many of my thoughts on being Jewish are contained within my novel, Shalom on the Range, although I did my best to hide them deep down within the humor and action elements. I may even finish the sequel one of these days. But Daniel Silva’s writing similarly contains action and suspense, but also manages to find time to subtextualize what it is like to be Jewish, or what it is like to be Israeli. Amazingly, Daniel Silva was not born Jewish, he was raised Catholic, but he converted to Judaism after he had started the Gabriel Allon series because he fell in love with a Jewish woman and wanted their children to be brought up Jewish.

Each book in the series is full of fascinating material, on many different levels. Even in a fictional universe, there is room for the reader to learn about the real world around them.

Writing About Writing: I Hear Voices

By Michael S. Katz

Bernard Cornwell is one of my favorite writers. He specializes in historical fiction, and his Richard Sharpe series is what turned me into a fan of the genre. Recently he has been writing a series set in the early tenth century, known as The Saxon Tales. The lead character, Uhtred, was born in England but taken and raised by Vikings, then later in life is forced to fight against them in a campaign to unite England.

All of these novels are told in first person narrative. In the eighth book in the series, The Empty Throne, Cornwell mixes things up: at the beginning of the book, the narrator is Uhtred’s son. I was pleasantly surprised by this, as it opened up a whole new world, allowing us to see things through the eyes of a different character. The narrative soon enough switches back to Uhtred, however; and although I like the main character I found myself hoping that the son’s voice would return at some point. It is not a convention I see very often.

Some authors may change the point of view from book to book, but not chapter to chapter. And most commonly, when the latter is done (such as in a book with multiple main characters), the overarching “voice” is that of a toneless, omniscient narrator who simply describes what is happening. We don’t get too far into the inner workings of each character’s mind, only their surface thoughts and feelings: Character A does this and thinks that, then Character B does this and thinks that, then Character A does this and thinks that, etc. In my opinion, delving deeper into the minds of multiple characters is something that is difficult to pull off.

Author Dianne K. Salerni does it, and does it quite well. She writes a series of fantasy novels about a magical eighth day of the week; the first book is titled (appropriately enough) The Eighth Day. The book is written in third person narrative, yet there are two distinct “voices” that take turns throughout the book: that of the main character, Jax, and that of Evangeline, a magical being trapped in the eighth day. Interestingly, chapters told from Evangeline’s point of view are set in a completely different font from the rest of the book. Furthermore, Evangeline is not privy to much of what exists in “the real world”, so even though all narrative is in the third person, we see how her knowledge is limited by being born and raised in a world outside our own.

The second book in the series, The Inquisitor’s Mark, again tells the tale from two points of view. This time, however, the protagonist’s point of view is offset by that of a new character: his cousin, Dorian. Again, the chapters that identify with Dorian are set in a different font from the rest of the book, and the information in those chapters is limited to what Dorian would know (as opposed to what only Jax would know). The author, Dianne Salerni, does a nice job of keeping the two characters separate. Even when they often interact within the book, chapters that are told from different points of view are rigidly enforced.

These are just a couple examples based on books I had recently read. I hope that Dianne Salerni is honored to be compared to Bernard Cornwell. I know I would be.

Writing About Writing: In the Details

by Michael S. Katz

Let me preface this post by saying that I love to read historical fiction because I like to learn.

Recently I read a book in which I learned things like methamphetamine was used during World War Two by both sides to keep soldiers awake and battle ready, and the Germans even baked it into chocolate bars; that the Dakota Building in New York City was built by the part-owner of the Singer Sewing Machine Company; and that on a January day in 1943 the temperature in South Dakota swung from minus four to plus forty-five within the span of 120 seconds, the most dramatic shift ever recorded in America.

I followed that up with a book that informed me that a judas hole is a small door set into a bigger, sliding farm door; that a Grand Alaskan rifle is built by Arnold Arms Company, chambered for the .358 Magnum, and can cost upwards of $7,000; and that the Port of Vancouver combined with the Fraser River Port Authority and the North Fraser Port Authority to become the Port Metro Vancouver, the largest port in the Pacific Northwest, with 25 separate terminals occupying 375 miles of coastline.

What did these two books have in common?  They are Jack Reacher novels, written by Lee Child (61 Hours and Worth Dying For, to be precise). Did you guess either of them?

Lee Child does not write historical fiction. But he does have a habit of including a great deal of information in his books, information that is often excessively detailed without (like the above examples) being necessary to the story. And I don’t have a single problem with that. I like to learn so I find it interesting, and it is usually done in such a way so as not to take me out of the story.

Knowing how much information to include becomes much more of a challenge when writing true historical fiction, because the author has to craft a world that takes the reader to a different time, and has to keep the reader in that time period while still telling an exciting or interesting story.

When I wrote Shalom on The Range, my aim was to write a book showing the history of Jews in the old west, using humor and action to appeal to all kinds of people—not just Jews or fans of westerns. I wanted to include a lot of historical detail to show what it was like living back then, but I did not want to be too detailed because I thought it might be boring to some readers. In fact, I cut out a lot of details when I revised the novel for an ebook version.

You can’t please everyone. Some people thought I didn’t put enough historical information in it; some people think I put too much. One reviewer thought I described clothing and buildings with way too much detail, and maybe I did; but my purpose was to surround the reader in the old west. Another person found nothing wrong with my book except that I wrote George Armstrong Custer was a general when he died, when he was actually a lieutenant colonel. Like I said, you can’t please everyone.

Which brings me back to Lee Child. I read some of the comments on Amazon.com about his later books, and some of the readers state that the excess information is boring and takes them out of the story. In my roles as a writer and an editor, the trick is to put that information in places where the rhythm of the book is not broken, such as at the beginnings of chapters; or to present it in short bursts of data from time to time. In my opinion, Lee Child does it that way, and does it successfully.

Still, even Jack Reacher can’t please everyone. But for me, Lee Child and Jack Reacher can show off what they know any time.

Season of the Crow

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On sale now – the sequel to Scarecrow in Gray, by Barry D. Yelton

The Civil War is over, but the battle rages on.  Embittered former Confederates bring down a reign of terror upon blacks and whites alike in North Carolina’s hill country. They soon collide with other ex-Confederates who want only to put the fighting behind them and live in peace. Once they were comrades in arms. Now these war weary men find themselves in a deadly conflict with each other.



The Sultan and The Khan

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The Sultan and The Khan dramatizes a tale of diverse characters swept up in bloody battlefields and political turmoil. This is the sequel to The Swords of Faith, winner of the Bronze Medal in the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and finalist in both the 2010 USA Book News Award and the 2010 International Book Awards in the category of Historical Fiction.


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