Wait… What did I just see?

Do you ever finish watching a series and then just need some time to mentally process everything?

Four weeks after finishing Season 3 of “The Last Kingdom,” I am still formulating my opinions on the series as a whole. I will say that as the show progressed, it became clear that the intended audience is primarily male, which is maybe why I have to say I kept watching in spite of some aspects. But obviously I found it interesting enough to persevere through all three seasons, so I’ve made an effort to break down what exactly kept me hooked.

For those who aren’t familiar with The Last Kingdom, it is based off of a series of novels The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, tracing the unification of England circa 850-900 A.D. through the eyes of a Saxon-Danish warrior, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. While the protagonist is loosely derived from a real Saxon eaolderman of Northumbria (Uhtred the Bold), his adventures precede those of the historical figure, and thus a large amount of liberty is taken with his character. This makes for a fascinating angle on history, as we follow the fictional Uhtred through the labyrinth of politics and battles that surrounded the reign of Alfred the Great.

From the very beginning, I was struck by the tight writing and plot development.

After the first 58-minute episode, it was too soon for me to be overly invested in the characters, but I had to know what happened next! By about the third episode, however, I’d begun to form an attachment to the protagonist and a couple of minor characters. With time, as I finished the first season and moved on to the second, I realized that my interest in the story was no longer just intellectual curiosity in the plot, but a personal investment in what would happen to the characters.

This is what kept me going as the show became darker and gorier.

I’ll say it—I’m not a fan of blood and gore! In fact, I spend a good deal of time during the battle scenes focusing on my cherry juice and dark chocolate (a great combo for late night snacking, for your information!).

So the show is probably geared toward men, but who cares? Some of the best-developed characters are women (the nun Hild and Lady Aelswith, to name a couple), which also proves that male writers really are capable of portraying complex, believable female characters. In fact, one of the most masterfully depicted elements was how both of these women came to different convictions on how they as Christians should relate to the “heathen,” but valiant, Uhtred. (More on this next week!)

Needless to say, the series illustrated a number of qualities crucial to good historical fiction, and gave me plenty of food for thought… which is why I’ll spend the next few weeks delving into some of those themes and asking for your feedback!

So for now… What do you think are some key elements to a good historical fiction book/show?

What is most likely to make it worth your time?

When you pick up a hist-fic book or show, are you more interested in meeting compelling characters or in the events surrounding those characters?

What Makes the Cut?

We’ve all had that experience of watching one of our favorite books turned into a movie, and finding the movie version vastly disappointing.

Hopefully you’ve also had the satisfaction of seeing a good film rendition of a favorite book, but it seems that experience is less common.

Why is that?

I’ve often wondered why it is some movies based on books flop while others don’t. Sometimes it’s the director, the actors, or the screenplay’s deviation from core elements of the book. But it seems there is another factor at work, which can be harder to pinpoint:

What if the book just isn’t movie material?

Here’s a distinction I’d like to make: I do not think that a book’s “filmability” is a fair measure of its value.

For one thing, a book has the freedom to elaborate on the characters, their thoughts, and their backstories in a way that is difficult to visually depict. While the events of the story are usually capable of being portrayed physically, this is harder to achieve with abstract elements or thought processes within a character.

Take Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (yes, if you read last week’s post, you can tell I’m a Dostoevsky fan): while the novella has enough action that could be visually portrayed, the richness of the story comes from the internal dialogue of the narrator. In fact, if you were to watch everything the main character says and does without hearing his motives, you would completely misinterpret his actions.

On the other hand, some books with complex character motives are compatible with the medium of film. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are both rich with three-dimensional characters whose visible actions do not always reveal their intentions—and yet both books have received successful film adaptations more than once. So it must not be solely the complexity of a book’s characters that determines its suitability as a film…

But then what is it?

There are so many possible answers to this question, and I’d really like to know what you think. I certainly don’t have a definite answer. But there is one thing I suspect might play more of a role in our assessment of movie adaptations than we realize: the story’s setting. If you’re any kind of historical fiction or fantasy fan, you probably know what I’m talking about. How many times do we give a movie a chance because it’s set in a different era or place? Isn’t there something about the mystery of another time period or world that piques our curiosity?

I for one admit that I have sat through a number of movies or tried shows whose writing and acting were sub-par, but whose costumes, music, sets, and scenery were elaborate and convincing. And so I wonder: regardless of whether a book is actually well-suited to the screen, isn’t there some part of us that just wants to see the story’s world brought to life? And if the costume and set designers and cinematographers can immerse our senses in that world, are we less likely to mind the cheesy acting and choppy script?

Please let me know your thoughts on this.

Which movie adaptations of books do you think work, and which don’t?

What other factors do you think play a role in whether a book can be translated into film?

Literary Osmosis

When you hang around people, you usually start to adopt their mannerisms, turns of phrase, and attitudes. Or at least, theirs begin to influence your own. I’ll let the social scientists give us the details on how that works, but it seems this principle holds true in a number of areas—not just in real life.

This post is more geared toward the authors out there, as the central question is one you can only answer if you have some level of experience of writing:

When simultaneously writing a story and working through someone else’s novel, do you find yourself picking up habits from what you’re reading?

That might sound like a nebulous question, but let me break it down into a couple of categories.

First there’s the form category.

Let’s call that everything that you, as the author, fill the pages with. It’s the paragraphs of description, narration, and explication that does not occur through dialogue. Different authors (and different works by the same author) will vary in the style, flow, and nature of the text’s form—and there’s a number of factors that can explain that. For instance, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia move at a very different pace, emphasize different kinds of details, and each has a distinct tone in their narration. (This is partly, of course, due to the different audiences for which each work is intended.)

That being said, do you ever notice the form of a book you’re reading has begun to influence the form of whatever you’re writing? You might feel compelled to spend more time explaining a character’s thoughts to the reader, insert flashback sequences, or speed the action along according to the patterns of the book you have been reading. Although I have seen this effect in my own writing process, it has not happened to me as much as the second category of influence.

Then you have the character category.

This is everything the characters say and how they say it. Of course, if you are writing from the first-person perspective, this will overlap with the story’s form. It seems that, between the two, this is the influence that can more significantly shape the story—depending on what parts of another books’ character are rubbing off on yours. If the only change you notice in your characters is that they start picking up similar speech patterns, then probably not too much of your content will be affected. But if they start catching the attitudes or mindset of another book’s character, then you might have some issues on your hands.

For me, I happened to read both The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both first-person narratives) while writing The Exile, and there is no doubt that the voices of both Holden Caulfield and Huck made their mark on Delta. This is not to say, however, that her character or mindset changed—in fact, I had already known her quite well before picking up either book. Rather, the way she expressed herself to the reader was what evolved as I learned from both Salinger and Twain’s narrative style.

Moushmi Radhanpara at The Aesthetic Miradh wrote an article not too long ago on the question of originality: Is it ethical to borrow some ideas/elements from other authors? This got me thinking. Obviously there is a deliberate choice you can make to use or not use elements from another story… but what if some of those elements simply rub off on you without your noticing right away?

I’m not convinced that the subconscious influence of either another book’s form or characters is unethical—but I think it does mean that we as writers ought to be careful.

First we ought to watch that we are not conforming our plot and characters to another author’s, and second we ought to be deliberate about what kinds of books we read during the process of our own work. For example, there is a humorous picaresque novel that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for years now, but I’m currently working through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which everyone kind of acts and talks like a psycho. Unless I want my novel to catch neurotic and dark undertones, I don’t dare do more than background research at this point!

So what are your thoughts on this?

Do you, as a writer, catch the characters of other books infiltrating or informing your own? If so, do you find this problematic or helpful?

Can You Hear the Story?

Let’s face it: whether you’re a reader, writer, or both, having the right background music can work wonders to get you and your imagination in the mood. A number of scientists, bloggers, and authors have studied the connection between what you listen to and what happens in your brain—and let me say, there is more research out there than I can fit in this little article.

As a writer, I find the impact of music on an author’s work fascinating.

This is an especially relevant issue for authors of period dramas or historical fiction.

I recently read a great article by Amy Evans at Kobo Writing Life that discusses the importance of listening to music set in whatever era/culture a story takes place. This makes perfect sense, and I can personally attest to the effectiveness of era-specific music in mentally immersing myself in the story’s world.

But there are a couple of exceptions to the rule that I found, especially while writing The Exile. Perhaps you can identify.

At times (very often, in fact) the most essential thing for me to connect with wasn’t the world surrounding the characters, but the complex landscape of thoughts and tensions inside the characters.

Regarding the historical era of my music choice at these moments, all bets are off! I chronically found myself listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles while unraveling Delta’s inner conflict and deciding how much of that struggle she would actually share with the reader. Weird, I know. But I think it connects to the questions raised earlier about time period and narrative voice. Just as using some modern language can help readers relate to a character, listening to music that expresses the basic, most human elements of a character’s inner state can help the author relate to his/her own narrator.

The other “exception” to the rule of music relevance is the use of soundtracks from other movies/shows when writing your own material.

While James Horner, Hans Zimmer, and Patrick Doyle have a plethora of music capable of both transporting listeners to a time period and stirring up emotion, it can be challenging if you have already formed mental associations with their melodies. In fact, I find my ability to distance myself mentally from the soundtrack’s original context inversely proportional to my love for the movie/show. For instance, it is because I have every line and scene of “Braveheart” memorized and engraved on my soul that I cannot easily write while listening to Horner’s bagpipes.

On the other hand, as much as I’ve come to enjoy “The Last Kingdom,” the haunting tones of John Lunn’s “Lívstræðrir” are not impossible for me to separate from the show. (Side note: maybe this is because, as a musical theme in a TV series, the occurrence of “Lívstræðrir” is not tied to any one particular scene.)

Do you ever find that listening to a soundtrack from a movie you have already seen makes the creative process more difficult? In other words, does the association of the music with another story hinder your own storytelling?

And if so, does the same go for soundtracks from TV series? Or does the recurring nature of a show’s music make it easier to distance yourself from the context?

Or similarly, do you listen to certain types of music while reading in order to help stimulate your imagination?

Verbal Flab: when can a novel afford to lose weight?

I tend to think of a novel as a cut of meat.

A lean novel is one whose words center on the storythe muscle, if you will, composed of characters and their actions. The details that do not directly impact the muscle (if excessive) add “verbal flab”—something that could be trimmed off without detracting from the essential plot and character development. For instance, if you find yourself able to skip large sections of description without missing crucial details or a hidden layer of symbolic meaning, the value of those sections becomes questionable.

I remember slogging through the 300+ pages of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and thinking that at least 100 of them must be dedicated to the description of food: the planting, slaughtering, harvesting, cooking, and consumption thereof. In fact, by the end of the novel I felt that the subject matter I grasped best from the book’s time period was the food.

To be fair, I have to credit Frazier with his diligence of detail—clearly he has a mastery of knowledge regarding the way of life during the late 1800s, as well as the military mechanics and events of the Civil War. If nothing else, the book presents a thorough depiction of the geographical, political, and physical environment surrounding the main characters as it would have been.

However, I couldn’t help feeling that the character and plot development would have been more poignant if it weren’t framed by so much physical description.

This is where things get subjective.

All readers have varying attention spans and patience for dense detail, because on one hand we need description in order to establish the story’s world and augment the plot/characters… but on the other hand, a novel is at its heart a story, and the story occurs through the actions and words of its characters.

One way this principle impacted my writing of The Exile was that it caused me to focus on details that evoked some sort of reaction in Delta, the narrator. As such, the description of her world remained secondary to her opinion of it:

“Upon entering the town, I realized I would have a great deal to adjust to. If I had found the streets and walls of Dramin constraining, Levna drew me near to the point of suffocation. The buildings, primarily made of wood, pressed tightly on either side of the squalor that served as a road, offering but a narrow channel of passage through which people flowed like a human current…

I barely heard the voice from the story overhead above the general ruckus cry, “Look out below!” before a cascade of sludge sluiced past my face, missing me by a hair’s length. It was then that I understood with a shock of revulsion the source of the air’s odor.

Raising my eyes in search of relief, however, I saw there was little to be found, for the buildings on either side of the street rose lopsided, each story protruding outward over the one beneath it. The two sides grew like a tunnel, shrouding the town from above and choking any view of the sky. I was beginning to question the wisdom of civilization.”

The Exile, p. 119-120

One novel whose description stood out to me was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. This was because the description, although at times extensive, either directly enhanced a character/his lifestyle or resonated with the deeper themes that transcend the story. The details were intimately connected with the telling of the story, not simply with painting a vivid (although historically accurate) picture.

For writers, this poses a similar question as the one mentioned a few weeks ago regarding time-period language: how do we bring our readers into the story’s world without bogging them down?

For those of you who are writers, how do you decide the appropriate level of detail for your descriptions?

I’ve shared with you my thoughts, but how do you, as a reader, assess the value of description in a novel?

Clan Slavery: an Over-dramatized Image?

I noticed when we arrived at the longhouse kitchen that there were some men tarrying around, eyeing the women at work. I happened to glance and see Clare stirring a pot that hung over a rod in the nearest fireplace. A tall young warrior was standing against the wall, his eyes fixed on Clare. I caught the look in his eyes as he gazed silently at her, rubbing a blade of grass between his fingers. I’d seen that look before.

The woman closest to Clare approached me and my companion, receiving the water we brought, but I saw something that made me tense. That young lad took a couple steps closer until he stood beside Clare. She didn’t seem to notice him there—she simply kept stirring the pot like she was told. Uncertainty gnawed at me like dogs on a bone. I knew what was coming, but something made me stay and watch.

The warrior lifted his hand to Clare’s shoulder and slid it slowly down her back. Clare’s head turned sharply and her eyes widened on him, but she did not cringe. Instead she tried to talk.

If you read last week’s post about female warriors, you’ll remember that the entire concept of the shieldmaiden has always been shrouded in lore—to the point that historians can’t decisively prove or disprove whether or not these women fought alongside men. This gave me the freedom to speculate what life might have looked like for The Exile’s narrator, Delta, if such a woman could have existed in early medieval Scandinavia.

Unfortunately, the same uncertainty cannot be said to surround the condition of slaves during that time.

Let me pause here to clarify a couple of things.

First, the exact time during which the novel takes place is intentionally obscure. The prologue mentions that the kingdoms and wars precede the Viking era, but beyond that no details are given. Essentially this sets the stage for the story without pretending to give a factual account tied to real civilizations and places.

That being said, the description of clan life and warfare is inspired by the known details of Norse clans and culture. I intentionally did not include any of the religious traditions that would have likely been present—mainly because it didn’t serve the purpose of the story—but instead focused heavily on the aspects of slave life. In that regard, I can assure you that the struggle for survival Delta faces is one that any slave (“thrall,” in Old Norse) in a real Norse clan would have faced.

Slavery in these clans was consistently characterized by brutality and dehumanization.

Andrew Lawler from National Geographic draws attention to recent archaeological findings that suggest thralls were housed and even disposed of alongside animals. The same article describes evidence of slave killings, suspected to result either from a master’s death or as a form of human sacrifice. As for a female slave like Delta, she would have in fact been viewed as a piece of property to be used for both sex and manual labor.

To be honest, this element of the novel was one of the hardest parts to write. Because her past is such an integral part of Delta’s character, I didn’t feel I could skimp on it—but at the same time I found myself struggling with the question of how much was too much. This is still a question I’m grappling.

So I ask you: when it comes to the unsavory stuff in history, how much detail should a writer incorporate?

Is it worse to under-elaborate or to over-elaborate? How does one decide this?

What are some books/movies that would benefit from a more thorough depiction of the era’s brutality? Which ones go too far?

The Female Warrior: a Figment of the Modern Imagination?

Dodging past some battle-ready men, I glided into one of the lodges and threw the door shut behind me. Fairly ripping off my dress, I pulled on the men’s leggings and tunic that warriors wore, strapping the leather belt about my waist. For a moment I was stricken dumb with the familiar pleasure of being in warriors’ clothes once again. But the cries that sounded outside the hut reminded me of the need for haste.

Quickly I slipped my feet into the sturdy but light-weight leather boots and strung them tight against my leg, snatching up the knife that lay on the floor near the other garments. The last thing I took was the bow and quiver of arrows leaned against the wall, and then I left the lodge to go find Clare.

The camp was in an uproar now; Falker and Blakkrthorn swords clashed, and arrows hissed, while slaves scurried to and fro, trying to hide somewhere safe. Having not witnessed a camp raid in seven years, I’d forgotten how bloody they are. Members of the attacking clan lose themselves in the lust that overtakes and drives them to kill, to burn, to sack, and to destroy everything in their path. Homes go up in flames, wells get polluted, animals end up slaughtered, children end up dead. If I had ever been on a raid, I imagine I would have done the same.

The Exile, p. 34

All right, I admit that when I started The Exile, I had very little idea whether female warriors actually ever existed.

But that question wasn’t enough to stop me—a sentiment that countless other writers apparently share. I mean, have you seen the sheer volume of warrior princess stories out there?

But while writing it, I realized The Exile is not a “warrior princess” story:

Number 1, because Delta is not a princess; and number 2, because she spends very little of the novel actually being a warrior. Because of this, it wasn’t terribly problematic to think that the female warrior phenomenon might be a myth.

That being said, I couldn’t help noticing during my background research a lack of solid facts in early Scandinavian history regarding women. Some archaeological findings suggest Viking women may have fought, but historians and scientists seem unable to agree decisively.

Even so, it seemed odd to me that contemporary culture would have such a fascination with the medieval female warrior if no such women ever existed. Even in shows such as “The Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom” whose main protagonists are men, you still have women like Lagertha and Brida who charge into battle alongside them.

Is all of this really just our modern attempt to feminize the past?

If you want a simple yes or no, you’ll be disappointed. On one hand, it is entirely possible that the female warrior is the product of imagination. But on the other hand, we were not the first to imagine it.

The most commonly known female warriors date back to ancient Greece: the Amazons. You’d think that once you go back far enough, you’d find some hard and indisputable facts. But as Amanda Foreman points out, even the earliest references to the Amazons are shrouded in legend. Even closer to home, I found that the Norse did in fact have accounts of shieldmaidens—but their status as legends has made it difficult for historians to separate fact from fiction (see also Valkyries). Professor Joshua J. Mark sums it up, “It seems clear that the Norse culture valued women enough to not only include female deities in their pantheon but also attribute to them the same martial skills and ability to determine their own fate as men were allowed.

What becomes clear is that, even if the female warrior is a creative invention, it is not a new invention—and so the sharp criticism of contemporary stories about female warriors (yes, even the “warrior princess” stories) is not warranted. If the Vikings fantasized about women fighting in battle, so can we. The value of a story in this genre shouldn’t be based on whether the genre has a right to exist or not. It does have a right to exist—unless you want to argue with the Greeks and the Vikings. The real measure of value lies in the story itself—the vivacity of its characters, the originality of the plot, the quality of the writing.

So what’s your take on this?

Is there a problem with today’s depiction of female warriors?

Is the subject simply too cliché at this point? Or are modern portrayals just too unrealistic?