A lean novel is one whose words center on the story— the 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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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 Exile, p. 34
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
“You don’t look like the rest,” Clare said, her eyes traveling over the scars on my skin.
“I was a warrior,” I told her. “But I can tell you’re not from any clan at all.”
She lowered her eyes and glanced at her sister briefly. “It’s true,” she admitted. “We did not come from these parts.”
I knew it. “Then where did you come from?”
She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then bent her knees in a strange gesture royal folk call a curtsy. “My name is Clare; how do you do?”
“I’m all right,” I answered, struggling with surprise. It was rather uncommon that someone should take interest in my personal well-being.
“This is my sister, Runa.”
I sensed it was my turn to say something about myself, but I never had to, because at that moment I heard someone calling me from outside in a most foreboding tone.The Exile, p. 3
Part of the reason I knew Delta had to narrate The Exile was because hers was the voice I could hear most clearly—her tones, attitudes, and editorials all demanded expression. Not only that, but it seemed a large part of the story’s substance hinged on her commentary and interpretation of other characters and events. That being said, however, the main challenge of writing in her voice became apparent:
The thing is, it’s not hard to identify a character’s voice as formal or informal. What is hard is knowing how to give a historical character a colloquial voice. This is especially true when little is known about the culture’s dialect.
I did my share of research regarding early medieval life and Scandinavian clans—so while the names of characters, clans, and places are fictional, their descriptions and hierarchies adhere closely to the historical reality. But when it comes to the actual languages, finding a way to make medieval Scandinavian vernacular sound laid-back and familiar would take a kind of linguistic wizardry I’m not sure exists. So the question becomes, “How do you strike a balance between sounding simultaneously historical and relatable?”
Some writers lean more modern than others, going so far as to insert a number of anachronisms or phrases that, while you’d never hear them in the story’s time period, make the characters and scenarios feel less foreign to us contemporary folk.
A prime example is Daisy Goodwin’s TV series “Victoria.” Although the costumes and accents are pretty convincing, I had to laugh when one of the dukes added, “Just saying” at the end of an otherwise elevated conversation. While most of the dialogue doesn’t drip so heavily with modern lingo, it’s still obvious that Goodwin gives her characters some current turns of phrase to make them more accessible.
Because, although some modern phraseology can lower the barrier between character and reader, it can also polarize those who want to see more historical accuracy. Because of the challenges surrounding The Exile’s setting (and because Delta’s relatability was so central), I chose to err on the more modern side—something not everyone would agree with.
And of course, if you have read/are reading The Exile, please let me know what you think about this particular aspect of the novel.
Her name was Clare. She came on a dark day when my body was still sore from its latest beating two nights ago. They brought her into camp with her sister, both of them quiet and skittish.
When I first saw her I could tell by her countenance that she was different. She carried herself in a dignified fashion, holding herself upright, but not so tall as to flaunt—not like the women of my clan. But I wasn’t with my clan when she came to me. I was with the Falkers.
As for me, I never bothered with posture or honor. I knew I wasn’t important, so I didn’t try to be.
Oh, I was dirty and base and soiled, but she tried to change me. I suppose I did change a little, if only so she wouldn’t pity me, but not as much as she would have liked. Besides, this was before all that began.The Exile, p. 1.
The truth is, when I first sat down to write The Exile, there was no question as to whose voice would narrate the novel. Even though the majority of the plot arises from Clare’s quest, the story would invariably lose some of its meaning if it were told from her perspective—or rather, the layers of meaning would change.
I think this is something that writers themselves are more likely to appreciate, as the beginning of each new story requires us to make a conscious choice: “Who is going to tell this thing?” It could be one character or several. Or it could be a voice removed from the story itself.
While there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, we can’t deny that the choice of narrator inherently affects the tenor, themes, and even content of the novel. Imagine if a classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were told by Jim! We would gain all of the perspective of a mature, African American man forced to suppress his own intelligence, but we would lose the naiveté of an otherwise savvy boy coming to see the world for what it is.
What if Fitzgerald chose Daisy, rather than Nick, to narrate The Great Gatsby?
Or what if both Twain and Fitzgerald used an omniscient third-person narrator, giving us unilateral knowledge of each character’s inner thoughts?
The question of narrative perspective isn’t particular to historical fiction, but it does connect to another topic I’ll address next week that every his-fic author has to wrangle. But no matter what genre we read or write, I think exploring the different possible narrative perspectives in a novel can give us insight into why the author chose the one he/she did—which in turn can help us better understand the meaning he/she wanted to communicate.
What stories can you think of whose substance would change radically if told from another perspective?
If you are a writer, do you find yourself writing more often in the first-person or third-person? How do you decide?
“When the Scandinavian princess Clare finds herself and her sisters sold into slavery to the ruthless clans inhabiting the unsettled mainland, she meets Delta—a hardened slave girl with a history of her own. Although their morals and perspectives clash initially, each recognizes the other as her chance to escape captivity: for Clare, to rescue her beloved sister; for Delta, to return to her own clan.
In their struggle against predators, prejudice, and their own secrets, each woman must question what is worth living for and what, if anything, is worth dying for.”
When I first sat down to write The Exile I didn’t have a particular setting in mind. In fact, only after completing the first two drafts did I settle on Scandinavia as the geographical stage for the novel.
Why was that?
Even prior to writing the first manuscript, it was evident that the characters themselves would constitute the primary energy source that drove the story forward. In that sense, Delta the slave and Clare the princess could have lived in any medieval civilization, provided that it allowed for clan warfare. All other circumstantial elements (political corruption, denigration of women, and a constant struggle for survival) could characterize almost any culture in medieval Europe.
Other than the Vikings, not much is commonly known about its history—and unless you’re writing alternate history, it’s precisely those gaps that give you room to create a story. That being said, once I delved into Scandinavian history, it inevitably began to reshape and inform elements of The Exile— and let me add, there is still plenty of room for exploration.
At the heart of this process, though, I realized there lies a central question regarding historical fiction.
The truth is, some plots/scenarios can be extracted from their original setting and placed in a different time period or culture. Some characters can receive circumstantial facelifts while still preserving the integrity of their voice and personality. I am often struck by how much of a story’s plot could have unfolded in a different context, whereas other stories draw heavily on the historical setting for their content.
Take Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: while Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert find themselves caught amidst the French Revolution, the game of chase and the core ethical dilemmas that define the story are not inherently tied to the time period.
On the other hand, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain tells the coming-of-age tale of a boy whose perspectives are largely shaped by the ideas surrounding the American Revolution. In that sense, the history is central to the themes of the story.
And yet both Les Misérables and Johnny Tremain manage to transcend their time periods in meaningful ways.
How does this happen?
From the author’s perspective, how do you know whether to choose the setting or to develop the plot first?
On the reader’s side, how can you tell when a plot was tailor-made for a particular setting?
What other stories could have taken place in a different time period? What are some whose plots/characters seem inextricable from their setting?
In any case, it seems this trend should impact our understanding of what it means to be “timeless.”
At this point, you might be wondering two things:
Chances are, if you landed on this site, you are also either a storyteller or a history geek—or better yet, both. Or maybe you’re just an avid reader of folklore, fantasy, or historical fiction. In any case, I’m glad you visited, because there’s a lot to talk about—hence the name.
By now, you’ve derived that the “inkpot” theme comes from past eras…
The fact is, no matter how documented and complete our history of a given time period, there will always be things we don’t know. People whose names were forgotten. Events that slipped through the cracks, or were deliberately left off the books. Historical purists find that problematic—I find it exhilarating, because where the known facts end is where the imagination begins.
There is a caveat to this, and it marks the line between fact-finding and storytelling. If a well-informed person reads Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl or watches Randall Wallace’s “Braveheart” expecting a 100% accuracy score, they will be disappointed—and rightfully so. Neither of these works presents itself as an authentic historical account. Instead, both invite the reader and viewer to explore a real time period and ask real questions faced by both real and imagined characters. This is the same adventure I invite my readers to join.
Each addition will open with a post related to one of the stories I have published, or genres/time periods I am currently researching—but that is just the beginning. The rest is yours. If you share the same curiosity in the past or in storytelling (either as a reader or an author), then you have something to contribute. Raise questions. Answer questions. Tell us about whatever you’re working on, or whatever fascinating gems you know about a particular era. Come join the adventure!