History Lessons or “These are not the wars you’re thinking of.”

Every time G. R. R. Martin claims he modeled “Game of Thrones” on the Wars of the Roses, I want to have a brain aneurysm.

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Leaving aside the fact that the name “Wars of the Roses” is a nineteenth century invention, and that nobody went around proclaiming their allegiance by the not-very-subtle (or even terribly clever) secret code of sporting a red or white rose, there’s actually almost nothing in the series that bears even a passing resemblance to that kerfuffle.

In fact, the only thread of “history” that I’ve been able to discern is that Henry VI inherited his throne while still a minor.

He was not a preteen monster, though.

He was nine months old when Henry V died, and while the events that landed Edward, Duke of York, on the throne (twice, actually: once in 1461 and again in 1471) did involve a certain amount of death for the nobility, most of this occurred not because he was a crazy, sadistic adolescent with a mom secretly puppetting him from the background, but because he was weak and ineffective man, prone to what was probably chronic depression and bouts of catatonia, who saved his main energies for building colleges at Cambridge.

He didn’t die in his teens, violently or otherwise – he grew up and he married. (Meanwhile, his mother, Catherine of Valois, went off after Henry V’s death and married again, this time to a commoner named Owen Tudor, and had two children by him: Jasper and Edmund Tudor, whose existence was to have – er – implications, later on. You remember Catherine, of course. That was Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V. It made a pretty cinematic love story, but she went on to have an actual life after Henry kicked it from dysentery two years after he married her.)

It’s true that a lot of the nobility lost their lives after trying to take control of England’s affairs, because Henry VI couldn’t seem to, but for the most part, while they might have been ambitious and interested in feathering their own nests, their underlying impulse was not to supplant Henry. Their aim was mainly to shore up and consolidate the king’s position. Their sequential and collective failures in both war and diplomacy created needs for higher taxes, which in turn put an impossible burden on the classes of nobility/gentry/commoners below them, which then, in its turn, tended to foment unrest, and their heads rolled far more as a result of those failures than from any desire of Henry’s to see some gore.

Richard of York, and then his son, Edward, were the ones who broke with the idea of bolstering the king and ensuring the power of royalty was not infringed. While they certainly felt provoked (they lost a lot by Henry VI’s failures in France and Ireland), it’s not clear that Richard of York was trying to do anything much different until quite late in the game.

So there are a lot of questions about Martin’s assertion that he was/is “basing” his work on actual history.

Where is Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s wife), for example, in all this? She was a major player, and her likes and dislikes had a major effect on everything that occurred. In fact, her hatred of Richard of York might have been one of the key factors.

Where’s the loss of territory (Normandy and Gascony, IRL) that precipitated so much of the underlying dissatisfaction with the various nobles who in their turn, were asked to “fix” things? The wars in France, the losses of income from not having those territories, were additional factors in pushing a series of nobles into trying desperately to “fix” Henry’s reign.

Where are the half-brothers to the king? They were important, because Edmund had a son…a son named Henry Tudor, later called Henry VII, King of England.

Game of Thrones is interesting. It’s textured, and layered, and considering that the first book came out over twenty years ago, when Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” was at the height of its popularity, Martin was incredibly brave. He was breaking seriously new ground.

And maybe that’s why he claims the series is based on something real — I can see wanting to say, obliquely, “Real life is messy. Real people are more complicated. Fantasy doesn’t need to be populated entirely with cardboard characters embodying simple vices and virtues. It can be more. It ought to be more.”

I can see how that might happen, and how, afterwards, a writer could get stuck with the justification, and have to keep repeating it.

But it’s inaccurate and misleading, and I wish he hadn’t done it.

 

 

***Addendum: come to think of it, the actual facts of the Wars of the Roses would make really interesting premises for fantasy novels, and frankly, given the above, the field is wide open for it.

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How should my character die?

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I see this kind of question all the time on writers’ groups.

Should I let this character fall in love? Should that love be requited? How should I defeat my villain? What kinds of magical abilities should my wizard have?

Now, leaving aside the fact that these are possibly ways to steal other people’s ideas without actually looking like a plagiarist and getting cease-and-desist letters sent to your inbox, there’s a deeper problem here that these kinds of pleas for help reveal.

A lack of depth in the storyteller.

That sounds harsh – because truths often are.

The thing about writing fiction is that it isn’t just stringing together a few semi-related events hung over a skeleton of a stereotype and throwing in some fireworks and snappy dialogue. Doing that is how bad books are born, and there are plenty of those out there.

How should this character die?

That’s not the question you need to ask.

Everything – absolutely EVERYTHING – in a novel has to do one of two things and preferably both. It either shows some facet of the character (or reinforces existing facets) or it furthers the plot. Even a description of the landscape or another character’s facial expression has to do one of those things, or else it doesn’t belong there.

How should this character die?

Think deeply about the character – and write deeply about them  – before you ask yourself this question.

Why is this character even in this book?

What purpose do they serve?

Every scene, every conversation, every action, and,  yes, every death: it all needs to further the reader’s understanding of the character(s) and/or (preferably and) advance the plot.

Just death for death’s sake might seem edgy and “real”, but from the reader’s perspective, it can feel like a cheat.

WHY do they die? That’s the important question here.

Are they the character that is making another character “friendzone” the person you think should be their One True Love?

Are they incredibly old and frail?

Are they “Patient Zero” and the key to unlocking the mystery, and if they stay alive, that might happen too soon or not at all?

Are they a dupe for the villain, and belatedly realizing they were on the wrong side, need to expiate their sins by self-sacrifice?

Is the death going to be a catalyst so the main character finally gets the gumption to act in some way?

Is the death the ONLY way to make this happen?

Is the death necessary at all?

Or are you just afraid the plot is kind of thin, and are hoping to distract the reader from noticing that by splashing a bucket of gore around?

Those are the questions that you need to answer.

That way, HOW they die will actually serve a purpose, as well as illustrating that.

 

Random Teaser

I knew, of course, that there was no justification for what I was doing. Oh, I could tell my protesting conscience that I hadn’t ever, in fact, sworn myself to Tirais or to the Queen, for that matter, but I knew that was mere quibbling. I was enough my father’s daughter to know that the oath itself wasn’t the important part.

I could say, with perfect truth, that there wasn’t the time to waste trying to get someone to believe me, that Connor’s safety lay in my ability to get to him in time, that a host of warriors would only slow me down, or that I owed Elowyn this service far more, but it was all nonsense.

I wasn’t doing it for Connor, at least not completely. I did like him. I did want to save him. I thought with horror of what he must be going through, and prayed to the Goddess he would be safe.

I wasn’t doing it for Keraine, though I could see how disastrous this night’s work would be if Angharad succeeded. Nothing in my life conditioned me to accept a Camrhyssi victory while I still breathed, and I couldn’t have let it go without a fight, but that was away in some misty future, and I wouldn’t have claimed it as motivation had I been tortured and racked to do so.

I wasn’t doing it for Elowyn either: she might already be dead, for all I knew, and revenge does nothing for a corpse.

I was doing this for completely selfish and petty reasons. I thought of Angharad’s words, standing in the gallery the night before. She had cost me some bad moments with her lies and her witchery, had made me doubt any number of values that I held dear, and had very probably turned the Queen’s mind against me so that I had been sent away.

And for that, I intended to kill her.

– from “A Spell in the Country”    Available from Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, B&N, and Smashwords     Paperback from Createspace/Amazon

books2read.com/u/brgoxz

Lighten up and cook something yummy!

Sometimes, hippie comfort food is the best thing there is.

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Corn Soup

2 cans creamed corn

1 stalk of celery, diced

3 green onions, diced

2 1/2 cups chicken or turkey stock (vegetarians use vegetable stock) (You can do this with stock cubes or homemade or those crazy carton broths – it’s all good)

1/8 tsp garam masala

1/4 tsp curry powder

salt, pepper to taste

1 tblsp butter and a squidge (that’s the technical term) of oil

Melt the butter and oil in a big pot (the oil is only there to make sure the butter doesn’t burn) and add the diced veggies. Sweat them over a medium low heat for 2-3 minutes.

Add the spices, swish them around, and then add the creamed corn. and stir to mix everything up.

Add the stock and bring to a good simmer for about five minutes, then lower heat and let it cook for another fifteen minutes or so.

You can garnish this with a tablespoon of fresh, minced parsley or cilantro if you like.

Serve with warm biscuits or French bread or challah or something…

This is equally brilliant for a cold winter day or a hot summer night!

Modern Romance

……… isn’t really romantic.

Love is in the air, as thick as patchouli oil at Burning Man, but the players haven’t kept up with the times. In fact, they seem to be regressing.

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Oh, the trappings are there. The heroines of these journeys toward love and fulfillment have careers and university degrees, and they are seldom, if ever, relegated to being nurses or teachers anymore. They have, in theory, more than just marriage on their minds.

And they have sex. A lot of sex.

But underneath, for every bit of window-dressing, and the “steps forward” the authors take, it seems as if the characters and plots take giant leaps backward.

It might be time for some of you to turn around and view past writers with more than a superficial eye. Maybe you could learn something important from an old mistress of the genre.

Georgette Heyer, who set the majority of her romance novels in the Regency era – arguably one of the most regressive and restrictive points in history, for upper-class women, at least – did some things that recent writers fail at rather miserably.

Heyer’s novels are romances, certainly. They are also, in part, comedies of manners as well, because those  manners,  the etiquette and the complex set of social rules that governed a woman’s life on almost every level, form a setting that seems unreasonably oppressive and constricted to modern writers and readers.

There is barely even any actual, physical contact between hero and heroine, save for the crushing, ruthless embrace at the end, when finally, the two star-crossed lovers meet in perfect love, and the curtains are then discreetly drawn.

It is hard for many of us nowadays to accept the idea that those people’s sex life is none of our business.

And yet, the books endure. They get rediscovered in each generation, and then, frequently, young writers try to imitate them while attempting to appeal to a modern audience by throwing in some hot sex on the side.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t try. I’m not saying that there wouldn’t, were someone to actually succeed at this, be a thriving market for these books. And I am definitely not saying this is solely applicable to historical romances – the problems are at the heart of every type of romance, be it fantasy, cowboy or urban.

But they most frequently fail, and I suspect I know why.

There are two things Heyer succeeded at, and while they are not difficult to perceive, I will admit that for most writers, they are hard to achieve.

The first is plot.

Plot is specific, but you wouldn’t know that reading modern romances. Romance fiction is almost always about love conquering all – but this is a theme, and themes are not plot.

Nor is setting a substitute for plot.  Modern writers are positive geniuses at locating their stories: backstage at a rock concert, on the run from the law, working for a huge international corporation, or house-sitting for a rich friend in Palm Beach. You name any setting at all and probably some writer has used it. You can take that a decent distance, but no matter where you set your heroine, it still isn’t plot.

Heyer’s romances follow the plot, not vice versa.

For Heyer, there was always a real, and logical (within the confines of the setting) problem to be solved, and Heyer was a veritable queen of figuring out the ways in which perfectly natural attempts to solve that problem, whatever it was, could go awry.  The plot drove the romance to its destination, not the other way around, and the problem was not merely a construct devised to get the heroine from one steamy scene to another.  The conflict was “real” and a product of the problem as well as the people involved – not forced into the setting the way you cram that last pair of pantyhose into an overflowing sock drawer.

The problem to be solved is what should drive the plot, which in turn drives the romance, and far too many writers today just seem to pick a problem based on what is recently in the news, drop it into a setting they like, and describe an impossibly lovely girl with self-esteem issues and a man with no impulse control at all, without considering whether the problem even actually is a problem; one that isn’t eventually solved, suddenly and completely, by texting over a copy of the missing deed or emailing someone’s mom.

Heyer never disappointed her readers by dropping in a wholly fortuitous but completely deus-ex-machina solution (see above, which I swear has been used in the final chapter in at least three novels I have read recently): her plot resolutions, like the plots themselves, were considered, and inherent in the setting and personalities involved. The resolutions and solutions were properly chosen to reflect that setting, the theme, the plot and the characters. This is what made the endings so satisfying, despite the lack of heavy breathing.

The second, and most important thing that Heyer never forgot to do was to give her heroines agency. Despite the web of constricting rules her main characters were forced to live within, they had fully-fledged personalities and acted on their own behalf. They behaved within character, but they grew, too. They learned lessons about themselves, not as bolts from the blue based on a single passionate kiss, but through seeing their own or other people’s conduct from new vantage points.

In addition, Heyer’s men have more depth than current fiction might lead you to believe the male of the species normally owns. Men in modern romances might be hunky, but they are considerably less kind, aware, patient, or even interesting. Men in Heyer’s novels have interests that they pursue. They have morals more encompassing than an alley-cat’s, too.

Above all, though, her heroines are far more modern that those of most romantic fiction published in the last 20 years or so. The modern woman of romance might have a graduate degree in Communications, but she is so frequently tongue-tied and inarticulate that one has to wonder how she manages to record a message for her voice-mail, and for career women, they are exceedingly reluctant to put in regular appearances at their job, the moment a cute guy crosses their path.

Heyer’s women have more on their minds than men. Seriously – it might be difficult to discern amid the teas, balls and recitals, but despite the fact that their only purpose in life was, according to Society, to get married to as much wealth and status as possible, the delicate flowers decorating Almack’s in Heyer’s world are surprisingly inventive, creative, and courageous.

They are frequently outspoken, too – Heyer rarely relied on poor communications skills to create a misunderstanding, and when she did, she made it logical and within character. Indeed, she much preferred to create the misinterpretations and mixed messages through such things as drunkenness on the part of some rakish blade (“April Lady” comes to mind here), or to send someone out of town and therefore unable to clear up the misunderstanding until it was much too late.

Heyer’s women do things. They might not be the right things – but they are never illogical or out of character. They have real, perfectly understandable emotions: they argue, they converse, they interact with people.

And – curiously unlike many another more recently-written tale  – they don’t wait around for someone else to solve their difficulties for them.

 

 

Café Society

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Lately, I’ve seen a definite trend on Twitter and elsewhere, extolling the idea (and attendant, buyable merchandise) for making “café-style” drinks at home.

 

They usually focus on how much you’ll save by making your own lattes and cappuccinos, and while the entry-price is steep, it is undeniable that those daily plunk-downs of $5 at Starbucks mount up pretty quick – so I cannot dispute these claims.

 

But I think that in so many ways, the entire idea misses the most salient points about coffee houses.

 

First of all, the chains are frequented in the early a. m. by people whose lives are not going to accommodate getting up 20 minutes early to make their own delicious mochaccinos.

I’m serious: no one who uses the Timmie’s drive-thru or whips into the Starbucks across from the office is unaware that the coffee is overpriced, and that pushing the alarm back a quarter-hour and then actually getting out of bed could save them a bundle.

It doesn’t matter how gorgeous and pricey the appliances are, or how thrifty and delicious their drinks would be: they still won’t do that.

 

And for everyone else, it isn’t the coffee.

 

Heck, half my friends meet me at the local café and grab a can of soda, for Pete’s sake.

 

It’s not about the coffee – or at least, it is only peripherally about the coffee.

 

It’s about the where.

It’s about the comfy chairs, the neutrality, the socialization, the feeling of specialness and the conversation.
It’s about the conversation.

Even when you are alone…there’s a reason why Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book in a coffee house, and despite what she may say, I suspect it wasn’t any of those reasons, but because of the community feel, the ambience, the sense of the past backing you up and cheering you on.

Otherwise, she could have saved more money and just gone to the public library instead. It’s very quiet, and there are tables and chairs, and all the research material you could dream of, right at your fingertips.

But she went to a café, and that is no simple accident.

Café society, coffee houses – they have a long and honourable (although sometimes disreputable) history of fostering the arts. Of welcoming the different, the outcast, the misfits of the world.

They have been at the forefront of so many cultural and political movements that were they to utterly disappear, I suspect society would vanish immediately thereafter.

I don’t know what it is, exactly, but my friends are smarter, more articulate, and a whole lot wittier when we sit down in a real café to have a catch-up.

Their advice is more thoughtful – and I’m more open to it, in a café.

Their jokes are wilder and funnier than they are in someone’s living room. Their stories are more compelling, and we all listen better, harder, than we do at home. We give each other more space.

 

So stop with the “this $500 gizmo means you’ll never buy Starbucks again.”

Because that really isn’t why we go out for coffee.