I’m reading my way through Fiona Buckley’s historical mysteries featuring Ursula Blanchard, fictitious half-sister to Queen Elizabeth I. Ursula strives to save her Protestant queen from Catholic threats to seize control and resume burning heretics, as happened under Elizabeth’s Catholic real half-sister Queen Mary.
Ursula hates the Inquisition, not the papacy, making the series palatable for readers of any faith or none. Mysteries set a few centuries back can't disregard religious conflict, but they rarely take sides except against cruelty and fanaticism. Still, readers may look in vain for light fiction about a gentle Jesuit priest trying to avoid capture and execution by Queen Elizabeth’s minions. Catholic protagonists emerge in novels set a bit later in Ireland or the Scottish highlands, fighting to preserve their independence and traditions from heartless English conquerors.
I'd guess readers of historical fiction today, at least while they’re reading, don’t much care about theology or ecclesiastical politics or seeking martyrdom or saving immortal souls. We do care about human decency, safety, autonomy, heritage, success for the underdog, and the freedom to shape our own lives. For leisure reading, if your historical sympathies lean toward one religious party more than another, pick an era where that’s the party fighting for survival, independence, or other secular values that resonate today.
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
- Orson Welles, screenplay for “The Big Brass Ring”
As any photographer might tell us, even the most representational art can change meaning with the placement of the frame. Picture a sweet, domestic snapshot of two children playing with a teddy bear on the bedroom floor. If you widen the frame to show the window with a stranger at the top of a ladder peering in, you hint at a far spookier story.
Every story, fact or fiction, requires the storyteller to choose where to start and stop. Reality is never done; as my mother used to say, “This too shall pass.” The artist—or journalist, or historian, or documentarian—must set the frame. Life is full of successes and failures, joys and sorrows, interwoven and each leading to the next. Comedy? Tragedy? It depends where you stop your story.
It’s one of my favorite words, an antidote to perfectionism, envy, or feelings of inadequacy. There’s comfort in the mantra, “I have enough. I do enough. I am enough.”
Enough is deliciously versatile, equally expressive of satisfaction or impatience. “Enough already! That's enough!” It can emphasize the word it follows (“sure enough,” “fair enough”) or weaken it (“good enough but not great”).
Writers face questions of “enough” all the time. How much backstory is enough to give readers context without pulling them out of the action? How serious a flaw is enough to make a character relatable without losing readers’ sympathy? How many rounds of revision are enough before you send work off to a client, agent, or editor?
Fifty years ago this summer, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Folks were still talking about it when I moved back to northern Ohio the following year. Oil slick from industrial Cleveland burned for twenty or thirty minutes, sending flames more than five stories high.
The 1969 blaze wasn’t the river’s first or worst. Of thirteen recorded times the Cuyahoga ignited from 1868 to 1969, the fire of 1912 was deadliest (five fatalities) and that of 1952 did the most property damage. What was different in 1969 was historical context. Concern was rising over the dangers of pollution from unchecked industrial growth. National shock over a river catching fire added momentum, leading in 1970 to the first Earth Day and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
How the river has changed! What I once knew as the epitome of pollution has transformed into a place of beauty. Habitat is restored, dams removed, wildlife protected. Bald eagles eat fish from the river. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is calling to me to come visit.
The photo is from the 1952 fire. The 1969 blaze was put out before anyone could take a photo.
In the 2011 film Midnight in Paris, a vacationing writer time-travels to the 1920s Paris of Hemingway et al. In that era, which he loves, he meets a young woman who longs for the golden age of the 1890s. Levels upon levels. How the past looks depends where you’re looking from.
A few years back, I undertook a retelling of Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 best-seller The Mysteries of Udolpho, set in southern France (Garonne, Languedoc) and northern Italy in the 1580s. Levels upon levels. Radcliffe’s novel abounds not only in anachronisms like coffee but in the tastes and values of her age. Antiquity, sensibility, and the sublime spoke distinctively to her generation and the next. Crumbling castles surely existed in the 1580s, but gothic, romantic fascination with them came later.
When I began trying to make Udolpho accessible to modern readers, I planned to replace twenty-page landscapes with paragraphs and let the protagonist have pensive moments without breaking out into lyric poetry. But the larger challenges turned out to involve attitudes and values, not just style. A character today needs more than virtue and piety. She needs agency to make decisions that affect what follows. She needs to wind up changed by her experience. These are the values of our time, not the 1790s or the 1580s. Levels upon levels.
Browsing at an independent bookstore, having the author sign your copy at a launch, tearing the gift wrap off a new book at the holidays, settling into your favorite chair with a fresh hardcover in your hands. It doesn’t get much better than this.
That’s assuming the book is available. If it’s out of stock, late to ship, or up in price, it may be because the publisher can’t get enough paper. Two reasons for the current paper shortage are side effects of environmental progress, Forbes reported in June.
First, recycling has gotten easier and more pervasive. We can throw all recyclables in one bin and include most any kind of paper. The resulting fibers are dirtier, harder to turn into book- or magazine-quality paper. Second, commercial packaging has shifted away from plastic in favor of paper and cardboard. Mills that retool to meet this demand no longer make as much paper suitable for books.
Next time I relish a physical book, I’ll try not to take its pages for granted.
“Catholic” and “Irish” are so linked in public imagination that the University of Notre Dame, founded by French Catholics, calls its teams “the fighting Irish.” Would it surprise you to learn Protestants outnumber Catholics among Americans with ancestors from Ireland?
Though I heard little about Dominion Day (now Canada Day) during childhood summers in Canada, my grandmother’s friend Mrs. Moise made sure I knew July 12 was Orangemen’s Day. It celebrates a long-ago Protestant battle victory over Catholics. For a few years in grade school I thought it fun to wear orange on Saint Patrick’s Day. Then I learned Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were killing each other. Not funny.
North America received over a quarter million Irish immigrants in the 1700s, largely Presbyterian with Scottish ancestry. The merchants and tradesmen who formed the Irish Society of Boston organized world’s first recorded Saint Patrick’s Day parade in 1737. Instead of settling in cities, though, most moved to the frontier to farm. Their descendants multiplied to populate much of the South and the Appalachians.
History is written not only by the winners and the literate, but by those with an agenda. When potato famine in the 1840s drove well over a million destitute, starving Catholic Irish to an unwelcoming America, the previous arrivals rebranded themselves “Scots-Irish” to evade prejudice. Back in Ireland by the 1900s, the mostly Catholic independence movement laid claim to marks of traditional Irish culture: Saint Patrick, shamrocks, the color green.
Deciding “orange” Irish weren’t “true” Irish served agendas both green and orange. It’s a short step from there to assuming Americans’ ancestors from Ireland were all potato famine Catholics, even if it isn’t true.
Most books that strongly influenced my childhood were predictable classics: Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fictionalized memoirs, the exploits of Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, The Little Prince. Others turned out to be personal passions, like Mistress Masham’s Repose by T. H. White. Perhaps the most obscure, though I didn’t know it at the time, was George Herbert Locke’s When Canada Was New France (1920).
“Almost four hundred years ago, when bluff King Hal ruled over Merry England and Francis over Sunny France, there were strange stories told in the ports of the west of England and the north of France of lands away to the Westward,” it began. What child could resist? Especially a child with Canadian roots, who spent summers in Canada with Canadian aunts, uncles, and cousins. A child excited by tales of adventure, all the more when the tales were true.
Locke wrote in honor of then-recent Canadian soldiers who sailed to Old France to preserve their ancestral motherlands in the Great War. To an adult reader today, his account is a quaint period piece, justifiably long out of print. To one child reader long ago, the intrepid explorers he wrote about—Cartier, Champlain, Joliet, Marquette, LaSalle—opened the door to a lifelong fascination with true stories of long ago.
The old practice of paying magazine writers by the word rewarded verbosity. Short-short narrative calls on different skills to make every word count. Constraints can spur creativity, we found in Gale Walden’s Write-by-the-Lake workshop on flash memoir and flash fiction last week. You might have fun with one of these:
For my first stab at flash fiction six years ago, click on “Her Next Bed” on the Writing page of this website.
Not all women marry in white, of course. My mother wore deep orange-rust velvet for her September wedding long ago. Nor has white always been traditional for European and American bridal gowns. That started after 1840, when Queen Victoria’s white wedding gown set a new fashion among the wealthy.
White was a color of conspicuous consumption because it was so hard to clean. (Nothing to do with purity or innocence.) Until well into the twentieth century, even the elites expected to wear their gowns again for other occasions. Most brides simply wore their best dress, which might or might not be new. The single-use white wedding gown did not become widespread until after World War II.
Traditions are customs, beliefs, or practices passed down through generations. In wedding fashion as in more important spheres, they’re not to be confused with eternal truth or the way things were always done.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.