Did you ever imagine yourself living in the Middle Ages, in a drafty, magnificent castle with unicorn tapestries on the walls? My childhood playmates and I weighed the glories of that life against the lack of modern medicine or plumbing. We always pictured ourselves as princesses, never as scullery maids.
My friend Tom in college Latin class said he’d rather be learning medieval pronunciation than classical, just in case he woke up in a medieval monastery. I advised him to drop Latin and study Old Norse, as he was just as likely to wake up a prisoner on a Viking warship.
Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but it’s struck me that we imagine past lives of fame or privilege or adventure more often than lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. You’re more likely to have been a serf than a castle dweller. I rarely see historical fiction about the lives of serfs. Is it because they were too dull to contemplate, or because they were so alien that our imaginations can’t stretch that far?
Lately I’ve been reading novels set in early modern Europe. Two that I highly recommend take place as the bubonic plague returns to Venice in the devastating outbreak of 1575-77. These unrelated books by different authors have striking parallels.
In The Venetian Bargain by Marina Fiorato (St. Martin’s Press, 2014), Feyra is the doctor for the sultan’s harem in Constantinople. She arrives in Venice on the same ship that brings the deadly contagion. Although she knows a way to protect healthy people from infection, as a Muslim infidel she must flee for her life through the piazzas and canals.
Hannah, the Jewish protagonist of The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich (Gallery Books, 2012), uses nontraditional methods to help women of the ghetto through difficult childbirths. Those same methods expose her to charges of witchcraft after she agrees to help a Christian woman illegally, in return for a fee large enough to ransom her captive husband. She too must run and hide for her life.
Like the best historical novels, these immerse the reader in a distant world. Sadly, suspicion and threats toward minorities aren’t quite as distant as I’d wish.
Three Milwaukee businessmen organized a social club for German-Americans in 1891. Four years later, the club moved into the old Mitchell Mansion on what’s now Wisconsin Avenue. My annual visit to the Wisconsin Club is a step into another century. I love lingering among the leather-paneled walls, murals, Moorish-themed ceilings, stained glass, and exquisite woodwork of the library and lounges while Council for Wisconsin Writers volunteers put the finishing touches on their luncheon set-up.
Lunchtime brings an even greater luxury: eating among scores of people gathered to support Wisconsin writers, as we did this past Saturday. Readings by eight CWW-award-winning authors offered a delectable mix of genres and voices.
“Nothing really stays put for very long,” local historian John Gurda (Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods) said, pointing to an area just west of the luncheon venue; “All neighborhoods are changing neighborhoods and always have been.” Waunakee High School essayist Hannah Nies (“The Girl in the Moon”) asked whether a sense of place is universal or necessary.
Ronnie Hess (“The Red Shoes,” short nonfiction) spoke of “the urge to tell stories, because the stories call out to be told.” Novelist Judith Mitchell (A Reunion of Ghosts) left me pondering meanings of then: at a past time, after some future event, or an ex such as one’s then-spouse. Poets Ronald Wallace (For Dear Life) and John Walser (five poems in various journals), short story writer Matt Cashion (“Any Idiot Can Feel Pain”), and children’s writer Gayle Rosengren (Cold War on Maplewood Street) rounded out the program, a feast for the ears as well as the palate.
My current writing challenge is to recount a brand new chapter in the history of polio eradication. In the last two weeks of April, 155 countries around the world switched to a different kind of polio vaccine. An additional vaccine is being introduced in the 126 countries that weren’t yet using it. This is a very big deal. It is technically and logistically complicated. My first draft is long on explanation and short on storytelling. How do you tell a technical story in human terms?
Journalists and documentary filmmakers deal with this all the time. I hope to learn from them. Ideally, they show people profoundly affected by the development. For polio that’s a future negative: children who won’t be paralyzed. Another approach is to feature people behind the development: researchers, decision makers, or (for polio) Rotarians raising money. Finally, quotes or talking heads give impersonal content a human voice.
I’d like to learn from you, too. What holds your attention in a show or article on a technical topic? Do you find related challenges in your own creative work, and how do you address them?
My mother was a big-city girl relocated by marriage to a small university town with a paucity of bookstores (back before big box stores or the Internet). She got active in the Friends of the Library and the American Association of University Women. One of her major volunteer efforts was to organize the AAUW’s annual book sale. I remember feeling like a kid in a candy store each year, wandering from table to table to choose one book to take home.
The cover pictures that drew me most were of children in an exotic setting, another time or country, perhaps in ethnic costume or standing in front of a thatched hut or a yurt. They stoked my curiosity. Is it any wonder I later studied history and worked as a researcher in a publisher’s geography department?
Life coach Mary Helen Conroy suggests recalling the shining moments of childhood joy as bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, which you can turn to see what beautiful new patterns those same bits might form later on. What engaged your passion or stoked your curiosity as a child? How do those joys shine in your life today, or how might you reclaim them for tomorrow?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.