Thursday, June 18, 2015

Framing the Story

How is a picture frame like point of view in fiction?

I love pictures that provide their own frames. Maybe it's a shot through a window, or maybe the frame is an arch, a doorway, trees, a cave. When we travel and I notice such a potential shot, I always ask my husband the photographer to capture it. I was looking at a collection of these pictures the other day, and it occurred to me that framing a picture in this way directs the
viewer's eye and focuses his attention much as point of view focuses a story for the reader. Rather than trying to encompass everything, it gently points you at something. It tells you where to look and guides your attention.

I don't usually write about writing. Plenty of people are already doing that, and I don't see myself as an advice-giver. Besides, I don't believe that any two writing projects, let alone any two writers, will work exactly the same way.

But I do want to riff a little on the concept of point of view (POV). Not all aspects of it; I don't want to go into the mechanics or the fine distinctions or the how-tos, but I would like to look at a question which ideally would be answered before any serious writing commences. (Though it may take some semi-serious and experimental writing to arrive at an answer.)

The question:  Whose story is it?

 An approach that has become very popular is to take a secondary character, or even a minor character, in a well-known story and tell that person's tale. Examples abound: there's Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, about Jane Eyre's unfortunate predecessor; Grendel by John Gardner, in which Beowulf's monster takes center stage; The Wind Done Gone, written from the POV of a slave who was the child of Scarlett O'Hara's father and of Mammy, from Gone With the Wind; Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, from the POV of a servant in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Finn: A Novel by Jon Clinch, about Huckleberry Finn's father; March by Geraldine Brooks, about the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women; and many more.

Think of Gregory Maguire's fairytale retellings from an alternate POV: Wicked, Mirror Mirror, and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. You'll also find a bewildering array of books based on practically everybody who ever had a speaking part in anything by Jane Austen.

Two of my favorites are not novels at all, but plays by Tom Stoppard. I am a great fan of his Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (based, obviously, on two minor characters from Hamlet) and Travesties, which is a manic and surreal take on some of the characters from Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as on Dada, James Joyce, and lots more, and which contains a brilliantly weird scene written entirely in limericks.

For the historical fiction author, this approach probably means choosing some historical character, or a fictional character who might have existed, in the orbit of somebody well-known. The classic example, of course, is the Tudors: there are now so many Tudor novels that there is probably one out there somewhere written from the POV of Henry the Eighth's barber's wife's dog.

This may be a matter of "Writer, know thyself." If someone wants to write biographical fiction about well-known people, more power to them -- I have enjoyed many such books. But I can't imagine myself writing about queens or other famous folk as my central subject, or writing from their points of view.

For myself, I prefer the unexpected, off-to-one-side character who has caught my attention. My first novel, A Thing Done, tells a true story of a feud among knights in medieval Florence, a marriage contracted to make peace, a jilting, and the homicidal
aftermath of this assault on knightly honor. But I told it from the point of view of a jester who got dragooned into pulling the prank that set the whole thing in motion. I chose him for two reasons: he was in the best position to observe the people on both sides of the conflict, and also I wondered how he would have felt about his role in the conflict that divided his city.

To me his story was more immediate and more interesting than the stories that belonged to the squabbling knights, the jilted bride and the chosen one, or the conniving older woman, not least because it enabled me to tell those other stories as well. My marginalized character could tell us all about those rich noble people; had I used one of them as a POV character, what are the chances that he/she would have even noticed the jester?

My jester only appears in a single line in the earliest chronicle that mentions the event. For some reason, that seems to be the sort of situation that attracts me: someone who had a role in the story, yet who was not considered important enough for contemporary chroniclers to dwell on.

My work in progress is about Lady Giacoma dei Settesoli, a Roman noblewoman who was an early follower of Saint Francis of Assisi -- an extremely wealthy woman who was improbably a close friend of the saint who considered himself wed to Lady Poverty. Again, the earliest biographies of Saint Francis contain only one or two sentences about her. Yet because of her prominent family, I was able to dig up a surprising amount of information .

And in another upcoming project, I'm writing from the POVs of seven of the women mentioned by Dante, or in some other way connected with him. Among them: the irascible noblewoman Dante disapproved of; the free spirit and notable lover who he sympathetically assigned to Paradise; his friend's longsuffering wife who sneezed a lot, and who Dante made fun of in an early poem and then obliquely apologized to in the Commedia; the redoubtable mother of his nemesis who he insulted in classic schoolboy fashion in the same series of poems ("Son of we don't know who, until monna Tessa tells us"). I think all of them deserve their say. Plus I'm giving a voice to Gemma Donati, Dante's largely forgotten wife, who never merited a single line in all his writings.

There's also another question, and it may be that only the writing itself can answer this one:  Is it your story to tell?

I had planned to write from the point of view of Dante's beloved Beatrice (pesky poet following her around, that sort of thing), but one day I realized that the real drama was not hers, but belonged to Dante's wife -- the kinswoman of the man who was behind Dante's exile, the woman who raised his children and kept his property together during all the long years of his forced absence from Florence (he was never to return). Where were her loyalties? To her birth family or to her husband, or split between them? How did she like reading her husband's poetic rhapsodies about Beatrice, who was her neighbor and someone she would have seen every day? How did Beatrice's death affect her? How did she feel when her own daughter took the name "Sister Beatrice" when she entered a convent?

Beatrice's story was not mine to tell. It didn't come alive for me. But Gemma's did.

I tried to write from the POV of La Compiuta Donzella, an early Florentine poet, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't capture her voice. (I did create a fictional secondary character who I liked a lot and intend to recycle, though, so it wasn't wasted effort.)

I think we have also to give a nod to the story that is about one individual, but told by another: Sherlock Holmes as told by Dr. Watson, or the story of Jay Gatsby as told by Nick Caraway. The author needs an affinity for the narrating character as well as for the subject, if the voice is to ring true. But perhaps that is a discussion for another time.

Images in this post, except for the book cover, are all pictures taken in Italy and Greece by my husband, Tim Heath. He retains copyright. (And did you notice that the second picture above was the source of the window on the cover of my book? The cover designer was able to incorporate it.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Our Greek Odyssey 4: Malia (and the British Museum)

Meet the kitty who photobombed the ruins of ancient Malia, a Minoan city on Crete. This little charmer appointed herself our guide, and proceeded to show us around in a most proprietary way.

For anyone wanting to catch up with the earlier three posts in this series, follow these links for posts about Athens; about Nafplio, Epidaurus, Tiryns, and Mycenae; and about Crete (Siva, Knossos, Phaistos, and Aghia Triada).

Malia, a Minoan city on the northern edge of Crete and east of Iraklion, was not the last archaeological site we visited, but it was the last major site.

This last picture is the famous bee pendant, found in Malia and now on display at the archaeological museum in Iraklion. It's an exquisite little piece of intricate goldwork from the middle Bronze Age.

I've not said much about any of the places featured in these posts, relying mostly on pictures. But if you are interested in such things, I would urge you to seek out information about them. The history is fascinating. I learned a lot about Greece, past and present, in preparation for this trip, but I'm no expert, and I'd suggest that you seek out those who are, because Greek history touches every aspect of western civilization. And for those who have not been paying attention to Greece's current economic and political crises, I would urge you to take a look at that, too - it's a David and Goliath tale with no foregone conclusion.


So many of the great Greek antiquities have wound up in England that it seemed only appropriate to end our trip with a stop in London and a visit to the British Museum, always one of our favorite places.

Phidias showing the frieze of the Parthenon to his friends, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868
 As many of you will recall, there is considerable controversy over whether the so-called Elgin Marbles should remain in their current home in the British Museum, or be returned to Greece. I don't want to go into it here, but here's one (of many) links if you'd like to know more:

The new Acropolis Museum in Athens has rather pointedly left places for these friezes and sculptures, should they ever be returned. Here are two pictures of some of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum:

I'll leave you now with one last image. One decorative theme we encountered over and over again, especially on Crete, was the octopus. (It also turned up in pretty much every restaurant we ate in.) What amused us most was that most of these sea critters are pictured with huge round eyes, communicating utter surprise, as if they are shocked - shocked! - to find themselves decorating pots and vases. So I can't bring this series of posts to an end without providing you with at least one amazed octopus.

Images in this post are our own photos or in the public domain, with these exceptions: the bee pendant is by Olaf Tausch and licensed to Oltau via the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license; the photo of the Parthenon Galleries is by Mujtaba Chohan and licensed to M.chahan via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; and the picture of the surprised octopus on the pot is by Wolfgang Sauber, licensed to Xenophon via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Our Greek Odyssey 3: Crete (Siva, Knossos, Phaistos, Aghia Triada)

This is Part 3 of what is now my four-part post about our recent trip to Greece. (Unless it turns into five parts, which is entirely possible.) If you'd like to read about Athens, see Part 1 here. If you'd like to read about Nafplio, Epidaurus, and Mycenae, see Part 2 here.

After exploring some of mainland Greece, we relocated to Crete for a week, which we spent living in a stone house in a little village called Siva. It had been the childhood home of our host, and you could see vestiges of what it had been like in an earlier time: a courtyard with an outhouse (now plumbed and containing the washing machine), a well, and a wood-fired oven. One particular treat was to be able to pick fresh oranges from the trees surrounding the house.

Siva is tiny (population 244, according to Wikipedia). It was quiet and lovely (see view above and at top), and we enjoyed staying there. It is close to Iraklion, but far enough away to have a rural feel. We enjoyed our hosts' own olive oil while we were there, especially when we learned that we had driven past the trees that produced the olives, and the press that pressed them was just down the street. It doesn't get much more local than that.

Another example of local products can be seen in this sign, just across the street from "our" house (and next door to the goat):

We didn't try this particular vintage, but we're sure it's a winner.

Siva was far too small to boast any public transportation, so we rented a little Fiat Panda from the efficient and capable Dimitris. With it, we acquired a GPS with the usual cultured female voice, courteously instructing us on where we should be going. Since we are perhaps not the very best at following instructions, we named her Cassandra, after another long-suffering woman who nobody ever listened to.

Cassandra: "Go that way!"
 We started off elegantly enough, greeting her with "Speak to us, o Cassandra, of the road to Iraklion" and suchlike. But it fairly quickly devolved into something closer to "Bug off, Cassie, we're stopping for lunch." I don't think we are GPS sorts of people. We finally figured out how to turn her off, though for a while we had her speaking in Greek, which was almost as good.


The famed palace of Knossos was our first sightseeing stop on Crete. Knossos, of course, is said to be the palace of the legendary King Minos and home to the Minotaur, complete with labyrinth, bull-leaping, Theseus, Ariadne, and all of that.

Knossos has seen more restoration, some of it questionable, than the other Minoan sites we visited, but it is still an evocative site.

Here are some of the current denizens of Knossos:

And two more well-known restored frescoes from Knossos (now in the museum in Iraklion):

Having poked around the northern edge of Crete for a while, we decided to head south. We huffed and puffed across the mountains in our little Fiat (which we think was muttering "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..." in Greek) and found ourselves on the south coast, where it was about 10 degrees warmer.

Phaistos (Festos, Faistos)

Less restored but no less interesting than Knossos was Phaistos, for which we found a number of alternate spellings, including several on the road signs on our way to it.  From around the same time period as Knossos, Phaistos is in a magnificent location, with panoramic views in all directions.

The nearby site of Aghia Triada was similar in many ways, though it was more of a village and less centered around a huge palace than either Phaistos or Knossos.

These imposing pots (and the ones from Knossos shown above) are called pithoi (singular pithos). They are seriously big. The ones from Knossos probably stand 8 or 9 feet high. We should have put a person in the picture to show the scale, but we didn't think of that until after we had left. Even today the Cretans like to decorate with them, as you can see in this picture of the house in Siva:

We did see one post-Minoan site in our meanderings. Gortyn afforded us the chance to look at Roman Crete.

It also has the Gortyn Code, or at least most of it. This law code, carved in stone in lines that reverse direction (left to right, right to left, etc.), is said to be the oldest and most complete surviving code of ancient Greek law. You'll have to look carefully to see the writing, but it is there.

Next time, we go back north and head west (with occasional help from Cassandra), to show you Rethymnon, and then east, to show you Malia.

Images in this post are either our own photos, or in the public domain.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Our Greek Odyssey 2: Nafplio, Epidaurus,Tiryns, Mycenae

This post concerns the second phase of our recent trip to Greece. Anyone who missed the bit on Athens can find it here.

We picked the lovely seaside town of Nafplio both for its undeniable charm and for its proximity to two of the archaeological sites we most wanted to see: Epidaurus and Mycenae.

We chose the Hotel Byron, and we were not disappointed. It did require a bit of climbing, though, which we were unaware of when we trundled our luggage from the station and walked till we spotted its welcoming sign:

Around the corner from the welcoming sign was the way in (or perhaps I should say the way up):

Factor in another three flights of stairs inside to reach our room, and I think it's fair to say that we walked off the amazing homemade marmalade we ate each morning. Tim suggested that they needed a funicular, and he was heard to quote Douglas Adams from time to time concerning "the advantages 'up' has to offer." But then, he was the one schlepping the bags.

Just across from us was the church of Saint Spyridon, on the steps of which, in 1831, Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first head of state of the then newly liberated Greece, was assassinated:

Murder of Ioannis Kapodistrias, by Charalambos Pachis

A few pictures to give you an idea of Nafplio's appeal:

We rented a car to go to Epidaurus when we learned that the bus schedules were not going to allow us enough time to see it properly. Both of us had wanted to see the ancient theatre there, with its famous acoustics, and it was worth braving Greek traffic and roadsigns to get there. A person standing in the center of the stage can drop a small object and its impact will be heard throughout the theatre.

Tiryns was another archaological site we wanted to see. Called "mighty walled Tiryns" by Homer, it was said by some to be the birthplace of Heracles. Even today the huge stones of Tiryns are impressive:

And finally we made it to Mycenae, home to the great king Agamemnon of Homeric fame. It was the source of this famous mask, called the Mask of Agamemnon (though it actually is several centuries too early to be him):

If I had been Agamemnon and I had a palace with the breathtaking view he had in Mycenae, I would have left Troy to its own devices and spent my days sitting on the patio drinking ouzo. Well, okay, maybe not ouzo. But drinking in the view, definitely.

I was excited to see the famous Lions Gate at Mycenae (see picture at top, also detail below).

Very nearby, we were able to see the extraordinary tholos tomb variously known as the Treasure of Atreus or the Tomb of Agamemnon.

Inside the tholos tomb the acoustics are downright alarming. If someone speaks, a listener may well hear the sound from another place altogether. At one point I would swear I heard someone laughing demonically just behind me, but when I turned to see who was there, there was nobody at all. It was actually pretty creepy. I left with alacrity.

Here's the entrance to that tomb:

I loved Mycenae. I flirted briefly with the idea of writing about it, but then my better judgment prevailed, and I decided to leave it to the experts. (All I came up with was a limerick, and I'll spare you that.) One of those experts, my friend Judith Starkston, has written a very fine book, Hand of Fire, about the life of Briseis, a character mentioned only briefly in Homer's Iliad. Agamemnon plays a major part in her tale.

Next time, we'll be in Zorba country - Crete! Join me then for more pictures, to meet the kitty who photobombed Malia, and to find out why we named our GPS after the prophetess Cassandra.

Pictures of the mask of Agamemnon and of the murder of Kapodistrias are in the public domain; other pictures are our own.