Sunday, June 1, 2014

Invoking the Muses

After making an exhaustive study of what's selling and what's not in historical fiction (by which I mean I looked at some Amazon reviews, read a few Facebook posts, and took a look at my own Author Central page), I have come to a conclusion.

To wit, there is Absolutely No Point in continuing to write what people don't want to read.  I am, therefore, embarking on a project to write the most salable historical novel that has ever been written, in which I propose to invoke pretty much every cliché I can think of.  And I intend to share the results with you, my faithful blog readers.

To begin, I did what all writers must do -- I invoked the Muses.  This was only a partial success.  Calliope said that in the current publishing climate she had to be very selective, but she wished me luck finding a muse who would be a better fit with my project; I got an autoreply from Clio; Euterpe's assistant said she was not taking unsolicited requests; Melpomene had to attend a funeral; Thalia just laughed off my request; and Erato sent regrets, though she did recommend the reasonably-priced services of her sister Errata, who's taking over the position of muse of Copy Editing from Apostrophe, who is on leave after multiple relocations. 

I did manage to reach Hyperbole, muse of Marketing, and Monotone, muse of Publishing, though, so all was not lost. 

Hyperbole, contemplating Twitter feed

Monotone, muse of Publishing

Both of them were overflowing with enthusiasm.  First they tried to convince me to write about Tudors, and I had to break it to them that I don't know anything about Tudors, and the closest I could come would be Florence in the13th century.  Monotone kept insisting I could just use Wikipedia, but eventually I prevailed.

Next, the question of a title came up. 

“It's got to be The Queen's something-or-other,” said Monotone, and Hyperbole nodded.

“Or if you can't do that, it's got to be The Something-or-other's Wife,” she added.

“This is Florence in the 13th century.  There weren't any queens,” I told them.

Monotone scoffed.  “It's the middle ages, isn't it?  Of course there were queens!”

“Queens that everyone's heard of,” Hyperbole chimed in.

“Name me a medieval Italian queen that you've heard of,” I challenged her.

Hyperbole looked blank.  Monotone examined her fingernails, humming to herself.

“See?  No queens.”

“Whyever not?  How can you hold a middle ages without queens?!?  What do they put on their covers, for chrissake?”

“Florence was an anarcho-syndicalist commune,” I explained.

Four eyebrows shot up.  “Oh, really?” they said in unison.

“Well, no.  Not exactly.  But it was a commune -- nary a queen in sight.  Except maybe an occasional Queen of the May.”

A moment of silence ensued. 

“Well, okay, then, how about somebody's wife?” said Hyperbole.

“I was thinking of writing about Dante's great love and inspiration, Beatrice,” I said, watching them for a reaction.

The Poet's Wife?  I dunno – truth be told, it doesn't pull me in.”

“She wasn't his wife, she was the woman he loved.  She married a banker.”

The Banker's Wife is right out,” Monotone said firmly.  “We just put out a memoir by that title.  Rushed it out the door to take advantage of the latest financial crisis.  But maybe we could go with The Poet's Mistress.  It's not great, but it's better than The Poet's Wife.”

“Well, she wasn't exactly his mistress, actually,” I said, not quite liking where this was going.

“But surely they did have a relationship,” protested Hyperbole.

“Well, yes – he swore to write about her as no one had ever written about a woman before, and he made her immortal, and she symbolized all sorts of stuff, and he made sure her name will never be forgotten.”

“But they did, um, Have A Relationship, didn't they?” Hyperbole persisted.

“She greeted him courteously on the street,” I began, but before I could go on, they both groaned.

“Are you sure you can't come up with an Italian queen?”  Monotone's voice had taken on a wheedling tone.

“Not before 1861.”

Hyperbole turned to Monotone.  “Is 1861 trending?” she asked.

“Not in Italy.” 

“Let's wait till later to figure out the title,” I suggested, and they both reluctantly agreed.  “So I can do Beatrice?”

“Sure you can,” said Monotone.  “Only, we'll have to come up with another name for her.”

“Another – but why??” 

“Nobody will pronounce it right.  They'll say BEE-a-triss, not Bay-ah-TREE-chay,” Hyperbole explained. 

“Her nickname was Bice –“ I began, but Monotone interrupted me.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no.  BEE-chay is not what people are going to say when they see that.  They're going to rhyme it with mice, and spice, and lice, and dice.  Not with eBay.”

“But everybody knows she's Beatrice!”

“No, they don't,” said Hyperbole patiently.  “Hardly anyone has a clue she even existed.  We need to give her a name that people can relate to.  How about Daenerys?”

I was going to have to put my foot down.  “I am not calling Beatrice 'Daenerys.'”

“Arya?  Arya would be nice.”

“No!  It has to at least be something Italian,” I wailed.

The two muses looked meaningfully at each other.  Then they turned back to me.

“There, there, dear,” said Hyperbole soothingly, and Monotone reached out and patted my hand.  “Let's call her something we can all agree on, then.  How about – Marianna?”

Marianna?  Well... I couldn't really think of any reason why not.  “I suppose so.  But how did you come up with that?”

Monotone grinned at me.  “There's an art to naming characters,” she said.  “Marianna is a lovely name, and it's a nice contraction of Maria Susanna.”


“So that's our main character,” Hyperbole said briskly.  “Now we need a female sidekick to be the narrative voice.  A Servant with a Secret, as it were.”

I was confused.  “What secret?”

“Doesn't matter.  She just needs to have one.  Keeps her interesting.  Let's call her something like Lisa.”

“Why Lisa?”

“It's pronounceable, and everybody knows about that girl whose first name was Mona and her middle name was Lisa, and it's a popular name even now, so lots of readers named Lisa will identify.  That's why I would have suggested Madison, or Alexis, or Paige, or Zoe, but I didn't think you'd go along with it.”

She was right.  I wouldn't have gone along with it.  All right, we had a main character named Marianna and her trusty sidekick Lisa, so it looked like we were about ready to get started.

But first I did have one request.  No, make that a demand.

“I want the history to be right,” I said.  They both looked at me like I had completely lost it.  “I want room for author's notes, and I don't want any anachronisms or wild inaccuracies.  Period.”

Both of my muses looked thoroughly alarmed at that.  But the ever-resourceful Hyperbole rallied quickly.

“I know,” she said.  “We'll personify your Author Notes.  We'll throw in a character who will act as a sort of history policewoman and keep everyone on the straight and narrow.  How will that be?”

“Um – okay, I guess.”  I had never heard of this, but maybe it would work.  “We can call her something like, say, Ystoria.” 

Monotone stroked her chin thoughtfully.  “Ystoria.  I think I could live with that.  It sounds exotic,” she said. 

With that settled, we went to work.  First task was to draw up a list of Essential Points – things that simply had to be there, though not in any particular order. 

Hours later, exhausted but satisfied, we had come up with the following list:
  1. Heroine must dress as a boy for extended periods and get away with it.
  2. Heroine must be nobly born. (See #6 for one possibility.)  Also nubile.  Noble and nubile.
  3. Heroine must be appalled to learn that a marriage has been arranged for her.
  4. Underlying history must be explained by the heroine's kindly tutor (alternatively, by her mother), in no more than two paragraphs.
  5. Heroine must have learned a traditionally masculine art/craft/skill from her indulgent father (or father-figure) when she was a child.
  6. At least one instance of someone's parentage not being what it seems.
  7. Heroine must do a self-inventory while looking into a mirror; must have either violet or green eyes.
  8. Heroine must find herself in a dangerous situation, grab a weapon, and discover that she's extremely gifted at using it.
  9. Must include lots of sex.  [Here we had a brief debate about whether the first sexual experience had to be Vesuvian and stellar, or could be brutal and unpleasant.  We all agreed that sex with the right partner would have to be measured on the Richter scale.]
  10. Villain(s) must be extremely non-PC.
  11. Need at least one horrific childbirth scene.
  12. Heroine must be headstrong.
At that last, Hyperbole, now wildly excited, shouted, “And willful!”

“And feisty!  And independent!  And enlightened and progressive!” Monotone added.

“And stubborn!  And empowered!  And self-actualized!  And tech-savvy!”

“Tech-savvy?” I asked, incredulous.

Hyperbole blushed.  “Sorry, I got carried away.  But everything else stands.”


Please note:  however it may sound, I really don't have it in for books about Tudors, or even anything called The Queen's Whatever, or any book that incorporates some of the clichés listed above.  (If it incorporates all of them, that's another matter.)   My own WIP contains at least one item on that list, and I am currently reading and enjoying a book about Tudors (The Queen's Exiles, by Barbara Kyle, which so far contains no clichés whatsoever).  

But.  The 1st 10 pages on an Amazon search under the category "Historical fiction" yield no fewer than 10 titles beginning "The Queen's" and another 23 books with "Queen" in the title, not counting names of specific queens.  So there is a trend here.  In a quirky, fun little book called Science Made Stupid, author Tom Weller hints that lots of places seem to get named "The Devil's [whatever]" - including such unlikely examples as "Devil's Hot Tub State Park," "Devil's Tax Shelter National Monument," "Devil's Torque Wrench Wilderness Area," "Devil's Three-Martini Lunch National Forest," "Devil's Grant Proposal National Wasteland," and "Devil's Running Gag Useless Area."  I'm beginning to think historical fiction titles are a bit like that.

Join me next time for The Story.  (Dante's Banker's WifeThe May Queen's Dilemma?)


Kathryn Louise Wood said...

Love this Tinney! You, my dear, are spot on. Who would not want to represent (and publish) a writer with such wit and humor with so solid a foundation of historical knowledge? More power to you, whatever you settle upon to wrangle those pesky Muses!

Tinney Heath said...

Aw, thanks, Kathryn Louise Wood! That makes my day. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Dorothy said...

I'm behind! And missed this?! Sigh... I also missed the Devil's Three-Martini National Forest -- where would I find that, please? Sounds like a perfect spot! :)

Tinney Heath said...

Well, according to the book (Science Made Stupid: How to Discomprehend the World Around Us, by Tom Weller, it was in Wyoming. All we get around here is Devil's Lake!

Judith Schara said...

Tinney - Just composed a great post and Blogger lost it! I am a little behind in my blog reading as I have been very busy keeping up with facebook, thinking about ways to promote my book, and trying to learn how to navigate on Goodreads. Oh, and writing reviews. Goodreads demands you write reviews to get noticed and I am do want to get noticed by the billions of folks on Goodreads. My book sales are not what I imagined and now I am saved! I will follow your list that guarantees a book that will sell! Since you passed on the Tudors I will pick up the pen and dash off a draft this weekend! Anything I need to know will be found on Wikipedia or maybe even Barbara Kyle's new book. She is so nice I am sure she won't mind sharing some of her research and maybe a line or two! It will be about a little known illegitate daughter of Henry's by the second cook who is mute. And I could even include a cookbook that will detail some of Henry's favorite binge foods. I am so excited. I may even take a nap today - I'm sure this draft will be a snap.

Judith Schara said...

And please excuse my spelling and grammatical errors. I was so anxious to get started on my new Tudor novel/cookbook!

Anonymous said...

"Monotone kept insisting I could just use Wikipedia, but eventually I prevailed." You had me laughing from your invocation (which was when I realized you really weren't going to manufacture the next best seller from search results), but this line really put me at ease to laugh, knowing that I would not offend you.

Ystoria, "Underlying history must be explained ... in no more than two paragraphs." I love your sense of humor. And then you continued to keep me chuckling to the end.

You hit on an interesting exercise for writer's block: find trends in current successfully-published works. What fun :) You sure found a bunch of devils in the details.

Tinney Heath said...

Judith - sorry, somehow I missed your comments, which I've now found and which delighted me. I can hardly wait to read the Tudor cookbook! Maybe you can add a few comfort foods, in consideration of the wives.
Grace - thank you so much. I'm happy you enjoyed the post. I think I use this blog to get my silliness and whimsy out of my system so it doesn't all wind up in my allegedly-serious writing!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful - but hey, you have to give it to them, your muses definitey had their creative juices flowing!

Deb Atwood said...

Love the Muses, especially Hyperbole! Your research--looking at a few reviews, etc, made me laugh. What a fun post!

Tinney Heath said...

Anna and Deb - thank you! Unfortunately, the muses seem to have fled for the moment, hence, no actual story yet. But one day they'll be back, and I'll write the Ultimate Salable Book (or at least a synopsis thereof).