Today I’m hosting Patricia Boomsma, author of The Way of Glory, a Medieval story that takes the reader from England to Hispania. There is a giveaway in addition to a guest post from the author.
The Way of Glory
Genres: Historical Fiction
Middle Ages - 400 to 1600
Written for: Adults
Cate, a teenaged girl from twelfth-century England, joins her brothers and aunt on a crusade to save Jerusalem that stops in Hispania to battle the Moors. Life on a battlefield strains the family's closeness as they confront the terror and contradictions of holy war. Cate's dreams of sainthood change to those of a husband and children when she falls in love with a soldier, but she finds no peace even after the family settles on land taken from the Moors. Cate's friendship with a conquered Moor soon leads to impossible choices as she faces the cost of betrayal and the loss of all she's known.
Praise for The Way of Glory
“One of the many impressive things about The Way of Glory is how lightly it wears its scrupulous research. This fine novel invites you to lose yourself to the compelling character and tumultuous life of a young woman trying to find God and love at the heart of a crusade rooted in greed and hate. This is a remarkable debut by a writer to watch.”
Naeem Murr, author of The Perfect Man
“The Way of Glory convincingly portrays a place, a time, and a people vastly different from our own. Historical fiction is a fantastically difficult genre to get right, but Pat Boomsma manages it with aplomb.”
Pinckney Benedict, author of Dogs of God
“The Way of Glory is a riveting read from first page to last, as it expertly traces the trajectories of several compelling characters caught up in the Crusades. As the protagonist, Cate will steal your heart; she’s as complex a fourteen-year-old as you will ever meet, and the fate she struggles against is a complicated and often frightening vortex of forces, made ever richer by the intense evocation and very thoughtful depictions. This is a remarkable novel.”
Fred Leebron, author of Welcome to Christiania
Rebuilding a Historical World
by Patricia J. Boomsma
What I found most difficult about writing a historical novel set in the twelfth century C.E. was creating a world for the reader that is both vivid and historically accurate. Every sentence or so I would need to research something: “what ships did they use?” and “how did the horses survive in a boat?” and “what clothes did common people wear?” and “what health remedies did they use?” Just about every detail needed research. Like many, my ideas about the middle ages began with knights and ladies and kings and queens during a large, almost 1000-year time span. But I wanted to write about tradespeople from a specific time period who traveled from one culture, Anglo-Norman England, to another, the Moorish Iberian Peninsula.
Difficult, but fun. I learned about galleys and steering oars, longships and knars, dromons and liburnas. I poured over pictures in a medieval herbarium, learning the benefits of mugwort and calendula. I became confused over the different descriptions scholars gave about the Anarchy, blood libel, Convivencia, types of cloth, what soldiers painted on their shields. More than I could possibly describe and still keep my readers awake.
That’s the thing about world-building of any kind, but particularly in historical settings. Every fiction writer must create a world for readers to immerse themselves in, a world that makes the characters who they are. The more alien, the further back or forward in space and time, a book’s setting is, the harder it can be for a reader to accept that world as believable. But the world of a specific character is often most interesting because of how it differs from our own experience.
For me, that’s part of the appeal of historical fiction: to learn about a time and culture different from my own. As a writer, I want my reader to experience the historical world as it gets to know the story’s human characters. The culture of a specific place and time is a character, one which probably affects the human characters more than any other. The only way to convey that world is to describe it consistently and in detail – its past, its colors, its people, its art – without losing sight of the story being told.
My novel’s early readers helped point out places where I was losing them—either by not giving enough information or giving too much. I had to learn to avoid extended explanations which, let’s admit it, we all skim. In her book Steering the Craft, Ursula LeGuin warns of the dangers of distancing readers with what she calls the “expository lump” when creating a fictional world, and advises writers to: “‘compost’ the information, break it up, spread it out, slip it into conversation or action-narration or anywhere you can make it go so it doesn’t feel Lumpy. Tell it by implication, by passing reference, by hint . . .” (134-35). As she notes, this can be a particular problem with historical and science fiction novels where the characters’ worlds are alien to the modern reader.
How to do that? Here are a few specific techniques I try to use to provide dynamic and integrated exposition that keeps the story moving while building a believable world for the reader:
- Orient the readers quickly to the story’s world. Walled cities are important in The Way of Glory, so I began the novel with the main character dragging stick along her town’s massive stone wall. In the science fiction novel Dune, Frank Herbert starts with an epigraph that makes it immediately clear the world is extra-terrestrial. Hilary Mantel begins her historical novel, Wolf Hall, with the subtitle to Chapter I: “Putney, 1500.”
- Once readers know they’re not in Kansas anymore, a writer can foreshadow the nature of this new world. Is it kind or hostile? Happy or oppressive? Filled with wonders or dull and monotonous? Let the reader figure that out through the action. In Wolf Hall, a young boy lies bloodied on the ground after his father beats him. Clearly this is a hostile world, and it foreshadows the brutality found in much of the rest of the novel.
- The stranger the world, the more connections we need to what the reader can already be expected to know. The known provides a bridge to the unfamiliar, makes it accessible, helps readers suspend their disbelief. For example, in the Dune novels, the world is far away from earth in both space and time, but the fictional world discusses space travel in terms we understand, and its governing system is similar to medieval feudalism.
- One of the best ways a writer can make the world believable and dynamic is to show the close connection between the characters to their world. Have your characters’ thoughts and observations do double duty, showing both the world and their reaction to it. In Wolf Hall, Mantel has Thomas reflect on his sister’s tears, saying they’re not for him but for his sister’s sense of loss over the discrepancy between how the world is and how it should be, providing both detail about 16th century Putney as well as reflecting Thomas’ bleak world view. (Mantel 11)
- Something I try to avoid is exposition-through-dialogue where people tell each other what they already should know. To avoid this while providing a reader with needed details, a writer can introduce a stranger, or a child, who learns with the reader.
Ultimately, the fictional world should not be a static, painted set that stands behind the moving characters. A change in details, like a change of clothes, can signal a change in the story’s direction or a character’s motivation. One of my favorite examples of this is in Michael Ondaatje’s historical novel The Skin of the Lion, which shows the bleak world of a Canada industrializing at the expense of workers and immigrants and the rise of the politics of anarchism. This is a world with limited protections for workers or bystanders, a point made clear during construction of a bridge when a young nun falls off during a wind gust. (Ondaatje 30-31) Ondaatje uses humor and vivid descriptions to bring the world alive, and to avoid polemic. It doesn’t feel like an ideological novel; it feels like the story of a few people caught up in the craziness of their own lives.
To create a believable world for a historical novel, we need to do a lot of research. But to make that world come alive, we need to hide that research into the story’s movement. Like the frame to a house, research is necessary, but we don’t want to see the lumber and nails and screws and putty that hold up our beautiful edifice.
[This blog is based in part on the craft essay I submitted as a graduation requirement for my M.F.A from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C.]
Friday, March 15
Interview at The Book Connection
Saturday, March 16
Feature at Maiden of the Pages
Monday, March 18
Guest Post at Historical Fiction with Spirit
Tuesday, March 19
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Saturday, March 23
Feature at CelticLady’s Reviews
Monday, March 25
Review at History from a Woman’s Perspective
Thursday, March 28
Feature at Passages to the Past
Saturday, March 30
Review at Impressions In Ink
During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away a paperback copy of The Way of Glory! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.
- Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on March 19th.
- You must be 18 or older to enter.
- Giveaway is open to the US & Canada only.
- Only one entry per household.
- All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
- The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.