I am a professional historian and used to publish a book a year. I got out of that rat race, but now I’ve fallen into a new trap: writing novels. Well, fallen may not be the right word because moving from non-fiction to fiction is hard work.
First of all, my style was all wrong. As Joshua Rothman said in an article in The New Yorker: Academic writing is faceless and completist — whatever completist means. I think it’s a synonym for boring. So first step in morphing from a historian into historical novelist: lose the academic jargon.
Next step in my transformation: Come up with a plot line. I was ready for that one. I’d done the leg work, combed the archives for documents, unpublished diaries and intimate letters. I had enough material to put together my characters and set them in motion, make them eat and drink, have sex, get into trouble, fight, kill or else be killed. Yes, but I had to curb my enthusiasm for plain facts and concentrate instead on corselets and breeches, banquets with many courses, duels, and other bloodletting.
Third step: As a historian I’ve been trained to keep my ducks in a row and proceed from A to B to Z. Novelists follow a different game plan: building suspense. So now I zigzag, from A to F and back to C, and skip a few letters altogether, keeping it vague and even a little mysterious.
Alright, so I’ve come up with this amazing plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. What a page turner! You will be biting your nails as you rush toward the end. But maybe suspense isn’t enough and you want more. Something redeeming. As Joan Didion said: We look for the sermon in suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We want the narrative to make sense for us personally.
But how can you make sense of history? You can’t. Not as a historian. But as a novelist I’m free to reshape history until it makes total sense and hits you in the gut. That’s where I’m going with THE INQUISITOR’S NIECE.
The novel is set in 16th century Spain. A Jewish physician falls in love with the niece of the Inquisitor General. Trials and tribulations follow. As a historian I can tell you how that kind of scenario plays out: The physician is burned at the stake. The niece is married off to a man of her uncle’s choice. But I’m no longer a historian. I’m a novelist, and so Love Conquers All, and in the end I hope you’ll sigh with relief and satisfaction.
INCONVENIENT HISTORICAL TRUTHS
No, I’m not talking about global warning. I’m talking about material for historical novels. Some historical facts work well in fiction, others – meh. Generally speaking, evil rulers make for excellent characters. Vlad the Impaler, for example, or Richard III. And don’t tell me that the REAL Vlad was a kind man. I don’t want to know. Historians ruin the best characters with their relentless research. Here are some examples.
THE SPANISH INQUISITION. A great subject as long as long we were allowed to believe that inquisitors tortured everyone and then burned them at the stake. Now they tell me that the Inquisition wasn’t so bad, or at least no worse than secular justice. The inquisitors didn’t kill more than two percent of the accused, and even those they didn’t kill themselves. Mealy-mouthed cowards, the whole lot of them! They handed the condemned over to the secular government and let them do the dirty work.
LUCRECIA BORGIA. She was for a long time the leading evil lady of the Renaissance, a heroine that sold a million books, but her image has been tarnished by overzealous historians. Now they tell me that she was a good wife to the Duke of Ferrara, a devoted mother and a patroness of the arts. I’m asking you: Who wants to read about a functional family?
Historians can’t leave a good thing alone. JUANA THE MAD, it turns out, was just a little unbalanced. MACHIAVELLI did not promote ruthless government. His booklet, THE PRINCE, was part of a job application – he wanted to show potential employers that he knew what’s what. After that he settled down to writing comedies. That leaves me with two useless characters. Machiavelli the gag-writer? Juana the Unbalanced? Pu-lease.
That’s what I mean by INCONVENIENT TRUTHS.
Historians are ruining historical fiction.
About The Inquisitor’s Niece
The Inquisitor’s Niece
by Erika Rummel
Publisher: Bygone Era Books, Ltd.
Publication Date: March 31, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
The path of true love never runs straight. Alonso and Luisa love each other, However there are a few obstacles to their happiness: the husband she was forced to marry; her uncle, the Regent of Spain; and Alonsoís Jewish family.†Mix in the meddlesome Natale, whose loyalty is always to the highest bidder, and you have a story of a courageous couple determined to be happy together, despite the cards being stacked against them.
Using the tumultuous period of Spain immediately following the deaths of Ferdinand and Isabella as her canvas, Erika Rummel paints a portrait of an era where Cardinals hold supreme power, Jews are forcibly converted to Christianity, and the spies of the Inquisition are everywhere.
Praise for†Head Games by Erika Rummel
“Head Games is a unique and entertaining adventure with heart. There are the thrills of the adventure itself and we get to see the depth of the characters as they experience their fast paced South American quest. The story felt new and fresh!”-Valerie Mitchell, Mama Likes This
“This is a fast paced page turner. †A suspenseful, thrilling roller coaster ride with lots of twisty, loopy sections.† Head Games†is an apt title for this enthralling read. “- Joy Renee, Joy Story
ìIdentityís a big theme in this work, so if youíve ever felt you were someone other than yourself, if you thought you might like to try living in someone elseís skin, if youíve wondered whether your friends and loved ones were not exactly who they claimed to be, then this psychological labyrinth might just be your winding road to a good readî.- Carole Giangrande, Words to Go
Buy Inquisitorís Niece by Erika Rummel
About the Author
Erika Rummel is the author of more than a dozen non-fiction books and three novels: ‘Playing Naomi’, ‘Head Games’, ‘The Inquisitorís Niece’.
She won the Random House Creative Writing Award (2011) for a chapter from ‘The Effects of Isolation on the Brain’, which is forthcoming. She is the recipient of a Getty Fellowship and the Killam Award.
Erika grew up in Vienna, emigrated to Canada and obtained a PhD from the University of Toronto. She taught at Wilfrid Laurier and U of Toronto. †She divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles and has lived in Argentina, Romania, and Bulgaria.
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