Friday, May 31, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 52-54 (wherein Susanna decides to withdraw a manuscript from submission)

52) Sacred Games, by Gary Corby.

Third in a series of light, fun, yet richly researched mysteries based in Periclean Athens. This entry is set at the Games of the 80th Olympiad in 460 BCE, and our sleuth, Nicolaos, a fictional elder brother to Socrates, has to pair up with a Spartan to investigate the death of a star Spartan athlete the night of the opening ceremonies. (The primary suspect is an Athenian, and everyone agrees the only fair solution is to have one man from each city investigate, because at that point in history there was no such thing as a neutral city in any dispute between the two rival powers.) Corby does an excellent job bringing the bloodthirsty, superstitious, and quirky aspects of Greek culture to life, while simultaneously making his characters and their world human and relatable. I recommend this especially for fans of Lindsey Davis's Falco series, as the tone is quite similar.

53) 2K to 10K: How to Write Faster, Write Better, and Write More of What You Love, by Rachel Aaron.

I bought this on a whim a few days ago (since one can afford to be whimsical with $0.99 e-books), because I'm always interested in ways to improve my writing efficiency and generally make better use of my limited time. And I happen to be sort of between projects, waiting for my editor's feedback on a recently sold novella while researching two new ideas, so it's a timely read.

I've been known to disagree vehemently with writing advice, since there is no One True Path, but I'm going to try Aaron's methods with my next story. I tend to be what's known as a "pantser"--i.e. I just sort of plunge into my first draft, flying by the seat of my pants, with a lot of backtracking and rewriting upon discovering my first idea or two doesn't really work. The opposite type of writer is a plotter, whose techniques I've always found off-putting, at least in the extreme versions, like the writing class I heard about where the instructor wouldn't let the writers start actual drafting until they'd produced fifty-page outlines.

Aaron is a plotter, but not at the extreme end of the scale. She seems to take an organic approach to plot and character development, letting them sort of feed off each other, which feels right to me, like an extension of how I already write the last quarter or so of my manuscripts. There's usually this point I describe as "And DOWN the stretch they come!" (you have to imagine this in an excited, racetrack caller voice), where I can suddenly see everything that needs to happen between where I am now and the end. I jot down every scene, every emotional turning point, on post-it notes, slap them on my office door, and write them, one after the other. I know exactly what I need to do and do it FAST, but it doesn't feel robotic or paint-by-numbers at all. Aaron's advice feels like it might give me a way to write entire manuscripts in Down the Stretch They Come mode. I just need to get past my self-identity as a pantser, along with my bad habit of thinking that only time spent drafting is Real Writing, even if spending a particular hour researching or planning would've enabled me to write faster and better the next day.

54) The Strange History of the American Quadroon, by Emily Clark.

This is by the same author who wrote Masterless Mistresses, which I read at the beginning of the month. I stumbled across this brand-new book--I'm the first person to check out the UW Library's copy--by accident on Amazon, and I'm glad I did. You see, I started a manuscript set in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans whose heroine was a free woman of color, a fourth-generation native of the city, and I made her a placee (i.e. a white planter's mistress with a long-term contract for an almost marital relationship) who had followed in her mother's footsteps in adopting such a life. I'd heard about such arrangements all my life, and I found info in my initial research that seemed to confirm what I'd been told. So I started writing, figuring I'd research as I wrote to flesh out my setting and my character's background.

I went ahead and submitted a proposal (i.e. opening chapters and synopsis) to my publisher, but the more I researched, the more nervous I felt about my heroine's placee status. While there were plenty of interracial relationships going on in 18th and early 19th century New Orleans, I just wasn't finding anything that matched the backstory I'd written for my heroine. And this book turned out to be the final nail in my manuscript's coffin. By the time I'd read a few chapters, I knew I had to withdraw my proposal from consideration, and I emailed my editor to do so. Because it turns out the whole placee system is little more than an urban legend, and insofar as it existed at all, it wasn't a long-established local tradition in 1815. And while I don't claim perfect historical accuracy (what novelist could?), I'm not so brazen as to try to tell a story I know couldn't have happened, especially not when the false foundation is a lurid, titillating, racist stereotype.

What really happened? Well, there were quite a few life partnerships, marriages in all but name, between white men and free women of color in early New Orleans. Both groups had skewed sex ratios, with white men far outnumbering white women and free black women outnumbering free black men in similar proportions, so such pairings were all but inevitable. But there wasn't a formalized system for how the relationships were managed, and the women didn't groom their daughters to follow in their footsteps. If anything, as the sex ratios started to even out among the free black population, they encouraged them to marry and live in middle-class respectability with free black men--all the more so as American inheritance law made it harder for white fathers to leave property to their illegitimate mixed-race children from 1808 forward. There was an uptick in concubinage and high-class prostitution among free black women in the early decades of the 19th century, but it mostly took place among the Haitian refugees who came to the city starting around 1809--another group where women outnumbered men, and one lacking the long-term connections within the city and dowries to make them desirable brides. It still didn't look quite like placage as it's been handed down to us in fiction and legend, but it was close enough to start that legend--and by the middle of the 19th century to create in a self-fulfilling prophecy a particularly unsavory sort of sex tourism. E.g. if you were a slave dealer in, say, Virginia, and you happened to have in your inventory a beautiful, light-skinned young slave woman, why would you sell her locally when she'd fetch a far higher price in New Orleans?

I'm still going to write a post-Battle of New Orleans story, and its heroine will still be a free woman of color. But I'm aiming for a far less stereotypical portrayal--I'm thinking I'll take advantage of those troublesome inheritance laws--and will hopefully write a far better book as a result.

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