Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

I was very interested in Matthew Carr’s first novel published this year, because I relied heavily on his non-fiction book Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain,  in the research for my 2015 book of narrative poetry Al-AndalusWith the wealth of material and personalities in the period of time from 1492 to the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1611, I wondered what Carr would choose as the focus of his fictional rendering. When I delved into study of this period, the rich potential for a historical novel staggered my imagination. Initially, I contemplated a novel and was particularly drawn to Granada for the setting and the War of the Alpujarras as the chief event for my story. I wanted to blend a mix of fictional and historical characters to portray how Christians and Muslims interacted in sixteenth century Spain. The more I researched, the more the task of focusing on one region, one event, or restricted time frame overwhelmed me. The purging of Muslim Spain spanned over a century after the conquest of Granada, presenting a mind-boggling mine of material. Finally, I decided that I was best able to execute a series of dramatic monologues in a thematic poetry book.

Matthew Carr selected Aragon, one of the last regions to be purged of its Morisco population and set his suspense tale in 1584. He executes well what is a detective story in which a judge is sent to Cardona to investigate the murder of a priest against the backdrop of the complex relations among the landed aristocracy, the Inquisition officials, the old Christians, and the Moriscos or new Christians, who may or may not be secretly practicing Muslims. Judge Mendoza discovers more than one devil in the region that straddles the Pyrenees border with France. Murder and intrigue abound; the writing is crisp and vivid; the characters historically credible. Matthew Carr has done an excellent job with the raw materials. There is still much more grist for a historical novelist’s mill in this time period. The prospect of fictionalizing this material continues to daunt me. I doubt I will ever take up the challenge, as I think my particular talent was used in Al-Andalus. I recommend the book to historical fiction aficionados.

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Historical Novels: Why Write Them

I write historical novels because reading historical fiction is my drug of choice and has been since I was an adolescent lost in reverie about faraway places, bygone ages and people. The conventional wisdom in the publishing industry contends that mainly women read this genre and that men prefer science-fiction, techno-thrillers and the like. In my younger days I read every James Michener novel.  Literary tastes are formed in childhood and mine were shaped by these broad canvas sagas filled with lengthy descriptions. The need to learn about foreign cultures and historical personages led me to sprawling novels like Chesapeake and Centennial.  I fed my addiction also with those great Victorian novelists Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and the Brontë sisters, leaving a taste in my mouth for the behemoth book and, of course, those long paragraphs, eschewed by many novelists and editors today.  At the tender age of thirteen, I was audacious enough to take my teacher’s suggestion and read Moby Dick. I have read it at least twice since then. The ominous tale of the crazed pursuit of the white whale mesmerized me as did its exotic crew members Queequeeg, Tashtego, Daggoo and Fedallah. The long digressions about whales and whaling did not put me off. My thirst for knowledge about the unknown kept me reading as I merrily skipped over multi-syllabic words whose exact meanings I did not know, not stopping to look them up in a dictionary. Call me “Hagar, an Omnivorous Reader.”

Even in historical novels that stick to characters that actually lived and are identifiable from history, of necessity, the novelist will have to introduce some invented supporting fictional characters to fill out the imagined history. If the story is written on the backdrop of historical period and the events and people are largely imagined, the novel could be called historical fantasy.  It may or may not use fantastical elements like time travel and ghostly apparitions, such as in Diane Gabaldon novels. There are also “what if” historical novels, which try to create an alternative view of events. These are termed “alternative history” or “revisionist.” I weave both historical figures and invented characters into my historical novels.  In my novel The Pluperfect Phantom I incorporated fantastical elements into my story based on events in Chicago’s history.

Historical novelists love to imagine the how and the why of the past. They are time travelers who wallow in plotting the dramatic development of historical people, places and periods. If they did not wallow in the past, perhaps they would venture into the future and write science-fiction. Authors have been known to venture into several genres. For instance, Margaret Atwood has delved into science fiction with Oryx and Crake and into historical fiction with Alias Grace based on notorious 1843 murders. Historical novelists love to research in their unquenchable thirst for knowledge. If they were not novelists, they would be history teachers.  They write historical fiction because they love reading historical fiction.