Once upon a time in the far distant past, I announced to my colleagues at work that I was leaving the job to pursue a PhD in history. Most of them stared blankly. But one of them grasped my hands and, eyes lit with excitement, wished me all the joy that could be had in my new endeavor.
I needn’t explain to you lovelies her reaction. It was my other colleagues, the Blank Stare colleagues, for whom I felt a little sad.
So I asked one of them what he thought of history. His reply: an endless series of dates to be memorized. To him, for example, the year 910 did not mean the conquest of a patch of coastland by a potent Viking warlord who then (wisely) made his bows to a Frankish king, setting on its eventual path a contest between Continent and Island that would last hundreds of years and shape the world that you and I read and write about every day. To my colleague the year 910 only meant ten extra minutes of cramming for the exam that he could’ve otherwise spent drinking with his buddies.
I didn’t blame him. Dates mean nothing in the absence of the stories that give them life.
My motto: History always in service to the story.
That said, keeping track of time is obviously crucial to a historian and writer of historical fiction. But it can be tricky, especially when the chronology includes multiple players and storylines. This past year while writing my new Falcon Club series I learned how tricky it is indeed. You see, when I wrote Captured by a Rogue Lord, several minor characters from that book each told me they expected me to write their stories too. And I was to make those stories part of my next series. Naturally I replied, “Of course! You’re the bosses!”
New Life Maxim: Never blithely promise my characters anything. Except HEA’s, of course. And lots of steamy sex.
Chronologies come first. Like all historians and authors of historical fiction, I have shelves and shelves of Books O’ History. From these I’ve devised a spreadsheet of all the Important Dates and Other Stuff relevant to my stories. Woven into this timeline are the major life events of all my heroes and heroines. It is a mammoth document, and wicked cool. (Sometimes I just sit and stare at it, smiling kind of dopey-like.)
Calendars come next. I believe I once before mentioned my abiding appreciation [Ed. note: "appreciation" is a gigantically understated euphemism] for Men of the Sea, as well as my tendency to wallpaper my office with historical ship calendars. Not long ago I was trying to work out an overlapping chronology having to do with a sea journey in How To Be a Proper Lady. When I finally managed to figure it out — by scribbling notes all over one of my old ship calendars — I cheered like a castaway who’s just spotted a sail on the horizon.
Then there are other historical resources that are less time keeping devices and more story-enhancing devices — resources that allow an author to spend far too much of her own time online in the wee hours. For instance, when I wished to entwine the hero and heroine of When a Scot Loves a Lady in an embrace in a garden a few nights after Christmas 1816, I went to NASA’s 6000-year-long listing of the phases of the moon to discover that yes indeed the inconstant moon would have been bright enough to cast my Scot’s sculpted profile in a silvery light.
But however addictive these sorts of resources are for a historian who happens to love dates and other details like that, in the end it’s all about the story. The adventure of humanity defies the Blank Stare, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.
Have you ever read Umberto Eco’s brilliant mystery novel, Foucault’s Pendulum? It’s about modern publishing and medieval Templars and creativity and arrogance and addiction and insanity. Mostly it’s about time, that pendulum swinging eternally without concern for the Earth rotating beneath it, and the wild, unfettered storytelling that emerges from history but cannot be corralled or bridled, and certainly not tamed. I teach a course on medieval Christianity in modern film and fiction, and I always assign this book, because it is at once inspiring and humbling. Time is not ours to control or confine. For when we attempt to do so, therein lies madness. And I think, perhaps, that is a good thing to remember on New Year’s Eve.
After this year spent wrestling with timelines and chronologies (happily, given all the steamy sex and HEA’s), I’m going to read Foucault’s Pendulum again starting tomorrow. How about you? What book will you begin the New Year with? An old favorite or a new book you’ve been dying to read? Or if you’re in a frisky New Year’s Eve kind of mood, can you suggest a suggestive caption for the Foucault Pendulum image above?