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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

A Classic Memory: History in Comics Makes a Comeback

Have you ever encountered an icon from your childhood that caused the heart to flutter with excitement?

I had one of those rare moments this morning. Framed inside a bold yellow banner and black base were these words set in an antique Western font:

Classics Illustrated.

I was was thumbing through the March 31 edition of Newsweek when I came upon an article announcing the revival of the comic book series by a company called Papercutz (www.papercutz.com). The old Classics Illustrated banner has been retained, but much about the original comics that flourished from 1941 to 1971 is changed. Instead of maintaining the same style throughout the updated series, Papercutz has chosen to recruit artists with widely divergent styles to create unique adaptations of the venerable works. The new Classics Illustrated are sold in hardback for $15, a heady price that may have some parents and teachers thinking twice.

Here’s something I didn’t know: There was a British edition of the Classics Illustrated that produced 162 titles, 13 of which have never appeared in America.

For those who pine for the original versions, Jack Lake Productions (www.jacklakeproductions.com) has been reprinting some of the first-edition comics since 2003.

I wonder how many of my fellow historical novelists were influenced by the Classics Illustrated? I can still remember waiting with keen anticipation for my mother, an English teacher, to bring home a stash of the comics. Many of the titles and their dramatic covers have never faded from memory: Ivanhoe, The Red Badge of Courage, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and The Last of the Mohicans.

Alas, the comics have had a few detractors over the years. Some cranks questioned the wisdom of compressing great books into fifty pages of cartoons for fear that students would not read the original works when they were older. That seems to me as nonsensical as forbidding kids from playing with toy Civil War muskets because they’ll become too lazy to read Bruce Catton or watch a Ken Burns documentary.

Connotation: The Dagger under the Cuff

Most words carry two types of meanings: 1) a literal signification; and 2) secondary qualities and feelings that have encrusted the word from years of accumulation and association.

Connotations can be positive, negative, or neutral.

I could—and perhaps should—have used an alternative for “encrusted” in the first paragraph. Did that choice suggest something unfavorable about the use of connotations? Would your reaction have been different if I had used “attached,” “enhanced,” weighed down,” or “accompanied?”

For the historical novelist, the spice of connotation can assist in evoking time and place. Connotation comes naturally, subconsciously even, for great writers. The rest of us need not despair; there are exercises and techniques that can help us become more cognizant of the impressions and intimations we conjure.

Think of a feeling or sensation that elicits an immediate negative reaction. For example, sinking is an experience that most people consider unpleasant (unless it’s into a featherbed). Without changing the literal meaning of what you want to say, rewrite one of your paragraphs using verbs or adjectives that evoke the sense of sinking, falling, losing control, slipping, going down. Did the changes transform the feeling or impression of your paragraph?

In The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett crafted a splendid example of connotation. Her erstwhile Scot hero, Lord Culter, has just lifted the nubile Agnes Herries onto his saddle in preparation to ford a daunting river:

Discomfort claimed her. The saddle poked and prodded; the powerful feet threw up snatches of spray, and she was rubbed, pricked and jagged by Culter’s unaccommodating attire. He began moreover to talk to the horse. Mild resentment overtook her.

When they were halfway over, there was a sickening lurch. Culter exclaimed sharply; the pommel drove sharply into the girl’s side and briefly the sky was made, blackly, of a shaking, arched mane. Then horse, rider and heiress fell, stirrups free, and in a bruising splash of colliding bodies, Agnes Herries hit the water. Wrenched from periastral dreams she became Lady Herries, just thirteen years old, and screamed and screamed with choking, soundless hysteria as the current spun her in rough fingers and shot her, buoyed up by petticoats, straight down the Nith.

Dunnett enlisted a torturer’s armory of connotative words—poked, prodded, rubbed, pricked, jagged, sharply, bruising, soundless hysteria, rough fingers, petticoats—to build a sexual tension in what on the surface appears only to be a rude fall from a horse. Did you notice how, in the span of a few hysterical seconds, Agnes “became Lady Herries?” Can we doubt that Dunnett will bring the tension to a rousing climax a few paragraphs later when she has Lord Culter exclaim:

My God we need practice at that. Shall we do it again?

I suggested at the beginning of this post that connotations can be positive, negative, or neutral. It took a regnant writer to prove the hoary rule’s exception. The sexual act can be both painful and pleasurable–and words connoting sex can share in this ambivalence.

Here’s another, more famous, example from the godfather of connotation. Paid by the word, Charles Dickens never missed a chance to gild the lily. In his oft-quoted opening of Bleak House, we are immediately thrust into the shrouded, numbing milieu of Chancery Court:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled amount the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and thoughts of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of the wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck.

The fog always gets top billing in this opening. But look closer at the verbs used: flows, rolls, creeping, lying out, hovering, drooping, wheezing, shivering. Dickens could have chosen other verbs to describe the migration of the fog, but he wanted to envelop us with a sensation of nefarious infiltration, of a disease invading every orifice of the body. The connotation here is negative to the point of despair.

Dialogue can also be rendered more authentic with subtle connotation. Mary Renault recognized this when she created speech for her characters in the ancient world:

Greek is a highly polysyllabic language. Yet when writing dialogue for my Greeks I have found myself, by instinct, avoiding the polysyllables of the English language, and using, as far as they are still in the living language, the older and shorter words. This is not because the style parallels Greek style; it is entirely a matter of association and ambience. In Greek, polysyllables are old; in English, mostly Latinised and largely modern. They have acquired their own aura, which they will bring along with them. Their stare, like that of the basilisk, is killing. (McCormack, Afterwords: Novelists on their Novels, p. 87)

Even changes in the spelling of names can create a shift in impression. In L’Russe Besuhof,” a study on the names used in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Karen Beck of Columbia University has observed how the aristocrats of that era used the French or Russian version of Napoleon’s name, Bonaparte or Buonaparte, depending on their positive or negative view of him.

Sometimes connotations are unintended or distracting. Can you find the offending culprit in this excerpt from Florence, a history of that city written in 1897 by Charles Yriarte:

The funeral ceremony was a splendid one, the whole of Florence defiling past his coffin. Benedetto Varchi pronounced the funeral oration, and his tomb was erected by Varari who, it must be said, was not equal to the occasion.

We know what the author meant. Still, it’s difficult not to stop and imagine the various scurrilous acts that the Florentines might have performed had they been inclined to abuse and deface the coffin while defiling by it.

The moral of the connotation: Always edit your manuscripts with an awareness of the possible impressions and sensations created by the words, names, and descriptions you choose.

About this blog

Historical novelists and screenwriters are a masochistic breed. We watch in dismay as our books are shunted off to the fantasy and science-fiction shelves. We endure the rebuffs of agents and editors who consider ours a difficult genre to market. We suffer through meetings with Hollywood producers who want the Battle of Stirling Bridge staged like Custer’s Last Stand—and while you’re at it, get rid of the bridge. We toil away in an era when Generation X thinks Malcolm X must be a saucy spoof of the television show about a family’s middle-born child.

And yet, despite Gore Vidal’s lament that his embrace of the historical novel shadowed his literary reputation, we persist.

Why? Many of us were seduced early in life by a hoary tale of battle or a whisper from some ancient ruins. After undergoing such Eleusinian initiation into the Akashic records, how could we not assay the world by looking over our shoulders? Like Persephone, we were kidnapped and taken to another world. In recompense, we are seasonally permitted to surface from our lairs and describe for fellow mortals what the nether realms of the past were truly like.

The archons of History took dominion of my soul at age ten, when a great uncle took me to the Civil War battlefield at Perryville, Kentucky. Across those rolling bluegrass hills, hardly changed since 1862, his father, a captain in the Army of the Tennessee, had fought aside the decorated father of Douglas MacArthur. A few miles away, I traced the harried footsteps of Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark to the reconstructed stockade in Harrodsburg, the oldest town west of the Allegheny Mountains. Mossy stones there mark the graves of the first Kentuckians killed in Shawnee raids. Spirits still haunt that dark and bloody ground. They invaded my boyhood dreams.

All as a preamble: I launched this weblog to serve as a castle perilous where fellow time travelers, blurry-eyed from their manuscripts and pining for good company, can stop in to trade ideas and hone their black arts of conjuring the past. Readers and history buffs are also welcome to participate. I’ll offer my humble musings on the craft and post notices of events, reviews, and other news that inform the subject. Any leads or suggestions on how to improve the conversation will be appreciated. In the process, I hope to contribute a little and learn a lot.