Monday, December 2, 2013

History in Your Fiction (by John Konecsni)

If you're a fan of the thriller genre, you might have noticed a strange trend.  Many thrillers have been looking backwards, turning to history, sometimes in the middle of the most high-tech shootouts you'll ever see. Some of these have some interesting viewpoints on history – James Rollins, for example, or David Morrell's The Spy Who Came for Christmas – and some make history into a chaotic, gibbering mass of propaganda (Do I even need to say “Dan Brown”?).  As much as I would like to blame certain history-bending hacks, this trend pre-dates any books with Renaissance artists in the title.

Using history is often difficult when writing a thriller. No matter what the author is using, there's always the danger of using too much information.  You have to give enough information to establish context, culture, in addition to the personalities involved, the reasoning behind events … and this doesn't even count actions involved. Not only that, it's all too easy to make the history that is relevant to the plot a pedantic, endless lecture.

There are some solutions to this.  With James Rollins, he balances it out by interweaving it so closely to the plot (as well as some surprisingly cutting-edge physics) and some tight, well-written action sequences. David Morrell elaborates on the history with a simple, eloquent storyteller feel.

For example, in A Pius Man, the book took place in the 21st century, and centered around the World War II Pope, Pius XII, and how he was labeled “Hitler's Pope” (by about a half-dozen pop-history hacks in the late '90s, and a few thriller authors earlier this century). As a history major, I did my own research, and my inner Bruce Banner got offended.

Unfortunately, while being annoyed is a good way to motivate a book, it's not a great way to write. Sure, my first draft addressed every single inaccuracy and idiocy ever expressed by anybody surrounding the history of Pius XII … and every bit of theology and philosophy they got wrong … and there's more than one reason A Pius Man turned into a trilogy.  Granted, a lot of thought went into the books. Perhaps too much thought.

In subsequent rewrites, the history / theology / philosophy (hereby shortened to “the nonfiction”) was spread out over the two primary threads of the story.  On the one hand, there was the investigation of “people going to the Vatican archives are being murdered,”and there was an adjoining thread that involved two spies looking at one of the victims … who happened to be a terrorist. The end result not only cut out ten pages of endless prattling of nonfiction (Galileo might be interesting, but connecting his house arrest to the main plot is a bit of a stretch, even for this book), but also spread it across the entire novel that looked more like James Rollins than Certain Authors Who Shall Not Be Named. The monologues became discussions, and they were broken up by, well, attempts by heavily armed men trying to kill them.

See? It's not that hard.  Using history in a novel is like using forensics or medicine, or any novel where a specific subset of knowledge is required in order to understand the story. The truly difficult part is making certain you don't love your subject so much you get into your own way. Then it just becomes a matter of “oh, look, I'm over-sharing.”  You have to be especially careful when a large part of the history is focused on convincing your characters (and your readers) about a specific historical point. After a while, persuasion becomes preaching, and the reader thinks “to heck with this, I'm going to skip ahead until you get back to the plot.” 

Granted, in the case of A Pius Man, it helps when characters have a low tolerance threshold for long discussions, and literally says, “Great, can we skip to the part of why we care?” That helps.

Advent: Lent, with Christmas Lights (by John Konecsni)

How many of us grew up with the concept that Advent was just Lent, only for Christmas? As a child of the '90s, my experience tells me “not many.”

Don't worry, this isn't going to be the standard “spirituality over materialism” Christmas special that you usually get this time of year. After all, if 40 years of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” isn't going to convince the Internet, then one blog post isn't going to tip the balance. Besides, if you're reading this post, it is unlikely that you need convincing. I can't see many of Karl's readers involved in a Black Friday shootout over the latest gadgets.

However, how many of us take the time to prepare ourselves, spiritually, for the coming of Christmas, and Jesus' birthday? Assuming that neither you nor I are involved in the latest riot at a toy store – my gift shopping was done in August – we are free from any special psychosis-inducing event that comes with the materialism of the season. But what of the day-to-day?

Let us consider, for a moment, just how special Christmas is.  Yes, Christ was incarnate, etc, etc … does that really matter? After all, Christmas isn't considered the most important part of the Catholic calender, Easter is. There's a reason that Handel's Messiah has the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the section covering Easter.  And, for Easter, we pull out all the stops, don't we? We fast, we abstain, we confess.

What do we do for Advent? If we go by what your average church encourages, probably not as much as we should. While Easter is the day in the Eucharistic calender, Christmas is what makes Easter possible.

So, something to dwell on, if you would (I abhor the word “meditation”); try something that our Pope would be familiar with – the Jesuit practice of imagining.  In this case, just imagine if you were the creator of every speck of dust and every watt of electrons, and you make a choice to become – at best – a foot-long, 12-pound creature without the brainpower to utter a coherent sound. And you do this so that you can clean up the mistakes of people who really should know better. Isn't that a strange thing to do?

It was Fulton Sheen who once described the reason that Jesus had to be incarnate in order for our salvation.  He explained it very simply as a form of retribution, of repayment.  If you steal my watch and ask me to forgive you, I will, but I want my watch back.  Now, what happens when you offend against an infinite Being that is so far beyond our experience, the wonders of time and space are dwarfed?  What kind of repayment can we utilize to make amends?  Only something just as infinite – in this case, someone.

Yes, I agree, this is quite of bit of depth coming from someone who dedicates pages to shootouts in between bits of history just so he can revenge himself on Dan Brown, et al, but I have my moments.

In the memory of the Infinite Being who became a mewling infant, let's try to put in as much effort to Advent as to Lent. Visit a confessional, give up something if you like. Just … something.

As for me? I take a page from St. Augustine, who once said that “Singing is praying. When one sings, one prays twice.”  There's a reason that I'm always on the hunt for a perfect rendition of “Angels We Have Heard On High

Sunday, December 1, 2013

New and Better Things

Politics has had my attention for a long time now.  During President Reagan's second campaign, I worked as a young volunteer in the downtown Yakima Republican headquarters.  It was usually just stuffing envelopes, but I was just glad to be able to do something to help a candidate in which I so strongly believed.  Lately, I've been so busy writing and working my state day job, that my political involvement has taken a nosedive.  That's about to take a serious change as I... enter the race for Oregon State House of Representatives, District 20.

Some close family and friends probably believe I've lost it, and that's fine.  I'm known for following my own course.  I'm accountable for what I do or don't do to make Oregon a better place.  I have to undertake what I believe is right, and I believe the timing is good this year for an entry into state politics.  I am optimistic that the people of Oregon's 20th District may see fit to entrust me with their confidence--and their vote.  It's not about me, however, it's about them.  A friend of mine calls this servant leadership, and I believe it's a critical mindset for successful and meaningful leadership.

As I step into this new chapter, I seek to proceed with the greatest humility as well as a desire to find incredibly talented people with whom to surround myself.  If you are interested in joining my team, please contact me today.  I am always looking for more volunteers, and there may also be an internship position available at some future time.

Special thanks also to those in the legislature who have given of their time for my questions these last couple weeks.

Find The Campaign!

What's Next for Singing in the Wood?

After a guest post from my Catholic Writers' Guild friend John Konecsni, this blog will be going to my sister-in-law, Shannon Dennis, for a while.  She plans to write on faith and family issues, and I can't wait to read what she shares!