Category Archives: History

Caution: Genre Crossing

In a previous post, I loftily announced that I wanted to write literary, as opposed to mainstream or genre, fiction. But doesn’t all fiction, ultimately, have a genre—even if it is simply “realistic,” as opposed to, say, mystery, humor, or horror? Ray Bradbury wrote works of science fiction and fantasy, but they were also, unarguably, literature. (How else could they have ended up on so many syllabi?) Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners. Wuthering Heights is a gothic novel (though my husband would dispute its literary merit). To Kill a Mockingbird is a Bildungsroman (word-of-the-day alert!), as is Great Expectations. Catch-22 is a war novel and satire. Around the World in Eighty Days is a classic adventure novel. I could go on and on, but I haven’t read that many books.

The Scarlet LetterAfter finishing The Scarlet Letter in college, I remember feeling raw, copious admiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne. And jealousy. “This is the book I wish I had written,” was my strange thought—as if my chance to write had come and gone, or what I wanted to write had already been written. If you haven’t read the novel, or if you have seen the Demi Moore movie, The Scarlet Letter is a love story set in Puritan Boston in the seventeenth century, two hundred years before the author’s time. Not until I started writing this blog post did I realize that my seemingly random decision to pen a historical romance (I prefer romantic comedy) might have been a subconscious response to my Hawthorne envy.

At first, I wondered if a romance set during the Holocaust would be considered taboo. A search on Amazon for Holocaust romances in the category of historical fiction yielded 27 results. One such novel tells the story of a young girl in the Polish underground who develops feelings for a Nazi officer. Another portrays the love between a captured British captain and a Jewish housewife from Dresden, both sent to the same concentration camp. Perhaps the most salacious story line follows the relationship between a camp commandant and the Jewish inmate he takes as his mistress. So Holocaust romance is not uncharted territory; at the same time, the market hardly seems glutted.

Caution: Genre CrossingBut I haven’t mentioned that my plot has a twist, a metaphysical one. By “metaphysical” I mean concerned with an ethereal world beyond the material. Metaphysical fiction is its own genre, with prominent examples including The Alchemist, The Celestine Prophecy, What Dreams May Come, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and Cloud Atlas (being released this Friday as a movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry). Which brings me back to Hawthorne. Metaphysical elements recur in his works, including the “ghastly miracle” revealed at the climax of The Scarlet Letter: a red “A” (speaking of taboo) seared into Reverend Dimmesdale’s chest by a higher power. So with a metaphysical historical romance, I am still copycatting Hawthorne.

However, an Amazon search for metaphysical historical romances about the Holocaust revealed zero results. Let’s chart this territory!

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Not the Most Novel Idea

I am researching a novel set during the Holocaust. I had never intended to write about the Holocaust, or about anything historical for that matter. History was never my favorite subject. I even liked math better. All I can say is that the subject chose me. Then it quickly overwhelmed me. The volume of information available about the Holocaust is, conservatively, infinite. I am reading five books on the topic right now.

The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published BookMy writing coach, in our first session, added another resource to the mix: The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book, by Susan Page. As a would-be writer, I was excited to learn how to ditch the “would-be.” I was especially intrigued by the author’s presentation of the three main categories of fiction: literary, mainstream, and genre. As a former English major, of course I wanted to write something of literary merit! But could I remotely hope to pull it off?

Literary fiction does not rely heavily on plot for its appeal, but instead on the strength and power of the writing. Characters tend to be complex and filled with nuance. Literary novels are read not so much for action as for superb writing, rich character development, and originality of vision.

Character Development from the Inside OutI believed I could convey a unique viewpoint using decent grammar. But I didn’t know the first thing about creating psychologically rounded characters. I needed help. Three-quarters of the way through Scott Morgan’s Character Development from the Inside Out, I found myself reading about character clichés. Examples included “the rogue,” “the flaky genius,” and “the tortured artist.” Of course I would avoid these trite, stereotyped figures in my own writing! Then I arrived at the section’s final entry:

Nazis. Please, if there is nothing else you take from this book, let it be this: Don’t write about Nazis. Seriously. You can’t add anything new. Seriously. Stop writing about Nazis. A more interesting idea: Not Nazis.

AriesThe author’s strongly worded advice/plea/mandate touched on my own insecurities about the subject matter. But instead of throwing cold water in my face, it lit a fire under me. Maybe because I have so much Aries in my chart. Aries is my sun sign; I have an Aries rising; and Saturn, my north node, and my ascendant are in Aries. I don’t know what all that means, except that it’s a lot of Aries.

And Aries is a sign that welcomes a challenge.