Category Archives: Genre

Why I Write Jewish Historical Fiction

Novelist Michelle Cameron explain why she’s driven to write Jewish historical fiction and why it’s not about the Holocaust.

I never set out to write Jewish historical fiction. I was brought up in a secular household and, until my family moved to Israel when I was 15, my Jewish roots remained incidental at best.

But I did of course notice that the books I loved – particularly Regency and Victorian literature – didn’t treat the Jews well at all. With rare exceptions – George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe come immediately to mind – there was no sympathy for the Jewish character. Even Georgette Heyer, the historical romance novelist I loved the most, portrayed Jews as villainous money lenders. There is a searing scene in The Grand Sophie where the heroine bests the sniveling, stereotypical Jewish money lender through her pluck and determination. Not a fun passage for any Jewish reader to read.

Still, it wasn’t what I set out to write. The books I admired with Jewish protagonists were either Biblical – The Red Tent and that ilk – or contemporary, such as the novels of Chaim Potok. When I wrote, as I did in my high school yearbook, that I wanted to become a historical novelist, I wasn’t thinking Jewish. In fact, my first published work was a verse novel set in the Globe Theatre during Shakespeare’s time. Since I never mentioned The Merchant of Venice, In the Shadow of the Globe contained no Jewish references whatsoever.

I believe strongly that my stories find me, not the other way around, and that was certainly the case with The Fruit of Her Hands. I was leafing through a family genealogy chart, compiled by a distant cousin, when I stumbled across a description of the life of my 12th-century rabbi ancestor, Meir of Rothenberg. His story called to me and the resulting novel entered me into the ranks of Jewish historical novelists.

There were not that many of us out there at the time. Happily, this isn’t as true now. I recently took part in one of the Jewish Book Council’s author pitch sessions, in which I was given two whole minutes to present my novel (online this year, of course) to the roughly 120 member organizations across North America. In preparation for the event, I took the time to cull some statistics from the JBC’s 2020 catalogue. I counted 233 total books – fiction, nonfiction, and children’s – of which 34 were categorized as historical novels. Sixteen of these were set during or immediately following World War II, dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath. The other 18, including my own, ranged through the rest of Jewish history.

I also posted on a couple of Jewish Facebook forums, asking my fellow authors why they write Jewish historical fiction. Being the Jane Austen fan that I am, I was entranced by this response by Mirta Ines Trupp: “Alas, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are few Jewish characters of worth in historical novels.” Zeeva Bukai echoed that sentiment: “I love the connection between past and present, and the way Jewish identity has remained, but has also altered, shaped by history and events. And I think it’s important to see us represented on the page.”

Remembering how the young reader in me was shocked and dismayed by the portrayal of Jews in the books I loved, I wholeheartedly agree: it is important to not only see us represented on the page, but also not portrayed as stereotypes. And once I started writing about the lives of Jews during the Middle Ages, a period not well known, it became a way to reach out, to let people – both Jews and Gentiles – learn more about our history. So many of my readers told me that they had no idea before reading my novel how antisemitism gained strength during the Middle Ages. My current novel, Beyond the Ghetto Gates, is also set in unfamiliar territory, that of the Jewish emancipation from the ghettos in Italy, performed by none other than a young General Bonaparte. Napoleon and the Jews? Who knew?

Another Facebook response resonated with me, this one by Naomi Blass: “Because readers need Jewish fiction that isn’t centered on the Holocaust.” With sincere respect to those writers who give voice to that unforgivable tragedy, I could never write about it myself. Having lost half my mother’s family to its horrors, the Holocaust strikes too close to home. Everything I write about my people is embodied with the sense of “this is my story.” I simply could not face the nightmare of that era for the several years it would take to write a novel set then and there.

I write Jewish historical fiction from a deep sense of my people’s history and culture. Having lived in Israel during high school and university, I have a distinct advantage over other American Jewish authors who attended secular schools: the Israeli curriculum calls for a deep dive into Jewish history, beginning from Biblical times to present day. I will be forever grateful to my high school principal, Dr. Erwin Birnbaum, who brought all those moments of our history to vibrant life.

The fact that I’m not religious bewilders some readers. But the themes in Jewish history that call to me – particularly the tug-of-war between assimilation and maintaining religious tradition, the antisemitism that touches us all, religious or not – distinctly qualify me to tell these stories. And the eras I’ve explored, from the medieval advent of antisemitism to the ideas of the Enlightenment giving the Jews of France and Italy revolutionary new choices, are clearly reflected in our modern lives. One more Facebook response, by Janice Weizman, encapsulates my own feelings about the question brilliantly: “Jewish historical fiction offers writers an amazingly rich resource from which to draw on a seemingly endless range of issues, settings, and dilemmas, all of which resonate with each other, and with our lives as Jews today. The tension between the individual and community, modernism and tradition, faith and skepticism, as well as timeless moral questions, make for narrative potential that feels urgent and relevant.”

So why do I write Jewish historical fiction? These are the stories of my people. My culture. My history. Their issues are the issues I still personally grapple with today. In this era of #ownvoices, I cannot think of anything more important for me to write.

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Take Two: Writing and Formatting Sluglines

Orienting the reader of your screenplay requires the use of sluglines. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares tips on properly formatting a slugline to make your script read like a pro.

Screenwriting executives look for a lot of “white on the page.” It’s just what you think it means. Less words, more white. It’s not as strange as you think. Every page of script represents one minute of film. We must write to fit that time frame, meaning no flowery prose and rambling scene descriptions.

The greatest compliment a writer can get is when an executive calls their script “a fast read.” Making your script read quickly requires appropriate use of sluglines.

WHAT IS A SLUGLINE?

Simply put, a slugline (or slug line) is a scene heading to help orient the reader quickly as to where that action takes place. Inside or outside, day or night, or what room in what building. Sluglines are succinct and simple.

Locations also aid the producer in identifying the script’s budget. Every location creates a new cost. For example, each scene being shot in the daylight or darkness, during sunrise or sunset, represents not only cost, but also time constraints during production. Whenever writers identify a specific time of day, the director has limitations on when he can shoot those scenes. As the number of locations increases, so does the film’s price tag. Increased costs occur every time a camera and crew must move to a new location. Some locations are inexpensive, but others are simply impossible, unless the production company can recreate it on a set or use a greenscreen.

Films are never shot in order of scene, but instead, shot by locations, using sluglines to guide them. Screenwriting software remembers each slugline and allows you to insert it wherever needed, which also allows a director to keep track of locations to create a shooting schedule. When you’re writing the first draft, don’t put limitations on yourself, but when you rewrite, examine the number of locations and slice and dice, where possible.

Your script represents a blueprint for the director and production crew.

FORMATTING A SLUGLINE

Formatting isn’t sexy, but it’s a requirement of screenwriting. Screenwriting software takes a lot of the heavy lifting away, but a writer must know the industry standards, regardless.

Sluglines are always written in CAPS, with an empty line above and below.

Formatting sluglines in bold has become popular, but that’s only a personal preference and must be consistent throughout.

Place a single dash with a space before and after to separate each aspect of a slugline.

ORIENT THE READER

David Trottier, aka Dr. Format, encourages writers to ask “Where am I?” I also think of it as “Where is the camera?”

First, define if the scene is shot inside or outside, using INT. for “interior” and EXT. for “exterior.” Use a period after the abbreviation. Most writers choose to always identify DAY or NIGHT, but some suggest only quantifying the time of day if it’s important to the scene.

Sometimes a scene has an added detail, such as weather factors. Again, only add these details if they matter. Fog or rain add expense to production, so be certain they’re essential to your story. Insert them in brackets into the slugline because weather would be important for the production crew to know.

The sluglines above are called master scene headings. What happens if your character goes into Alice’s house and moves around from room to room? We use secondary scene headings.

Use sluglines creatively to guide the perspective of camera angles. Without camera angles in the example above, you can still “see” the moving of the camera simply by the use of secondary scene headings. You can use unlimited secondary scene headings as long as the master scene heading is relevant to each secondary location.

While the slugline identifies the location, it does not include a detailed description of the scene. Furthermore, if you write the location in the slugline, do not repeat it in the description that follows.

Should be written as follows:

Beyond establishing a location, the slugline may also be used to guide the eye of the reader and production team to focus on a certain object or character in the shot.

FORMATTING PASSAGE OF TIME

What if, from the previous example, Alice sobs on her bed for hours? Sluglines help demonstrate a passage of time. You could format the time passage as follows:

Or the following, using a secondary heading, is also correct:

You do not need a new master scene heading for a change in time within the same location. You would only need one if there’s a change in camera location.

Some screenplays show a passage of time with a SERIES OF SHOTS or a MONTAGE.

Proper montage formatting varies. The basic rule is to use a slugline, defining the beginning of the MONTAGE, then give a brief description of its purpose. Follow with a short list of scenes, finally indicating the end of MONTAGE.

Here are a few options of how to format them properly.

Another option for the same MONTAGE would be to show scene headings, as so:

Sometimes the writer needs to tell a quick story within the story, using a SERIES OF SHOTS. This differs from a MONTAGE in that a MONTAGE focuses on one subject, like in the example above. However, the terms are used interchangeably.

Our options aren’t done yet. The above SERIES OF SHOTS could also be formatted using double dashes instead of identified by letters.

Formatting confuses beginning screenwriters, but once you learn the basics, you catch on quickly. Two resources I always have within reach are written by David Trottier: The Screenwriter’s Bible and Dr. Format Tells All. Sluglines guide the reader to the right location. Trottier’s expertise guides you to format like a pro. Dave also has a formatting column on Script’s site here.

For more information on screenwriting, browse our sister site, ScriptMag.com

Learn proper screenplay formatting with David Trottier’s SU course, Proper Formatting Technique: Script Format Made Easy

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Writing in the Shadows: On Writing Better Historical Fiction

In this post, novelist Pamela Binnings Ewen shares her thoughts on writing better historical fiction by writing in the shadows of history and historical research.

When researching and writing historical fiction, a writer opens doors into the past and prepares for surprises. As I dug into Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel’s written history when I began my latest novel, The Queen of Paris, I found right away that I could not trust many of her biographies. While she was alive, Chanel demanded absolute approval before cooperating with a writer. She nixed most of them. Her image was carefully structured and protected, as were the now-famous witty quotes that seemed to fall impromptu from her lips before the press.

(8 rules of writing historical fiction research.)

In fact, as my research began, I soon realized that despite Chanel’s public image and those beautiful, clean couture designs—the bias cut satins and silks, the lace inserts, soft jersey dresses, diamond hair clips and romantic perfumes—the real Coco was still a mystery. Because her life during the war years when the Nazis occupied Paris remained hidden until only recently as her secrets gradually came into the light.

Many had already absorbed the news that Chanel was a collaborator during the years of occupation. What else could one think, since she resided in the Hotel Ritz in Paris alongside the Nazi High Command. But I never expected what I found a few years ago—had never understood the depth of Chanel’s connections to Nazi Germany.

When writing historical fiction, the frame of the story is first constructed with facts. But to test the depth of a character as complex as Chanel it was necessary to get past the obvious. In an excellent nonfiction book (Sleeping with the Enemy, by Hal Vaughn) I found explosive new facts to fit into the frame of the story. Photographs of only recently released WWII military files on Coco Chanel showing Chanel was more than a mere collaborator during the Nazi occupation of France.

She was a spy.

Writing in the Shadows

Often this is a matter of putting two and two together, connecting rumor or innuendo from bits and pieces of history with the facts. Sometimes a writer will find odd, off-beat information about their subject which rises above coincidence. Information which fits so well into the frame of the story that they’re convinced it could be true. 

In this case, the writer should also assure that the fictional conclusion does no harm. In other words, writing in the shadows is fascinating and fun, and sometimes it swoops off into new fascinating directions, but it shouldn’t change the frame of truth surrounding the story.

I think of this as writing in the shadows of history.

(Historical fiction: Discover new truths in the past.)

It is amazing to me that so much has been written about Coco Chanel, and yet so little has been written about her life in Paris during the war years. I’m not certain, but I think The Queen of Paris is the first historical fiction to explore in depth the explosive decisions Chanel made during those four years, some kept secret until only recently.

For instance, I’d not known that she was recruited to spy for the enemy of France by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence during WWII, and had an assigned number and a code name—Westminster. Thanks to author Hal Vaughn’s book Sleeping with the Enemy, that information was verified in his photographs of recently released military files on Coco Chanel.

I’d not known that she visited an SS Officer in Berlin during the war years to accept a mission to Spain, while her own country suffered under the boot of the Nazi occupation. Nor had I known that Chanel traveled to Spain on missions for the Reich. Likewise, I’d not known how fiercely anti-Semetic she was, or that she’d used Nazi law prohibiting Jews to own businesses or work within German territories in a battle against her Jewish business partner over Chanel No. 5.

And yet, on the other hand, she’d helped rescue a Jewish friend taken hostage by the Gestapo. She was a complex woman.

*****

Write Historical Fiction

Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel. You’ll discover the appropriate level of historical data to include as a function of a particular writing goal, learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them, and uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc. 

Most of all, find out how to honor verisimilitude—the goal of any historical writing—and avoid the dreaded anachronism. You’ll learn to write scenes utilizing historical markers that further the plot and put your reader firmly in the place, time, and setting.

Click to continue.

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On Writing Better Historical Fiction

In writing The Queen of Paris, I found myself up against two major problems.

First, Chanel had a strange ability to distance herself from the war and its victims and consequences. The question which rose over and over again as I began working on this story was, ‘why?’ Why would one of the richest and most famous women in the world—an icon of apparent strength, determination, and independence—agree to spy for Nazi Germany? Why betray her business partner over her signature perfume, No. 5? For me, the question of her motivations quickly became the keystone to the story.

But in addition—second—I had yet another problem to resolve. Coco Chanel was not a likable character. The thinking among fiction writers in general is that a heroine must be likable, someone readers can empathize with. But Coco Chanel was not your average heroine. In fact, perhaps, looking back, her life was one long struggle to survive, and to succeed on her own terms.

(Heroin vs. Heroine vs. Hero)

Was this enough to balance the dark side of my heroine?

There was no way to satisfactorily answer that question, I finally realized. But Coco Chanel’s story during WWII was too interesting to abandon. And how many others looked the other way in order to survive? As history is constantly being rewritten, I suppose we will never really know.

So I have left it to you, dear reader, to judge.

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