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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Writer’s Digest Top Agent Websites 2020

Here are the top websites by and about agents as identified in the 22nd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2020 issue of Writer's Digest.

Here are the best writing advice websites as identified in the 22nd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2020 issue of Writer's Digest.

* Denotes the website's first appearance on our list.

1. Bookends Literary Agency blog

BookendsLiterary.com

Get insider information on what it’s like to work with an agent, what they look for, and why they reject manuscripts from the blog of this New Jersey-based literary agency. If an agent you want to pitch to contributes to a blog, you need to be reading what they write.

2. Literary Carrie

LiteraryCarrie.Wixsite.com/Blog

Carrie Pestritto of the Laura Dail Literary Agency blogs about being a literary agent, her clients, the books she loves, living in The Big Apple, and more. Each month, one lucky author who enters Carrie’s Query Critique Contest will win a free public critique of their query letter on the blog.

3. Lit Rejections

LitRejections.com

If you’re querying, you’ve got to have thick skin—Lit Rejections shares stories of rejection on the blog to help you cope. The site also publishes interviews with agents and an extensive database of literary agencies and their submission guidelines.

4. Manuscript Wish List

ManuscriptWishList.com

Following Manuscript Wish List religiously is a must to increase your chances of landing an agent. Search the site for agents and editors who represent your genre—most profiles include a bio and submission guidelines as well as spell out exactly what types of books they are looking for. For how-to tips and interviews with agents and authors, listen to “The Manuscript Academy” podcast.

5. Pub Rants

NelsonAgency.com/Pub-Rants

If you want insider information about querying, landing representation, and publishing news from literary agents (sometimes in rant form, but always polite), then visit this blog by literary agents from Nelson Literary Agency.

6. Query Shark

QueryShark.Blogspot.com

Before you send a query letter, it’s a good idea to read this blog to see if you’re making any of the mistakes literary agent Janet Reid has advised against through her public critiques of 300+ query letters (and counting). After her line-by-line critique, authors may submit their revised queries to the shark. Send in your own query for a chance to have it critiqued on the blog—but remember, this shark is brutally honest.

7. Query Tracker

querytracker.net

Query Tracker has been on this list for 11 years now, and with good reason: more than 3,000 authors have found agents here. Search the database of agents to find whom to query. Create a free account to track the agents you’ve researched, whom you want to query or don’t want to query, the date you sent your letters, and the result of your queries.  

For more of our best website selections for 2020, check out the following.

Get feedback on your first ten pages with this Writer's Digest Boot Camp from Talcott Notch Literary Agency.

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 534

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a bottomless poem.

For today’s prompt, write a bottomless poem. Some diners may offer a bottomless cup of coffee. If dug deep enough, one may be facing a bottomless hole. And a person's feelings, whether happy or sad, may be bottomless. I'm sure additional interpretations are bottomless as well.

Remember: These prompts are springboards to creativity. Use them to expand your possibilities, not limit them.

Note on commenting: If you wish to comment on the site, go to Disqus to create a free new account, verify your account on this site below (one-time thing), and then comment away. It's free, easy, and the comments (for the most part) don't require manual approval like on the old site.

*****

Play with poetic forms!

Poetic forms are fun poetic games, and this digital guide collects more than 100 poetic forms, including more established poetic forms (like sestinas and sonnets) and newer invented forms (like golden shovels and fibs).

Click to continue.

*****

Here’s my attempt at a Bottomless Poem:

“In this bottomless”

In this bottomless pit of despair,
I found an extra length of hair
from one of those troll figurines
with neon hair, orange and green,
which reminded me of my youth
and losing a very wiggly tooth
that I placed under a pillow at night
for some money to make it all right
so I can spend it all at the store
on lots of candy--I always want more--
and that memory reminded me too
of so many sweet summer afternoons
reading books and writing for fun
under the gentle Ohio sun
until I pulled myself out of the pit
and found my despair had a limit.

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 534

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a bottomless poem.

For today’s prompt, write a bottomless poem. Some diners may offer a bottomless cup of coffee. If dug deep enough, one may be facing a bottomless hole. And a person's feelings, whether happy or sad, may be bottomless. I'm sure additional interpretations are bottomless as well.

Remember: These prompts are springboards to creativity. Use them to expand your possibilities, not limit them.

Note on commenting: If you wish to comment on the site, go to Disqus to create a free new account, verify your account on this site below (one-time thing), and then comment away. It's free, easy, and the comments (for the most part) don't require manual approval like on the old site.

*****

Play with poetic forms!

Poetic forms are fun poetic games, and this digital guide collects more than 100 poetic forms, including more established poetic forms (like sestinas and sonnets) and newer invented forms (like golden shovels and fibs).

Click to continue.

*****

Here’s my attempt at a Bottomless Poem:

“In this bottomless”

In this bottomless pit of despair,
I found an extra length of hair
from one of those troll figurines
with neon hair, orange and green,
which reminded me of my youth
and losing a very wiggly tooth
that I placed under a pillow at night
for some money to make it all right
so I can spend it all at the store
on lots of candy--I always want more--
and that memory reminded me too
of so many sweet summer afternoons
reading books and writing for fun
under the gentle Ohio sun
until I pulled myself out of the pit
and found my despair had a limit.

Charles Soule: On Writing Comics and Novels

Comics writer and novelist Charles Soule shares his process on writing comics and novels, including how they're similar and completely different.

Charles Soule is a novelist and comics writer who has climbed his way to the top of the heap over more than a decade of work. He's written landmark runs with Marvel characters like Daredevil and She-Hulk, written critically acclaimed entries into the Star Wars canon and then has broken into the world of novels with original books Oracle Year and Anyone. His next novel is Star Wars: Light of the Jedi, which kicks off a brand new era in that universe. 

Charles Soule

(Exploring Star Wars and the Hero's Journey.)

In this wide-ranging interview, Soule talks about the differences between writing comics and novels, the process he takes for both, and the difficulty of quitting the day job to write full time.

*****

If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you're seeking isn't craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren't good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can't write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.

Click to continue.

*****

A lot of people know you from the world of comics and the world of novels, and I'm wondering how your approach differs between the two.

The most fundamental difference is that when you're making a comic, you're part of a group of very talented creators who all contribute their own part to telling the story. So, I write a script but then the artists do an enormous amount of heavy lifting in terms of the storytelling, in terms of the way that the images are depicted, the way that the angles are chosen, all of those things. 

I don't put those things in my scripts most of the time. I try to create a script that has all of the dialogue and the emotional content and the pacing and the meat, but then everything else is up to the artist to do. And then beyond that, you have the colorist, the letterer, the editor, and so on. Yes, I write, I'm the writer and a lot of the ideas originate with me, but at least as many originate with all of those other groups.

For a novel, you're doing all of that yourself. You are describing the scene, doing all the dialogue, all the pacing, choosing all the angles, so to speak. You can zoom in or out in front of the detail work you want to focus on. You are completely controlling the reader's eye.

(How to write vivid descriptions.)

Obviously novels are longer, too. I can get through a script in a day or two and a novel takes me eight to 12 months, right? It's just a different set of muscles. It's all storytelling, that stays true through both, but the actual technique is pretty different.

Can you walk me through your process?

For comics and novels, I have dedicated moleskin notebooks. A notebook will last me for about 25 issues of a comic, and will last me for a novel through revisions. It's very effective and easy to keep everything straight and have all the ideas in one place.

I use a modified version of bullet journaling, which is a process where you put a table of contents into the start of a notebook, and then you break it out. The book has sections in it.

At the beginning of my constructed notebook is themes. Why am I writing this book? And that's where I spend most of my time. In the beginning, I ask, "What is the point of this that's gonna sustain me through the long, long period of writing a book?" You have to be so focused on a novel, you have to think about it constantly, you have to live in your mind to a degree that is almost off-putting. I can't believe I've written three, and I'm working on my fourth, but it's addicting, too, especially when it's done and you feel good about it.

The second section is just pie-in-the-sky ideas. Concepts. I story-tell. This is where I know what the story is, I know the hook, I know the reason I'm exploring this, and let's see where it goes. And that's all really loose and rough stuff. For Anyone, I had the premise and I had loose ideas of the story before I even got the notebook and I was writing about a world as you could switch bodies, and what would happen in that world? What were the ways that that technology might be applied in society where it wasn't a special unique thing like in a horror movie or something, it was something that people used the same way they use their smart phones? 

And so I started thinking about doctors zipping around the world, in a new body to perform operations, surgeons getting to areas where they didn't have to fly there on a plane, they could just go there, and then that got me to tourists who would take vacations that way, and that got me to the type of people who would rent themselves out as vessels for people who are on vacation, so that they could experience their vacation in a young, healthy, strong body, and then that took me to people who are disabled and might really enjoy the opportunity to live in an abled body for a while. You see where I’m going. All of the different ways that the tech could work. So that's the second section.

(10 best dystopian novels for writers.)

After that, you start getting into rough ideas about characters. That's usually the third bit. Who will we be experiencing this story through? After that I get into more structured outlining.

That’s the first version of the notebook. From there, I move to Scrivener. It's very intuitive, but basically it's like a digital version of the notebook. Building my Scrivener is always kind of a thrill, because I don't do it until I know the novel well enough to do it. I don't wanna waste my time.

From there, I’ll start writing loose, kind of crappy versions of chapters. When I’m at that point, I try to just go through until I have a first draft, making lots of notes for myself. The notebook comes back into play because a lot of times I'll outline chapters in the notebook before I go type them into the Scrivener. I love going to coffee shops and bars and things like that. It’s just a very pleasant way, when the weather's nice, to just go outside, or sit in a social place and just put it down with a pencil.

That's how I do it. There's a lot of value in taking multiple passes on things because you don't always have all your good ideas at once. All of those versions are opportunities to iterate the ideas that I had the first time around and generally speaking, the more iterations the better.

What's the last step for you before you send it to your agents or any other readers or a publisher?

I read the manuscript again, usually with a hard copy, and I make a bunch of notes on it and then I run those notes.

I'll do that probably twice until I feel like I have gotten out all of the ideas that I feel like are worth doing at that point. Then I have very trusted readers who read all of my stuff first. That usually takes a week or two if I'm lucky. That gives me time to just not think about the novel for a while or let my subconscious think about it, but there's no real ritual other than feeling like I've done about as much as I feel comfortable doing in this draft and then it's time for some other eyeballs. 

I'll do a pass based on their notes. And then my agent, and then I'll do a pass based on that. And then to the editor. And then I get those notes. Sometimes I have other readers who will help at that point, too. There are readers I use for first impressions or readers who I ask to read the second time for second impressions. There are readers who I sort of hold and reserve until that second-most edits round of manuscript exists, so that they can give me first impressions on the new cut. 

(The problem with sensitivity readers isn't what you think it is.)

I have like an ammunition belt of readers that I deploy. Some people do it for a living, and some people do it just because they’re friends of mine, some people do it as sensitivity readers or specialty readers within their fields or whatever, they're all awesome and I couldn't do it without them.

With a novel, you have a definite end point, but when you're doing an on-going series, whether that's Poe Dameron or Star Wars or Daredevil, how far in advance are you looking forward as you're working on that?

It depends. I haven't had a true open-ended ongoing, series probably since Daredevil. And part of that is that I've shifted away from superhero comics to Star Wars comics and then my new creator-owned book. 

With creator-owned books, I treat them in a very novelistic fashion, and they all have a beginning, middle, and end. Whether it’s Letter 44, or Curse Words or even the new one I'm working on now, Undiscovered Country. There's a point and a goal, whereas if you're on Daredevil or Captain America, you're just sort of writing until your time is done, generally speaking.

With those, you probably have 20-25 issues in your head, the places you think the story is gonna go. And then you write, and if the story is received well, you get there, and if it is, you know by the time you're at that point if it's gonna continue. Before you get to that point, it's not like you get to 25 and you're like, "Oh no, I don't have any other ideas." You have realized that you're most likely gonna continue and you're still thinking of ideas for almost what you might call Season 2.

The Star Wars flagship is a little different in that it's open-ended, but even then it's still much more locked down than a run of Batman or something. For the Darth Vader book I did, I knew that was going to be a 25-issue run from the beginning. The Rise of Kylo Ren is a four-issue book that is designed to tell one very specific story within a pretty tight page count. And so from the outline that was very, very tightly outlined to make sure that I could tell everything that I wanted to, and that it would all land.

Do you still work a day job?

I do not. I was an attorney when I was getting into comics writing and novel writing. I started that in 2000, and then for over 15 years. I think I formally stopped at the end of 2016, beginning of 2017. I had gone from working at a big firm in Midtown Manhattan to a smaller firm, and then opening my own practice, which I did for quite a while, focused on immigration law. Which was great and I loved it, I loved helping people, and I love doing such a fulfilling job, especially something that I started myself and maintained and had grown a client base for. 

But what I always really wanted was to be a creative person for my living, and so when writing really started to take off and was taking much more of my time, it became clear to me that I couldn't responsibly do both because I was putting so much time into writing, that it was clear that the amount of effort required to stay up to speed on the law, particularly immigration law which changes constantly, was gonna be prohibitive. 

One of them had to go and I took the leap over to writing and I have no regrets. I'm glad I did it. My days now are filled with storytelling, which is what I've always wanted.

What would you tell people who are in that position, that want to make that leap but are still in that slog, where they're doing both? Which is a place I think where most writers probably are.

It's true. I know even writers who are really good at the marketing game, and on the outside appear as independent mega successful writers, many of them still have day jobs, because it's just a tricky gig to maintain.

I would say first of all, there's no shame in it. I did it for a really long time. I think that's the first thing: Know that it's okay to be doing two things at the same time, and it's okay to be doing two things at the same time for your whole life. There’s a writer with a lot of great stories that I liked telling stories about, a mystery writer. He had a job at the post office for his whole career, and he would just wake up in the morning at five, and write for two hours and then he would go to the post office, and he would just do that every single day for his whole career and that's great. You don't have to shift away.

But if you do wanna shift away I think you have to be willing to pursue a very commercial career. There are costs associated going for the most commercial type of writing possible, because there's not as much freedom. I can't put Darth Vader in a tutu or something like that, it just wouldn't work. Not that I would, but it's just not part of the franchise. You get all the benefits of writing stories about the most beloved characters in the world. But there's also a certain level of restriction to it, which again, is fine.

You have to brace yourself for that and know that there's a ladder to climb in that respect, too. That if you wanna be able to do writing exclusively you have to either have ideas that are incredibly successful, that are yours and original, or you work on other people's characters in a way that's high level enough that people will pay you a lot of money to do it. 

(21 authors share one piece of advice for writers.)

Or you accept that you will be a starving artist, which is also totally fine. Anyone, within reason, can adjust their life to, especially with the internet and things like that, to get by on not as much. And I say that from a position of luck and privilege, and I know that it's incredibly difficult, so I hope that's not taken a wrong way, but if... having a life of only writing or creating is your goal and you wanna put that ahead of every other thing in your life, whether that's comfort or other things, it can be done, you just have to make a bunch of really harsh decisions about it. 

I don't wanna say it's easy. None of those things are easy, and you need a lot of luck and skill, and people helping you, and all of that, but it's just really about wanting it enough to make all the choices, and spend all the time to get there. That's how it was for me.

Charles Soule’s Anyone is out now from Harper Perennial and his next book, Star Wars: Light of the Jedi comes out in early 2021. In the meantime, you can read his work on the flagship Star Wars title from Marvel comics.

Write Like Studio Ghibli

Write a scene or story based on one of these premises inspired by Studio Ghibli.

Photo: Matt Popovich on Unsplash

This week's writing prompt will take inspiration from Studio Ghibli films, because they are some of the best films ever made and have been keeping my spirits up during quarantine.

Creative writing prompt: Write a scene or story based on one of these premises inspired by Studio Ghibli.

A child discovers something in the forest. (My Neighbor Totoro)

Pollution by humans turns a forest poisonous. (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)

A young witch sets off on her own. (Kiki's Delivery Service)

Post your response (500 words or fewer) in the comments below.