Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lessons from Barcelona

No, this post is not about Lionel Messi beating Christiano Ronaldo in the race for the Pichichi (yay!) nor about Pep Guiardiola's resignation as head coach of the soccer club (boo!). It is about a book, an international bestseller an agent suggested I read as a "how-to" guide on creating successful historical fiction.

Set in fourteenth-century Barcelona, Ildefonso Falcones's CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA recounts the adventures of Arnau Estanyol, a fugitive serf who rises to become one of the city's richest and most influential citizens--and ultimately a target of the Inquisition. The story of Arnau's life parallels that of the elevation of Santa Maria del Mar, a magnificent cathedral built by the humble fishermen and dockworkers of Barcelona and to which, over the years, Arnau contributes his labor, his money, and his devotion. A six-hundred page novel of "friendship and revenge, plague and hope, love and war," CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA invites comparison with epic novels like Hugo's LES MISERABLES and Dumas's THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. First published in Spain in 2006, Falcones's novel has since been published in 32 counties and has sold more than two million copies worldwide. It won the 2006 Euskadi de Plata award for the best novel in Spanish, the Qué Leer 2007 Prize for best book, and the Giovanni Boccaccio 2007 award for best foreign author.

Falcones obviously struck a chord with readers of all types. What lessons does CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA offer for writers of historical fiction hoping to achieve similar success? Here are some guidelines I gleaned from my reading of the novel:

1) Think big. The scope of CATHEDRAL is grand on every level. The time span covers some sixty years of Arnau's life and Barcelona history. Every level of Catalan society, from prostitutes and dockworkers to merchants, noblemen, bishops and kings contributes to the expansive cast of characters, all of whom find their point of intersection in Arnau. Historical topics range from pottery production to money-lending to architecture to canon and civil law. Passions--love, hate, revenge, forgiveness--rage with little restraint. The rising cathedral serves as a metaphor for the book itself, growing stone by stone, word by word, to encompass a vast expanse of space and light.

2) Celebrate the unusual. Fourteenth-century Barcelona is a relatively unfamiliar setting compared to Tudor England or Revolutionary France, yet it is familiar enough for readers not to feel lost. As Catalan history is but a footnote in most history books despite the region's historical significance, Falcones had a wealth of material to share with readers hungry for novelty. CATHEDRAL explores out-of-the-way corners of Barcelona, exposing hidden facets of Catalonian society: life in the walled Jewish quarter; the travails of the tight-knit community of indispensable bastaixos, or stevedores; the methods and psychology of the rural Inquisitor. Exploiting heretofore unexamined niches in political and social history hoists a novel above its more conventional competition.

Photo credit: ferran pestaña
3) Throw any and every misfortune you can think of at your characters. Arnau's loved ones face execution, die of plague, kill themselves, abandon him; he carries boulders on his back, withstands starvation, rots in a dungeon, loses an immense, hard-won fortune; misunderstandings separate him for years from those most dear to him. Writers are advised to "get the character up a tree and throw rocks at him"; after scaling a giant redwood, poor Arnau had a quarryful of boulders catapulted at his head. Sometimes I wanted to scream, "Really?" BUT I KEPT READING. I read on not only to see what Falcones would dream up next, but how Arnau would weather the ever-lengthening list of misfortunes. Was he physically, spiritually and emotionally strong enough to withstand the onslaught?

4) Create definite heros and villains, who receive their just desserts. Arnau remains ever the strong and virtuous character--patient, generous, loyal, industrious, guided by principle. The few dishonorable acts he commits cause him immense guilt. He seeks vengeance on his enemies, but only after they have treated him with inexcusable barbarity. The villains often border on cliché, but Falcones is careful to display enough of their motivation to preserve them from caricature. In the end, the good characters win, while the evil ones suffer horrible fates. As rewards are seldom distributed equitably in real life, it is immensely satisfying to the reader to see justice meted out in fiction.

5) Rape all the women. I'm only partially kidding here. All of the female leads in CATHEDRAL suffer sexual or physical abuse at the hands of men. Not wishing to psychoanalyze the author, I will extract this lesson from the evidence: Don't whitewash social conditions and practices of the past that offend our present sensibilities. Poverty, injustice, and oppression affected medieval women to an inordinate degree; physical abuse was an inescapable consequence of a woman finding herself in dire circumstances. Compounding this is the fact that some of what we now consider physical abuse was regarded as normal, even responsible behavior in times past, behavior women were conditioned to accept and even expect. To gloss over such realities because the modern reader wants "strong female characters" distorts the historical record and borders on fantasy.

6) Treat universal themes. Theme links the world of the past to that of the reader's present. The oppression of the disadvantaged by the rich and powerful occurs as often in the twenty-first century as it did in the fourteenth, albeit by different means. Likewise, forgiveness and generosity of spirit continue to heal individuals and societies now, as then. Despite the material differences of life in disparate eras, general truths persist; give readers thematic fingerholds to cling to as they navigate the unfamiliarity of the resurrected past.

7) Leave some issues unresolved. There is no need to explain everything or tie up each thread neatly. Most readers like to have questions left to wonder about after they have finished reading a book. Does it matter what Character X was doing during those years he was absent from the main action? Is Character Z's ultimate fate of importance once her interaction with the main character has concluded? Leaving spaces in the narrative for the reader to exercise her imagination allows her to become more involved and invested in the story.

8) Over-the-top works, as long as the characters are equal to the action. Grand actions require grand emotions, and vice versa. Extraordinary events will overwhelm petty characters; expansive characters will wither in restricted circumstances. Compatibility between character and action conditions the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief." If, from the start, a book's characters confront extraordinary events with singular courage and resourcefulness, the reader will be swept into the current and able to accept what might otherwise be deemed outrageous. Don't be afraid to go for the gusto, as long as you apply the broad strokes of your brush to the characters as well as the action.

A superbly crafted and intensely engaging novel, CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA deserves the acclaim and awards it has garnered. It is the type of novel I, as an author of historical fiction, ultimately aspire to write. But examining how Falcones fashioned his masterpiece and successfully incorporating its lessons into my own writing are two entirely different matters... If only writing a novel were as easy as analyzing one!

But I'll continue to strive towards my goal, for, as Arnau (and the footballers) have made abundantly clear, great achievement requires the greatest of effort.

Visca Barça!