Nina Romano, “How to Write an Historical Fiction or Novel”
The Process Involved in Writing The Secret Language of Women
My horoscope predicted I’d write a novel. I was born in the Year of the Horse. So after I’d completed my MFA I began writing my historical literary novel The Secret Language of Women. The kernel of the novel was a short story I’d written for my thesis in grad school at FIU. This collection of short stories eventually was published as The Other Side of the Gates. To this revised short piece, I then added material based on family stories. So even before you begin writing you really should be reading and listening. And that’s precisely what I did, and what all writers should do.
I read Amy Tan, Lisa See, Anchee Min, Pearl S. Buck, and a host of others. And as a little girl, I had already begun to practice the art of listening. Always fascinated by tales my Grandpa told, his recollections beguiled me, especially tales about when he was a sailor in the Italian Navy and fighting in China during the Boxer Rebellion. I saw his passport, which listed his occupation as fisherman, and a picture of him in uniform—young, handsome and with a big moustache. He reminisced about China’s beautiful landscape, diminutive Oriental women with hair the color of jet, other European navies and ships. How exotic and alluring! I had paid attention and there was going to be a pay-off.
I remembered that he told me about gods, tattoos, and dragons, statues of Buddha, temples, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, karma, and acupuncture. He spoke of life in Sicily and travels as an Italian sailor all over China and his time in Shanghai. With this wealth of knowledge, I began to imagine the rest: young girls in brothels, sailors brawling with other sailors, sailors fighting against Boxers.
As I began to write the story in his third person POV, I started describing his ship and doing a little research. Then for a workshop I was about to take in the University of Iowa’s summer program, I had to write twenty pages. Naturally, I didn’t want to hand in anything already written—here was a golden opportunity to plunk down something new. I literally dashed down twenty-two pages in the first person POV of the fictitious, bi-lingual woman whom my fictional character, loosely based on my Grandpa, would fall in love with.
For the workshop, I assigned the name Giacomo for my sailor, and Lian for the main character—I’d found my protagonist and the female perspective I needed. When I realized the main character would be a woman, the writing flowed. It wasn’t forced and came naturally. Next, when I returned home, I researched and added exciting scenes—writing things I’d never dared to consider writing about before: abandonment, abortion, rape. All difficult for me, but I wanted and needed a challenge. I also included my horoscope sign and wrote important scenes for a horse. One caveat, be careful not to get stuck in the research. Remember, writers write.
Although I don’t know if any of this was truly part of Grandpa’s living existence in China, it made me ponder and pursue a line of thinking that would make for a good plot—of course being a poet, I wanted to include poetry and lyrical writing because I feel this is where my strength lies.
I visited China and was enchanted by Beijing, formerly Peking, which held Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I also became enthralled with the city of Guilin, a painter’s paradise surrounded by magnificent mauve hills and cliffs, many waterways and markets. I became spellbound by China’s history, culture, superstitions, art, cuisine, medicine, and Nüshu, the secret language of women, now extinct, like the binding of female children’s feet. Later, I’d cull from these to use in my novel-writing. Returning from Asia equipped with notes while traveling, I began a romantic story in alternating chapters, incorporating China’s historical details, using the Boxer Rebellion as backdrop.
I re-read my friend and mentor John Dufresne’s books: The Lie That Tells a Truth and Is Life Like This?—on how to write a first novel draft in six months, a refresher course of what John had taught me at FIU. I started a notebook into which I jotted down things like links to Google sites, Chinese words and English translations, Chinese poets, lines of poems, names of characters, lists of character attributes and traits, foods, drinks, names of places and rivers, notes on the Boxer Rebellion, the Empress CiXi, Opium Wars, Chinese herbs, medicines, and acupuncture.
I wrote a first draft of The Secret Language of Women sketching back story, themes, motifs, metaphors, settings, dialogue, obligatory scenes, character motivation, conflict, cause and effect, climax, resolution and denouement. The plot developed and germinated out of the story. This was the exhilarating, creative part, next would come the cerebral part—revision. I revised this novel numerous times. To be truthful, nine complete times. Each time, I revised for a different thing: structure, layout and format, POV, language, plot, exposition that told but didn’t show, scenes comprised of action, dialogue and use of the five senses, transitions, tightening and cutting. This didn’t happen overnight. It took me years.
I was fortunate because I met four scribbling women in Iowa working on novels, and we formed a writing group that continues to meet once a year, since we live scattered in different states. I am fortunate also, because I am tenacious, and persistence pays off. I had an agent in 2002-2003, but she couldn’t sell my first book because editors didn’t know how to market it. So I wrote the second novel, which is now the first book in my Wayfarer Trilogy. Things became even more difficult last year trying to secure an agent.
After I tried to rekindle the brief relationship with the one I had—in fact she didn’t even have the courtesy to answer my letter—I wrote to several other agents, and received many oxymoronic exquisite rejections. I convinced myself it was time to give up seeking representation, and instead to focus on representing myself to small, independent publishers. I submitted to three of them in a listing of the first 101 best.
Turner Publishing was the first one I submitted to, and has to its credit fourteen NY Times best-selling authors, and is listed in the top eleven fastest-growing small publishers. The acquiring editor at Turner Publishing said my novel was “sensational,” something this author dreamt of hearing for years, and I secured a three-book deal for my trilogy.
My Chinese horoscope last year was the zodiac sign the Year of the Horse—the year that I received an acceptance from Turner. I felt strong and powerful, and knew good things were in store for me. Perhaps I was also in the right place at the right time, but I’d done my homework, researched, and knew this publisher was interested in historical fiction. I feel truly blessed.
Excerpt from the Secret language of Women
The things that test you and are vanquished bring everlasting joy. The differences between traditional written Chinese and Nüshu, the secret language of women, made it difficult for me to learn it. My mother and grandmother could not write Chinese and learned Nüshu when they were young and wanted me to grasp it too. I cannot say they harped on me or were tyrannical, but I will say they were insistent, and for this I am eternally indebted.
My mother said it challenged me because I wrote like a man and didn’t have to rely solely on Nüshu, the way they did to communicate with other women. The ideograms of Chinese correspond to a word or part of one, whereas each of the seven hundred characters of Nüshu represent a syllable— women’s language is phonetic, in Chéngguān dialect 城关土话, adaptable and pliant for singing, poetry and writing with such delicate strokes they appear as lines of feathers.
Though learning was problematical, I mastered it, like I do all things I set my mind to conquer. At the time, I resented the study of it, yet I knew innately one day I would be grateful to possess the knowledge and skill of this secret language, which would offer me strength and solace for a lifetime. And although I was writing in Nüshu, for some reason, I signed with flourish in Chinese: Wǒ Lián. I am Lian. 我连
Nina Romano earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from FIU. She’s a world traveler and lover of history. She lived in Rome, Italy, for twenty years, and is fluent in Italian and Spanish. She authored a short story collection, The Other Side of the Gates, four poetry collections, and two poetry chapbooks. A fifth collection is forthcoming from LLC Red Dashboard. Romano has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Her Wayfarer Trilogy is forthcoming from Turner Publishing. The first historical novel of the saga: The Secret Language of Women will be published in September 2015. More about the author at: www.ninaromano.com
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