So I’m writing a book set in 5C Alexandria. I know the plot and my characters intimately. I’m typing away at the seduction scene when I think, “Did they have underwear back then? If so, what was it like?” I know the handsome hero doesn’t unzip his pants but does he unbutton, unbuckle, untie, unwrap? Of course I could finesse this with a sentence like, “He dropped his garments onto the floor.” But it won’t be long before readers get impatient with generalities because the devil is in the historical details.
The sights, smells, sounds and descriptions of clothes, food, housing and transportation in a different time make the reader suspend disbelief and join whole-heartedly in the fiction. Valerie Anand, who writes historical mysteries (most recently The Siren Queen), under the pseudonym Fiona Buckley makes this point: “When planning a specific book, I read works on the period, and chase up such details as the layout of particular towns, styles of furniture, fashions of the time, laws in force, and technologies which existed then. I use maps a lot. I had my sitting room floor completely carpeted while I tried to work out whether one could or could not ride a horse from one point to another in a single day. I always try to be accurate, because there is always someone out there who will write in and point out your mistakes.”
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Anita Diamant wanted to do something different with her writing life. A freelance journalist in the Boston area since 1975, she wrote articles on everything from profiles of prominent people to first-person essays on being a mom. She also found the time to write six books on Jewish lifecycle events. She turned her sights on the biblical story of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter. The result is her best-selling novel The Red Tent, a vivid retelling of the ancient story from the woman’s point of view. But it wasn’t easy. The decision to write this book led Diamant on a journey nearly as adventurous as Dinah’s. She talked to me from her home in the Boston area about her writing, research, publishing trials, and the grueling three-year marketing effort that drove her book to the best seller lists.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: How did you get started writing?
ANITA DIAMANT: I wrote poetry a long time ago, but you can’t make any money in poetry. I switched to journalism and non-fiction. When I turned 40, I wanted to do something different. Fiction offered a different challenge. It uses a different side of the brain.
FLJ: How would you describe your story in The Red Tent?
AD: It’s a historical novel set about 1500 BCE, with a plot plundered from the Bible, and told from the perspective of a woman and her culture. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is a great story. It has sex, violence, plot, drama, suspense, and an unexpected bloody denouement. Dinah’s silence in the Bible is a big opening.
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