Let’s give a big welcome to Guest Blog Contributor: Neal Roberts. Neal will talk to us today about his past and how that forged his desire to write Historical Fiction. So many of my readers are looking for information that helps them in their own writing quests. There is no better direction than hearing the first hand accounts of how an author came to write the books that bear their name. What we find in their words is encouragement that we’re pursuing the correct path, some reflection of ourselves and that ah-ha that finally clicks together all those disparate pieces we’ve been wrestling.
Let’s have a look at Neal’s very interesting experience, and learn more about him and his books.
I’ve been asked to tell you why I chose to write in historical fiction, rather than another genre.
Like many who’ve considered writing, over the years I’d written a couple of novels. I call them my shoebox novels, as I didn’t do much of anything with them before tossing them in a shoebox. I stipulated with myself, however, that someday I would revisit them. Those novels were very personal to me and, although I felt they were good, I couldn’t figure out why a readership would find them more interesting than a similarly personal novel written by, well, anyone else. After all, I asked myself: Does everyone have the same interests and hangups as I? And my answer was, probably not. (As you can see, I conduct an ongoing discussion with myself, occasionally resulting in tentative agreement on minor points.) It didn’t occur to me at that time that it’s the way a writer is different from most people that makes his work potentially interesting.
Then a few years ago, my dad passed away, and the whole idea of writing took on a new urgency. Now, I asked myself a different set of questions than I had when writing for my shoebox: What makes me special? What are my peculiar interests? Which of my interests could be fashioned into a story that might be interesting to a large group of readers?
A brief note about myself might be in order at this point: I’m a long-time lawyer, adjunct law professor, and a life-long pop musician. (If you find that combination confusing, you should see how my colleagues feel about it). My family history has it that I’m named after an ancestor who, despite being a Jew, served as a seamstress for Queen Victoria, as well as for the Queen’s granddaughter who became the last Tsaritsa of Russia. When I was in law school, I asked my English grandmother whether she’d been a subject of the Crown before emigrating to America, and was amazed to find that she wasn’t sure because, as she explained it, Jews stood in a unique legal relationship to the Crown, which struck me as most curious.
I assayed my especial interests to determine which of them might form the basis of a novel interesting to others, and they came down to five: (1) Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets; (2) the Shakespeare authorship controversy; (3) the treatment of Jews under English Common Law; (4) pop music; and (5) computers.
For obvious reasons, I quickly despaired of including computers in a novel having Shakespearean themes. As far as we know, Shakespeare wrote without a computer (oh, perhaps an early-model Atari) and would need to have survived 350 years longer than he did in order to so much as hear of one. Similarly, although pop music finds strong antecedents in English balladry, modern pop music would have been unrecognizable to anyone living prior to the early 20th Century. So, computers and pop music were out for this round of writing.
That still left: (1) Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets; (2) the Shakespeare authorship controversy; and (3) the treatment of Jews under English Common Law. All such themes had one thing in common: They were backward-looking, that is, historical. Could they be worked into an interesting novel? Well, if they could, it was pretty obvious it would have to be historical fiction. Over the years, I’d read (or seen enacted) a fair amount of historical fiction. What I’d always found most fascinating (excepting the Bard’s history plays) was the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were, of course, two of Hamlet’s old classmates who ultimately wound up hoist by their own petard, so to speak. Nearly as interesting was Stoppard’s screenplay Shakespeare in Love, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
But, of those two, the more interesting to me was Rosencrantz, for it showed the title characters at center stage, while we could hear (and even see) part of Hamlet taking place in the wings! For a reader to be afforded this unique viewpoint, that is, to overhear a scene from the central play of our culture unfolding offstage (or nearly so) demonstrated to me that, handled correctly, historical fiction would be capable of providing the reader with a presence and three-dimensionality inexpressible through any other genre. That’s why I chose historical fiction. (Yes, I know, Hamlet itself was fiction, not history, but our culture is so imbued with the play’s every nuance that it might as well be history.)
As luck would have it, my research disclosed that there was indeed a high-stakes criminal prosecution of a Jew during the reign of Elizabeth the First that might have involved the man who almost certainly wrote the plays and sonnets commonly attributed to William Shakespeare, namely, the case of Regina versus Roderigo Lopez, in which a Jewish physician was unjustly prosecuted for attempting to poison the Queen. And what’s more, despite the best efforts of a few historians, the case had never been successfully popularized, in part because it was based upon a dispute between two factions of the Privy Council which, stated in full, was too complex for popular enjoyment. But I had faith that any story, no matter how complex, could be turned into an understandable and rewarding narrative.
How to raise the stakes? I decided to interject a fictitious protagonist, a barrister appointed by the Queen to defend Doctor Lopez from charges she knew to be false. How to raise the stakes further? Make the barrister himself secretly a Jew. For the barrister to lose the case, then, could well mean the end of his own career, even his life. Are those stakes high enough?
About Author Neal Roberts
Neal Roberts and his wife live on Long Island, New York, where they have two grown children. Neal is a practicing attorney and adjunct law professor, and spends as much time as possible researching his next novel while enhancing his lawyer’s pallor. When he’s not writing Elizabethan politico-legal novels, practicing law, or teaching, he’s an editor of an international peer-reviewed publication in the field of intellectual property law. Neal is also an avid student of Elizabethan literature and politics, which subjects form the basis of his first novel, A Second Daniel. His analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121 has been extensively cited by some of the most important authorities seeking to identify the true author of the poems and plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Sign up for Neal’s newsletter and journey for free to England’s shores in 1558 with young Menachem in the exclusive prequel scene, Escape. www.authornealroberts.com.