What is a novel, anyway?

As NaNoWriMo approaches (that is, National Novel Writing Month, November 1-30), I thought it a good time to answer a question a dear friend asked of me recently: What is a novel, actually? What defines it compared to other books?

Well, I know what it is, but I have never really articulated it or looked up an official definition.

file0001486995335According to Writer’s Digest, a novel is “a piece of long narrative in literary prose meant to entertain and tell a story. It is a description of a chain of events which includes a cast of characters, a setting, and an ending. Most publishers prefer novels that are in the 80,000- to 120,000-word range, depending on the genre.”

NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization that runs what is essentially a month-long writing contest, along with several other programs “to empower and encourage writing and vibrant creativity around the world.” Their goal is for 50,000-word novels, “about the length of the Great Gatsby,” which they believe is a challenging but doable length even for people who work full time and have children.

Some people categorize novels into three categories: literary, mainstream or genre.

Literary tends to deal with large world issues within the context of story. These novels are intended to make you think about these issues in a new or deeper way. Think Hemingway, Orwell or Dostoyevsky.

Mainstream novels? I have yet to find a reasonable definition. Apparently it is a work of fiction that does not fall into the genre categories and also does not deal with issues in a way that would make it literary. Huh? Don’t ask me. I also found a definition that says it is any novel that sells well. Why does that make it a separate category? Because it appeals to a mass audience? Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is part history, part thriller, part suspense, and pretty much everybody read it. So there you go.

Genre novels fall into specific categories such as romance, mystery, thriller, horror, humor, westerns, science fiction, fantasy, and my favorite, historical. There are crossovers, as in one of my favorite novel series, Outlander, which combines well-researched history with romance (Jamie Fraser lovers will know what I mean) and fantasy, because it involves time travel.

Then there’s the novella, which is pretty much what Stephen King says it is. (Just kidding…) It is basically a short novel, falling in the 20,000 to 50,000-word range, and fitting into any of the above categories. Word has it that agents and publishers don’t really know what to do with these things unless you are in fact Stephen King, or someone who has his fan base, and then they would feel secure that they could sell it.

I applaud the NaNoWriMo goals to encourage and stimulate writing, but I must say the idea that a novel can be written in a month is beyond me. Maybe I could accomplish a very rough and simplified first draft (aka outline), but I believe a good novel requires deep thought, research, multiple points of inspiration, writing and rewriting, editing, and then a lot more of the same.

That said, if you are of the mind to try the November writing challenge, I say GO FOR IT, and refer you to a fellow author and blogger Alexandra Sokoloff’s post about October being a good time to prepare. She offers some good tips for getting started.

Happy fall, and happy writing!

SharavogueCoverNancy Blanton is author of Sharavogue, the award-winning novel of 17th century Ireland and the West Indies. Find it today on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or iTunes for iBooks. Her second novel is to be published in 2016. Please follow this blog for updates!

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Historical research goes anorexic

One of the characters in the novel I’m writing now will sicken and die within a year. It’s sad, I know, but life expectancy in the 17th century averaged at around 35 years, so death tends to play a big role in stories from that time.

Cause of death data from 17th century

Cause of death data from 17th century

I had planned for this character to die from tuberculosis or “consumption” as they called it, which was the number-one killer at the time. This research in itself was fascinating, because there exists a list of death causes from the time including the “King’s Evil,” “plague in the guts,” and “teeth and worms.”

But I soon learned that people with untreated TB can suffer for five to 10 years before they succumb. That would not work for this character. Then I stumbled upon an unexpected 17th century disease, anorexia.

Like many people, I had thought anorexia a fairly modern disease that was all about body image. I was wrong on both counts. Physicians were recording anorexic symptoms in the 17th century. And, it is not really about body image, it’s about control:

To understand anorexia you need to remove the misconception and preconception that this mental disorder is entirely about the need to be thin. The following are a few of the other factors that contribute to eating disorders:

  • A strong desire to feel in control of one aspect of a life that is difficult or out of control, or a need to feel in control of a life that is controlled by others
  • A strong desire to be perfect
  • Past emotional abuse or negative comments about image from others
  • Depression can lead individuals to believe that there is no need to continue eating, or they may get too wrapped up in their depression to remember to eat much
  • Dancers, performers and athletes are often under great pressure to lose weight so that they can attain levels of unrealistic and perceived perfection

    (http://www.gethelpforeatingdisorders.com/the-mindset-behind-anorexia)

In the 17th century, physicians called the symptoms they were seeing “nervous atrophy” or “consumption.” A post by Julie O’Toole covers the documentation in a clinic blog post. In 1689, a doctor describes working with both female and male patients with similar symptoms. He calls it a “distemper” of the nervous system which destroys the nerves and causes a “wasting of the body.”

From a 1689 treatise by Richard Morton, on Google Books

From a 1689 treatise by Richard Morton, on Google Books

His female patient, who was having “fainting fits,” tried all of his remedies, including aromatic bags and plasters applied to the stomach, to no avail. She eventually tired of his treatments and begged to let nature take its course.

She died three months later.

The male, son of a clergyman, “fell gradually into a total want of appetite, occasioned by his studying too hard and the passions of his mind.” He advised the patient to abandon his studies, take the country air, and go on a milk diet. The patient regained his health at least temporarily, but was not cured of the disease.

I am fascinated by this case study, and it opens up new thinking for me. The character in my story is likely to suffer similarly to the female patient, but I now have a better way of describing the mindset of this disease, to present it more accurately to readers. It also adds an interesting layer of complexity to the story that I had not realized before, and I can’t wait to unravel it.

I also have two dear friends whose daughters nearly lost their lives to this terrible disease. Fortunately, those girls were able to overcome it. The fear and pain the families suffered was unimaginable. Through story, readers can gain a better understanding of the impacts of this disease.

The book underway has the working title of Glencurragh, and is slated for publication in 2016.

SharavogueCoverIn the meantime, read Sharavogue, a novel of 17th century Ireland and the West Indies, available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, indiebound.com, and also on iTunes for iBooks.

It’s a fast-paced historical adventure with a strong female lead. Happy reading!