Shortly after Fran and I were married in 1978 I began working on a historical novel set in South Africa during the late 19th century. At that time the book’s title was Afrikaner. I would write by hand and Fran would type the manuscript on a typewriter in the evenings and on weekends (no computers in those days). When completed, it totalled well over 375,000 words, a mammoth work for an unpublished author, to say the least.
Sample chapters of the novel and a brief synopsis were submitted to perhaps a dozen literary agents for possible representation. Four of the agents asked to read the full manuscript. At a major literary house, after submitting the book to their in house review committee (which means that the agent who initially read the book was behind it) it was rejected, apparantly in large measure based on two issues which had little to do with its quality: the length was seen as too risky (i.e. expensive) for an unpublished author, reducing substantially the likelihood that a publisher would accept it , and James Mitchner had just published his book on South Africa (The Covenant) which was seen as direct competition for my novel. They asked to see any future efforts and were very positive in their overall evaluation of my talent but no sale.
Discouraged, I filed away the manuscript and proceded with my career as a lawyer, husband and father. Occasionally, I would pull out the manuscript and make relatively minor changes but essentially it was abandoned but not quite forgotten.
After retirement I decided to give it another look. On review of the manuscript, It seemed to me that the primary Zulu character’s background needed additional development so that his motivations would be better understood. A new character I decided to add for this purpose required me to research Zulu names. I soon came across the name Manqoba which I learned means “He who conquers when all is lost” in Nguni (Zulu).
Suddenly I realized that the entire focus of the novel was wrong, that an important but only supporting character, then named Soluka but now to be called Manqoba , was actually the hero and main character of the novel, that extensive rewriting was required, and that the entire direction and theme of the novel would be dramatically changed. I also realized that with added text, the size of the book, already lengthy even for a historical novel, would grow substantially so I made the difficult decision to divide the book into three parts, creating a trilogy. The first book of the trilogy, Mfecane: The Crushing, was recently published (available on Kindle e-books and Amazon Books) with the second installment expected out later this year.
An unexpected result of the change of focus has been the possible change in its genre′. Afrikaner and indeed the first book of its successor Mfecane: The Crushing, are examples of classical historical fiction. The assumption in historical fiction is that major events which rise to the level that they may be related in historical texts are not changed in any substantial way (although minor changes may be considered acceptable based on plot requirments and artistic considerations), i.e. Wellington is victorious at Waterloo, not Napoleon, the North wins the Civil War, the assassination of Hitler fails, the Cuban missle crisis is resolved without nuclear confrontation etc. Some or even most characters may be fictitious but real people typically are part of the drama. Even they speak and act in ways that may be entirely the creation of the author’s imagination as long as the significant historical flow is not altered.
The alternate history genre′ on the other hand proposes a significant change in a major historical event,: i.e. Napoleon defeats Wellington, The South prevails, Hitler is killed, nuclear Armageddon destroys civilization as a result of failure to peacefully resolve the Cuban missle crisis etc. which substantially changes everything that follows, creating an entirely new reality. Historical figures typically are an essential part of alternate history stories but they respond to events never encountered in the”‘real” world. (For one of the best of the alternate history books see Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove although there is a sci-fi component to it.)
The change of genre′ within one work is unusual and risky but I have observed it in several books I have read recently, One (whose title I will not reveal; I don’t want you wasting your time on it) goes for almost 500 pages as a typical sci-fi alien invasion story only to switch completely, unexpectedly and without forwarning to a vampire gothic horror story (the vampires are pissed that the aliens are about to wipe out their flock i.e humans, and quickly vanquish the seemingly invincible poachers. Talk about deus ex machina.) The danger even if done well is that such a switch in genre′ will disappoint and even anger the reader who feels betrayed by the author. (That was my reaction to the sci-fi vampire book.)
If I were teaching a creative writing course one of the questions I would ask students is why they write fiction. Most, I expect, would proffer trite reponses: “to express myself,” “because I have to,” etc. I propose that the truth is grander and, to some, blasphemous. We write fiction because, within the context of our creation, we are God. We create a world and populate it with characters of our imagination; we force those characters into uncomfortable and sometimes implausible situations; we randomly kill off characters seemingly on a whim and without remorse; or if it pleases us, we remove a person from the universe of our creation entirely as if they have never existed at all. (poor Ava from Afrikaner, died a senseless and ugly death while but a child but then she was compelled to endure an even crueler fate, wiped from existence entirely in Mfecane, existing now only in the author’s memory and in some discarded chapters of a version of a book that will never be published.)
Are we authors really demigods over the fictitious universes we create? Any half decent writer knows that doesn’t quite describe the process. Well developed characters may have a mind of their own. Some refuse to die despite the author’s long held plans or even detailed outlines of plot and others act in unexpected ways requiring complete changes in plot direction; but it is exceedingly unusual (perhaps unprecedented) for a character to be so strong that he forces the writer to change the genre′ of the work itself.
Which brings us to my dilemma. In Afrikaner, Soluka ( now Manqoba) dies and his dream of a revived Zulu Empire dies with him. The history of South Africa is unchanged and his life and struggles, at least in his own eyes, are fuitile and meaningless.
Manqoba of Mfecane is made of far sterner fiber than his Soluka predecessor. He refuses to die so easily. He is determined that the Zulu nation will not only rise again but will become far more powerful than even the great Shaka Zulu ever dreamed. He is indomitable, a force of nature, who refuses to surrender. He will control his own destiny if it is humanly possible and thereby irrevocably alter the future of his people.
Is Manqoba that strong? Can he overcome seemingly overwhelming odds when history mandates that he must be defeated and destroyed? Can he succeed in forcing me to make the changes that will allow him not only to survive but to conquer, thereby changing the history of South Africa and the world?
So far the author, this would be demigod over the universe he now calls Mfecane, is resisting. The rewrite required for such a change alone is daunting, the time required to make the changes dismaying.
But Manqoba is insistent. Manqoba is powerful. Manqoba is dauntless and unrelenting. Manqoba does not want to die without the fulfilment of his dream.
We are at war over the soul of Mfecane. It remains to be seen which of us will prevail.
note: It is my intent to include an excerpt of Mfecane: The Crushing in a future entry in this blog if there appears to be sufficient interest. Please let me know.