Thursday, January 7, 2021

Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear? from James W. Ziskin

If you could set a book you haven’t written yet anywhere in the world, at any time in history, among societies other than your own, where would you choose and why?

This week’s question is a fun one for me, maybe because I already write historical fiction. My Ellie Stone series is set in the early 1960s. Through seven novels, Ellie has solved murders from New York City to upstate New York to Hollywood to Florence, Italy. And my next novel is set in 1975 India. I also recently had a great experience and learned a lot by writing a Holmes-Watson pastiche for Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger’s new anthology, In League with Sherlock Holmes. That story is set in Victorian London.

So I’m happy to play along with this week’s topic. In reverse chronological order, here are some ideas I’d like to explore:

World War II

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a huge historical novel (800 pages) set in Paris during the German occupation. I did lots of the research and the writing while I was living and working in Paris in 1985-86. It was not a horrible book—better than the two books I’d written before—but it wasn’t any good either. I still have one hard copy of it collecting dust in our storage room, as well as three-quarters of it in digital format. Somewhere along the way, part of the book—written on a Kaypro steamer trunk of a computer, running the CP/M operating system—was lost. It’s never seen the light of day, and for good reason. But maybe I’ll revisit WWII at some point.

World War I

The first book I ever wrote was a World War I novel. It was terrible. In my defense, I should add that I was twelve years old at the time. I wrote it on a portable blue-and-white Royal typewriter, hunting and pecking with two fingers into the wee hours of the morning, keeping my parents awake as I did. I was a night owl back then, even at twelve. I still have two copies of that book, but I can’t bring myself to look at it, let alone allow anyone else to read it. I’d like to take a better stab at that period one day.

The Raj

I’ve spent nearly four years living, working, and visiting India. In fact, over the past twenty-four years, I’ve made fifty-seven trips to India. It’s my second home. A place I love for all its beauty and—yes—its warts. (Much like this country.) While in lockdown last year, I made the most of my time by beginning and finishing a thriller set in 1975 Bombay during the Emergency. I’m hoping to find a publisher for that book, which is almost ready to go out on submission through my agent. 

One book about India has given me the itch to write more. I’m planning a series to expand on the characters in my latest, but I’d also like to tackle something a little older: the Raj. That period, from the mid-1800s to 1947 and Independence, has always fascinated me. Maybe something set in Simla, the summer capital in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the British administration repaired each year to escape the heat of Delhi. And there were plenty of shenanigans going on there. Officers and wives jumping from one bed to another. Lots of material for a good yarn.

The Battle of Lexington and Concord

Since moving to the Boston area a couple of years ago, I’ve had the chance to visit many historical sites, including the Old North Church, Bunker Hill, and Lexington and Concord. Paul Revere even rode his horse through Medford—passing not a hundred yards from my house—on his way to warn the colonists of the British garrison’s movements. Walking the same Lexington-Concord Battle Road the British soldiers did in 1775, I felt a tremendous sympathy for those poor slobs, conscripts all, who had to march twenty miles from Boston to Concord and twenty miles back again. And what did they get for their trouble? A bunch of rowdy rebels taking potshots at them from behind rocks and trees the whole way. I want to write a book about that day—April 19, 1775—from different points of view, some American, some British, some men, and some women.

Renaissance Italy (Florence)

The ruthless politics and wonders of Renaissance Florence, with cameos by Savonarola and Lorenzo de’ Medici...

Ancient Rome

Many years ago when I visited Pompeii, I became haunted—and inspired—by the tragedy of the destruction and eventual unearthing of that doomed city. From the brothels to the “Cave Canem” (Beware of Dog) mosaics in front of houses to the amphitheaters and the shells of bodies frozen in ash, Pompeii inspired a terrible yet irresistible attraction for me. At the time of that trip, I joked with my wife that I would write a children’s book about the eruption of 79 AD, a terrifying parable to teach a lesson in duty and the importance of obedience. The idea was that one fine day the young, rebellious son of a fisherman decides to take his father’s boat out for a joyride with a friend. As fate would have it, the naughty boys are having a grand old time, sailing around the Gulf of Naples, on the very day the volcano blows its stack. The boy’s father, mother, and sister run to the docks to escape certain death in their boat. But, alas, it is gone and they all die. The disobedient son and his friend watch from a distance as their city and families are buried in ash.

What? Yeah, it’s a dark tale, but I still want to write it.


Ever since I read Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, I’ve wanted to write a book set in prehistoric times. Lately, I’ve been toying with the idea of a story of a man who is the Leonardo of his era. Not the artistic Leonardo, but the engineer. The inventor. He constructs brilliant defense systems and weaponry to protect his cave and its inhabitants from their enemies. The clan is so appreciative that they revere him, give him the prized chamber in the cave, and offer him his choice of mates. 

Okay, that’s as far back as I’ll go. Maybe someday I’ll manage to put these ideas on paper. Until then, I’ll keep my regular, contemporary appointment with you here.



Susan C Shea said...

The options are infinite, Jim. In fact, the time-space continuum allows you to bend time so that your poor little Pompeian boy can sail to the Indian Ocean and wind up the darling of a Raj! There can never be enough fiction pegged on the Medicis, so I vote for that.

tmercla said...

Jim, I would live to read all of the books you just mentioned, everyone topic is an interest of mine. And we hope to hear from Ellie again soon! Tom Merc

Frank Zafiro said...

Dude, I LOVE the Pompeii story.