Breathing Soul into History

Details on my recently finished novel that will make you have fun with history (hopefully)

Hello and welcome to issue #26 of my newsletter!

The past month and a half of me writing this have been devoted to the exploration of variety and diversity. Today, I’m taking a break. Yes, this is in part because I want my newsletter to remain diverse in the topics covered.

But it is also because 12 days ago, I accomplished something and I want to brag. On April 30th (technically May 1st at like 12:10 am), I finished the draft of my novel.

As a friend pointed out, almost nobody ever finishes drafts of their novels, so I guess that’s noteworthy in itself. Although, to be fair, this isn’t my first time doing this. It’s the fourth complete draft of a book I’ve written. The other three were:

  • Ivory Sky: The story of an albino black kid in 19th century southern Africa who is taken to Victorian London. (I don’t know how 18-year-old me could have believed writing that was a good idea. At 30 I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge to write about any of what is in that novel.)

  • The Detritivores: A weird tale of a family living in garbage dump (a metaphorical underworld) and being forced to move away when the city wants to convert the area into a park.

  • Macrocosmos: A story about four young people in 2011 Montreal who investigate the mystery of a disappeared grandpa at the same time as a supernova explodes in the night sky.

They’re all terrible. I cringe at the though of rereading any part of any of them. So they’re never getting published.1 It wasn’t pointless work, though, since it allowed me to improve as a fiction writer.

Speaking of which, is this fourth draft any good?

I think it is. Let me explain what it is and where it came from.


In the fall of 2018, I watched a movie with my family. That movie is Hochelaga: Land of Souls, and was made as a celebration of the history of Montreal. At the scale Quebec’s small film industry, this is a major movie, with a budget of CA$15 million. It weaves together a few narratives set in various times across Montreal’s history, including New France, i.e. the French colonial period in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Hochelaga: Land of Souls is a very meh movie. Not absolutely terrible. But kind of… soulless. Ironic, I know.

The day after we watched it, my brother and I discussed. We wondered: why was it bad? Why was the New France part, especially, so boring and pointless? Why were all the other depictions of New France we could think of also lame and full of clichés? Surely it was possible to do better.

I decided I would write a fun, exciting, non-boring period book about New France. I tried to think of what to write. Couldn’t find an idea. New France actually did sound boring. Whatever problem there is with Quebec history, whether it’s taught poorly in schools or has never been told in an inspired way or just doesn’t contain sufficient epicness, it runs deep.

I switched strategies. Instead of setting my story in the past, I would set it in the present (far, far easier to write, as my teenage experiments with 19th-century Africa/London taught me), and it would be about people who want to create this exciting New France story I wasn’t able to write.

The first scene of the book is essentially the conversation I had with my brother, with some details changed. Most notably, I’m dunking on a fictionalized, worst version of Hochelaga. And the characters (who are cousins, not siblings) decide to make a comedic short film instead of a book.

Then the plot follows the making of that film, which eventually grows feature-length, and gets funding from a somewhat ridiculous rich and old person, and then there are all sorts of mishaps, and controversies, and incidents, and at some point they finish the film and show it to the world and I’m not telling you the ending because spoilers but also because I’m not 100% done editing it. (Writing an ending is hard!)

The book’s title is La Nouvelle-France c’est plate, or, in literal translation, New France is Boring.

It’s not, in fact. Really! I had fun writing this book and I dare to hope people will have fun reading it. If I can reconcile people with the idea that history can be fun, then my work here will be done.


My next steps are to revise the ending, get a bunch of friends to read it and give feedback, then get it published. Ideally by a legit publishing house in Quebec (I think Les Éditions de Ta Mère would be ideal. Please read my manuscript!). But if that doesn’t work out, I’ll self-publish.

If you can read French and would like to be part of the group of editors and proofreaders I’m slowly assembling, let me know. If you cannot read French but can read this newsletter, and are curious, you can read the first few pages here, translated by yours truly.

If you’d like to read other stuff I’ve written about history, go read the essay I published two days ago. I wrote it to clarify some of my thinking about history, actually. And help me figure out the ending of my book. Or read the summary Twitter thread:

I think history is important to understand the world. And even though most people somehow have a dim memory of history classes in school, there’s no reason why it can’t be silly and fun and soulful. Some Monty Python films prove that. Asterix proves that. More recent movies like The Favourite and The Death of Stalin prove that.

Hopefully my book provides additional proof.

Yours in now needing to do a lot of editing,

Étienne

P.S. As per the ancient custom, the buttons:

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Amazingly, the garbage dump story got a positive response from a small publishing house in Montreal. But after I answered “Hell yes” to the question of whether I wanted to publish with them, I never heard back. I didn’t press the issue because that novel is crap.