An Ode to Ordinary People


I write historical fiction and wish, all the time, that there really was a “Way-bac” machine since research is difficult even though it’s also, always, very interesting. I wish I had the machine because I’ve learned that history wasn’t made by the “names.” It was made by the “B-side” — the “ordinary” people who for all their varied reasons did their deeds, acted their acts, sang their songs.

At one point a couple of years ago I was sending queries to agents trying to get representation for Martin of Gfenn. I was really enthusiastic about the possibility that one particular agent MIGHT take on my book. The agency — and the particular agent himself — seemed to be everything I would want and I got the impression from my research that they would want my book. I wrote the query and in it described how it is the story of an “ordinary person” from the 13th century, not a prince or hero, just a talented person who’s hit upside the head by fate. The response I got was, “Why would I be interested in a book about an ordinary person?”

My reaction was, “Because YOU’RE an ordinary person, douche-bag, and so are your readers. This is a book about the heroism of the ordinary guy who faces his fate and does something with it that affects the lives of others.” Of course, I followed convention and kept my peace.

To me, this is the real heroism, the real “A-Side.” I’m not the only one aware of this, either. Aristotle called it “A vast chain of dancers” — each of us holds hands with the next generation and shares with it the little treasures of culture and human survival that we know. Aristotle, of course, was definitely an “A-Side” but THAT fact is (I’m sure) partly related to the fact that his work was not completely lost to time (and fire). Survival is not just of the fittest; it’s also survival of the LUCKY.

Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard
Thomas Gray

…Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest…

(This is an excerpt; here’s the entire poem)

This thought echoed by George Eliot:

“Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” George Eliot, Middlemarch

I’m interested in those “mute inglorious Milton[s]” more than I’m interested in Milton. These are the people who populate my novels just as they populate my world. The cute waiter in the VERY elegant hotel restaurant in Del Norte who is, in real life, a cowboy and a wrangler. The woman running the B&B whose story is one of the saddest I’ve ever heard and yet whose eyes sparkle because now she’s living out her dream. Most of my friends whose names will never be A-Sides but whose lives have touched the lives of others in beneficial ways.

I guess you could say that the B-side is MY “A”-side.

Here you can meet Mr. Peabody, see how he adopted Sherman (because every dog should have a boy) and understand how the Waybac really works. It’s possible that Rocky and Bullwinkle has been largely forgotten, but that doesn’t make it a B-side.

12 thoughts on “An Ode to Ordinary People

  1. We seem to have lost interest in ordinary people. In reality, actually. If it can’t fly, doesn’t have super powers, control magic, or travel through time, who cares? The one Editor who promised to read my book up and died the following week. I took it as a sign.

    That being said, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, set in the 14th century (latter part, post plague) is a great series. Very long, but it’s the life of very ordinary people and it’s fascinating. Not like his science fiction at all. It is proof that ordinary can be extraordinary … it’s all in the writing. DON’T GIVE UP.

    • 🙂 12th century. Pre-plague. World Without End (that I haven’t seen yet) is 14th century. I have avoided these to some extent because I don’t want my vision muddied by someone elses vision and research, but I have seen Pillars of the Earth. I’m definitely getting the idea, however, that I should mention Ken Follett when I query or advertise my books!

      • If nothing else, he is proof that this kind of literature can and DOES sell, if properly marketed. If you have a way to do it, read Follett’s forward to the book. He describes how for years, the books languished until word of mouth got it moving. Now, publishers are interested, but he wrote all his other work pretty much so he could get THIS published. Interesting material for any author trying to find his/her way in this market.

  2. Funny coincidence. I read Pillars of the earth some time ago and Mr. Swiss bought the 4 DVDs of the film a couple of months ago. Last week-end he eventually got round to watching the film. I already knew the story, but was watching from a distance (whilst reading Edge of Eternity from Ken Follett – the third in the trilogy, have already read No. 1 and No. 2). I loved the book and the film was well done, almost true to the storyline., although the clothing looked a bit too stylish for the time. It sort of made an impact on both of us, depicting how life was brutal in the olden days. Cathedrals were built then and some still exist. I am not really into religion as such, but its history and events are part of our development etc. etc. Keep writing Martha, I have already bookmarked your next one for me.

    • Pillars of the Earth was very encouraging to me (I saw the film). I’m not giving up. I’m one of those pillars, too, and proud of it. 🙂

  3. You convince me once more of the futility in trying to get an agent interested in what I write. It is probably YA, but not dystopian and no sex. Ergo, no agent. I haven’t read Ken Follett, having not particularly cared for his modern work. I will give The Pillars of the Earth a try!

    • Don’t be guided by me. I ALWAYS attempt the crap shoot because it IS a crap shoot. 🙂

  4. Never forget:

    Oh many a peer of England brews
    Livelier liquor than the Muse,
    And malt does more than Milton can
    To justify God’s ways to man.
    –A. E. Housman (1859–1936)

  5. After watching the 9.54 minute video, I’ve forgotten what your post was about. Ahh, ordinary people. Yeah, well … there’s ordinary, and then there’s ordinary! 😀

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