Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Medieval Italian City


Herewith I want to start a new thrust to this blog.  For a long time I've described myself as interested in Italy in the middle ages, as Dantecentric, as someone who wants to understand what came before the Renaissance.  All of that is still true, but when I think about the settings I choose when I write, I've realized that they all have one thing in common.

All my work takes place in medieval cities.

True, they were crowded, dirty, noisy, chaotic, malodorous, pestilential, dangerous, and politically volatile.  But they were where the action was. They were teeming with life and color and creativity and passion and ambition – in short, with all things human.  When Florence's population quadrupled over the course of the thirteenth century, it wasn't the birthrate that did it – it was immigration from the hinterlands.  There were reasons all those people wanted to try their luck in the city.

I've read  some wonderful medieval stories set in rural areas, in villages (one that comes to mind is Ann Baer's Down the Commons: A Year in the Life of a Medieval Woman, which is somewhere between a rural setting and a village), in some noble guy's castle, on the road (a wonderful new “on the road” book is Lucy Pick's Pilgrimage, much of which unfolds along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela).  There's nothing wrong with any of that, much that's right, and much that I need to know and understand about those settings to be able to make sense of urban life.  But for me, it's all about the cities.


When we go to Italy you'll never find us in some agriturismo place, some picturesque villa out among the cypress trees.  Not that it wouldn't be fun to be there, but knowing me, I'd just keep heading into the nearest city anyway, so we might as well stay there.  And not just in the city, but smack dab in the middle of the historic center, as medieval and as urban as we can get.  And in an ancient and historic building, if at all possible (and if they can get internet signal through those thick walls...).

Sometimes at night, or in the rain or snow, or at sunrise, it's possible to glimpse the city as it was, if only briefly.  And for me, those moments are worth traveling for. 

Of course, once in a while things go awry.  This, for example, was supposed to be the most beautiful piazza in Italy:


Obviously our timing was a little off.

My first novel, A Thing Done, takes place in Florence in the early 13th century.  It unfolds in the palazzos, the towers, the churches, the narrow and winding streets of the middle ages.  The story it tells is drawn from the ancient chronicles (and fleshed out a bit), and it traces the development of a pivotal incident in the history of this extraordinary city.  Today's Florence is at once modern, baroque, and Renaissance; if you want to find the middle ages, they're still there, but you have to work at it.  And I have. 

Here is a tower that was the scene of a major event in my novel. 


Today it houses a jewelry store, and it's a fraction of its former height – the government of Florence, during the brief period when it was controlled by neither the Guelfs nor the Ghibellines but by the popolo, required the nobles to reduce the height of their formidable defensive towers, in an effort to contain the lawlessness and the sheer military might of those powerful families.  Thus, the vertiginously scary balcony which so terrified my protagonist is long gone, but the base of the tower remains.  (See here for more on medieval towers.)

And here is a church where another major scene takes place.  It's now a library.



Here are a few links to earlier blog posts in which I've discussed some aspects of medieval Florence:
Was There a Florence Before the Renaissance?

Exercising Your Imagination, Part 1 and Part 2

So - What's It About?

What Building Most Defines Medieval Florence?

My work in progress alternates between two cities, Assisi and Rome, in the same time period.  Assisi is still very medieval in its aspect, and it's easy to walk down those ancient streets and let your imagination wander.  You don't have to work very hard at all, in Assisi, to go medieval.  (See here, here, and here for a few pictures of this lovely city.)

Rome, on the other hand, presents some challenges.  It is now a big, noisy, aggressive, modern city.  I wouldn't even bother with it, except – well, it's Rome.  What can you say?  Stuff happened there.

Rome presents the tourist/researcher with some truly bizarre contradictions.  Like this one:


The traffic is fierce.  You take your life in your hands crossing a street.  It's not quite the worst I've seen.  (That would be Naples, where the traffic is so gonzo it's almost fun, in a suicidal sort of way.)  But it's plenty bad enough. In Rome, we discovered that the only way you can cross a street in relative safety is to attach yourself firmly to one of the following:

  • a nun
  • an old woman
  • someone pushing a baby carriage

In fact, I'd only feel really safe in the company of an elderly nun pushing a baby carriage. 

Romans, thinking about crossing the street

And Rome keeps changing.  Giacoma, the main character in my WIP, lived in a fortified palace that incorporated the ancient ruin of the Septizonium.  Here's what would have been left for me to see if I had been in Rome in the 16th century:


And here's what's there now:


Despite the difficulties and frustrations, I do love learning about medieval Italian cities.  In my next post, I will be discussing population – specifically, the population of Florence.  This may, in fact, turn into two posts, one on how the population figures are derived (it's not as simple as glancing at a census), and a second on the actual figures, put into context, and on how they shifted over the medieval time period.  Hope you'll join me for this excursion into medieval demographics.

Images in this post are our own, or in the public domain.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sturm: One of Charlemagne's Lieutenants in Spiritual Warfare (guest post by Kim Rendfeld)



I'm delighted to introduce guest blogger Kim Rendfeld, who has recently released her second novel set in Carolingian times. The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar (Fireship Press) has been garnering praise for its unusual setting, its depth of characterization, and for the author's meticulous research and vast knowledge of this time period. Reviewers have called it "...a sweeping story of family and hope," and described it as "...filled with rich detail, compelling characters, and a well-paced plot that keeps the pages turning to its very satisfying end" and "...absorbing from start to finish." I certainly found it so! Read my review here.

Here's the blurb:

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family instead sell them into slavery.

In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion – but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.


Now Kim brings us a post on Saint Sturm, a remarkable man living in turbulent times.

Kim Rendfeld

Sturm: One of Charlemagne's

Lieutenants in Spiritual Warfare

by Kim Rendfeld


When Charlemagne decided to invade Saxony in 772, he took spiritual warriors in addition to those guys with the spears and swords. Whether St. Sturm, the abbot of Fulda, was with Charles during those battles is not clear, but the king of the Franks put him in charge of the Christian mission in a large part of the conquered territory.

Charles’s wars against Saxony were different than those his ancestors had fought. It was the first time religion was part of the conflict. Perhaps, Charles wanted to protect Church interests. Perhaps he thought Saxons were more likely to keep their oaths if they put their souls on the line. Treaties were secured with vows that invoked deities. To Charles, only one was valid.

Whatever his reasons, Charles put his trust in Sturm, who had been a priest for about 40 years. He had grown up near Saxon territory in the monastery at Fritzlar, where he was an eager student. With the exception of a trip to Rome and two years in exile, he had lived in the region most of his life and had advised Charles on his relationship with the king’s first cousin Tassilo, the duke of Sturm’s native Bavaria.

The most influential person in Sturm’s life was St. Boniface, who had also tried to covert pagan peoples. At Boniface’s urging, Sturm and two companions spent nine years in forested wilderness seeking a suitable spot to start a new monastery. Medieval folk depended on the forest for survival, but it was also the home of predators, both beasts and evil spirits.

Boniface, then the archbishop of Mainz, had rejected their first choice, which Sturm’s hagiographer, Eigil, described as “a wild and uninhabited spot and [they] could see nothing except earth and sky and enormous trees.” The reason, ironically, was it was too close to pagan Saxons to be safe.

So Sturm tried again, and he finally found the right place on the Fulda River. His contemporaries probably saw it as the middle of nowhere. However, Boniface believed God had picked the place and successfully appealed to Frankish Mayor of the Palace Carloman to donate the land. Boniface later visited the site to give it his blessing.

The year was 744, when the Franks, under the rule of Carloman and his brother Pepin, were at war with the Saxons. Again. Despite the battles in Saxony, some of which involved Carloman and Pepin’s troublesome half-brother Grifo, the monastery at Fulda thrived, and Sturm visited Rome to better learned the Benedictine way of life.

Tangling over Relics

In 754, Boniface was martyred while trying to convert pagans in Frisia, and his body taken back to Francia. That was the beginning of Sturm’s political troubles.

When the relics reached Mainz, its archbishop, St. Lull, also a disciple of Boniface, wanted the martyr’s body to remain in his city. Sturm insisted that Boniface be taken to Fulda, a wish his mentor had expressed while still alive. Martyr’s relics were treasured in the Middle Ages, and they were attributed with miraculous powers. Pilgrims would flock to those relics, which meant alms for the church housing them.

St. Boniface baptizing a convert/Martyrdom of St. Boniface (11th c. image)

According to Eigil, Boniface himself weighed in by appearing to a deacon in a dream and asking why he wasn’t being taken to Fulda. Lull was not convinced until the deacon swore at the altar. The relics went to Fulda, but Lull retaliated in a distinctly medieval way.

Lull accused Sturm of disloyalty to Pepin, now king and sole ruler of Francia. Sturm made no effort to defend himself and placed his trust in God. Believing the accusers, Pepin sent Sturm and some companions to the Abbey of Jumièges, where they were treated well.

In the meantime, Lull had managed to get Fulda placed under his jurisdiction and appointed a new abbot, but the monks at Fulda refused to accept the bishop’s puppet. So Lull caved and let them elect one of their own. They choose a monk whom Sturm had mentored and, along with nuns in convents and the faithful at other churches, prayed for Sturm to be restored to Fulda.

The prayers worked. Pepin sent for Sturm and in a chapel told him he had forgotten what they were quarreling over. Sturm replied he wasn’t perfect but has never committed any crime against Pepin. To signify the reconciliation, the king pulled a thread from his own cloak and let it fall to the floor.

So Sturm went back to Fulda, and the monastery would claim Pepin as its sole protector, making it independent of Mainz.

Fulda (1850)

A New King and New Missions

When Pepin died in 768, he split the kingdom between sons Charles and Carloman (the Franks were fond of recycling names). Seeking divine favor and earthly alliances, Charles gave donations to Fulda. He also made Sturm an emissary between him and the duke of Bavaria.

Eigil says Sturm established friendly relations between the royal cousins for several years. Well, not exactly. In fairness to Sturm, even the most gifted diplomat would have difficulty with those two. Relations might have been good while Charles was married to a Lombard princess, the sister of Tassilo’s influential wife. When he assumed sole rule of Francia, Charles divorced the Lombard after only a year and then overthrew his ex-father-in-law. The duchess of Bavaria never forgave the Frankish king.

Sturm had other affairs to deal with when Charles invaded Saxony four years into his reign and destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxon peoples, the same way Boniface had felled a tree sacred to pagans. The message: My God is stronger than those devils you worship.

Sturm embraced his new mission. He preached to the Saxon converts and exhorted them to destroy pagan groves and temples and build churches instead.

But as soon as Charles was occupied elsewhere, pagan Saxons attacked Christian sites. Then Charles would send Frankish warriors to put down the rebellion. This cycle would repeat itself for decades.

While Charles was in Spain in 778, the Saxons devastated Christian holdings and killed indiscriminately all the way to the Rhine. When Charles got word, he sent soldiers to put down the rebellion, and the Saxons retreated. But the monks at Fulda feared an attack and fled with Boniface’s relics. They spent three days in tents in the forest until they learned that the locals had fended the Saxons off.

Charles still wanted Sturm to lead the Christian mission, but the aged man was ill. The king assigned the royal physician to attend to him. One day, the physician gave Sturm a potion to make him feel better, but the patient got worse and realized he was going to die. He asked his brothers for forgiveness and in turn forgave those who wronged him, including Lull.

Sturm died December 17, 779. The monks had no doubt that Sturm was going to heaven and would have a special relationship with God.


Sources:

Eigil’s Life of Sturm [http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/basis/sturm.asp]

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Pierre Riché’s The Carolingians: The Family Who Forged Europe, translated by Michael Idomir Allen


Sturm makes a brief appearance in Kim Rendfeld’s latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014 Fireship Press), a story of a Saxon mother and the lengths she will go to protect her children. To read the first chapters of Kim’s novels or learn more about her, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.


Illustrations in this post are in the public domain.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The box liked it



My historical novel A Thing Done, set in Florence in 1216, is now on sale.  For the next month, more or less, we've dropped the price drastically for ebook versions on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes, and lowered the price on the paperback as well.  It's now going for $3.50 for Kindle, $2.50 for Nook, and $2.99 for iTunes ebook version.  (I have no idea why those prices are different.  I just work here.) 

If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it.

"Of course she recommends it," I hear you saying.  "She wrote it."

Once, when my husband brought home a DVD, I asked him why he had chosen that particular film.  His answer?  "Well, the box liked it."

The box always likes it.  But I don't always love things I've created, after the fact.  Some of them actually make me cringe.  It's like when my husband and I record music:  when we play it back, I hate it.  I hear everything that could have been better, everything that isn't quite good enough, everything that could have been played more elegantly.

But this book I still like.  I'm not saying it's perfect, but I liked writing it, I liked having written it, and - most amazing of all - I even liked reading it.  And I think you might, too.

Medievalists.net liked it (read their review here):  "I've read a lot of historical novels over the last few years but I have to say that hands down, this one is at the top of my list," wrote Sandra Alvarez.  It makes me happy to know that people who are familiar with the underlying history enjoy my book.

The Sharp Writ Book Awards liked it.  It shared the top prize in the fiction category with another book, so now it gets to wear a little gold ribbon, and I have a plaque sitting on my bookcase:


Lots of kind people have told me they enjoyed it, so I don't hesitate to recommend it now.  And doing so reminds me of some of the more memorable ups and downs in the saga of trying to sell copies of this book since it was published in October 2012.

Here's the blurb, as it appears on the book cover:

In 1216 the noble families of Florence hold great power, but they do not share it easily.  Tensions simmer just below the surface.  When a jester's prank-for-hire sets off a brawl, those tensions erupt violently, dividing Florence into hostile factions.  A marriage is brokered to make peace, but that fragile alliance crumbles under the pressure of a woman's interference, a scorned bride, and an outraged cry for revenge.

At the center of the conflict is Corrado, the Jester, whose prank began it and who is now pressed into unwilling service by both sides.  It will take all his wit and ingenuity to keep himself alive, to protect those dear to him, and to prevent the unbridled ambitions of the nobles from destroying the city in a brutal civil war.

Many different versions of this blurb exist, because one must try many different things to sell books.  There was the one where I tried it in question form:
Will Buondelmonte's reckless act set off a full-scale vendetta?  And if it does, will even the Jester's famous wit and ingenuity be enough to keep himself alive and protect those dear to him?
 (Answers:  Yep.  And no, not exactly.)

Pleeeeease buy this book!

Sometimes I added more description:
Sworn to secrecy, he [Corrado] watches in horror as the headstrong knight Buondelmonte violates every code of honor to possess the woman he wants, while another woman, rejected and enraged, schemes to destroy him.
I'll do anything to get you to buy this book

I did want to stress the importance of the role of women in this book, since the Jester is male.  So I added this paragraph:
This is Corrado's story, but it is also the story of three fiercely determined women in a society that allows them little initiative:  Selvaggia, the spurned bride; Gualdrada, the noblewoman who both tempts Buondelmonte and goads him; and Ghisola, Corrado's great-hearted friend.  From behind the scenes they will do what they must to achieve their goals - to avenge, to prevail, to survive.
Buy this book or the peacock gets it.

But these days you can't make your spiel longer.  You have to make it ever shorter and more succinct.  I learned that when I discovered Twitter.

You don't get a lot of room to work with on Twitter, and you have to save room for links and hashtags and so on.  If I want to call the book "prize-winning" it will cost me 13 characters.  If I write #buythisbookdammit, it will cost me 18.  And I absolutely refuse to write things like "U r gr8!"  I. Just. Won't.  It's all I can do to stop myself from leaving two spaces between sentences.  Left to my own devices, I'd probably tweet with footnotes.

When my son was very small, he was bouncing up and down in his crib when the bottom gave way, and he tumbled to the floor in a pile of mattress, blankets, and stuffed toys.  He was unhurt, but the whole thing was terribly exciting and he wanted to tell me about it.  Only problem was, he hadn't exactly figured out speaking in full sentences yet.  So he ran up to me and yelled, "Mommy!  Bed!  Down!  Uh-oh!  Wow!"

That kid would have been a natural, had Twitter existed back then.

No so his mom, however.  But I did manage a few I liked.  There was the Shakespeare pair:
"where civil blood makes civil hands unclean": Will could have been talking about A Thing Done.

"from ancient grudge break to new mutiny": The Bard could have said it about A Thing Done.
The book takes place over Easter in 1216, so I did some seasonal tweets on the appropriate days:
The history: Good Friday 1216, Florence - the calm before the storm.

The history: Holy Saturday 1216, Florence - a knight is running out of time.

The history: Easter 798 years ago, Florence - Vendetta. Ambush. Civil war.
I used the first line of the book:
It was a fool that began it, but it took a woman to turn it murderous. Florence, 798 years ago.
And my favorites:
A tale of vendetta, betrayal, a spurned woman, civil war, and juggling.

What happens when a knight can't take a joke?
I'm still considering this one:
Price slashed (Also some of the characters, come to think of it.)
After a while, one gets a bit burned out with this sort of thing, and one might even start to get a little silly around the edges.  (Ya think?)  Then you find yourself thinking up marketing ploys like the pictures above, and these:

Drumming up some support for this book

Ta-da!  Historical novel on sale, cheap!

You try dressing up like your main character:


You dress up your musical instrument like your main character:



Then things really went downhill, and I came up with these:





 If you've stayed with me this long, you'll realize that no matter what you think of my book, I'm a better writer than I am a saleswoman.  I'd pretty much have to be.  You should also, despite all the silliness, have a pretty good idea by now what the book is about.  I hope I've piqued your interest, and that you'll acquire the book, read it, and enjoy it. 

And if you'd like to read a bit more about it in a more serious vein before deciding, you could always take a look at my website, or at my author page on the website of my publisher, Fireship Press. 


Images of the gallery and of Putin and his colleagues come from a fun site called PhotoFunia.  Pulp covers are from Pulp-o-Mizer.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

When a one-star review is in verse...

*....
 When a one-star review is in verse,
It somehow makes everything worse.
In their zeal to convince,
Critics make authors wince,
And whine, carp, bemoan, bitch, and curse.

The limericks have arrived!  My talented readers have sent in their contributions, as requested in my last post (find it here):  Give us your rude, your snarky, your obnoxious book reviews in limerick form.  They arrived in the Comments section, in email, by Facebook, and even by phone.  Some used the first line I provided ("There once was a one-star reviewer..."), while others started from scratch.

For your reading pleasure, here they are, with authors identified as they identified themselves to me.

There once was a one-star reviewer
Who cast titles into the sewer.
Authors cried foul!
With many a howl
But the one-stars came faster not fewer.     --Seri Good

I have the name of an edit-or,
that just might help this book sell more.
Till then it's a mess,
and I must confess,
I use it to hold open the door...     --Prue Batten

There once was a one-star reviewer
Who hungered each novel to skewer
And his only regret—
He could never beget
A rating of any stars fewer.     --Deb Atwood


This next one is not a limerick, but I felt that it nonetheless contained the very essence of limerick-ness, so it's included.

Your Novel's One-Star Review

The writing was awful, the characters worse--
I wanted to send them all off in a hearse.
The plotline was boring, the action scenes tame,
And far worse than that, all the romance was lame.
The spelling was quirky, the grammar awry,
Punctuation changed wildly with no reason why.
Perhaps it gets better, when all's said and done,
But I couldn't force myself past chapter one.     --Julia West

There once was a one-star reviewer
Who loved to drag books through the sewer,
Whose great joy in life
Was to generate strife,
And proclaim there was no one as truer!     --Kathryn Louise Wood

Your book was a waste of my time.
Why make the poor hero a mime?
Write a strong female lead,
With a magical steed,
Add some teenage angst – now that's sublime!     --Linda Wendt


And just to round things off, I've included a couple more by my alter ego, Sven Leonardo MacGeneric:


There's way too much grammar-abusing,
And the plot is absurdly confusing.
If you've got to sell dreck,
At least employ Spellcheck -
And besides, it's not even amusing.

It desperately needs a good edit
(Or maybe we ought to just shred it).
The writing's outrageous,
There's too many pages,
And if there's a sequel, I dread it.


And that's it.  Many thanks to my talented contributors (especially for getting me off the hook for coming up with a new post this week), and here's hoping that none of us will be the recipients of any such scurrilous reviews anytime soon.


Images are in the public domain by virtue of being reallyreallyreally old.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

There once was a one-star reviewer...



Okay, faithful readers, it's time for a little audience participation.  I'd like for you to contemplate the idea I'm about to suggest, and then send me your own versions, either here on the blog or by email or on Facebook.  I will then compile whatever comes in and feature your masterpieces in a future post.

Here's what I want you to think about:  What would the world be like if people who wanted to put up one- or two-star reviews on Amazon were required to do it in the form of poetry? 

Intrigued by this idea, I did a little experimenting.  I played around with rondeaus, sonnets (Italian and otherwise), and even a bit of terza rima, which works a whole lot better in Italian than it does in English.  

But I have a sneaking suspicion that most Amazon reviewers wouldn't want to bother with the more complex forms.  Perhaps some of them would even prefer not to have to rhyme.  For those who can count to seventeen, they could always attempt haiku instead.  For example:

Book beckons. Great cover, good blurbs.
Too bad - it costs more than two dollars.

 But really, I think our form of choice for this exercise can only be the limerick.  What else, after all,  lends itself so perfectly to the art form of writing negative reviews?

With that in mind, here are a few to start you off.  First, we'll continue the "I want it cheap" theme suggested by the haiku above:

The worst of this publisher's vices
Is the way it insists on high prices.
But I know how to reach 'em -
This one-star will teach 'em!
Now that ought to trigger a crisis!

 And another one for the folks I think of as Dumpster-Divers-of-the-Mind:

I'm returning this e-book for credit.
(Never mind that I've already read it.)
I get bad heebie-jeebies
When novels aren't freebies.
So there. Now I've come out and said it.

Here's one that uses that kiss-of-death phrase that is the reviewer's equivalent of "I'm telling you this as a friend":

If you value your immortal soul,
Don't touch this with a fifteen-foot pole.
Though the author can shove it,
I wanted to love it,
So that proves I can't be a troll.

And there's always the "I'm an expert" review:

This book claims to be a historical,
But the research is quite sophomorical.
I'm a pro on this topic
(I watched the biopic!);
My opinion is thus categorical.

 Then, too, there's the "This isn't sexy enough" review:

Some have said that this novel is gripping,
But I'd rather have hot bodice-ripping.
Though it's surely complex,
There's just not enough sex,
And it needs quite a bit more unzipping.

And its companion, the "This is too sexy" review:

The language is way too explicit,
There are couplings both hot and illicit.
Decent folks are refusing
To keep on perusing
Such garbage. So we'll just dismiss it.

I come by this sort of silliness naturally.  Years ago, when I was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism, I created a poetic alter ego named Sven Leonardo MacGeneric, who expressed himself in doggerel  (and was, in fact, once named Doggerel Laureate for the local barony).  Here are a couple of examples from Sven's notorious output:

From a long narrative poem about Tristan and Isolde:

Now heroes are bold, and they're brave, and they're noble, 
But "bright" isn't always a prominent trait.
Though his lady wife lied,
Tristan still up and died.
When his love stepped ashore, he was lying in state.

Or this snippet from a poem entitled "On Watching the Children at a Tourney":

In a hamlet called Hamlin, a long time ago,
A piper appeared one fine day.
He tootled a tune, played it high, played it low,
And the kiddies, they all danced away.
Oh, who was that sinister, dangerous man?
And why did the wee ones heed him?
And why has he never come back again?
And where is he now, when we need him?

Anyway, send me your limericks - you can tackle the reviewers who complain about the packaging, the ones who couldn't be bothered to read the book, the ones who completely missed the point, or whatever you like.  Extra credit, too, for finishing the limerick started in the title to this post.  Bring 'em on!  I can't wait to read them.


Picture at the top of this post is licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license to Mazeface, found in Wikimedia Commons Images.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

In praise of older writers


Last night my husband and I attempted to watch a movie.  Within the first few minutes it became obvious that it was a young people's movie.  Within the first ten minutes it became obvious that it was only a young people's movie.  And within another five minutes, we had turned it off.

Did we turn it off because it was too edgy for us?  Because we couldn't keep up with its breakneck pace?  Because we were bewildered by its ever-so-clever, modern, cutting-edge repartee?

No.  We turned it off because we were bored.  Because all the characters were so full of “attitude” that they were utterly, yawningly predictable and shallow. 

And that got me thinking about age, and how it plays into this writing game.  There seems to be an assumption out there that you need to be writing by your early twenties, published by thirty, at the peak of your career by forty.  If you haven't done these things, it's never going to happen.

You know what?  It's a lot of codwollop. 

It's certainly true that we live in a youth-obsessed culture, where people are reading Young Adult books well into their 30s and 40s.  I have a friend in her late 60s, smart, multi-lingual, with a graduate degree, who reads almost exclusively YA and children's literature.  She finds excellent books in those categories, and they give her the kind of reading experience she's looking for.  I'm not trying to second-guess her preferences, but I do think they tell us something about our society.

Perhaps the message is that of a perennial starting over, the constant reinvention of self, in the form of one coming-of-age story after another.  But shouldn't there also be something out there for the person who wants to start from where she is?  From the place where she's already arrived?  And how can such a story be written by someone who hasn't yet lived her own life to that point?

The other day I saw a spate of articles around the web asserting that one must never, ever leave two spaces after a period, because that would make it obvious:  the author's over 40.  And nothing could be worse than that, right? 

It reminds me of a parody I once saw of Cosmopolitan, that breathless women's magazine, with articles like “Girls Obviously from Ohio.”

"Tell me again, boy - why can't I leave two spaces after a period?"

Who makes up these rules, anyway?  Who set in motion the thought form that says older people just starting on their writing careers are pitiable, pathetic, not to be taken seriously?  Or perhaps, if you're kinder, a little bit sweet and quaint? 

But we all know the cliché of the kid who peaked in high school, right?  The one who can't stop reliving the senior prom, or that one amazing football game? 

You want to talk about pitiable and pathetic? 

What, exactly, is wrong with waiting until you actually have something to say?

Let me hasten to say that I do know several young writers who are very talented.  Among them are indie, small press, mainstream-published, and not-yet-published authors.  They have a lot of promise, and I predict that someday some of them will be very, very good indeed.  But most of them have not peaked yet.  No, not even the ones who are published by a big publishing house and selling well.  They may be pretty good now, but they have it in them to be better – in the fullness of time. 

And that's one reason it's so painful to watch some of them listen to their own hype.  They start to think they're as good as their social media pals tell them they are, and then they start going back and pubbing early works that would be best left forgotten.  They start to believe they are already as good as it gets.

That's the kind of mindset that makes the 16-year-old down the street get as many tattoos as she can afford, because she just knows she's going to love them forever, whereas I have been around long enough to know that if I were to do something like that, I'd change enough to hate it in six months.

I recently read an interesting interview on the Huffington Post with Sonya Chung, one of the founders of the website Bloom, which features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.  You can find the interview here.  One of the things she said that I thought made a lot of sense was this:
“But the truth of it is that the majority of writers take a lot of time to write their best work, that detours happen, and sometimes those detours can be very fruitful (whether they happen willingly or not).”
Not long ago I followed a string of comments on Facebook in which some young writer sneered about “sex scenes written by people over fifty.”

Oh, sweetie... if you only knew.  Do the math, luv.  When do you think the baby boomers grew up?  Could it possibly have been in the 60's and the early 70's?  Perhaps you think those times were the equivalent of the Victorian era (which, come to think of it, had a pretty racy underside of its own), since it's all so long ago you can't tell the difference, but let me assure you, that's not quite how it was.  We did know a thing or two about sex.  Some of us, believe it or not, are still at it. 



Sure, it feels odd to see a book set in my growing-up years classified as a “historical.”  But everything becomes historical if you wait long enough.  Even today's twenty-somethings. 

I have one writer friend who industriously talked to older people to get a sense of how they felt about things, as a part of her research.  I give her full marks for that, but believe me, if you think it's weird to see your childhood written up as “historical,” just try finding that you've become somebody's research.  Of course, while a young person may have to research what my experience is like, I can remember perfectly well when I was her age, so that does rather give me the advantage.


My own personal allegory for older writers is based on the oatmeal story.  For those of you who don't know it, it goes something like this:

A little boy grew up normal and healthy in every way, except that he did not speak.  His parents were bewildered; they knew his hearing was normal, he was intelligent, and they could find no explanation for his silence.  Yet, year after year, he did not speak.  Finally, one morning when when he was nine years old, his parents were amazed to hear him say with crystalline clarity, “This oatmeal's lumpy.” 

His parents wept with joy.  They hugged him and danced around the kitchen, overwhelmed at this new development.  Finally his father stopped celebrating long enough to say, “But son, why haven't you said anything before this?”

And the boy said, quite reasonably, “Everything was okay until now.”

That would be me.  Me, and most of the genuinely interesting authors whose work I've read recently.  We've spent a lot of years living as hard as we could, and now we've got something to say and we're going to say it.  Some of us, quite possibly, with two spaces between sentences.


Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the "Arts & Crafts" picture of the two aging hippies, which is licensed under the Creative Common Attribution 3.0 Unported license to Idran.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Researcher's Rant (or: Why won't all those dates hold still?!?)


In my home I currently have 28 books about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (including four library books and four on my Kindle).  Oh, wait - there's another one in today's mail.  Make that 29.  Many, many more, from the public library as well as the university library, have already been here, stayed a while, and then gone back home, leaving behind copious notes and photocopies.

Most are in English, some in Italian.  In addition, I have lots of books on the history of Assisi, and of Rome, and of the papacy, and of the church in the middle ages.  And there are literally thousands more books out there that deal specifically with Francis's life - page after page after page of them listed in the university's online catalogue, for example. 

Some of the current batch

So you'd think I'd be able to zero in on a few useful dates for my work in progress, wouldn't you?  Especially since Francis is not even my main character?

Nah... no such luck.  I'm pretty sure no two scholars would produce exactly the same timeline for Francis.  I tell you, it's enough to drive a researcher stark raving bonkers.

In the marvelously funny little book 1066 and All That, by W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, the authors take on the task of composing "a memorable history of England," meaning only the bits people (mis)remember.  Or, as the blurb says:
Comprising all the parts you can remember, including one hundred and three good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates.
Two genuine dates is about what I've got to work with.  Sellar & Yeatman had 55 B.C., "in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet" and 1066, "the other memorable date in English History," when "William I (1066) conquered England at the Battle of Senlac (Ten Sixty-six)."  That last one must have been very memorable.

13th century depiction of Fourth Lateran Council

And me?  I've got the date of the Fourth Lateran Council (it began in November 1215) and the date of Francis's death (in October 1226).  Pretty much everything else is contested.   

Giotto di Bondone, Death of Francis

What if I want to know when the famous Chapter of Mats, that great gathering of Franciscans, was held?  Was it in 1217, 1219, 1220, 1221?  Was it actually a compendium of several of the above?

According to my sources, yes.  Thanks, guys.

And what if I need to know how long Peter of Cattania was minister general of the order?  Good luck with that.  We know when he died, but not when he took over.  He either did or didn't hold the position long enough to run a chapter meeting.  I can find you people who will swear to both positions.

What about Elias?  When, exactly, did he go to the Middle East?  1216?  1217?  Earlier?  Later?  On a need-to-know basis, I need to know this.

And my own main character, Giacoma dei Settesoli:  when did she meet Francis?  When was she widowed?  Did she move to Assisi immediately after Francis died in 1226, or years later, just prior to her own death in 1239 (unless of course that actually happened in 1273...)?  Was she present at Francis's death, or had she gone home by then? 

Either she's there ...


or she's not there...


Well, that sort of thing may well be important, you may say, but surely you can fudge a few dates.   You don't have to mention an exact date when you're writing fiction.  Just tell the story.  

Okay, but when you can't even get agreement on the sequence in which things happened, it's difficult to keep your causal relationships straight.  If Event A preceded Event B, it is possible to hypothesize that something in Event A may have caused, exacerbated, or paved the way for Event B.  But if it turns out they happened in the opposite order, all bets are off.  And that's a simple one, with only two components.  Usually there are more.  

And of course it's not only the date discrepancies that matter.  I've got about a dozen different lists of Francis's earliest followers, the ones who accompanied him to Rome (in whichever year that was...) to meet with Pope Innocent III.  And did Francis actually meet Dominic, that other great leader of a newly-hatched mendicant order?  Some say yes, some say no.  And if they did meet, was it during the Fourth Lateran, or some other time and place?  I've got plenty of people advocating every possible position on this, including that they never met at all, and that neither one was actually present at the Fourth Lateran.  At least we can find them together in certain works of art:



So what's a fiction writer to do?  

Well, first you can make some distinctions among sources.  Some writers are more reliable than others, based on any number of factors:  what materials they had available at the time they were writing, whether they are specialists or generalists, and (in the case of Francis) whether they are writing under church auspices or not.  (That last one can be a two-edged sword.)  Some may just have a more readable style than others, and may appeal to you more.  

However you do it, it's usually possible to narrow the field down to a handful of sources you feel you can trust to some degree.  My experience is that they will still disagree, but you'll feel somewhat better about any choices you eventually make if one or more of these high-quality sources supports you.

Secondly, you've got to keep your story uppermost in your mind.  If you have to make strategic choices in order to get the story you want, then that's what you're going to do.  Ideally, you'll be able to keep your choices within the realm of plausibility, however.  If you can't, you're not really writing historical fiction any more, and I for one would find it less satisfying.  I wanted Francis present for the Fourth Lateran, so in my book, that's where you'll find him. But if any of my sources had managed to convince me that his presence then and there was not possible, I would not have used it.  

Thirdly, the choices you make will be influenced by your feelings about the characters.  You will not be neutral.  If you are neutral, I submit that this is not your story to write.  In my case, I needed to know not only Francis's history insofar as I could, but I had to evolve my own responses to him and to his message.  I had to know whether I thought Elias was the devil incarnate, as so many have implied, or a well-meaning scapegoat whose talents actually helped keep the Franciscan order alive.  Or, perhaps most likely, something much more complex, more involved, more thoroughly human than either of the extremes.  And whatever choice I made, it influenced how I saw his personal timeline - what he did, what happened to him, what made him who he was, or at least who I think he was:  if this happened, it would have affected him in a particular way, whereas if it hadn't happened yet, perhaps that would be more likely.  Dates are pervasive; they affect everything.

I've made my choices.  It was not an easy process, and nothing in it was a foregone conclusion, but I believe I have honored the demands of plausibility while telling a story that holds meaning for me.  

Maybe next time I'll pick a period where things are better documented.  Maybe there'll be newspapers.  Or detailed public records.  Or something.  But probably not, since I'm inordinately fond of medieval Italy. 

Do you suppose the akashic records have a decent search engine?


Illustrations in this post are all in the public domain.