Friday, December 31, 2010

Who's Counting, Anyway?

In the past several months I've discovered the inestimable value of counting. After the birth of the twins, I was afraid that my writing would suffer a severe setback. To forestall this, I set myself a weekly goal of 2500 words. I also created a way to track how well I was meeting that goal, designing a daily spreadsheet to log my progress. So far, all this counting has been a smashing success. For each of the last three weeks I have been able to meet or exceed my goal, and if I can keep it up, I should be finished with the rough draft of Road from the West sometime in April.

Since keeping count has helped so much with my writing, I've decided to try something similar with my reading. For 2011 I've joined two historical fiction reading challenges. The first one is hosted by Historical Tapestry. The rules of the game are these:

  • Read any kind of historical fiction book during 2011 (HF Fantasy, HF Young Adult, etc.)
  • Post a review about it on your blog.
  • Add the link to your review on the Historical Tapestry website.

The categories for entry are:
  1. Severe Bookaholism: 20 books
  2. Undoubtedly Obsessed: 15 books
  3. Struggling the Addiction: 10 books
  4. Daring & Curious: 5 books
  5. Out of My Comfort Zone: 2 books

I'm shooting for number one, Severe Bookaholism. I'll be posting my reviews on Read Room, my book review website.

In addition to this challenge, I've also joined another one hosted by Holly at Bippity Boppity Book. It's called the Chivalrous Deeds: Historical Fiction Challenge, and is similar to the Historical Tapestry challenge, but with a little bit of a twist.

The object of the challenge is to "visit as many courts as possible," which basically means that your historical fiction choices have to have royalty in them. As with most challenges, you must post a review to your blog and post a link back on Bippity Boppity Book. There are two prizes for this challenge, to the person who reads the most books and to the person who visits the most different courts.

I've decided from experience that the most successful resolutions are those that can be tracked and quantified. Last year my resolve was to read the Bible in a year, and it was only by adhering to a strict schedule (and meeting with my Bible Study prayer and accountability group) that I was able to succeed.

Read more and write more--those are two of my New Year's resolutions for 2011.

Who's counting, anyway? I am.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Historical Fiction by Century, Part III

As the old year ends and the new year begins, many take the opportunity to use that time for serious reflection. I have chosen to reflect on my favorite historical fiction books. It is my favorite genre to read--which doubtless explains why I also love to write it--but I have never tried to list out all of my top picks before now. This post concludes my list of favorites ordered by the century in which they are set. In Part I, I shared my favorites from BC through the eighth century AD. In Part II, I continued with the ninth century through the fourteenth. Today I am pleased to begin with the fifteenth century.

Fifteenth Century

Men of Iron
by Howard Pyle

For several years during my later childhood, Howard Pyle took first prize in my favorite author category. I loved his retellings of the King Arthur stories accompanied by his beautiful pen and ink illustrations. But the story that most captured my imagination was Men of Iron. Myles Falworth, the son of an English lord wrongfully attainted with treason, learns the trade of arms so that one day he can challenge his lifelong enemy and clear his father's name.

Fifteenth Century Runners-Up: The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson; A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, by Edith Pargeter

Sixteenth Century

Prince of Foxes
by Samuel Shellabarger

When the story begins our dashing hero, Andrea Orsini, is a captain/spy in the employ of the notorious Cesare Borgia. The illegitimate son of the pope, Cesare's plan is to conquer all of Italy and bring the independent cities under his control. At first Andrea is a willing tool in Cesare's hands, but when he falls in love with Camilla, the lady of Citta del Monte, he begins to sympathize with those who stand for freedom against the Borgia tyranny.

Sixteenth Century Runner-Up: Captain from Castile, by Samuel Shellabarger

Seventeenth Century

Captain Blood
by Rafael Sabatini

When doctor Peter Blood provides aid to the men from Monmouth's rebellion, he is condemned to a life of slavery in the colonies. Using his wits and skills as a physician, he finds a way to freedom and becomes the captain of a pirate vessel, the terror of Spanish galleons up and down the Caribbean.

Seventeenth Century Runners-Up: The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne; The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

Eighteenth Century

by Rafael Sabatini

When an arrogant marquis murders Andre-Louis' best friend, the clever and spirited Andre-Louis goes on a path of vengeance that carries him through the theater, fencing school, and into the very heart of the French Revolution.

Eighteenth Century Runners-Up: Lord Vanity, by Samuel Shellabarger; The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

Nineteenth Century

Master and Commander (series)
by Patrick O'Brian

Patrick O'Brian's superb naval books are set during the Napoleonic Era and star two of the most lifelike characters ever penned. Big, bluff, impulsive Jack Aubrey is a natural on the sea commanding a ship in the English navy, but he is a little less than competent when it comes to dealing with women and money. His close friend and foil is Stephen Maturin, a broody and sensitive doctor who moonlights as a naturalist and a spy.

Twentieth Century

Every once in a while you will run into a nearly empty page in a book with a few words printed in the center: "This page purposely left blank." That message might just as well be applied to this section. I've only read two or three books set during the twentieth century, and none of them jump out at me as being particularly excellent. If you know any must-reads that would fit here, please tell me about them!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Historical Fiction by Century, Part II

Last week I began to share my list of favorite historical fiction by century. Today I'm pleased to pick up where I left off, beginning with the ninth century. Feel free to comment and share your favorite historical reads from these centuries.

Ninth Century

by Stephen Lawhead

Although this is not my favorite of Lawhead's books (that honor goes to The Song of Albion trilogy), it is probably my favorite of his historical fiction. A group of Irish monks from Kells are tasked with bringing an illuminated manuscript to the Byzantine emperor, but their mission goes terribly awry when they are captured by Viking raiders. 

Tenth Century

Eaters of the Dead
by Michael Crichton

It has been quite a few years since I read this book, but I remember being struck by what an interesting take it was on the epic poem Beowulf. Told through the eyes of the cultured Arab Ibn Fadlan, the story follows a group of barbaric Viking warriors traveling to the North to combat something even more barbaric than themselves--a mysterious terror that strikes the mead hall by night leaving a trail of bloody corpses.

Eleventh Century

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow
by Allen French

Sometimes the best historical fiction is in the "juvenile" section. Allen French was a professor who wrote historical fiction for young adults to illustrate how different kinds of government functioned throughout history. The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow does show how the Icelandic Althing governed society in the tenth century, but it is also one of the most exciting stories I have ever read. Rolf's father Hiarandi the Unlucky tries to stop his neighbor Einar from taking over his land; he foolishly strikes out at Einar's servants and, as punishment, is forbidden to go beyond a bowshot from his home. When Einar lures Hiarandi away from the house and kills him, it becomes Rolf's goal to prove that his father was unlawfully slain. In order to clear Hiarandi's name and get back the family land, Rolf must find a bow capable of shooting farther than the tree where his father was killed.

Twelfth Century

One Corpse Too Many
by Ellis Peters

What happens when a hundred traitors are hanged by the king and a murderer takes advantage of the opportunity to throw an extra corpse in the ditch? While the English civil war rages between Stephen and Maud, one clever herbalist from the Shrewsbury monastery uses his powers of detection to make sure that the murderer is brought to justice. This is the second book in the Brother Cadfael mystery series, and in my opinion, the best of the lot.

Twelfth Century Runner-Up: The Heaven Tree Trilogy, by Edith Pargeter (who also uses the pen name Ellis Peters)

Thirteenth Century

by Sir Walter Scott

In Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, the heroine's grandmother is not allowed to die until she has read the ten most boring books in the world, and strangely enough, the author puts Ivanhoe on that list. This is a gross slander. While the prose may be a bit more flowery than today's writing (and the plot somewhat predictable because of all the subsequent books and movies that stole from it), Ivanhoe is a great story and a seminal work in the historical fiction genre. Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe is a Saxon knight who served with King Richard on the Third Crusade. When he returns home, he must stop the Norman plot to put Prince John on the throne and save a fair Jewess from a Templar knight.

Thirteenth Century Runner-Up: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, by Edith Pargeter

Fourteenth Century

by Anya Seton

As time advances, the quantity of historical fiction available expands, and this makes picking favorites a hard task indeed. Out of my three favorite novels set during this century, I'm choosing the one I've read most recently. Katherine tells the life story of the mistress to John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III. Anya Seton paints a well-rounded picture of a convent-raised girl thrown into the world of kings and courtiers, desperate for escape from an unwanted marriage, blissful in her illicit love affair with the prince, then tormented by stings of conscience. The historical setting is one of the richest I've ever seen in a novel, especially one that focuses on a romance.

Fourteenth Century Runners-Up: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco; In a Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel of the Middle Ages, by Hella Haasse

Lord willing, I will be posting the third and final installment of historical fiction by century later this week. Stay tuned....

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Historical Fiction by Century, Part I

The other day I amused myself by coming up with a list of my favorite historical fiction books set during each century. It was an interesting project. Some centuries were overflowing with books that I loved. Some were completely bare--I couldn't think of any books I had read that were set during that time period. Here is the first installment of that list. Feel free to comment with your favorites and note the time period in which they occur.

Before Christ

The King Must Die 
by Mary Renault 
Retelling of the story of Theseus in ancient Greece and Crete. Very interesting portrayal of fertility cult worship and how the king was expected to give his life to renew the life of the ground and of his people.

Till We Have Faces 
by C. S. Lewis

Retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Asia Minor. Also an interesting portrayal of fertility cult worship set in the context of a Christian allegory.

Anno Domini
First Century

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ
by Lew Wallace
Story of a wealthy, first-century Jewish prince, his persecution at the hands of the Romans, and how his life was changed through interaction with Christ. Even more epic than the epic movie based on it.

Second Century

The Mark of the Horse Lord
by Rosemary Sutcliff
An ex-gladiator masquerades as the king of a Celtic tribe in Roman-occupied Britain, ends up adopting the people as his own, and learns what it really means to be a king.

Second Century Runner-Up: The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Third Century

This was one of those empty centuries--I was unable to think of a good book that fit here. Do you have any favorites set during this time period?

Fourth Century

Frontier Wolf, by Rosemary Sutcliff
Another great book by Sutcliff, this one about a Roman centurion who must keep the peace with the British border tribes and keep from making the same shameful mistake that clouded his past.

Fifth Century

The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff
Sutcliff again here--are you noticing a trend? When the legions pull out of Britain, a young Roman stays behind to face the Saxon hordes and his own bitterness. Provides a glimpse of what the real "historical" King Arthur might have been like.

Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Centuries

These centuries were very hard for me to fill. Yes, there are more Sutcliff books I could stick here, but to be honest, I can't really consider them my favorites. I have a book on my Amazon Wish List set during this time period--Paths of Exile, by Carla Nayland--but I haven't read it yet, so I can't judge its merits. I googled some historical fiction lists to see if there were some great books out there that I was missing. There weren't. These centuries seem to be a great void for historical fiction, which is sad because someone could take some of the stories from the Venerable Bede and turn them into a top-notch novel. Maybe that should be my next project, once I finish my novels about the First Crusade.

Stay tuned for more posts to finish out this list. Don't forget to comment and share your favorites from Before Christ or from the first through eighth centuries Anno Domini.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


"How many Kindle copies have we sold?" I get this question from my husband several times a day: in the morning when he wakes up, in the afternoon when he comes home from classes, in the evening when he texts me on his work break. The number of Kindle copies sold--it is a number my husband is particularly fond of, especially when it is plugged into a line graph. At the beginning of each month he reminds me to update our book sales graph with the data from the month before. He uses the graph as the desktop wallpaper on his laptop and as an incentive to continue marketing I Serve.

This weekend we celebrated some important numbers (and not all of them on Kindle sales).

One thousand: the number of Kindle copies of I Serve that we've sold this year. Since putting the book in electronic format in January, we have watched the Kindle sales grow exponentially till they far surpass the paperback sales each month. Thanks to all of our readers who have made the book a success.

Fifty thousand: the number of words I've reached in my manuscript for Road from the West. Only fifty thousand more to go and it'll be time to think about publishing another novel. That will make my husband happy--more book sale numbers to keep track of.

One: the number of years that we've been married. It's been a busy twelve months with having two kids and purchasing a house (Lord willing, we will close on the house this coming week). Strange as it may seem, one of my favorite things about our first year of marriage is working on book marketing together with my husband. It gives us a common interest and a shared project where we can both utilize our strengths. He discovers a new place to publish the book electronically; I format the Word document and upload it. He purchases ad space to promote the novel; I design a banner to fill that space. He approaches book blogs about reviewing I Serve; I write a guest post for them on some item of historical interest.

We've met with a lot of milestones this weekend with one thousand Kindle sales and fifty thousand word count on the new novel. And even though one is the smallest number on that list, it's still the biggest milestone of them all. Happy anniversary to my husband, my book marketing agent, and my best friend! 

December 12, 2009

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Putting the "X" back in "Christ"mas

Sometime in the misty days of childhood memory, I acquired the certainty that the abbreviation "Xmas" was bad, vile, and wrong--a pagan plot to cross "Christ" out of Christmas. It took many years for that childhood certainty to be dispelled, and many years after that before I felt comfortable using the abbreviation myself. Just like me in my younger days, many Christians I know get unnecessarily offended by "Xmas." But by getting into a huff about this abbreviation, we betray a lamentable ignorance about our own history, the history of the Church.

To defend the use of Xmas, the first thing I must explain is that "X" is the Greek letter "chi," and "chi" is the first letter in the Greek word christos, meaning Christ. From the earliest days of the Church, "X" has been used as an abbreviation for Christ. During the days of Roman persecution, Christians used the symbol of the fish to identify themselves to each other because ichthus, the Greek word for fish, was an acronym for their beliefs.


In English, the phrase reads, "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." Note that the CH in ichthus (an English transliteration of the Greek word) would have been represented by an "X," the Greek letter "chi," in the original word. This is the earliest example of "X" being used as an abbreviation for Christ.

Once Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313 and ended the persecutions, Christians no longer needed to use the secret fish symbol; however, another symbol involving the abbreviation for Christ became prevalent at this time. The common story of Constantine's conversion, immediately prior to the Battle of Milvian Bridge, is taken from Eusebius.

He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
Interestingly enough, there is another version of this story told by Lactantius. This chronicler records that the sign Constantine saw in the sky before his victory was, not the cross, but the symbol of a Chi-Rho (XP), the first two letters of Christ's name. Lactantius goes on to say this:

Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of CHRIST. Having this sign (ΧР ), his troops stood to arms. 
Constantine later ordered the symbol of the Chi-Rho (also called the labarum) to be used on all his military insignia since he was convinced that Christ had caused him to win the battle. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Chi-Rho continued to be used as a symbol by the Byzantines although it fell out of use in the West.

What did not perish in the West was an understanding that "X" was a perfectly appropriate abbreviation for the word Christ, and this understanding continued into the High Middle Ages and Reformation. In his article "The Origin of 'Xmas,'" Dennis Bratcher writes:
[B]y the fifteenth century Xmas emerged as a widely used symbol for Christmas. In 1436 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with moveable type. In the early days of printing typesetting was done by hand and was very tedious and expensive. As a result, abbreviations were common. In religious publications, the church began to use the abbreviation C for the word "Christ" to cut down on the cost of the books and pamphlets. From there, the abbreviation moved into general use in newspapers and other publications, and "Xmas" became an accepted way of printing "Christmas" (along with the abbreviations Xian and Xianity). Even Webster’s dictionary acknowledges that the abbreviation Xmas was in common use by the middle of the sixteenth century.
Xmas was used because it was more economical, not out of disrespect for Christ or a desire to remove His name from the holiday. Anyone seeing the word "Xmas" knew enough to pronounce it "Christmas" (not "exmas") because they understood the "X" properly, an abbreviation for the word "Christ."

Dennis Bratcher sums up the issue well in the conclusion to his article:
So there is no grand scheme to dilute Christianity by promoting the use of Xmas instead of Christmas. It is not a modern invention to try to convert Christmas into a secular day, nor is it a device to promote the commercialism of the holiday season. Its origin is thoroughly rooted in the heritage of the Church.... Understanding this use of Christian symbolism might help us modern day Xians focus on more important issues of the Faith during Advent, and bring a little more Peace to the Xmas Season.

Monday, December 6, 2010

That Was Then, This is Now

The evil "Nimrod Bush" (precursor to the Christmas Tree?)
I recently read an article entitled "The True Origin of Christmas" which asked this question: Can Christ be honored by Christmas? The author's answer was downright inflammatory. "Keeping Christmas dishonors Christ! He considers everything about it to be an abomination!"

The author went on to explain how the festival of Christmas developed from pagan holidays, specifically the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and was later appropriated by the Church. Using questionable historiographical methods, the author also tied the celebration of Christmas to Nimrod, child-sacrifice, cannibalism, and fertility cults. He revealed the nefarious origins of the Christmas tree and noted that the Bible condemns the celebration of birthdays.

Not many Christians are as extreme as this author in their opposition to Christmas; however, some Christians do refuse to celebrate it. In his article "The Menace of Chinese Food," James B. Jordan responds to this segment of Christianity by parodying its arguments against the holiday. Substituting the phrase "Chinese Food" for "Christmas," he shows the silly reasoning of those who object to Christmas because of its supposedly pagan beginnings. (Is it idolatrous to eat Chinese food simply because it was developed by members of an Eastern monistic religion?) Jordan argues that the historical origin of a thing in the past does not disqualify its use or observance in the present:
Arguments from history in this area are irrelevant, as well as erroneous. They are irrelevant because people do not observe Christmas with any view to its supposedly-pagan origins. The history of a word does not determine its present meaning, nor does the history of a custom determine its present meaning. People use the words “Saturday” and “Sunday” and “Monday” without any thought of the god Saturn or the sun or the moon. It would be preposterous to accuse people of idolatry simply because they use these words. Similarly, the only relevant question regarding Christmas is this: What does it mean to people now?
Maybe the festival of Christmas did develop from the Mesopotamian celebration of the New Year or from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. So what? That was then, this is now. The Christ-child has come and cast down all principalities and powers. He has taken that day and made it into His day.  In past millennia, Marduk, Mithras, Kronos, and Saturn may have called the day their own, but I don't see their figurines in any nativity scenes now.

James B. Jordan goes on to show that the "original" pagan celebrations were simply twisted versions of symbols and celebrations that God had already established.  
All pagan feasting is a perverse replica of true Godly festivity. The pagan worship of the sun is a perversion of the Biblical analogy of the sun to Christ (Mal.4:2; Ps.19; etc.). The pagan recognition of the change in the year from dark to light, from death to life, at the Winter Solstice is but a perversion of the covenant truth found in the Noachic Covenant. What is wrong with reclaiming the Winter Solstice for Christ?

Approaching the topic from this angle, we can see that the pagans were the actual copycats (not the Church). God established the natural order (the sun, the seasons, etc.) to point to Christ, and fallen nations perverted what God had made in their own idolatrous festivals.

So, can Christ be honored by Christmas? Of course. It was His to begin with. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Churching after Childbirth

 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, 'If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity she shall be unclean.... And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. 
--Leviticus 12:1-4

The entire chapter of Leviticus 12 is devoted to the rite of purifying women after childbirth. The issue of blood made a woman unclean, and an offering of a lamb (or two turtledoves) had to be made before she could re-enter the sanctuary. With the coming of Christ, ceremonial laws like this one (that separated Israel from the nations roundabout) were brought to a fulfillment. The New Covenant Christians recognized that these laws no longer needed to be observed and did away with them.... Or did they?

When Augustine traveled to Kent around AD 600, he extended the Christian faith beyond the edge of civilization. As he evangelized the Jutes, many questions cropped up as the "barbarians" wondered how to best practice the new religion. Unsure on how to deal with some of these matters, Augustine referred them to Pope Gregory I. As bishop of Rome (one of the five great Christian metropolises), Gregory would have the credentials to give an authoritative answer.

Some of Augustine's questions dealt with worship. What form of mass (worship service) should be used, the Gaulish or the Roman? Some dealt with church polity. May a bishop be consecrated without other bishops being present? Some dealt with family. Within what degree may the faithful marry their kindred? Augustine's eighth question to Gregory is of special interest, however. "When a woman has been delivered [of a child], after how many days ought she to enter the church?"

Gregory, in his answer to Augustine, refers to the Leviticus 12 passage but applies it figuratively. The forty days of purification are no longer binding. "If she enters the church even at the very hour of her delivery, for the purpose of giving thanks, she is not guilty of any sin." A woman who has just given birth is like a woman during her monthly impurity. It is not a sin for her to enter the church; the priests will not bar her from entrance or from Holy Communion. At the same time, however, Gregory thinks that the more religiously minded women will, of their own accord, refrain from entering the sanctuary in the days immediately following childbirth. It is not wrong to enter during this time, but it is better not to do so.

Other church leaders took a stronger tone than Gregory insisting that there was something sinful about a woman entering the church before the forty days of purification had elapsed. Gregory's loose interpretation became the minority and over the next few centuries, the Church's position on this issue developed into dogma. By AD 1100 a ceremony had developed known as the "Churching of Women." Natalie Knodel, from the University of Durham, describes the ritual as it was conducted during this time period:
It began at the door of the church, ante ostium ecclesiae. There the mother, covered by a veil, knelt and waited for the priest to arrive to say the prayers over her that she may be allowed back into the church. The priest said Psalms 121 and 128 followed by the Gloria Patri and the Kyrie as well as the Our Father, the so-called lesser litany. These were followed by two special prayers for the occasion, one said antiphonally with the woman to be churched and the other a collect which gave thanks for the safe delivery and asked that the mother obtain eternal life. The mother was then sprinkled with holy water, before she was led into the church by the priest who said: 'Enter into the temple of God, that thou mayest have eternal life.'
The churching ceremony was celebrated with as much pomp as a baptism, or perhaps with even more. Knodel talks about the medieval woman's attitude toward this event:
[T]he practice of churching was by far not an imposition of the male church on women, but something sought after by women themselves. It was not only understood as the restoration of a woman to church and society after a time of isolation, but also as a welcome occasion for excessive feasting with her 'gossips'.... [W]omen actually looked forward to churching as a social occasion, a collective female occasion, the conclusion of the month of privilege after childbirth. For men it marked the end of a month during which they had to take care of the domestic affairs, commonly referred to as the 'gander month'. And it was after all a ceremony which focused on the mother herself, not on her husband or the child, a ceremony which acknowledged her labours and the perils of childbirth.
Interestingly enough, the "Churching of Women" ceremony continued on in the Anglican Church after the Reformation. The Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) included the ritual, virtually unchanged from the medieval prototype. Nowadays the service has fallen into decline. The Roman Catholic Church states that "it is not a precept, but a pious and praiseworthy custom." In the Anglican prayer book the service changed its focus; instead of a purification and blessing of the mother, it became a simple thanksgiving for the birth of the child.

Last Sunday was my first time attending church since becoming a mother. Needless to say, our church does not observe the ceremony of churching women after childbirth. The one ritual of the day was the baptism of my twin boys, and the party that followed at my parents' home was strictly in honor of them. Although I do not covet the attention that the twins received, there is one piece of the churching service that I would have liked to hear spoken.

The 1552 Book of Common Prayer instructs the priest to say this blessing over the new mother:

O ALMIGHTIE God, whiche hast delyuered this woman thy seruant from the great paine and peryl of childe birth: Graunte, we beseche thee, (most mercifull father,) that she through thy helpe, maye both faythfully lyue and walke in her vocacion, accordyng to thy wyl in thys lyfe present; and also maye bee partaker of euerlastinge glorye in the life to come: through Jesus Christe our Lorde. Amen.
Baptism of Adam Luther Spears 
and Benjamin Oliver Spears
21 November 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Will I Ever Have Time to Write Again?

The first few days after giving birth to twins produced a lot of questions. Now, two weeks later, some of those questions are beginning to be answered.

1. Will I ever sleep again? (yes, but only in two hour chunks)
2. Will I be able to fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes? (mostly, minus a few pair of jeans that were probably too tight anyways)
3. Can I catch up on my Read-the-Bible-in-a-year schedule? (yes, I forced myself to read the first half of Acts before allowing myself the pleasure of writing this post)
4. Will I ever have time to write again? (yes, as long as I don't waste my limited free time on Facebook)

Yesterday, in between the twins' feedings, I opened up the word document containing the draft of my novel in progress (Road from the West). I looked at the document properties and saw that the last time it had been opened was on November 4, the day I went into labor. Two weeks since my last addition to the story....

Reading through a couple of the most recent pages, I began to get a feel for where I was at. The siege of Nicea had just ended. Tancred, the hero, was lying through his teeth to the Byzantine general, doing his best to smuggle the Turkish sultana out of the city. The Byzantine general wasn't buying it; he had only to give the word and the soldiers would surround them.... In between washing bottles and changing diapers, I managed to set down 500 words that decided the fate of the Turkish sultana and ended the scene. Today I added another 250 words to the manuscript--Bohemond's reaction when he hears about his nephew's exploits.

While constantly caring for the twins does make it harder to find the time to write, in some respects it makes it easier as well. Instead of gallivanting around to meetings, friends' houses, or the mall, I'm pretty much housebound. I'm a stay-at-home mom with two little munchkins (and no car) who actually has to stay at home. And as long as my laptop is here to keep me company, the chances are good that this novel will eventually materialize. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a diaper to change....

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The History of a Name

In honor of the birth of Adam Luther Spears and Benjamin Oliver Spears, author Rosanne E. Lortz's husband David Spears has written a guest post explaining the importance of names and the reasons behind the twins' given names.

Names are important. I know this because my name is important. It's not a famous name or a wealthy name. It is not attached to any great invention, and you won't find it listed on any Trivial Pursuit card. My name is important because I was named after my grandfather.

I never knew my grandfather; he died July 24, 1966, in Pleiku, South Vietnam. I missed being born on this date in 1980 by twelve days. I became his namesake. It has influenced my life in incalculable ways--his name was important, my name is important.

I joined the Army in September, 2000 under the legacy and history of my name. A year before 9/11, I joined when it was unpopular and old-fashioned to sign your life away. I was no September baby, as we called the wave of incoming privates. I did it because I wanted to be a soldier; I did it because my grandfather had done it.

I always signed my name with the Roman numeral two. This was partly in fear that the Army's giant paperwork bureaucracy would somehow mix me up with my grandfather and I would not be issued boots or those wonderful brown BVDs. More importantly, I had a high bar with which to measure the conduct of my professional career. I could not be one of the guys under discipline for drinking or fighting without having tarnished the name. I could not dishonor the sacrifice my grandfather made. This higher standard worked in my favor and allowed me to rise quickly in my career. I was chosen for two sniper schools while in the service. This in turn opened the door for me to work with some of the greatest men I have ever known. I became Recon. It was an indirect gift my grandfather gave me, a name that was worth something, a name I could not let down.

In 2004 I went to war with the same patch my grand-father wore in Vietnam. We both served with the Tropic Lightning (or Electric Grapefruit, depending on your view) on our shoulders. In the course of the year I had to make a call home one night on the Colonel's SAT-phone. I had to tell my father, who lost his father "officially" to a mortar round, that I had also been hit by a mortar round. I assured him my wounds were minor; but the truth was, a few seconds slower or a few degrees of angle more, and I would have been the second of my name to die in a foreign war in a city hard for most Americans to pronounce. My father almost lost his son as well as his father, but by the grace of God I did come home.

This November 5, by the same grace, I was granted the privilege of naming my firstborn twin boys. Earlier, whenever I had thought of having a son, I agonized over the responsibility of what name to give him. When I learned that we were having twins, I knew their names right away. I had been given a great gift; there was symmetry. I could name my sons after the two platoon mates, my brothers-in-arms, my two friends, who did not come home from Iraq.

Names are important. My sons' names are the most important. They are named after two of the greatest men you will never know. They are named after men of honor and sacrifice. My boys will have the duty to live a life that is worthy of such sacrifice. They can never replace the men they were named for, but they can live up to them. They must live a life both men gave up so that new life can follow destruction and loss. One day when they are older I will explain all this to them. I will tell them that names are important. I will tell them they are named after: Adam Plumondore KIA 16 Feb 2005, Mosul Iraq, and Benjamin "Rat" Morton KIA 22 May 2005, Mosul Iraq.

David Paul Spears II

Adam Plumondore & Benjamin "Rat" Morton

Adam Luther Spears & Benjamin Oliver Spears


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

As American as Mississippi Mud

Title from one of the "Coffin Handbills" from the Election of 1828
One of the things I inherited from my mom is an eager anticipation of getting the mail each day. At our apartment it's sheer guesswork as to what time the mail will arrive. The postal worker for our neighborhood is a little erratic. Sometimes he'll have it in our box by ten in the morning. Sometimes it won't be there till five in the evening. The most disappointing day is the "no mail" day, with the "all junk mail" day following closely on its heels. Depending on how you define "junk mail" we had a lot of the latter last week. Every day brought scads of candidate flyers and political endorsements, most of which went directly into the garbage.

Out of the few flyers that I did examine before consigning them to the bowels of the trash can, I noticed that many were attacks on rival candidates. The Bill Kennemer (R) campaign for State Representative in my district seemed to send out just as many circulars vilifying Alice Norris (D) as it did those promoting Bill Kennemer's positive virtues. Sometimes this negative campaigning works in a candidate's favor. Sometimes voters have an adverse reaction to it and vote for the vilified individual. Fellow citizens who are distressed by negative campaigning often make comments like this: "Politics is getting worse and worse. Back in the good old days there wasn't this much mudslinging. Candidates used to talk about the issues instead of attacking each other."

This bowdlerized view of the past is hardly accurate, especially when it comes to American politics. Someone--no one seems to know who--once labeled negative campaigning "as American as Mississippi mud." The Election of 1828 is a case in point. Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams fought tooth and nail to attain the highest office in the United States, and the accusations they leveled against each other were far more damning than insinuations of foolish spending or inconsistent voting records.

Jackson, whose greatest asset was his military career, was accused of murdering several militia members (that he had executed for desertion). Adams' supporters produced the eyecatching Coffin Handbills to convince the public of Jackson's guilt. They also accused Jackson of adultery; his wife Rachel had been previously married to another man and the records were a little sketchy on when her divorce had actually been finalized. One newspaper took up the attack with this rhetorical question: “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?”

John Quincy Adams was not exempted from the same slimy treatment at the hands of Jackson's supporters. Earlier in his political career, he had been the American ambassador to Russia. Now his opponents were claiming that he had used that position to procure American prostitutes for the Russian czar. In 1828, Adams had already served as president for nearly four years, and Jackson's lackies accused him of using government funds to buy gambling devices for the White House. (Actually, he had used his own money to purchase a billiards table for one of the rooms there.)

Mutually disgusted by the ad hominem attacks on themselves, Adams and Jackson responded in different ways. Adams reportedly forbade his supporters to engage in any more mudslinging; Jackson, on the other hand, decided to amp up the rhetoric in revenge for the things that had been said about him and his family. The Election of 1828 ended in a victory for Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately, his wife Rachel died before he could take office, and Jackson attributed her failing health to the personal attacks that had been made against her. He responded to her death with these famous words: "May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can."

Although the vindictiveness of the Election of 1828 proves that America, in her very infancy, indulged heavily in political mudslinging, it would be misleading to assume that our country initiated the rest of the world into this activity. Even in the days before popular elections, monarchs and members of the European nobility were stained with many rotten tomatoes flung in their direction.

Marie Antoinette is a classic case of political mudslinging at its dirtiest. Those who wanted to overthrow the French monarchy produced many slanderous (and implausible) pamphlets accusing her of sexual debauchery and deviancy; these very pamphlets were used at her trial to "prove" her crimes and condemn her to death. Even today the mud still sticks. Movies like Sophia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette portray her life as filled with rumor, scandal, and sex, certain that there must be some grain of truth in all the filth that was flung.

Looking back at Jackson vs. Adams and Marie Antoinette, one must admit that the negative campaigning nowadays is a whole lot nicer than it used to be. When I get a mailer from Bill Kennemer accusing Alice Norris of foolish spending during her term as Oregon City mayor, it gives me grist for thought not grist for gossip. It makes a verifiable accusation relevant to Alice Norris' political career and may actually be helpful to the voters. At least it won't lead to anyone wasting away from the shock of slander or suffering the punishment of an unwarranted execution.

Monday, October 25, 2010

To Bathe or not to Bathe?

Dinner and a Bath (15th Century)
Last night I heard a comment commonly bandied about concerning the people of the Middle Ages; it accused them of being infrequent bathers. The speaker indicated that he had learned at a medieval museum that the people of that time bathed only once a year, if that. This is a claim I've heard many times before, and I have always wondered how much credence to give it.

When pondering this subject, the first thing that came to my mind was a counterexample: Charlemagne, a man who was very fond of his baths. His biographer Einhard wrote:

He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practiced swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his latter years till his death. He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him. 

But although Charlemagne enjoyed his baths, I suppose he can hardly be used as conclusive proof that most medieval people did as well. Charlemagne was a privileged emperor living during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. This is the very earliest portion of the Middle Ages and Charlemagne's life does not give demographic evidence of the European civilization at large. To prove or disprove the charge of infrequent bathing, we need evidence from later in the Middle Ages that deals with a greater segment of the population.

To gain that evidence, I turned first to Jackson J. Spielvogel's respected textbook Western Civilization. Dealing with the Carolingian period, Spielvogel asserts that aristocrats bathed at least once a week and monks indulged in a weekly Saturday night bath to prepare for the Lord's Day. Moving a few centuries forward, Spielvogel writes that: "Private and public baths...existed in medieval towns, and it is fair to say that standards of hygiene were rather high in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Paris, for example, had thirty-two public baths for men and women."

There were periods of medieval history when these high standards of hygiene declined. The plague hit Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, and Spielvogel records that, "One immediate by-product of the Black Death was a greater regulation of urban activities.... Viewed as unhealthy places, bathhouses were closed down, leading to a noticeable decline in cleanliness."

Although Spielvogel is a reliable secondary source, he does not cite any primary source evidence for his claims about medieval bathing; I was delighted to find a scholarly article titled "Tubbed and Scrubbed: An Overview of Bathing in the Middle Ages" with a little more bibliographical backing to it. In "Tubbed and Scrubbed" Master Giles de Laval does an excellent job looking at written and pictorial primary sources to establish that bathing was a prominent feature of medieval life. "The perception that medieval people never bathed and lived their lives in a state of filth is completely absurd," says de Laval, "and no more true of medieval society than it is of modern society."

De Laval talks about how many bath houses (such as Charlemagne's) were relics from the Roman Empire that continued to be used after the Roman period. In addition to this, travelers to Constantinople and the Crusaders to the Holy Land reintroduced the bath house to areas of Europe that had forgotten it. Concurring with Spielvogel's claims, De Laval says:

By the mid 13th century, bath houses were so numerous in Paril that the estuviers, or proprietors of such establishments, were permitted to form their own guild. Paid criers went about the city at daybreak, announcing that the water was hot and inviting customers in. The price of admission was set by law at two denieres for a steam bath, four for bathing afterwards.
Bathing, according to De Laval's sources, was a matter of politeness.

The 14th century Italian Book of Manners...noted that bathing and changing one's linen regularly was civil and mannerly towards others. According to the precepts of chivalry of Ramon Lull, one of the duties of the squire was to heat water for his lord's bath.
Besides being a courtesy to others, bathing was also considered to have medicinal properties. Gilbert Anglicus in his Compendium Medicinae (1240) encourages patients to take steam baths to soften the skin and open the pores and also to wash themselves in warm water.

Looking at this source material, it seems inevitable to conclude that the people of the Middle Ages were not such infrequent bathers as is commonly reported. Why then is this "myth" (as de Laval calls it) being "perpetuated by schoolroom history, Hollywood movies, and outdated scholarship"?

During parts of medieval history, the Church (which penned the majority of the historical documents and societal commentaries) had issue to take with frequent bathing; this can give the impression that the entire medieval society viewed hygiene with abhorrence. In the early medieval period, some ascetic branches of monasticism (holdovers from the patristic period) wrote that it was better to abstain from bathing in order to mortify the flesh; De Laval claims, however, that this attitude had been entirely "eroded" by the later Middle Ages, and that less austere religious orders such as the Cluniacs and the Dominicans enthusiastically approved of frequent bathing.

Unfortunately, immoral activities associated with bath houses caused other objections from the Church to surface during the later Middle Ages. Some bath house owners tried to make extra money by turning their establishments into brothels, causing the Church to decry bathing as an indecent activity. This occasional opposition from the Church may have given rise to the current view that all medievals viewed bathing with abhorrence and rarely practiced it.
So, were the medievals infrequent bathers? No. They may not have showered daily, but evidence indicates that bathing was popular and encouraged. Were the medievals smelly and filthy? Only to the same degree that nineteenth century Almanzo Wilder and his family in upstate New York were smelly and filthy. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo's future wife Laura Ingalls records that Almanzo and his family took weekly Saturday night baths, just like the Carolingian clergy did back in the eighth century. How positively medieval!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Home Sweet Home?

As some of you may know, my husband and I have been working on purchasing a house for the last several months. We wanted a place in the heart of Oregon City that would be big enough for our family to live in for at least the next ten years. At the beginning of August, we found what we were looking for. Then we set about the long process of becoming first time homebuyers.

It took phone calls to three separate mortgage brokers to get us preapproved for the house loan. After that we put in an offer. Since the house is a short sale, it took several weeks to hear back from the bank. Two days ago we officially received the offer acceptance, and the same day we had the house inspection done. Even though it was built in 1900, the house showed no major problems--the electric and plumbing had all been recently updated.

Our next step is the VA Appraisal which could take up to two weeks to happen. Lord willing, that will all go well, and we will be able to close the deal by November 15. The twins are due November 28, so it's a race against the clock to see if the house or the babies will get here first. But even if it takes longer than anticipated, we're still praying that Madison and 15th will be our new home sweet home in Oregon City.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Do You Libboo?

I've had a flood of writing projects pouring over my desk this summer, and autumn holds no promise of the waters subsiding.. Besides working on my next historical fiction novel (Road from the West), I am also part of a church team that is putting together a compilation of sermons by our pastor, Rev. Dennis Tuuri. Our first step was to transcribe the sermons. Our next step is to edit and re-organize them in book form.

One of our team members suggested using the website Libboo to help us with this project. Libboo is designed to help groups collaborate on writing projects in the different roles of editors, writers, critics, researchers, etc. Today I signed up for a Libboo membership and explored the website a little bit. Will it be useful for our team and the book we are compiling? I'm not sure yet.

Before I buy a book on, I always like to see the ratings and reader reviews. In the case of Libboo, I need to go out and find the reviewers--hence, this blog post. Have you ever used to work on a collaborative writing project? If so, did it work well for you? Do you know of any other websites that can be used for a collaborative writing project? I'd love to hear your feedback.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back Cover Blurbs

My husband and I have lately been introduced to Dominion, a strategy game where you build up a deck of action and treasure cards to gain victory points. (As an aside, this is a great Christmas present for the game-lovers in your family.) The manufacturer's description of the game reads like this:

You are a monarch, like your parents before you, a ruler of a small pleasant kingdom of rivers and evergreens. Unlike your parents, however, you have hopes and dreams! You want a bigger and more pleasant kingdom, with more rivers and a wider variety of trees. You want a Dominion! In all directions lie fiefs, freeholds, and feodums. All are small bits of land, controlled by petty lords and verging on anarchy. You will bring civilization to these people, uniting them under your banner. But wait! It must be something in the air; several other monarchs have had the exact same idea. You must race to get as much of the unclaimed land as possible, fending them off along the way. To do this you will hire minions, construct buildings, spruce up your castle, and fill the coffers of your treasury. Your parents wouldn't be proud, but your grandparents would be delighted.

It is interesting how many strategy games nowadays tap into the "medieval" world to draw a crowd. It is also interesting how the "storyline" behind this game has almost nothing to do with the game itself. I almost laugh every time I read the part about wanting a more pleasant kingdom "with more rivers and a wider variety of trees."The game has little to do with any of those elements. Relying solely on this description, those who have never played Dominion would probably think that it is a board game like Risk or maybe even like Settlers of Catan.

The back of a book cover can often act the same way as this game description.The author (or publisher) tries to highlight the most interesting--or sensational--parts of the story to capture the attention of prospective readers. Sometimes the information on the back cover bares scant resemblance to the story inside.

Having written the back cover for I Serve, I know how hard it can be condense a 100,000 word novel into a 200 word blurb. For me, it was a necessary exercise, however, since I had no publisher or publicist to write it for me. It was also a valuable exercise and one that I will be glad to do again when my next book is finished. Who should know the book better than the author? If the author herself cannot explain the plot and themes in a half page of prose, then it seems likely that the plot of the novel is rambling and the themes are unclear. If the author cannot make herself interesting in 200 words, then it seems likely that 100,000 words on the same subject will prove more than a little tedious.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Erratic Muse October Giveaway

Miss Pickwickian over at the Erratic Muse is doing another book giveaway! For the rest of the month of October you can enter to win one of three books:

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, by Donald Miller

On Writing Well: A Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser

Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide Eyed Wonder at God's Spoken World, by N. D. Wilson

I haven't read anything by William Zinsser, but the other two authors are definitely worth the read. Donald Miller is a Portland, OR resident most famous for his spiritual autobiography Blue Like Jazz. N. D. Wilson has earned lots of acclaim in the last few years for his juvenile fiction Leepike Ridge and the 100 Cupboards trilogy.

You can enter this giveaway by commenting on Miss Pickwickian's post, becoming a follower of her blog, or posting about it on your own blog. The giveaway winner(s) will be drawn November 1 and will receive the book of their choice.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Finding a New World to Rebuild the Old

Ermatinger House, Oregon City
This week I spent three days substitute teaching at King's Academy, a small private school in Oregon City where I used to teach full time. In history class, my task was to cover European colonialism in the New World. As I lectured on where the Spanish, the English, the French, and the Dutch settled, the place names with which they marked their new territory began to jump out at me. New England received its title because that's what the colonists wanted to build there, a new society modeled on the England they had left. The Pilgrims named their colony Plymouth because it was from Plymouth, England that the Mayflower had sailed.

England was not the only country to utilize Old World place names when branding the New. Both Spain and France titled their American domains New Spain and New France. Scotch settlers up north Latinized their homeland and called their territory Nova Scotia. The Dutch named their settlement on Manhattan Island New Amsterdam after Holland's capital back home.

This recycling of old names began all over again when the inhabitants of the Eastern seaboard began to go West for more elbow room. Portland, Oregon, the metropolis closest to my house, was called Portland after the hometown of one of the city's founders.

The story has it that Francis Pettygrove (a native of Portland, Maine) went into partnership with Asa Lovejoy (a native of Boston, Massachusetts) to develop the area by clearing trees and building roads. They threw up a few buildings along the river, and it was then time to christen the new town. Each man argued persuasively for the town to be named after his place of origin; each man gathered an equal amount of adherents to his point of view. Portland or Boston, what would it be?

The argument took place in the Ermatinger House (now a museum located two blocks from my apartment in Oregon City) and lasted far into the night. Finally, some tired soul--perhaps Francis Ermatinger, the house's owner--suggested that the only way out of this deadlock was to flip a coin. And so they did. Pettygrove won two out of three coin tosses, and the new town was dubbed Portland, destined to become larger and more prestigious than its namesake in Maine.

What is it in human nature that prompts explorers and settlers to name a new world in remembrance of the old? Is it a sign of respect for their own origins, a healthy connection with the past? Or is it a restrictive nostalgia that tries to ignore or overcome the differences of the new by homogenizing it with the old?

Did the colonists have a vision that their New Jerusalem would be merely an exact replica of the Old Jerusalem? Or did the colonists choose to use the old names so that they could expand, improve on, and glorify everything good that the old places had stood for?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Counting on Their Fingers and Toes

Every medieval historian, whatever his race, invariably indulges in wild and picturesque exaggeration whenever he has to estimate numbers that cannot easily be counted. It is therefore impossible for us today to establish the actual size of the Crusading armies.
I came across this bold assertion a few weeks ago in Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades. It reminded me of many similar statements that I had read in the past, all of them calling into question the ability of ancient and medieval people to count in large numbers.

One prime example of this is Herodotus' count of Xerxes' invasion army which he places at 2.5 million men. Always eager to "show his work," Herodotus explains that Xerxes derived this number by counting off ten thousand men, herding them into a tight group, and drawing a circle around them; then the rest of the army was packed into that same circle section by section. After this, it was an easy matter to add up the groups of ten thousand and come up with a total figure. Other ancient sources give similarly high numbers for Xerxes' army.

Despite the manuscript evidence, many modern historians discount Herodotus' figure as highly unrealistic, positing that it would be impossible to keep such a large army supplied and watered along the route to Greece. The largest figure that they will concede for the Persian invasion army is 250,000, one tenth of Herodotus' 2.5 million. Herodotus may be lauded as the "father of history" in theory, but when it comes to counting heads, the Ph.D.'s born two and a half thousand years later consider themselves eminently more qualified.

Whenever I think about this mistrust of ancient and medieval statistics, I am reminded of the passage in Isaiah describing the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. The Assyrian king Sennacherib taunts Hezekiah of Judah, claiming that Yahweh will not be able to deliver His people, the Jews. In response, God sends the Angel of the Lord into the camp of the Assyrians killing 185,000 men. If you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, then here you have very clear proof of the large size of armies in ancient times. If the Assyrians could gather 185,000 men (or more) to besiege Judah in the 700s BC, why couldn't Xerxes, with his far larger empire, gather an army of 2.5 million in the 400s?

As far as the medieval chroniclers go, Steven Runciman may be right to distrust their figures somewhat. "Fulcher of Chartres and Albert of Aix tell us that the fighting men of the First Crusade numbered 600,000, while Ekkehard gives 300,000 and Raymond of Aguilers a modest 100,000." The discrepancies between these numbers are substantial; at the same time, all of the chroniclers report that the Crusader army was of exceptional size. But instead of averaging these statistics, or even taking the lowest one, Runciman upholds the modern notion that such a large number of combatants would be impossible to assemble and supply during this time period; therefore, he discards the chroniclers' statistics altogether.

Interestingly enough, Runciman goes on to say that, "when they are dealing with smaller numbers the chroniclers need not be entirely distrusted." Using these "smaller numbers" Runciman attempts to construct his own sum total of what the Crusader army could have amounted to. Whenever the chroniclers mention various contingents within the armies (e.g. Bohemond's knights, Godfrey's infantry), he pieces those numbers together. Finally, he comes to a reasonable total of "roughly 4200 to 4500 cavalry and 30,000 infantry." This number, he cautions, is only an estimate and must be taken "with reserve." A very wise caution since his opening statements claimed that it is, "impossible for us today to establish the actual size of the Crusading armies."

Although it is entirely proper for historians to compare and evaluate primary sources, it does seem rather odd to treat them with such blanket skepticism in this area. Somehow, it is considered more accurate to trust the conjecture of the modern scholar who lived one thousand years after the event than to give credence to the count of eyewitness chroniclers. We live in an age that exalts reason over revelation, and is it not perfectly reasonable to assume that the men who built catapults, castles, cloisters, and cathedrals could only count as far as their fingers and toes would take them?


Thursday, September 30, 2010

How Many Words a Day?

Today I perused an interesting article by James Thayer in Author Magazine entitled "How Many Words a Day?" The question posed, discussed, and answered by Mr. Thayer regards how many words each day on average an author should attempt to move from his brain onto the blank page. The article provides many amusing anecdotes about famous authors and their work habits.
English writer, Charles Hamilton—who used twenty-five pseudonyms, the most famous being Frank Richards—was so prolific that George Orwell accused him of being a team of writers.  Hamilton responded, “In the presence of such authority, I speak with diffidence; and can only say that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am only one person, and have never been two or three.”  He wrote a million and a half words a year, or about twenty pages each working day (assuming 250 working days in a year).
Prolixity of this magnitude is astonishing to say the least! Mr. Thayer goes on to talk about other writers who produced prose at a slower rate.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one novel, which contains about 670,000 words.  It took him eleven years, which is 245 words each working day, or a little less than a typed page. 
Some writers manage their time by devoting certain hours of the day to authorial pursuits. T.S. Eliot had a full time job at the bank, so he made time to write by rising "two hours earlier than was strictly necessary." Rudyard Kipling had his own daily pattern of writing "in the middle of the day, from ten to four." Stephen King writes only in the mornings and reserves the rest of the day for other tasks. Detective fiction author Anne Perry writes "eight or nine hours a day, six days a week."

After discussing the writing habits of many famous authors, Mr. Thayer suggests his own answer to the question: how many words a day? "Writing your novel will be easier if you draft a schedule," he says. "A plan...will organize and prod you, and it will increase the odds you complete the novel." Here is the schedule he proposes:
Initial plotting: one or two weeks.
Research and further plotting: four to six weeks.
Drafting outline: two to three weeks.
Writing the novel: one page (300 words) a day. Finish the novel one year after starting the first manuscript word. If you work full time, 300 words a day is a reasonable goal.
Editing the completed manuscript: about one month.
I could not read Mr. Thayer's proposed schedule without immediately wondering: how does my writing measure up to this? Whenever I spend time writing my novel, I generally get anywhere from 500-1000 words on the page. Unlike Anne Perry and other disciplined writers, however, I most definitely do not write six days a week. Usually, it's more like one to three days a week. Crunching the numbers, it seems that I am a little slower than he recommends, and it will probably take me longer than a year to write my current novel, Road from the West.

Would setting a stricter writing schedule increase my speed? Not necessarily. Mr. Thayer himself remarks that for some people, "a detailed plan is too easy to fall behind, and then discard in frustration." A strict schedule may inspire some authors to keep going with their writing, but for me, it's something else entirely. I have the special motivation of having a husband who asks me about my progress almost every day, who reminds me that I should be writing whenever I complain that I have nothing to do, and who eagerly anticipates the completion of my next book so that he can launch it into the marketplace of publishers. I don't need a schedule; I have David. Which reminds me...I need to stop blogging and get back to working on that novel in case he asks me about it when he gets home tonight.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Making a Racket

Today I Serve was featured on Spalding's Racket, a blog "dedicated to promoting the best in independent authors and their books on the Internet." Spalding promotes the electronic versions of indie books with links to their purchase on Amazon and Smashwords.

Friday, September 24, 2010

In Praise of the Interlibrary Loan

Bishop Asser, in his ninth century Life of Alfred, tells a story about Alfred the Great that illustrates the king's lifelong love of learning and also the precious nature of books in that period:
On a certain day, therefore, his mother was showing him and his brother a book of Saxon poetry, which she held in her hand, and said, "Whichever of you shall the soonest learn this volume shall have it for his own." Stimulated by these words, or rather by the Divine inspiration, and allured by the beautifully illuminated letter at the beginning of the volume, he spoke before all his brothers, who, though his seniors in age, were not so in grace, and answered, "Will you really give that book to one of us, that is to say, to him who can first understand and repeat it to you?" At this his mother smiled with satisfaction, and confirmed what she had before said. Upon which the boy took the book out of her hand, and went to his master to read it, and in due time brought it to his mother and recited it.
In ninth century England a book, hand-copied and beautifully illuminated, was a significant prize to obtain. In our modern era, with the invention of the printing press and now the e-book, it is usually not necessary to go to such lengths as Alfred did to acquire a title we need. Or is it?

As I began my research for Road from the West: A Novel of the First Crusade (my current novel-in-the-works), I found myself becoming more and more intrigued by the character of Tancred, a young Norman knight from Southern Italy. Before I could put a stop to it, he had weaseled his way into becoming the protagonist of my novel. At that point I knew that I needed more individual information on him than summary sources of the Crusade could provide.

I discovered that although there are no modern biographies of Tancred, Robert Lawrence Nicholson had written a dissertation on him at the University of Chicago in 1940. Tancred: a study of his career and work in their relation to the first crusade and the establishment of the Latin states in Syria and Palestine--isn't the name just too scintillating? Where could I find a copy of such wonderfulness? Nowhere in Oregon it seemed and nowhere online for under $300.

I contacted the University of Chicago Library to ask if I could borrow the aforementioned title. The librarian courteously explained that the only way to do so was to go through the interlibrary loan system at my local library. I had never used this system before (frankly, if the library doesn't have a book and I want it badly enough, I just go ahead and purchase it on Amazon), but now it seemed like the only option. I went to the reference desk at the Oregon City library, and the rest was history. Two weeks later I had a copy of a seemingly unobtainable book in my hands with very little exertion and no expense on my part.

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin for establishing the first library in America, and thanks to the Internet for connecting library collections around the country. Nowadays, finding a book, even one as rare as Nicholson's dissertation, is as easy as asking a librarian.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Homeschooler History Obsessions Poll Results

Few school history programs treat all eras of history equally, and most public school curriculum give inordinate importance to the modern era (leaving students in ignorance of everything that came before 1850). Homeschoolers tend to emphasize different periods of history than the public schools do, and our most recent poll asked the question: "What period of history are homeschoolers most fascinated with?"

Choices were: the Reformation, the Pilgrims, the American War for Independence, and the American War between the States. Visitors and followers of this blog gave a decided 52% of the vote to the American War between the States (generally known outside of homeschooling circles as the Civil War).

As a homeschool graduate myself, I have to concur with the outcome of this poll. States' rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the blue and the gray--these occupied far more of our homsechool history time than anything in the twentieth century. One of the ways we learned about the Civil War was through historical fiction, and I remember my late elementary school days were filled with Rifles for Watie (Harold Keith), Across Five Aprils (Irene Hunt), and Turn Homeward, Hannalee (Patricia Beatty).

Since graduating from high school, I've read very little Civil War historical fiction. Do you have any suggestions for historical fiction reads that capture the essence of that era?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What Would the Wife of Bath Say?

Artist's rendering of the Wife of Bath from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
 When Sir Walter Scott pioneered historical fiction by penning Ivanhoe in 1819, he certainly wasn't thinking about how best to include a strong, independent female protagonist. Rowena, the blonde beauty that Ivanhoe ends up with, is almost as insipid a female character as one can find in literature. Rebecca, the dark-eyed, generous Jewess, is rescued from death and dishonor not by her own wits but by the strength of the male hero. For decades after Ivanhoe, historical fiction authors tended to cast men and women in the same roles that Sir Walter Scott used. The man was the hero, the adventurer, the mastermind. The woman was the dependant damsel in distress.

Nowadays, much of historical fiction treats women in a completely opposite manner. Historical novelists (especially female authors) favor spunky, resourceful leading ladies who can rival--or better--the masculine characters with their intelligence, skills, and determination. Instead of waiting to be rescued, the modern historical heroine devises ways to protect herself and even to keep her man safe. I found two examples of this kind of heroine in the last two historical novels I read: Jean Plaidy's The Plantagenet Prelude and Ken Follett's World Without End.

In The Plantagenet Prelude, the twelfth century main character Eleanor of Aquitaine is portrayed as a woman determined to rule. One of her main ambitions is to demonstrate that, in terms of governing a kingdom, a woman can do everything a man can do. When she marries Louis of France, she dominates the relationship and tries to direct all the foreign policy of France. Her second husband, Henry Plantagenet, is much more difficult to control. She chafes under the expectation that she must continually conceive and produce heirs for him. "Her frustration was intolerable. It was unfair that it should always be the woman's lot to bear the children. This shall be the last, she promised herself." The roles of wife and mother are chains holding back her boundless ambition.

In World Without End, set in fourteenth century England, the main female character Caris is determined not to marry for these same reasons. She "resented Merthin for making her an offer she could not accept. He did not understand. For him, their marriage would be an adjunct to his life as an architect. For her, marriage would have to replace the work to which she had dedicated herself." Over and over again, Caris states that she is determined to live her own life and not live through someone else, whether it be a husband or a child. This is one of the determining factors that causes her to get an abortion when she finds out that she is pregnant by Merthin. "I don't want to spend my life as a slave to anyone, even if it is my own child," she declares.

The women in Plaidy and Follett's stories are obsessed with their own status--or lack of status--in a male-dominated world in a way that would not have even occurred to Sir Walter Scott's heroines. One thing we must remember though is that in Scott's time, the notion of women's suffrage had barely surfaced. He described the wants and desires of women as he understood them at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Plaidy and Follett describe the wants and desires of women as they understand them at the end of the twentieth century.

Though historical fiction does give us a window into the time period in which it is set, it also gives us a window into the time period in which it was written. To assume that Scott's description of women in the Middle Ages is more accurate (because it is older) would be just as fallacious as to assume that Plaidy and Follett's portrayal is more precise (because it makes sense in our own time period). Both views are clouded by the conceptions of the author's own times.

To find out what women were really like in the Middle Ages, we need to rid ourselves of preconceptions (as much as possible) and look at the primary source material. Was Margery of Kempe as insipid as Rowena or as feminist as Caris, or was she distinctly different from either? Do the source documents about Eleanor of Aquitaine show that she insisted on equality and despised her role as a mother?

Was marriage a romantic ideal or a degraded departure from independence? It doesn't matter how Scott, and Plaidy, and Follett would answer that question. The real test is this: what would the Wife of Bath say?
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