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. 

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