Monday, August 30, 2010

Archaic vs. Accessible

Carla Nayland, author of Paths of Exile and Ingeld's Daughter, has an excellent essay entitled "Archaic Terminology in Historical Fiction." First, she notes the pluses of using "archaic" words to create atmosphere within a historical novel:

On the one hand, period terminology can evoke a sense of entering a different world. If one opens a novel and encounters...a fyrdman carrying a seax or a musician playing a rebec, it’s immediately apparent that the story is set in a world that is not the same as the modern world, where people dress and act and perhaps think differently.
 Then she offers the corollary caution:
On the other hand, archaic terms can act as a barrier. Too many words that are too unfamiliar can create the impression that this world is not so much different as incomprehensible. 
There are two ditches here that the historical fiction author must scrupulously avoid. Overburdening your novel with archaic (but accurate) words might make it cumbersome and confusing to the average reader. And yet modernizing all terms can destroy the atmosphere of the world you are trying to create. What's an author to do? Nayland gives her solution:

I prefer to err on the side of accessibility, given a choice.... For me, too many archaic terms have the effect of distancing me from the story. I like to ‘translate’ archaic terminology into a modern or near-modern equivalent whenever I can, in the hope that this makes it easier for a reader to conjure up the intended mental image.
How does this philosophy work itself out in her writing? Nayland gives some examples from her novels which are set during the Anglo-Saxon period. Instead of using the Anglo-Saxon word "Witan" for the assembly of nobles who advised the king and chose his successor, she chooses to use the more accessible word "Council." Instead of using the technical name "seax" for the Anglo-Saxon weapon, she uses a simple phrase like "fighting knife." Sometimes, if she feels that the word has no acceptable modern equivalent, she will use it as-is, though making sure to define it by explanation or context.

I am curious what historical fiction readers think of Ms. Nayland's approach to archaic terminology. Patrick O'Brian, in his 19th century naval series starting with Master and Commander, uses a plethora of unfamiliar nautical terms (so many that Dean King has published a Lexicon for readers to use as they are reading O'Brian's books). And yet, Patrick O'Brian's series, which immerses you in the atmosphere of the Napoleonic era, is immensely popular.

How accessible should a book be? Do you, as a reader, want to be stretched by having to deduce what certain archaic/unfamiliar terms mean? Or will you give up on the book if you encounter anything in unfamiliar language? Examples?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Homosexualization of History

Baldwin I is crowned King of Jerusalem
Yesterday, as I was doing some research for my current work in progress (Road from the West: A Novel of the First Crusade), I spent some time studying the life of Baldwin I, the man who succeeded his brother Godfrey of Bouillon as King of Jerusalem. I came across an article that claimed that Baldwin was a homosexual, citing as proof the fact that he had no children by any of his three successive wives and that in one place the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre says he "struggled in vain against the lustful sins of the flesh." Conclusive evidence, no?

This was yet another example of a historical fallacy that I've seen surfacing time and time again in popular history books. This fallacy goes something like this: "Person X had no biological children. Homosexuals have no biological children. Therefore, Person X was a homosexual." This makes just about as much sense as saying, "Monks do not marry. Elizabeth I did not marry. Therefore, Elizabeth I was a monk." Are there no other reasons besides homosexuality that a man does not procreate children? And are the only lustful sins of the flesh homosexual ones?

Richard the Lionhearted is one example of a historical figure who has been trampled on (probably undeservedly) by this historical fallacy. Until the middle of the twentieth century, no one seriously mooted the idea that he was a homosexual. Now, this portrayal of him shows up in nearly every biography and historical novel set during that time period. As I understand it, the case for Richard's homosexuality lies in the fact that he had no children (except for possibly one illegitimate son), didn't seem very interested in getting married (deserting his wife Berengaria right after they tied the knot), and in his early days had a very close relationship with Philip Augustus of France.

One of the primary source quotes used to "prove" that Richard and Philip had a homosexual relationship is this:

Et post pacem illam Ricardus comes Pictaviae remansit cum rege Franciae contra voluntatem patris sui; quem rex Franciae in tantum honorabat, quod singulis diebus in una mensa ad unum cantinum manducabant, ed in noctibus non separabat eos lectus. Et propter illum vehementum amorem qui inter illos esse videbatur, rex Angliae nimio stuporo arreptus, mirabatur quid hoc esset, et praecavens sibi in futurum, frequenter misit nuncios suos in Franciam ad revocandum Ricardum filium suum....
Which in translation says something roughly like this:

And after this peace, Richard the Count of Poitou remained with the king of France against the will of his father; and the king of France was honoring him in such a way that each day they would eat together at one table from one dish, and in the night their bed did not separate them. And because of this exceeding love which appeared between them, the king of England [Henry II] was struck with much astonishment and marveled at this, and being on his guard for himself in the future, sent his messengers frequently to France to recall his son Richard....
Now, I know that my husband or my brother would strongly object to sharing a bed with another man, probably on grounds that it was "gay." But does this text give a homosexual connotation to Richard and Philip sharing a bed? Not really. It seems just another way that Philip was honoring Richard, and we must remember that in the Middle Ages, men (yes, heterosexual men) shared beds all the time.

Some have read into this text that Richard's father Henry is upset about the strange relationship developing between his son Richard and Philip, the King of France. Yes, he is upset, but I don't think that a fear of homosexual activity has anything to do with it. His son Richard is befriending the longtime enemy of England, and Henry is trying to stop them from allying against him.

Judging this quote by the standards of the time it was written in, I think it is fair to say that the author is making no implications of homosexuality between Richard and Philip. The circumstantial evidence of Richard having no children (standing by itself) is a foolish fallacy to build an argument on. There are several clear cases of homosexual figures in history--take Edward II or James I, for example--but those are cases supported by the testimonies of contemporary historians not created by the speculations of modern scandal-mongers. Historians run the risk of rank revisionism when they make an argument for homosexuality based on the absence of children or anachronistic readings of primary sources.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Giveaway: The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction

Attention free book lovers! Miss Pickwickian is doing a book giveaway on her blog The Erratic Muse. It's called The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction: The Complete Guide to Finding Your Story, Honing Your Skills, and Glorifying God in Your Novel. In this book the author, Christian novelist Jeff Gerke, provides instruction in the following:
  • How to find your story amidst all your ideas
  • How to bring your characters onstage the first time
  • How to convert your telling to showing
  • How to handle profane characters in Christian fiction
  • How to use the dumb puppet trick
  • How to write for the (approving) Audience of One
  • And much more.

You can enter the book giveaway by commenting on Miss Pickwickian's post.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Robin Hood Poll Results

The poll results are in.

Which Robin Hood movie best captures the true spirit of the Middle Ages? Is it Russell Crowe's 2010 blockbuster? Kevin Costner's 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? Disney's 1971 animated version? Or Errol Flynn's 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood?

Tied for first place, both garnering 39% of the vote, are Disney's animated Robin Hood and Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood. Interestingly, both of these movies offer a brighter and more chivalric version of the story as opposed to the gritty realism in Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner's films. The readers of this blog aren't convinced that a dirtier, coarser, bloodier version of the story is the way things really were.

Thanks for participating in this poll. Look to the right side of this page to find the new poll about historical baby names for our expected twins.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Music of Asteria

In an era where one rarely listens to music written before one's own generation, Medieval and Renaissance music is an acquired taste. For a historical fiction author, that taste is indispensable to acquire. A knowledge of the music of the period is as essential as a knowledge of the food, the architecture, the clothing, or the religion.

This week I had the privilege to hear some very high quality Medieval and Renaissance music live. I traveled to Ashland, Oregon with my parents to see two plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF): Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. It was my third trip to OSF, and as usual, the productions were excellent with high-quality acting, creative sets, and lavish costumes. Each night before the play, OSF offers free concerts in the park outside the theater, and at one of the concerts we were treated to a Medieval/Renaissance group called Asteria.

Asteria is a highly talented duo consisting of Sylvia Rhyne (soprano) and Eric Redlinger (tenor/lute). Both classically trained and acclaimed performers, they put lots of research into making their singing historically authentic. Some of the songs in their repertoire are available only from rare troubadour manuscripts in the south of France. The lyrics from their performance in Ashland were all Medieval French.

The program I watched was entitled "Flower of Passion - Thorn of Despair: Chivalry and Courtly Love in Medieval Burgundy." Before each number, Sylvia and Eric tried to enlighten the crowd about the basics of courtly love and Medieval polyphony. Then they launched into the beautiful interweaving melodies with clear, measured tones.

As I said before, Medieval and Renaissance music is an acquired taste. Despite the superior quality of the performers, the Ashland theater-goers showed only mild enthusiasm. One elderly lady sitting near our group commented at the end of the concert, "Well, that was forty-five minutes of the same thing." I sometimes feel like making that same comment after listening to forty-five minutes of popular music on the radio.

Not everyone in my family enjoyed the music equally, but one thing that made Asteria intriguing to us all was my mother's relationship with Sylvia Rhyne. As soon as the ensemble took the stage, my mom recognized Sylvia as a high school friend of hers that she had lost touch with long ago. Sylvia grew up in the Portland area and she and my mother used to sing together in high school ensembles. They reunited after the concert and, going out for coffee the next morning, were able to catch up on the past thirty-five years. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Doug Wilson writes on Writing, Criticism, and Getting Published

Doug Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, ID, and author of dozens of books, gives some excellent advice to aspiring writers. Some of his opening comments involve trying to write well all the time even if you're just writing something as mundane as an e-mail:

If a striking expression hits you, don't hold back just because you are writing an email to your sister. If you think, "I need to save that kind of thing for my memoirs," you are a stingy writer with a heart like a walnut, and you won't have any memoirs to save it for. Who wants to read the memoirs of Old Walnut Heart? Writing ability is a developed and honed skill, and the more you develop and hone it, the more of it you will have. Writing as well as you can in every setting is the way to have reserves to draw on when it comes to writing for publication. Pianists don't have a limited number of C major chords they are allowed to play in the course of their lives. They aren't afraid of "running out." Writing skill is not a zero sum game, and so you shouldn't be afraid of using up all the colorful adjectives. Extending yourself in any situation is the best way to be able to extend yourself in every situation.

Doug Wilson also weighs in on what a writer's attitude should be towards feedback, and especially negative feedback:

If you are good with practice runs, if you are okay with not being as good as you are going to be, if you see the need for playing in the minors, then it should follow that you are emotionally prepared for negative feedback. If you enter your first pie in the county fair while knowing it will not get the blue ribbon, you should also be eager and ready for your friends to tell you why it didn't win the blue ribbon. What is true of your life over all should also be true of your writing life. Criticism should be received as a kindness (Ps. 141:5).

Once you've done the writing and taken the criticism, then comes getting published. Doug Wilson notes the importance of finding the right people to work with in getting your book published.

If you are going to be a writer, you should want to be a writer who excels. It also means you should want an agent who excels, an editor who excels, a publicist who excels, and a publishing house that excels. Happy the man who gets all of them to line up, which is, given the nature of the case, sort of like having a glorious comet appear on your fiftieth birthday, promising you another fifty fruitful years.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Art and the Everyday Interview

Dream Tree, by Rebecca Wood
Rebecca Wood, one of Rosanne's friends from college, has published an interview with Rosanne on her blog Art and the Everyday. Check out the interview, and while you're there, look at some of Rebecca's own art from her portfolio.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cover Story - The Missing Faces of Historical Fiction

One of the book blogs that reviewed I Serve commented on how unique the book's cover was--the solid black background with the stark contrast of the red gloves. With only a few conceptual ideas from Rosanne, layout designer Masha Shubin used themes from the story and her own artistic genius to come up with the cover for I Serve. But just how unusual is it? A short tour of recent releases in historical fiction can answer that question.

First, take a look at The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, by C. W. Gortner. Just released in May, Gortner's book features the middle two-thirds of a woman's body in lavish period costume with the top half of her head obscured. One wonders, but will never know, what sort of eyes the woman has, what color hair, what expression on her face.


Alison Weir's latest release, Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, has nearly all the same elements on the cover, the main difference being that the heroine's dress is a captivating shade of blue. The reader is also treated to a glimpse of the heroine's nose although the eyes are still obscured by the author's banner across the top.


Moving out of the Middle Ages into the ancient world, you can see that the same formula holds true. Michelle Moran's new book Cleopatra's Daughter shows the chin, torso, and upper legs of a Roman maiden with an outfit every bit as elaborate as the clothes of the medieval queens.

One of my favorite historical fiction authors, whom I discovered nearly fifteen years ago, is Edith Pargeter. When I first read her quartet The Brothers of Gwynedd, I remember the distinctly medieval feel of the cover with the gold calligraphy and illuminated initial.

Just this year, Pargeter's Brothers of Gwynedd has been reprinted. The cover has been modernized to fit in with current trends. The hero of the book, Llewellyn of Wales, is a distinctly masculine protagonist and all the women in the story are relegated to supporting roles, but even so, we have the headless bodice of a medieval beauty on the top half of the cover, while a band of armed men on the bottom half make a halfhearted attempt to represent the actual plot.

So, is I Serve's cover unique? Most definitely. But whether that is a desirable quality, I will leave to the taste of the reader.
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