Monday, December 31, 2012

Writer-ly Resolutions...or should I say "Goals"?

Earlier this week, I heard a radio station host say that we shouldn't make New Year's "Resolutions" for ourselves but should call them "Goals" instead. "Goals", it seems, is a friendlier word. That way, we won't feel as bad if we don't live up to them, and instead of despairing at our failure, will pick ourselves up and try again.

At first, I wrinkled my nose at this piece of advice. I like to give myself firm deadlines. And I like to meet those deadlines. If it's Law vs. Grace, I'm with Law all the way.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that there's quite a bit of wisdom in this. Last year, I had several resolutions that weren't met. I was planning to finish Flower of the Desert: Book II of the Chronicles of Tancred. I was also planning to finish a nonfiction project, working with a church committee to put some of our pastor's sermons together into a book.

But things happened. Life happened. I had a baby--Boy Number Three--in January. My oldest son had four extended stays at the hospital and five different PICC lines put in his arm so we could spend a total of 10 weeks giving him IV antibiotics at home. 

Before I was a mother and a wife, I was fairly invincible...or, at least, I felt that way. I performed what I promised. I stayed up late if I had to get things done or skipped social outings if I had a project I wanted to finish.

Things are different now. If Adam has a fever, everything goes on the back burner until I can take him in for labwork. If Marcus is teething, I have to hold him all afternoon instead of sneaking in a half hour of writing. If David has a school paper that needs proofing, I'll spend half the evening doing that instead of writing a new chapter. I have to make a choice between staying up late to write (and being a very grumpy mother the next morning), or getting my rest so I can be kind to my kids and my husband.

And with all these other beings depending on me, I've found that it's a lot harder to control my own destiny than it used to be. It's a lot more challenging, and sometimes humanly impossible, to meet my self-imposed deadlines. New Year's Resolutions? Maybe it's time to start setting "Goals" instead.
GOALS for 2013 
(1) Finish Flower of the Desert: Book II of the Chronicles of Tancred. The first draft is two-thirds done, and the ending is already written. I just need to connect the dots and tie everything together. 
(2) Finish To Wed an Heiress. This is a novel of romantic suspense set during the Regency period. I started it during NaNoWriMo in 2011, and picked it up again in November of 2012. It's a lot "fluffier" than the historical fiction I usually write, and a great exercise to help me focus on creating memorable characters instead of on incorporating historical research. And it's also stretching me in another area I need stretching--writing a believable romance and building romantic tension. 
(3) Finish "The Sabbath Book", the working title of the project my church committee has undertaken. So far we have transcribed twenty or so sermons on the Lord's Day by our pastor, and have been editing and condensing them in book format. Yours Truly is the general editor, distributing tasks and coordinating the project. It's been in the works for two-and-a-half years now, with many starts and stops due to my tumultuous family life. And as one of my team members said the other day, "We better get this finished before Rosanne has another kid."
So, there you have my goals for the upcoming year. Ambitious? I think so. Doable? Lord willing. If we can stay clear of the hospital for twelve months, there just might be a chance....

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Queen of Scots and the End of the World: Saturday Links

Today's Saturday Links both come from the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, a site with daily historical essays written by historical novelists. If you love English history, then you NEED to follow this blog regularly. I learn new things every day from one of the forty-or-so novelists who post there.

Barbara Kyle had an excellent post on Mary, Queen of Scots. I loved that it mentioned her half-brother James, Earl of Moray--the hero of a short story I wrote a while back and hopefully the hero of a novel I will write someday in the future.

Nancy Bilyeau posted Friday about the day the world 1881. She talked about the legendary sixteenth century Mother Shipton on whose prophecies this spurious prediction was based. I guess the Tudors and the Mayans have something in common after all--being wrong.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Stocking Stuffer Debacle

It's pretty easy to buy stocking stuffers for little boys--candy, Hot Wheels, train stickers, socks. The hard part comes when you have to buy stocking stuffers for the husband. This year, I bought a few things on-line, but my main plan was to stick a bottle of Jameson in the top of his stocking. That takes up a lot of room, right? Problem solved. Mischief managed.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband came home from work and I heard, from the other room, the sounds of the liquor cabinet opening. "Did you go to the liquor store?" I asked, a little apprehensive.

"Yes, I just got a bottle of Jameson."

"Oh." That was a bit of an upset. Everyone knows you're not supposed to buy ANYTHING for yourself around Christmastime, just in case somebody is already planning to gift it to you. I decided to admit my disappointment to the world. "I was going to buy a bottle of Jameson for your stocking."

"Oh. Sorry. But you know I only have so much time to drink during my school break, so I need to get started right away." An amusing statement, but a true one. My husband attends a Quaker university, and has signed (and actually observes) a pledge that doesn't allow him to consume alcohol during the semester.

"OK, I guess I'll have to think of something else for your stocking."

I made dinner that night--worthy of mention because it doesn't happen all the time. Unfortunately, I decided to fry something in oil, a process which I both hate and am not very good at. Ergo, dinner was burnt. Ergo, I felt like a failure as a cook, a wife, a mother, and a person.

My husband tried his best to console me--"It wasn't as bad as when the nachos caught on fire last week."--but somehow, my spirits failed to lift. At last he said, "Do you have any tonic water?"

"Yes, why?"

"I bought you a bottle of gin for your stocking, but it sounds like you might need it now."

What a wonderful man! And in other news, it looks like we're both out of ideas for stocking stuffers.... Back to the drawing board.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Biased? Of course!

Today I have a post up at English Historical Fiction Authors discussing one of my favorite hobby horses--historians' bias. I use John Wycliffe as a case example and show how historians from the Middle Ages on have treated him as either a hero or a villain. Click on over and have a read.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Books I am EXCITED for: Saturday Links

I don't have much time for writing up today's Saturday Links post, so I'll make it short and sweet.

Sam Thomas writes about the evolution of the book cover for his upcoming release The Midwife's Tale. Interesting stuff to see how the cover artists played around with the idea before reaching the finished result.

Nancy Bilyeau gives an exclusive cover reveal for her upcoming release The Chalice, sequel to her fabulous Tudor thriller The Crown. This is a book cover I really like, and I'm sure I'll like the book itself just as much, if not more.

Philippa Jane Keyworth's Regency romance The Widow's Redeemer releases today. A penniless young widow with an indomitable spirit.... A wealthy viscount with an unsavory reputation.... See the sparks fly and watch love ignite in this story "filled with all kinds of delectable angst and drama." InD'Tale Magazine)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I'm Thankful For....

Pumpkin pie, which I started eating yesterday

A hardworking husband with faith as firm as a rock during all our trials

Two giggly little boys who like jumping off of couches and getting tickled by Daddy

One almost-not-a-baby-anymore who wants oh-so-desperately to walk

Finishing all the pre-publication work on Philippa Jane Keyworth's upcoming novel The Widow's Redeemer (which will be released by Madison Street Publishing on December 1)

Reaching 60,000 words this morning on the first draft of Flower of the Desert

Celebrating Thanksgiving at the in-laws and not at the hospital

A God who never leaves us or forsakes us

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Covering the Same Ground: Can You Do a "Remake" of a Popular Novel?

We've seen it time and again in Hollywood--remakes of the same story with new actors, a new director, and (hopefully) a slightly new take on the story. Some movie goers (I assume) enjoy new takes on old stories. Others roll their eyes and groan. "Another Spiderman movie?!?!"

I was intrigued to hear about Anne O'Brien's next venture, to write the story of a woman who has already been immortalized in a very popular historical novel. O'Brien goes into the project fully aware of the enormity of the challenge. In a recent post, she writes:
I have decided to write the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Lancaster, to be released in Spring 2014.  Am I mad to do so?  What is it that has made me take on such a sacred subject, to step onto such hallowed ground?  
Katherine, that beautiful love story written by Anya Seton, was first published in 1954.  It is considered to be a classic novel of its kind, read and adored by all aficionados of historical fiction.  I read it in the 1970s and was entranced, carried away by the vivid depth of accurate historical detail and the sheer romance of the relationship.  I could not envisage a better historical novel.
This praise of Seton's novel is something with which I can agree wholeheartedly. Katherine is one of my top five favorite historical novels, and if I can ever write something half as good, I will consider my authorial career a success.

With Seton's book being universally acknowledged as a triumph, is there room for another work on Katherine Swynford? Or is the canon closed on John of Gaunt's famous mistress?

 So what made me decide to place my head on the block and write about these most famous of 14th century lovers? Certainly not a desire to do a better job than Ms Seton.  I would not presume. But perhaps to write something different.... [I]t seems to me that the relationship between John and Katherine was far more than just a simple love affair.  How could a simple falling in love cause this unlikely couple to cast aside all they knew, accepted, and believed to be morally right....   
...I consider it to be a tale of compulsive desire and need, sweeping all before it with the force of a tsunami, and so much stronger than love. I have to write it.
And in the end, isn't that the most important consideration for what subject you choose for your novel? Even if someone else has already told the story, if it speaks to you in such a way that you "have to write it", I think there's room for one more version of the tale.

Mary, Queen of Scots, is one oft-depicted character whom I would like to explore in a future novel. I may not do a better job of those that have gone before me, but I would certainly do something different. I have not gotten to the point yet where I "have to write" her story, but the desire has been growing incrementally over the years.

Are there any stories already told that you would like to tell again in a different way?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Using Primary Sources and Joining the Correct Critique Group: Saturday Links

I've been up at the hospital all week with my son (fourth visit in six months), which means not as much computer time as at home. When he's awake, my laptop must be used for watching Shaun the Sheep, and when he's sleeping, I should be sleeping too--since we'll be woken up every couple hours for vital signs, antibiotics, or blood draws. Despite the dearth of Internet browsing, there were still a few articles that caught my eye this week.

One was Kim Rendfeld's post asking, "What if long ago letters were part of high school history classes?" Primary sources are a subject near and dear to my heart. When I taught history for junior high and high school, we read a couple primary source excerpts a week, and many of their books for the class were primary sources (Joinville's history of the Crusades, William Bradford's Plymouth Plantation, the Diary of Anne Frank).

Primary sources can bring a period to life in a way that memorizing names and dates cannot, but they are also especially important for teaching the concept of inescapable bias. By reading contradictory primary sources, students can learn that how you decide to tell a story and what facts you decide to include, will paint an entirely different picture than someone else recording the same event. For the history student, reading and evaluating primary sources has the same importance as performing lab experiments does for the science student.

Another post that caught my eye was Teralyn Rose Pilgrim's article on critique groups. They work best, she says, when they're in your own genre. She relates her experience of working with writers--good ones--who happened to have no background in history or historical fiction. They wanted her to add lots of explanatory text which ended up bogging down her story instead of helping it.

I tend to agree with Teralyn on this one--it's hard to get a good critique from someone who's not familiar with historical fiction. It's a bit like getting a critique on a cookbook from someone who doesn't cook.

Which reminds me, I need to get on the ball and submit my membership to the Historical Novel Society. They're kicking around the idea of starting a Pacific Northwest chapter, and if that happens, I'd love to be involved in the meetings.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place: Amazon Reader Reviews

There's been a lot of hoopla lately over fake reviews on Amazon, both positive ones and negative ones.  The problems exposed are various: some five-stars have been purchased to unscrupulously boost authors' sales, some one-stars have been purchased to unscrupulously lower rivals' sales, some glowing panegyrics have been written by biased friends and family members, some malicious diatribes have been written by angry trolls.

Throughout the past several months, the statement has been made over and over again that the Amazon reader review system is so flawed as to be worthless. But is it? This post that I read earlier this week gave a good defense of Amazon reader reviews, and after reading it, I wanted to post my own thoughts on the subject.

Sure, I know that some reviews might be originating from biased sources, but I also know that I have posted my own honest reviews on Amazon and that there are other people like me. I believe that I have the ability to discern between the review of a rabid fan, a disgruntled troll, and a discerning individual. I'm not going to buy a book solely because of how many five-star reviews it has. I'm going to read those reviews and see if they discuss the books' merits intelligently and if those merits are something I would appreciate. I'm not going to dismiss a book simply because of how many one-star reviews it has. Again, I'm going to read those reviews and see if the detractors' have any legitimate points.

I'm still going to look at Amazon reader reviews when I buy the baby his next car seat, when I buy galoshes for my boys, and when I buy Advent decorations for my house. I'm still going to look at Amazon reader reviews when I add books to my wish list for Christmas. And though I may not trust implicitly in the honesty of each review, I trust in my own ability to sort the wheat from the chaff. A place for everything and everything in its place, say I. And despite all the negative press, Amazon reader reviews still have a place in helping me decide what books I will and will not buy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Too Close to Home?--Reading Inside Your Own Genre

One of the reasons I have chosen to write historical fiction is because I have always loved reading it. Last year, almost every single book I read was an HF title, and this year I've had to make a conscious effort to branch out in other genres.

In some ways, however, becoming a historical novelist myself has been a double-edged sword when it comes to enjoying other historical novels. On the one hand, it makes me enjoy good historical novels even more. Besides appreciating the stories, I can also better appreciate the craft that went into writing them. On the other hand, it makes me more critical of poor historical novels. I am unable to turn a blind eye to flaws that I have worked hard to avoid in my own writing.

One example of this is my (relatively) new appreciation for narrative voice. After agonizing over whether to use first person or third person narrative in my novels and weighing the pros and cons of each, it gives me greater delight to see other authors use first or third person narrative well. I recently finished reading two of Kate Quinn's books where she changes between multiple first person narrators and some third person narration, and I was awed by the effectiveness of her approach.

Another example is the use of dialogue tags (e.g. he said, she chortled, they moaned). I've started to work harder on giving each of my characters distinct voices and getting rid of superfluous or distracting   dialogue tags. I also work hard on finding a balance between the invisible "said" and the sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb verbs like "guffawed", "reminisced", "interpolated". (M.m. Bennetts had a lovely post a couple months ago on her philosophy of using dialogue tags.) Now, as I read other writers, especially historical novelists, I find myself automatically judging the flow of their dialogue--which leads to either a greater or lesser appreciation for their work.

A third example is in the realm of historical accuracy. I find that I can forgive a lot of liberties in eras I know little about. "What? You completely rearranged the chronology of this Roman emperor's reign? Fine by me--it was a great story!" In eras I have extensively researched, however (i.e. the Middle Ages), I tend to take umbrage over too much manipulation of facts. I especially hate having modern ideas superimposed on this time period. Knowing the history behind a brilliant novel like Anya Seton's Katherine makes me love it immeasurably more. Knowing the history behind a hack job like...well, let's not mention any names...makes me despise it utterly.

As much as I love reading books in my own genre, sometimes I find that I need to move outside it a little bit--not out of historical fiction entirely, but at least, into a different time period. I'm curious--do any other authors feel the same? Do you read books similar to your own, or are they a little bit too close to home?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Paying through the Nose for a Worthless History Degree: Saturday Links

One article that really jumped out at me this week was a piece in The Atlantic--"Should Science Majors Pay Less for College Than Art Majors?" Apparently, an education task force in Florida thinks they should. They are putting together a proposal "that would allow the state's public universities to start charging undergraduates different tuition rates depending on their major." What is the deciding factor for which majors will cost less?
Students would get discounts for studying topics thought to be in high demand among Florida employers. Those would likely include science, technology, engineering, and math (aka, the STEM fields), among others.  
But Art History? Gender Studies? Classics? Sorry, but the fates are cruel. Unless a university could show that local companies were clamoring to hire humanities students, those undergrads would have to pay more for their diploma. 
Since education at state colleges is subsidized by tax dollars, the members of this task force argue it is only right to use the money wisely by encouraging students into fields which will help the economy.

Ensuring that taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck is an admirable goal. So is encouraging students to think ahead about their careers. The question is whether staggering tuition among majors will actually accomplish either. 
To believe that it will, you have to accept two notions: First, you need to take it on faith that the government is capable of divining which majors are going to be the most marketable year after year. Second, you need to believe that there are a large number of talented undergrads who could hack it in these subjects, but are choosing easier majors instead. 
I would say that besides these two problematic notions, there's a third notion you have to accept--the notion that a college education is solely about being efficiently slotted into the workforce. If your nine to five job is the only thing college is for, then yes, let's make students pay through the nose for a worthless history degree. They're not going to do anything with it--other than understand the past and make analogies to the future, know where ideas come from and what they can lead to, appreciate a variety of cultures without the provincialism of someone who can only see the present. But, of course, none of those things are "marketable skills", or at least, so says an education task force in Florida....

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pope vs. King: The History before Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy

When the pope refused to sanction Henry VIII's divorce, the king severed ties with the papacy, proclaiming himself the head of the Church in England. But if Henry had lived a thousand years earlier, would the pope have had any authority over him? For my November post on English Historical Fiction Authors, I delve into the fascinating subject of how the pope became so powerful in the country of England.
The story of the Pope’s involvement with the island of England goes back to the sixth century, nearly a thousand years before Henry VIII’s complaint. The island of Britain had been evangelized by Christian missionaries in the first several centuries A.D., but after the invasion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, it became pagan once again. In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great, the bishop of Rome, felt a great burden to Christianize these people. Bede records that Gregory, “prompted by divine inspiration, sent a servant of God named Augustine and several more God-fearing monks with him to preach the word of God to the English race.” (read more)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Deep Details and Ungentlemanly Gentlemen: Saturday Links

M.m. Bennetts had a lovely post this week called "The Depth is in the Detail," where she examines how important it is to see historical characters as human and not just as a collection of facts and dates.
...there are so many histories and works/or of historical fiction or romance where the authors seem to have no clue as to the humanity of those about whom they’re writing. 
They’re not human, they’re not people–these figures who people the pages–they’re names or titles with a set of posh clothes.  Which makes them a named clothes’ horse–not a person. These characters or historical figures are nothing more than cardboard cutouts–you can’t imagine them having a lie-in of a Sunday morning, or preferring sausage to streaky rashers with their cooked breakfast.  
For without some sense of character, of likes and dislikes, of what makes them smile or laugh, well, without that…I don’t know…history is reduced to this dry as late autumn leaves affair, with the life crushed out of it. Hence, it’s no wonder that today’s students perhaps think history is boring. (read more)

* * * 

Philippa Jane Keyworth gave a delightful parody of P&P's opening line to tell us that: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lady of the 21st Century loves a Regency gentleman." She then introduced us to her own Regency gentleman, the Viscount Beauford, in an excerpt from her debut novel, The Widow's Redeemer, due out next month. Trouble is, he doesn't seem like much of a least from this excerpt.

Books took flight as though given life, their covers flapping like wings. A tall gentleman was knocked back into the doorway only just managing to maintain his balance. 
“Oh, I am so dreadfully sorry!” Bending down with no care for clean skirts, Letty retrieved as many books as possible—until her frantically scrambling hand brushed the hand of the gentleman in question. She flinched, her arm jolting away from the contact. 
“Lady, you are a curse!” (read more)

If this book looks interesting to you, you should know there's a giveaway for it running on Goodreads all this month. Enter for your chance to win one of two copies.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Widow's Redeemer by Philippa Jane Keyworth

The Widow's Redeemer

by Philippa Jane Keyworth

Giveaway ends November 30, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Holly and the Ivy: Medieval Allegory and the Natural World

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

I've been leading the choir this year at King's Academy, the junior and senior high where I taught for five years before "retiring". It was a rather unexpected job offer--the teacher they had hired was involved in a very serious car accident right after school started in September. Since I already know the ropes, I offered to fill in for the position if I could find babysitting, and once the babysitting presented itself (thanks, mom!), I have been able to go in twice a week to rehearse the students for their Christmas program.

The headmistress had already picked out the theme for this year's Christmas concert. She wanted an Old English setting, with wassail and Yule logs and boar's heads with all the trimmings. It's been fun to run through the old carols--"Good King Wenceslas", "I Saw Three Ships", "Masters in This Hall," and others.

One of the songs we practiced this morning was "The Holly and the Ivy". If you Wikipedia this song, you'll read all about how the lyrics contain a blend of pagan and Christian elements. Maybe they do--or maybe it's the same thing that secularists try to say about all Christian holidays. What struck me today was how beautifully the song combines a study of the natural world with theology and poetry.

The holly bears a blossom,
As white as lily flow'r,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our dear Saviour

In each of the verses, we see a characteristic of the holly plant, the observations of a budding botanist. And this then is juxtaposed with two lines about Mary giving birth to Jesus. You can't help but compare the two things.

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To do poor sinners good

There's an edge and a sharpness that often gets missed in nativity story retellings but shows up quite poignantly in this song. Why did Mary bear Jesus? To do poor sinners good with his blood--which happens to be as red as holly berries.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
On Christmas Day in the morn.

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as the gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
For to redeem us all.

The sweet Christmas Day story has a sharpness and a bitterness to it since it is the precursor to the cross. But with all the sharpness and the bitterness, it is still sweet, since it marks the day Christ came "for to redeem us all".

In a recent post on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, I talked about the allegories in medieval bestiaries and how the medievals believed that animals had a wonderful capacity to reveal truths about this world and the world beyond it. This song is another example of the same thing--how the medievals looked at the natural world and saw it in relation to the creator. They looked at white blossoms, red berries, prickly leaves, and sour bark and saw a Christmas story waiting to be told.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fabricating History or Handcrafting Fiction?

It's one of those days where you're happy you actually got your work done ahead of time. I've been at the hospital with my oldest son Adam since Monday (trading shifts with my husband as we juggle the two other kids, David's work, David's school, and Adam's care). It's cholangitis again (infection of the bile ducts), and writing historical essays is one of the last things on my mind.

But it looks like the post I wrote two weeks ago is now up on English Historical Fiction Authors. Did the early Britons really conquer half of Europe? That's what Geoffrey of Monmouth's would have us believe. Click here if you want to learn more about the historical novelist who lived before that genre was invented.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Past is Another Country: Saturday Links

The past is another country with its own customs and mores. But history isn’t lost to us. Good historical fiction is our passport to that far shore.... Writers hoping to craft convincing historical fiction need their own set of rules to help navigate this unfamiliar landscape and bring it to life for the contemporary reader.
This week Mary Sharratt has an article on Publishers Weekly with five writing tips for historical novelists. What's number one? Research comes before writing. Sharratt says:

I generally research for at least six months before beginning a new novel. But it doesn’t end there. For me, research remains ongoing, in parallel with my writing until I reach the final page proofs—just in case I’ve missed any tiny detail.

And with that said, I'm off to do a little research on the treatment of Jews during the First Crusade--that topic is figuring prominently in the current chapter of my WIP.

Click here if you'd like to read the rest of Mary Sharratt's writing tips. The other four tips are just as excellent as the one I shared, and may give you some food for thought if you're thinking of cooking up a historical novel of your own.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Marooned with Only Three Books

Well, it's finally happened. Somebody's marooned me on a desert island with only three books to read until rescue comes. I chose three that I wouldn't mind reading over and over again: one classic, one contemporary, and one nonfiction.

Stop by Deborah Swift's The Riddle of Writing to see which three books I brought along in my satchel--and if you have an extra spot in your boat, I wouldn't mind hitching a ride home.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Difficulties of 18th Century Dress: Saturday Links

Why is it that the clothing of bygone eras attracts so much interest? Perhaps it is a testament to the importance we place on our own wardrobes. Perhaps it is because we envy the more elaborate beauty of the past.

This week Two Nerdy History Girls shared some photos from a reenactor in Williamsburg, showing a young lady of the colonial era getting dressed for the day. It's remarkable how many layers of clothing a woman from this period had to put on, but as the post points out, someone used to doing it every day can don those layers pretty quickly. The most interesting part to me was that the front of the dress is pinned together using straight pins!

If getting dressed back then wasn't difficult enough, just think about what it would have been like to do the laundry for a household in this era! Maria Grace guest posted over on Kim Rendfeld's blog this week talking about all the steps needed to launder clothing in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Firewood might be gathered the day before, but if not, the laundress would need to move 150-200 pounds of wood to the laundry site to feed fires sufficient for a moderate estate’s laundry. That alone sounds like a day’s worth of effort, but for her it was only the beginning. Once wood was gathered and fires started, water had to be hauled to fill the copper boiler and additional wash and rinse basins.... (read more)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Coffee or Tea? 10 Questions for Me

Yesterday, I had the privilege of answering ten questions put to me by Kayla Posney at the Pittsburgh Historical Fiction Examiner. What five historical figures would I invite to dinner? Which one of Henry VIII's wives is my favorite? And the all important preference question: coffee or tea while writing?

Click on over if you'd like to find out the answers to those questions and to seven others.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Skipping Ahead to the Important Stuff: The Problem with Excerpted Sources

When researching for my novels, one temptation I face is to sample sources instead of reading them fully and to skim through them at warp speed till I find the parts that are relevant to my work. After all, who has time to read William of Malmesbury's whole Chronicle of the Kings of England when all you need is his bit about the Norman Conquest?

One important thing to remember, however, is that research isn't just about finding the facts put forward in a given source; research is about getting to know the historian. When we take the time to evaluate a primary source as a whole instead of picking through it like a flea market connoisseur, we better understand the thoughts of a person living during that time period. And surely that person (even if he only represents a segment of his society), has a better grasp on what facts, what anecdotes, what lists of information were valuable to the men of his era. Sometimes, the boring and bizarre bits that we would want to skip are actually the key to unlocking an understanding of the period.

One example of this is the convoluted Easter controversy in Bede's Ecclesiastical History. To the modern reader, this disagreement between the Celtic churches and Roman churches may seem like a molehill on the horizon of historical mountains. One might be attempted to gloss over the liturgical controversy and excerpt out the "important" bits about the politics and polity of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. But to Bede, this subject was of primary importance, and if we look at Bede as not just a scribbler of facts but also a window into his age, we learn what was important to the eighth century Britons.

Excerpts of primary sources can be excellent timesavers, but they can also be misleading. Excerpts give us the bits that the excerpter (is that a word?) thinks are important, not necessarily the bits that the author considered most essential. I'm all in favor of skipping ahead to the important stuff, but sometimes it takes a thorough reading of a work in its entirety to know what the important stuff is.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Next Big Thing: Saturday Links

Normally, I use my Saturday posts to highlight interesting articles that I have read during the week. This week all of the items of interest have been authors talking about their WIP's. There's a meme going around called "The Next Big Thing" where you answer ten questions about your latest book and then tag several more people to answer questions about it. It's kind of like those e-mail chain letters that went around a lot when I was a teenager--only there's no threat that if you don't pass it along within three days then something terrible will happen to someone you love.

I was interested to find out that Sophie Perinot's next project is about Catherine de Medici's daughter Marguerite.
Both Marguerite and her mother Catherine de Medici are the stuff of legend—and legend hasn’t been very kind to either woman. I believe that this is largely the result of the political and dynastic struggles which consumed France during the Wars of Religion, generating slanderous publications about the Valois—including the notorious Divorce Satryique that painted Marguerite as a corrupt wanton and which eventually came to be accepted as historical truth—and assuring that they had many enemies. When the Valois dynasty ended (with Marguerite’s brothers/Catherine’s sons), there was no one to protect their legacy as history was being written. I was interested in giving readers a more fair and accurate view of Marguerite who was, in fact, not only one of the most beautiful women of the French Court but also one of the most intelligent.... (read more)
I was happy to hear more about Nancy Bilyeau's book The Chalice, the much-anticipated sequel to The Crown:
I very much wanted to write a sequel to "The Crown," but I was determined to raise the stakes. I wanted to try something darker and more epic, but also I wanted to make the second book more romantic.... Some of the real people who lived in the late 1530s pop up in The Chalice, including not one but two women who would marry Henry VIII. Joanna Stafford also comes face to face, at last, with...Thomas Cromwell. (read more)
I also enjoyed hearing about Debra Brown's inspiration for her WIP For the Skylark. I've been privileged to read part of an early draft of it, and interestingly enough, I enjoyed it even though the inspiration comes from Charles Dickens. (David Copperfield and Great Expectations were my nemeses during high school).
I was always so intrigued and in awe of Charles Dickens' character, Miss Havisham. I wanted to write a story about a reclusive woman like her. I had no idea what would happen in the story when I started, but within a page or so, her adult twins, Dante and Evangeline came into being. It turned out to be them I loved. They had been raised on an estate in isolation and have psychological consequences of that situation. The story took off.... (read more)
And then, as it turns out, I was tagged myself by the delightful Sandra Byrd, who shared more about her third novel dealing with Henry VIII's wives and their ladies-in-waiting.
When I set out to write the Ladies in Waiting Series, I already knew the three queens I liked best, and wanted to write about: Anne Boleyn, Kateryn Parr, and Elizabeth.  I just didn’t know from which Lady’s point of view I would tell Elizabeth’s story.  So when I stumbled upon Elin von Snakenborg, later Helena, Marchioness of Northampton, I knew I’d found my girl.... (read more)
So, now, after sharing all these lovely links, I get to answer the ten interview questions myself and let you decide whether my book is good enough to be "The Next Big Thing." Here I go....

1.) What is the title of your book?
Flower of the Desert

2.) Where did the idea come from for the book?
This is the second book in my First Crusade trilogy, The Chronicles of Tancred. The idea for the whole trilogy came from reading primary sources written by those who traveled on the First Crusade. I was originally planning to follow the Frankish members of the Crusade, but the character of Tancred--a young, impetuous marquis from southern Italy--jumped out at me and refused to be anything other than the hero of my tale.

3.) What genre does your book fall under?
Historical fiction.

4.) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
It's hard to think of someone tall enough to play my blond-haired, blue-eyed protagonist Tancred, but Ryan Gosling might fit the part in other ways. Ralph Fiennes could take the role of Count Raymond, the hero's nemesis in this book. And my two leading ladies? I think I'd have to stretch farther afield than the American actors that I know since one of them is Turkish and the other is Greek....

5.) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Tancred continues his crusading journey from Antioch to Jerusalem, overcoming Turkish strongholds and finding his own heart strongly overcome in this tale of love, loyalty, and lust for power.

6.) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by Madison Street Publishing.

7.) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? And read the intro.
I am a little over halfway done with the first draft...and it's been about a year so far. I'm hoping to finish it up in the next four months. Here's the first line: "The hole in the floor of the church grew deeper with each thrust of the soldiers’ spades." I hope that makes you wonder what they're digging up....

8.) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I've had a few readers compare my books to Sharon Kay Penman's, and the crusader history in this book is similar (though earlier) to the setting of her book Lionheart.

9.) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Tancred's passionate quest to retake Jerusalem for Christendom, coupled with the strange twist to his character following that conquest (I can't say anymore for fear of spoilers), inspired me to write a fictional account of his life to solve the enigma of his character. I wanted to know why Tancred did what he did. And since the historians don't tell us, I decided to write the reason.

10.) What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
The love triangle in the book is based on a 16th century epic poem called Jerusalem Delivered. In the poem, there are two Turkish princesses, one interested in Tancred and the other the object of his affections. In Flower of the Desert, I've changed one of them into a Byzantine girl tagging along with the Crusaders, but I've incorporated several other plot points from the poem. Alexandra or Erminia? By the end of this book, Tancred will have found the answer to that question.

Well, the rules of this thing state that I'm supposed to tag five more people and pass it along. But, there's a slight problem--being tagged so late in the game, I've discovered that almost all the writers in the circles I frequent have already done their posts for The Next Big Thing. So, I'm going to break the rules and break the chain--which isn't too out of character since I never sent those chain letter e-mails through, even when I was a teenager.

Thanks for reading about my Next Big Thing, and do click on over to visit the links of some of my fellow HF authors. They're who I would have tagged if I hadn't been the last kid in gym class to get picked. :-)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Regency Plot that I Forgot

If you've read either of my novels, you know that medieval historical fiction is the genre where I hang my hat. But while both my published works take place between the 11th and 14th centuries, that's not the only time period I have an affinity for. Believe it or not, I have a couple partially written Regency romances in the drawer just waiting for me to finish what I started.

There's one piece in particular that I'd like to turn into a novella or a full length novel. Right now it's only at 6,000 words and it doesn't have a title yet, but here's the set-up:

Mrs. Ellsworth sighed wearily. She propped herself up against the striped satin cushions to make her final appeal. “You, sir, are his uncle! How can you be so unfeeling toward his plight?”
Lord Pearlton gave an affected yawn and adjusted his sleeve cuffs with minute precision. “My dear sister, the blessed state of bachelorhood is hardly a plight which one need be feeling towards. Your Harry is unmarried—let him count himself fortunate. The beast matrimony will savage him soon enough.”
“Your personal distaste of matrimony is wholly irrelevant to the issue,” replied Mrs. Ellsworth coldly. It was a sore point between them that Lord Pearlton had never married. She, a dozen years his senior, had never failed in offering her admonitions on the subject. He, a wealthy bachelor of the first stare, had never failed in disregarding them. When he had turned thirty last spring, she had pronounced him incorrigible and had disappointedly given up all projects for his future. Now, however, there was another project to be managed. Young Henry Ellsworth had reached the hallowed age of twenty-one, and his mother was determined that he would marry an heiress. But first, his uncle must introduce him into the proper society.
“Camilla,” said Pearlton languidly, “you do understand that fortune hunters are not looked upon favorably in society, do you not?”
Mrs. Ellsworth took offence. “Harry is not a fortune hunter!”
“Oh, I beg your pardon. Perhaps there is a better phrase to designate impecunious gentlemen desiring to entrap wealthy females.”
“Upon my word, Lindsey! You are completely odious.”
“Regrettably, yes.”
“I knew how it would be when I resolved to ask you, but no amount of effrontery will deter me from seeking the good of my child. Will you, or will you not, do your duty by your nephew?”
“I was not aware that my duty consisted of throwing him in the way of wealthy young women.” 

Naturally, Lord Pearlton is prevailed upon to acquiesce to his sister's request. He bring's Harry to London and sets about finding him a bride. A dinner party and some social visits narrow down the field to Anna Marchmount, an heiress with an invalid mother who does not spend much time in Town. Pearlton connives to get an invitation out to the Marchmounts' country estate and brings Harry there to woo the fair damsel. In the process, Pearlton realizes that he's fallen for Anna himself.

The trouble is, it's been so long since I first started this piece that I can't remember what is keeping Pearlton and Anna apart. What's the obstacle that must be overcome (other than the fact that she was supposed to be Harry's in the first place)? There's a scene a few thousand words in that sets up a mystery in Pearlton's past:

 Without mincing words, Pearlton outlined the commission entrusted to him by his anxious sister, namely, to promote his nephew’s interest with a lady of quality and money. “And the long and short of the matter is that I agreed to it, and now I have the wretched lad in tow.”
Wilmington whistled thoughtfully. “That does beat all. Don’t envy you. Wouldn’t like it if it was me. Is he up to snuff?”
“Regrettably, no. He’s the veriest gudgeon I’ve ever laid eyes upon. He has no sense of address, no charm, no virtues at all that I can discover, unless they be his staunch sobriety and adherence to familial duty. But be this as it may, I am determined to carry it off. I view this undertaking in the light of a challenge, and I cannot fail.”
“Can’t fail, eh?” said Wilmington with a mischievous shine in his eye. “Let’s hope this challenge ain’t like that one with Featherby because if it is, you ain’t--”
“Good God, George!” interrupted Pearlton. “Will you never let me live that down?” He ran a hand through his brown curls and begged his friend to give up his constant allusions to that unfortunate incident now ten years past.
The Earl of Wilmington chuckled. “If it was me, you’d never let me forget it. They all said that you were the sure thing, and that Featherby couldn’t hold a candle to you--”
“Enough!” pleaded Pearlton.
“And I laid out a hundred pounds on you. I had such faith--”
“My good man,"--Pearlton's voice was jovial but an experienced listener might have noticed a hard edge to it--"if you continue on in this vein, I really must take my leave of you. My amour propre cannot survive this constant assault.”
“Oh, very well then,” said Wilmington, but the smile did not leave his face.
“Very well then,” repeated Pearlton severely, as if the subject had been definitively closed.

I'm certain that this bet involving "Featherby" that happened ten years ago is a crucial piece to the plot and will come into play later as Pearlton tries to win the girl. But I can't, for the life of me, remember what that bet was. Perhaps I never knew in the first place, even when I wrote that scene.

Yesterday, while I was musing on Regency romances (yes, they've been on my brain a lot lately--I'll tell you why in a minute), I came up with a brilliant solution to the "Featherby problem". I now know what happened ten years ago in the challenge that Pearlton lost. I now know why he doesn't want to talk about it. And I now know how it is going to create conflict in the story when he finally woos the girl. But I never said I'd tell you what I came up with--you'll just have to wait till I finish the story. (And since it's number 3 or 4 on my list of WIP, you may be waiting a while. Sorry.)


The thing I did want to tell you is why Regency romances have been a topic of such keen interest to me of late. This summer I've been busy editing a Regency romance for our publishing company, Madison Street Publishing. It's the debut novel of Philippa Jane Keyworth and we've just set the release date and revealed the cover. The story is delightful and the cover's a beauty too. So while you'll probably have to exercise the patience of Job before I get a Regency of my own ready for publication, you won't have to wait long at all to get your hands on this gem. Available online in e-book and paperback December 1--


By Philippa Jane Keyworth

A penniless young widow with an indomitable spirit. A wealthy viscount with an unsavory reputation.

London, 1815: After her husband’s untimely death, Letty Burton comes up from the country with her domineering mother-in-law. Hiding a past she wishes to forget and facing an uncertain future, all she wants is to navigate London Society as a silent companion.

A chance meeting with London’s most eligible bachelor sets in motion a series of events that will bring her quiet life under the unfriendly scrutiny of the ton. With the net of scandal, debts, and rivals closing in, will she let her dark past dictate her life forever? Will she learn to trust again? And most importantly, will she allow herself to love?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What's Important for a Writer, and What's Important for a Man: Saturday Links

This week I read an inspiring guest post by Elizabeth Chadwick talking about how she came to be a published writer. It was especially interesting to me how she didn't care what job she had to work, because she knew that job wasn't her real vocation. It was just something to pay the bills so that she could write.
I left school at eighteen. I had thought about doing a degree in medieval history, but I needed Latin and I didn’t have it. I thought about doing English literature at university, or journalism, but I was put off by the teacher responsible for career advice. She told me there was no point in me applying to university in those subjects because I would need high grades, and I wasn’t good enough to get them. She said there was no point in me applying to do journalism because there was too much competition. So I took her word for it and didn’t apply. Instead I went to work in a department store as a management trainee. In the meantime, my exam results came through and my scores were of the right grades to have won me a university place. But like a train, my life had changed tracks. I had met my husband and I was working as a shop assistant. And really I didn’t care what I did, because I knew I was meant to be a writer. The job was just to earn a wage while I got on with the real business of working on my novel. In quite moments in the shop, I would write down ideas and stories on pieces of scrap paper and card. My heart wasn’t in the job because what I wanted to do was write.... (read more)
* * *

Another guest post that caught my eye this week was by Sophie Perinot over at What Women Write. She starts with a question: "Military victories and territorial holdings remain history’s measure of male success. Should they be the only ones?" She then goes on to talk about how while women are often judged by their looks, men are judged by the size of their paycheck.
Traditional political and military history celebrates men who are effective rulers. The personal aspects of those men’s lives are either ignored or attached little value. I, however, came to writing with a background in women’s and social history. Those fields have a different view of what is important. I also came to my story as a woman or rather—since I was writing alternate first person present tense viewpoints—two women. The opportunity to look at each king through his wife’s eyes raised a pair of questions that (given that, generally, women now choose their own husbands) are even more relevant today than they were 700 years ago:
  • Should the definition of “successful man” include competence as a husband, father and friend?
  • Is it better to be married to a traditionally “successful man” who has little time for his family or to a good and loving man who is an epic failure?
As I got to know Louis of France and Henry of England intimately, my personal answer to the “Louis or Henry, who would I marry” question became clear.... (read more)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Write What You Know: The Universality of Utter Frustration

There's a scene in my current WIP, Flower of the Desert, where Count Raymond, one of the Crusader nobles, feigns illness so he doesn't have to ride out to battle with the rest of the men. His plan? To accept the surrender of the enemy's citadel while his fellows are otherwise engaged.

Unfortunately, his rival Bohemond suspects his sudden sickness, and--sending a midnight messenger up the mountain--performs a power grab of his own. Bohemond makes a secret agreement with the citadel commander who promises to surrender only to him.

The Crusaders capturing the city of Antioch
I've had fun imagining Count Raymond's utter frustration when his carefully laid plan goes awry. I've had fun typing how furious he must have been when the citadel commander refused to fly his flag and bade him send up Bohemond's instead. The fun, however, has been entirely on my side of the computer screen, and not on Raymond's.

As a former teacher and now a stay-at-home mom, I've never been in a situation that's similar, on the surface, to Raymond's. But like most of humankind, I have experienced the emotion of utter frustration. So, in a sense, I'm writing what I know.

I used to think utter frustration was encapsulated in the computer printer not working--when you're about to be late to class, and the ink cartridge keeps telling you it needs to align, and you need that stupid assignment that you just finished seconds ago to PRINT! I now know that printing problems, although they're a close second, must yield the podium to the greatest frustration of all: taking apart my son's port-a-crib.

Normal port-a-cribs have their challenges, but this port-a-crib is a punishment that should have been reserved for one of the lowest circles in Dante's Inferno. The bottom bars (as well as the top bars) lock, and each bar has hidden pressure points that must be pushed so that it will fold in two places.

You have only to read the warning tag on the side of the crib to realize that its makers were not concerned with being user-friendly:

FALL HAZARO-To help prewenl talls, DO NOT use this product when the inlanl begins to push up on hands and krees or has reached the manufaclurer’s recommended maximum weight, whichever comes lirst. 
SUFFOCATION HAZARD-Inlands can sullocade: In gaps between an etra pad and side of the bassinetcradle. On soft bedding. 
-NEVER add a mattress, pillow, comforber, or padding Use ONLY the pad provided by manutachurer. 
-If a sheet is used with the pad, use ONLY the one prowided by the bassinet or cradle manutadurer or one specifically designed to fit the dimension of the basshet or cradle mattress. To reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden infant Dead Syndrome). Pedatricians recommend healthy infants be placed on their back to sleep, unless otherwise advised by your physician.
I kid you not. This is, letter for letter, the exact spelling of the tag on the outside of the port-a-crib. It looks like the "manutachurer" scanned in the text from the tag on another crib and then didn't care to (or wasn't able to?) read through it to see if there were any errors. 

While I may never have been thwarted in my plans to seize a mountainside fortress, I have definitely been thwarted more than once in my plans to collapse a recalcitrant port-a-crib. And if Count Raymond feels like cursing a little when he hears the bad news, I would certainly not be the one to cast the first stone.

Monday, September 10, 2012

An Enterprising Monk: How Bede Changed Historical Dating for the Western World

Have you ever wondered why we started using A.D. and B.C. to reckon time? Have you ever wondered who was the historian behind it?

Today I have a post up at English Historical Fiction Authors entitled "Anno Domini and the Venerable Bede."

Over twenty centuries of history have this phrase appended to them, but it has only been fifteen centuries since the system of dating was first devised, and only twelve centuries since the work of the Venerable Bede made it common usage in the Western world. 
The Romans used the founding of Rome by the legendary figure Romulus, the year we now know as 753 B.C., as year one of their dating system. As the Roman Empire spread, this system of ordering time spread with it. If Rome still ruled the world, the date on this blog post would be the year 2765 ab urbe condita (and these paragraphs would probably be written in Latin). But Rome went the way of the tyrannosaurus rex, and somewhere in that muddle we know as the Middle Ages, someone decided that time needed to be re-ordered. Someone decided that the founding of a little city on the banks of the Tiber would no longer be the focal point of history.... (read more)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Clever Question and the New Release I've Been Waiting For: Saturday Links

It's easy to think of the character in literature you would most want to be (Lizzy, from Pride and Prejudice, of course!), but what about the character you would most not? The New Yorker asked a clever question last week related to this topic, and the answers it elicited gave me a few chuckles, and perhaps even a chortle or two.

In last week’s contest, we asked for the worst jobs in literature. Not actual jobs, necessarily, but jobs implied by the text. Granted, the notion is a bit abstract, which is why we were pleased to find that readers took to it so naturally. An example? This, from @RBDeac: Rip van Winkle’s alarm clock. Or this, from @momattt: Hamlet’s motivation coach.... (read more)
* * * 

And speaking of characters randomly culled from classic literature, I am ridiculously brimming over with excitement that N.D. Wilson's next book in the YA Ashtown Burials series is going to be released next week. Tuesday, September 11, to be exact. It's called The Drowned Vault and it follows up The Dragon's Tooth which I read and reviewed in March of this year.

This week I read a pre-publication review of Wilson's upcoming release on Random Musings of a Bibliophile and felt giddy with excitement.
In The Drowned Vault Wilson takes the interestingly intricate world he built in The Dragon's Tooth and kicks it into high gear. Or even higher gear as the first book was pretty intense to begin with. The story is an action packed adventure from start to finish. There is a lot going on and a huge cast of characters to keep track of. In addition to the characters we  already know and love (or fear), a whole host of new ones are introduced including Gilgamesh and Arachne. Yes, THE Gilgamesh (as in Epic of) and THE Arachne (as in the myth). There is now not just one super creepy evil villain to deal with, but two. Not to mention the large group of people whose apathy and fear are causing trouble for the heroes. Then there are all the historical references too, which are great fun if you catch them. The genius of Wilson's writing is that he manages to write well developed characters while maintaining a plot that is in hyperdrive. Most writers can do one or the other. It is a rare talent that can do both.... (read more)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Gift of Grandmothers

A nice quote about grandmothers,
although kind of creepy if you know the context
in which it is said in the play itself....
The last two weekends we took two three-hour road trips up the I-5 corridor. Why? My husband's Grandma Shelby was recently diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The doctors don't know how long she has left--a few weeks? A few months? We want to spend as much time with her as we can and give her a chance to see our kids before she passes on.

Grandma Shelby, Adam, Marcus, Oliver

I don't know Grandma Shelby that well, but I do know that she isn't afraid to be involved in her grandchildren's lives. The first time I met her was at my brother-in-law's wedding. She sized up me and David (my boyfriend and her oldest grandson) and said, "Why isn't this you yet? You're next!"

Grandma Shelby - Pictures by Grammy Pics
My own grandmothers have been a big blessing in my life. I remember learning to knit and sew from my mom's mom, Grandma Donna. True, I didn't get much further than knitting fuzzy scarves and my grandma's signature dishcloth, and yes, I still have the pieces of the unfinished quilt I started at age 12, but I have fond memories of the projects we worked on together. Grandma Donna was never much of a conversationalist, and working together with needle and thread was the best way to get to know her and share something in common.

Marcus and Grandma Donna
Grandma Donna has suffered from Alzheimer's for the past year or two. She moved into a memory care unit in our town a couple months ago, and my own mom has been very diligent going to visit her. I paid a long overdue visit last week, making quite the splash among the nursing home residents with two kids in the stroller and one sitting on the handlebars. It's hard to know whether Grandma Donna recognized us much (She asked my mom, "Are you a relative?"), but she enjoyed seeing the baby and smiled and clucked at him.

My dad's mom, Grandma Monica, has never lived nearby. She was always the one we took vacations to see, in Northern Washington or sunny Arizona. She's the grandma who sent us T-shirts with pictures of cacti or Native American designs. She's the grandma who took us to the pool or the miniature golf course or the Egypt exhibit at the museum. In some ways, her story is the most fascinating. Her father, Carl Heidenreich, was a modern art painter who fled Germany when the Nazis seized power and she herself emigrated from Germany to New York before WWII. Her health has been failing over the last few years, but I hope that someday my own kids will get to meet her.

My third grandma, Grandma Patsy, was my father's stepmom, and not even that anymore since she and my grandfather divorced a few years ago. But even though we're not technically related, she is still the grandma I'm closest to. She gives great hugs and thoughtful presents (like the dining room table set and hutch she picked up from an estate sale in hopes I would be able to use it someday!). No matter how much I try to talk her out of it, she insists on paying whenever we go out for lunch. She knows how to tell a story as big as Texas (that's where she's from, and it shows), but she also knows how to listen to stories too. I think that's what makes her such a good grandma, the fact that she's a good listener. I call her regularly, much more regularly than I call my girlfriends, and we chat about my life and hers.

Grandma Patsy stopping by the hospital
to see newborn Marcus

All of these women have been a great influence in my life, and I'm excited to see how David's mom and my own mom are eager to participate in the lives of my own kids. The gift of grandmothers is a great blessing, and even if it means a three hour road trip, it's something I don't want my children to do without.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Horses and Horsemen in History: Saturday Links

I love it when historical novelists prove they're also historians! This week I ran into two delightful posts by novelists who want to get their history right.

Susanna Calkins over at A Bloody Good Read posed the question: "How long would it have taken to travel the fifty-plus mile trek from London to Oxford, by horse and carriage, in the mid seventeenth-century?" It's a crucial plot point in her WIP.
I needed the cart (wagon, really) to be able to carry two men and two women, along with two or three barrels or bags of miscellaneous supplies.  I needed the journey to take less than a day.   The wagon had to be decent, but more serviceable and sturdy, than luxurious. It had to be capable of traversing 50 or so miles of the muddy, unpaved London Road. Similarly, the horses had to be from a hearty stock, and affordable for hire by a journeyman. Not being an equestrian, a farrier, or a blacksmith (okay, let’s face it, I’m not even sure if I’ve ever even been on a horse), this has been a truly puzzling question.... (read more
Jonathan Hopkins guest posted over at One Ridiculous Author on another horsey topic--the 19th Century British Cavalry. As every Jane Austen lover knows, the regiment coming to Merryton means eligible men aplenty. But what kind of officers would have been in a regiment like that? Would they have even been gentlemen?

Most fictional cavalrymen are, or were, officers. After all, a lady needed to maintain a certain standard of living so it was no use becoming romantically involved with a private soldier. And since officers had to purchase their commissions, provide their own uniforms, horses and equipment, all on a level of pay which hardly covered daily subsistence, (a lieutenant received only £164 5s 0d a year before deductions and income tax) most needed private means of some sort: family money. 
So it’s somewhat surprising to find in real life the majority of officers were not members of the aristocracy at all but sons of wealthy farmers or industrialists, doctors and lawyers, even clergy – the moneyed middle class – who could afford to subsidise their offspring’s careers.... (read more)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Grim and Bloody Time: The Fourteenth Century World of I Serve

Today I have a guest post up at Fly High about the fourteenth century setting of my first book, I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince.

It was a grim time—one of the greatest disasters imaginable overtook the Western world, with nearly half the European population perishing in the Black Plague. It was a bloody time—France and England became locked in the interminable struggle known as the Hundred Years’ War, with the Scots, the Spaniards, and the Germans participating intermittently. 
But despite these harsh realities, the fourteenth century was also a seminal time—an era of change, courage, and determination.... (read more)

Maria over at Fly High is also doing a giveaway of I Serve. It's a paperback copy available internationally, and the entry deadline is September 10. Head on over there if you'd like to win a tale of arms, of death, of love, and of honor.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Something to Laugh At: Saturday Links

My husband will tell you that I am violently opposed to watching videos on the Internet. My rationale for that is simple: it takes up too much time. I would far rather have the freedom of reading an article at my own pace. I can skim if it gets boring, comprehend it even when my children are being loud, and quote it with the simple function of cut and paste.

With all that said, I must confess that I did make an exception to my "No Internet Videos," rule this week. I watched the Smithsonian's tongue-in-cheek video "Five Common Historical Misconceptions Explained," and found that the amusement it gave me more than compensated for the time wasted.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Over-Interpreting Stories and Killing the Joy

Letters of Note published a wonderful letter last week--Flannery O'Connor responding to a teacher who had interpreted her story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," entirely wrong. At the end of the letter, O'Connor wrote:
The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.
This is a view of literature that is neither shallow nor abstruse. O'Connor considers her stories worth pondering to find deeper meaning--so long as that pondering does not lead you down a rabbit hole until you invent allegories as preposterous as the Mad Hatter's tea party.

I love it how one of O'Connor's main concerns here is enjoyment, the enjoyment of fiction. She warns teachers that they can kill the enjoyment of their students by denigrating the obvious point of the story in favor of studying subtleties that may or may not really be there. By over-interpreting a story, you can kill the joy of reading it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Alien Past: The Difficulties of Writing Religion

Last week the Historical Novel Society posted an interview with Lindsey Davis, the author of the Marcus Didius Falco series (some of my favorite books!). One of the questions Richard Lee asked was: "What do you find most alien about the past? Does it help or hinder your writing?"

Lindsey Davis' answer was quite concise. "Religion. I leave it out as much as possible."

I appreciate the honesty of this answer. And thinking back over the twenty books in the Falco series, I can see how Lindsey Davis does leave out the real heart of the Roman religion. Sure, she has Vestal Virgins as murder suspects and her protagonist being appointed the Procurator of the Sacred Geese, but throughout it all, Falco remains a dyed in the wool skeptic.

Skepticism seems to be the route many historical novelists choose to take for their protagonists. Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth comes to mind, where Ellen, one of the principal characters, is far more of a "free-thinker" than one would expect in twelfth century England. Follett's sequel World Without End imbues its characters with even more unbelief. Caris, the daughter of a fourteenth century wool merchant, is as unlikely a candidate for a nun as you will find. She doesn’t believe either prayer or relics have the power to heal; she doubts that the Church really knows what God thinks about things.

I think that many historical novelists choose to portray their protagonist as a skeptic is because they have a hard time relating to a true believer in religion. Like Lindsey Davis, they find the rituals and creeds of the past completely alien, and even more alien, the idea that such things could be taken seriously by someone. Religion is equated with superstition, something difficult for an educated modern to fathom, portray, or endorse.

But to correctly display a time period where religion was all-encompassing, would it not be the braver course to make the protagonist a believer rather than a skeptic?

A year and a half ago, I posted about some thoughts Sharon Kay Penman had on this subject. She listed religion as the number one way that the medieval world differed from ours. "All men--be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim--were convinced that theirs was the True Faith.... They can respect one another's courage, but neither side doubts that damnation awaits their foes." In her novels, Penman tries to make her characters, "acknowledge this bedrock belief, so alien to most of us today."

Anya Seton's novel Katherine is another book, along with Penman's, that seriously embraces the religious milieu of the period in which it is set. Whether or not Seton believed in the words of medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich, she made sure to show us that her heroine Katherine Swynford did. Instead of making Katherine a skeptic to make her more "relatable", Seton made her a believer and thus a better window into the world of the fourteenth century.

While writing the Chronicles of Tancred, I try to write about religion as if I were an eleventh century Norman adhering to the rites and rule of the Church of Rome. In some ways the fact that I am a twenty-first century American Protestant helps me in that task; in other ways it hinders me.

But when a scruffy drunkard has a vision of St. Andrew informing the Crusaders where the Holy Lance is buried, it's not my place to make my protagonist distrust him simply because I, the author, am dubious of visions, don't embrace the Roman Catholic view of sainthood, and don't believe relics have special powers. Instead, I must put myself in Tancred's worn-out boots. And though they might be more difficult to walk in, they make the journey more rewarding.
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