Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Man Who Did Not Keep His Word

Have you ever promised something that was not yours to promise? What did you do then? Did you keep your word or did you break it? At that point, which is the worse option?

At the Council of Clarendon in 1164, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was bullied into making some concessions to Henry II that allowed the king undue power over the Church. Later, Becket regretted and rescinded his words. When he was reproached with oath breaking, Becket answered this: “If we lapsed at Clarendon (for the flesh is weak), we ought to regain our spirit, and in the strength of the Holy Spirit rise up against the ancient enemy, who tries to make the one who stands also fall, and prevent the one who falls from getting up again. If under a guarantee in the word of truth there we conceded there or swore unjustly, you know that by no law are we obliged to that which was unlawfully sworn.”

I have always admired Thomas Becket for these words, for admitting that he had been wrong and then trying to correct his error as best he could--even though such backpaddling could only tarnish his reputation further. An oath, according to Becket, is not a thing that is holy in and of itself. An oath may be sinful, a work of the devil. And when an oath is sinful in its conception, it is an even greater sin in its completion. Better, says Becket, to be forsworn than to commit a second sin for the purposes of honoring the first.

It's been nearly ten years since I first befriended Thomas Becket. I attended a small liberal arts college in Northern Idaho named New Saint Andrews College where students were required, to obtain their bachelor's degree, to write a senior thesis on a subject of their choosing. Thomas Becket and I had met early in my junior year during a class on saints and hagiography. I knew, with hardly any hesitation, that this man was my choice for a senior thesis. I spent a year exploring his life through the primary sources of medieval chroniclers and his own letters. I watched him turn from chancellor to archbishop, from a man of the king's coin to a man of the true cloth. And I had the pleasure to write about his transformation, his trials, and his martyrdom in one-hundred-and-ten pages that I then defended before a panel of faculty members.

If you have not become acquainted with this remarkable man, I urge you to take the opportunity to do so. The Life and Death of Saint Thomas Becket: Type of Paul, Type of Peter, Type of Christ is now available for FREE on Amazon Kindle from February 25 to February 29. This copy of my college thesis also contains a free three-chapter sample of my debut novel I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Miracle in the Cave

Every once in a while, during the throes of research, you run across an anecdote in a primary source that you can't wait to use in your novel. In Ralph of Caen's book the Gesta Tancredi, there is one such anecdote burning a hole in my pocket...or should I say a hole in my keyboard? The setup is this: the First Crusaders are camped outside of Jerusalem, doing their best to take to take the city despite a dearth of men, food, and siege engines. Tancred, a young Norman marquis (and the hero of the trilogy I'm writing), is on patrol duty searching for wood to build siege towers. Take it away, Ralph!
Tancred, at this time, was suffering badly from dysentery. Although he could barely sit on a horse, he did not spare himself from riding. This sickness frequently forced him to dismount, to go far off, and to search for a hidden spot. Suffering for a long while in this manner and with feet tired out from the journey, he decided to give up this labor and to return ingloriously. But then the accustomed torment struck him. So he withdrew, and climbed down thinking to escape the eyes of his comrades. But when he looked back, he realized that he had not gotten away. Therefore, he searched even further for a hidden spot but again saw people wandering about everywhere. He changed his spot a third and then a fourth time. Finally, after a long walk under a rocky outcropping in a circle surrounded by tall trees, he found quiet.... After relieving himself and gaining back his strength, he noticed four pieces of wood on the opposite wall of the cave. One could not hope for anything more useful for the task at hand. For, it is said, that they were from the materials used by the king of Egypt in his conquest of Jerusalem. [The Egyptian Fatimids had just conquered Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks prior to the arrival of the First Crusaders.] When he saw them, so great was his joy, that he could not believe it or trust his eyes. He got up and went over to touch them and see them more closely. Thereupon, 'Hey, hey, comrades, hurry here,' he shouted. 'Here,' he repeated. 'God has given us more than we sought. We were seeking rough wood and we have found it prepared.'
Poor guy! Dysentery is no joke, and when you've got to go, you've got to go! It is so amusing to me how he finally goes into the cave to "relieve" himself (a la King Saul) and finds the very thing they have been searching for.

My current WIP, Flower of the Desert, culminates with the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusaders and the siege leading up to that event. I'm still working on the first part of the novel, however, and unless I jump ahead to the end, it'll be a while before Tancred gets to visit the cave outside Jerusalem. I suppose that part of the story will still be waiting for me when I get there though. That's the nice thing about tends to stay the same.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Interview with an Artist: Anna Tooze

"To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art."

So wrote the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. What a novelist does with "forms expressed in words," an artist does with lines and colors. They both transmit a feeling that they have experienced so that others may feel it too. Today I have the privilege to cross out of my own artistic medium of writing and interview Anna Tooze, an up-and-coming artist from my area. I love Anna's paintings and am excited to feature her on my blog.

Anna Tooze
Anna Tooze's Bio: I am a 19 year old Christian artist from Portland, Oregon who loves the Lord with all my heart and am thankful everyday for all his many blessings--including my passion for art.  Ever since I was able to hold a crayon I have been fascinated with color, creating images in my head and putting them somewhere…it didn’t have to be paper. Currently I am a student and intern teacher at a local art school and love creating images inspired by beautiful things I have seen. The best part about being an artist is knowing that my pieces will be hanging on somebody’s wall someday, being admired by the owner(s), and being a part of the theme, style and comfort of that home.  This is why I love giving artwork as wedding gifts. Painting is my comfort zone.  It is what I can put my emotions into and it is something that is truly me.  I also love the connection with my grandmother I feel when I paint.  She also had a passion for painting, and even though I didn’t get to know her very well, I feel like I know her when I paint.

Holding Hands
Without further ado, here is my interview with Anna Tooze. I hope you enjoy reading her answers to my questions and viewing these samples of her work.

1. When did you first realize that you were interested in “doing art”?

AT: I have been "Doing Art" ever since kindergarten coloring projects. It has always been something I have loved and had an interest in since I was about six years old. The first time I realized that I actually wanted to try learning art techniques from a teacher was when I was nine, and the first time I realized I wanted to teach and sell art was just last year (2011).

2. Did you take formal art lessons or are you self-taught? What would you consider the pros and cons to each of these methods of learning art?

AT: Both. I started taking private art lessons from a lady when I was nine, who held classes at my church with a group of about ten or so kids. She retired from teaching when I was sixteen, and soon after, I heard about a local art school and started taking more formal, classroom oriented lessons from there. During that whole period of time, I had also been doing pieces on my own at home and learning how to do different things by myself. More recently I have been searching other artists work and youtube videos to learn from as well (including Bob Ross!).

I would definitely say the pros of formal art lessons are you get to learn techniques from another artist in person and gain basic skills while interacting with other students who are learning as well. You get help and advice from other artists who are experienced in teaching and answering questions. The cons of formal art lessons would be, at times, you don't have as much freedom with pieces as you might on your own. The art school I go to is more of a classical art school. They have levels of classes and certain techniques they want you to learn; therefore, they want you to do art pieces that involved those techniques. You might, with formal art lessons, have homework and receive grades on your performance. Personally, I don't mind that! However, some might not like the fact of being "graded" on art pieces.

Now, the pros of being self-taught are the fact that you get as much freedom as you want (which is very nice at times!). You get to choose exactly what you want to learn and you get to paint exactly what you want to paint. Nobody is over your shoulder watching you, making suggestions or corrections, and all you do is in your own time. No deadlines. The cons are the fact that you wouldn't get formal teaching from an already experience artist and teacher. Sometimes, it can be really helpful to have other artists telling you what they think of your pieces and helping you master troubling spots. With being self-taught, you can still master hard things, but it may take longer and you don't necessarily have support and good critique from others that are learning as well.

Florence, Italy
3. What has been one of the hardest things for you to master artistically? 

AT: People! People, people, people, and I am still trying to master it! The hardest thing for most artists (I believe) is trying to capture the human face and figure as accurately as possible. It is truly an amazing thing when an artist can create a portrait of someone and make it look like you are really looking at them in person.

Fire Flower
4. What is your favorite medium to work with? What is your favorite subject matter? 

AT: I would have to say that watercolor is my favorite medium so far. I have still not yet worked with every medium there is, but so far that's the one I like best. I love the watery, smooth look and feel it gives and how it hardly has any odor! It is also the medium I have been working with the longest.

Favorite subject matter would currently be flowers, but I also love painting city and street scenes, as well as other nature subjects. It changes often, though! I like doing so many things.

Dahlia Radiance
5.One often-quoted phrase is that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Do you believe that is true? Do you think of your art as conveying a “message”?

AT: Yes, I do believe that quote is very true. Whether you are a photographer, sculptor or painter, each piece conveys some sort of message to the artist or onlooker. They may be different messages (good, bad, exciting or boring), but you feel at least something. I would like my art to first and foremost display the glory of God through His beautiful creation. What do photographers and painters mostly create images of? The world. Things in this beautiful world. Whether they are abstract or not, the idea came from somewhere. Even if the piece just looks like splotches of color, we can at least appreciate the fact that we can see color and that God provides that for us!

6. Besides stand-alone paintings, you have also done illustrations for a children’s book called Nightingale. How is illustrating a story different than just doing a painting? 

AT: Yes, I have! Illustrating a story is different because instead of telling a story or conveying a message through only ONE painting, you are trying to tell a story through multiple paintings. You are also trying to make sure the illustrations are clear. It would be strange to see a storybook with abstract paintings as the illustrations. You want to make sure the picture makes sense to the readers in relation to the story ESPECIALLY with children's books. It's definitely a challenge that takes a lot of planning, but well worth it in the end!

7. Do you have any future book illustration projects planned?

AT: Not currently, but I would not be opposed to the idea sometime in the future! If I can come up with a good enough story that I like, I would love to do another children's book.

Happy Autumn
8. Where can people learn more about your art? Is it available for purchase?

AT: Yes! You can learn more about my art on my own artist's website and through my Etsy shop where I have art for sale. You can also check out my book Nightingale on Amazon!

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, Anna! Best wishes on all your artistic endeavors!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Items Learned While Lurking

It's been a while since I've visited my own blog, and I fear the holidays are not the things to blame. No, poor health is the culprit this time. Interesting that my last post was on the Black Plague since  I've been down with some disease nearly as awful ever since Christmas Eve. "It's just a cold," they told me when I went into the doctor two days ago. Then why does it feel like a knife in the ribs every time I cough? And why am I too dizzy to do anything besides sit or lie down? Fortunately, David's still on break from school this week and lots of kind relatives have been helping out with the twins. So, I've had ample time to lay about and convalesce and lurk to my heart's content on the Internet. There have been some interesting discussions of late on the Historical Fiction groups that I frequent, and I have three items to draw to your attention.

* * * * *

Item #1: "Downton Abbey." It's a show that I haven't yet had the opportunity to watch, but there has been some controversy lately in regards to its historical accuracy. According to a recent news article:
Historian Jennifer Newby said the servants in the country house drama, created by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, look too clean and were too friendly with their employers. She said: ''I find it infuriating to watch, it sets my teeth on edge. The relationship they have with their employers is totally wrong.''
Which brings up the question: is historian Jennifer Newby right? Her complaint resonates with how history is popularly portrayed. Most people are far readier to believe that the lower classes of the olden days were dirty and downtrodden than that they were happy and hygienic. Marx's narrative of how the world works seems to have infected everyone's perceptions.

But are the Marxist eyeglasses the only ones worth looking through? Historical novelists Katherine Ashe and M. M. Bennetts made some insightful comments about this over on the English Period Authors Facebook group. And since Katherine Ashe re-posted the conversation on her own FB page in case others were interested, I'm going to take the liberty of quoting a couple of her comments on my blog:
Regarding the Downton Abbey review: I'm sure some servants were filthy and sullen, others tidy and cheerful, with a great many in between. The reviewer reveals more of her own sullen politics than any overriding historical truth. A household, like a corporation, has a certain spirit and those who are part of the household will reflect it according to their individual characters (I'm saying the obvious -- for any historical novelist.) It is well to remember that historians are as much twisted by current political spin as novelists may be.... 
The problem with certain 20th - 21st century historians is the desire to make the past seem virtually unlivable: dominated by inept rulers and their noble, worthless toadies. This reflects the political spin that has been with us, more or less, through much of the 20th century and has a distinctly pro-proletariat, anti-bourgeoise/aristocratic/monarchic leaning with a strong message of how people were abused by the holders of power and privilege. To a certain extent it's true, but it's overdone.

* * * * *

Item #2: "Heaving Bosoms or Chaste Kisses." This is an article that was posted yesterday on the Affaire de Coeur blog. As the title implies, the article deals with the divide between "steamy" historical romances and "clean" historical romances. Apparently, the clean romances are making a comeback.

This topic seems to be a favorite with readers and writers of the historical genres. Do you or don't you like your historicals with a tinge of eroticism? To me, the interesting thing is watching the way people phrase their comments, especially those who don't like the steamy side of things. "I'm no prude, but I just prefer to keep the story clean." Or, "To me, the sex scenes just get boring and take away from the storyline." Everything is couched carefully in terms of preference. No one objects to overt eroticism from a moral standpoint because that would stir things up a bit too much. That would require stepping on somebody else's toes. That would mean someone was in the right and someone was in the wrong.

* * * * *

Item #3: "Writing Historical Fiction Simplified for the First-Time Author." This last item is a bit of humor for your delectation. Author Debra Brown gives some tongue-in-cheek advice on how to get into the historical fiction biz. Here are the first three items on her list of sixteen suggestions:
1) Set aside some years for research and sign up for NetFlix. You will need both streaming and physical DVDs for this tedious process. 
2) It costs money to make money. If you are not working, take your Mastercard and buy a good supply of popcorn. Microwave popcorn is preferred as you have your work cut out for you. (Use your lowest interest card- it might be a while before your first check.) Few are able to research well without chocolate, but you will have to ration it to maintain your current weight, as you will not be getting any exercise. Do not cheat on the rations. (Under no circumstances should you set the portions so low as to injure your self-esteem. You must be able to say, truthfully, “I am, indeed, a person who never cheats.”)
3) Have your spouse take the children and raise them somewhere else....
If you want to see the rest of her suggestions, be sure to click over to the article. I must admit that item number three did occasion the most laughter for me. "Have your spouse take the children and raise them somewhere else...." Well, David HAS been taking care of the kids a lot this week, but I don't think we've come to quite such a pass.

Thanks for listening in on the items I learned while lurking this week. If boy number three doesn't make an early appearance (due date is January 31), I hope to cease lurking and resume living sometime in the near future. Happy New Year!
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