Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Book That Sold and a Book That Didn't: Saturday Links

I read two fascinating articles this week, one about a book that sold and one about a book that didn't. Over at Poe's Deadly Daughters: A Blog for Mystery Lovers, Jeri Westerson describes what happens after an author gets signed with one of the big publishing companies.
Even as more books are becoming self-published, the world of publishing continues to be a mystery. So for all the would-be authors out there, I'd like to tell you the truth, the naked truth, of one author's story of what to expect when publishing with a traditional publisher. I had a lot of expectations myself once I signed that book contract for the first time, six years ago. And even though I was networking with other mystery writers through Sisters in Crime and learned a lot, there were still some things that I didn’t count on. What can you expect? What will happen next? And what should you be doing in anticipation? (read more)
In stark contrast, Corinne Purtill writes a winsome story about a book that none of the publishing companies would take.  Her column, "My Book Was a Bad Idea," explores the question: what are you writing for? Is it for the love of writing itself, or for the fame, the glory, and the money?

In the beginning of 2008, writing a book did not sound like a terrible idea. I was a newspaper reporter with the dumb luck to stumble across an interesting true story for which I can claim zero creative credit. I went to New York and easily landed an agent on the strength of said story. I went to Southeast Asia and squatted in the dust for months gathering interviews and research. Then I came back to New York and set about writing, a thing I believed I loved to do. 
I was wrong. I liked having written things. Writing them was the worst. I wrote and wrote, and could not believe there was so much still to write. I read and reread drafts until I was no longer sure they were in English. I cut pages of useless and boring exposition that amounted to days of work. I was at one point concerned that I had not given enough detail to the process of cashew farming. You don’t need to know what the book was about to know that this is a bad sign. No one, ever, since Gutenberg, has closed a book and wished they’d learned more about cashew farming. (read more

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Just a heads up for authors and historical fiction book bloggers--Holly over at Bippity Boppity Book is doing a historical fiction giveaway hop. If you'd like to give away a historical fiction book at the end of August and maybe get some new followers in the process, head on over there to link up your blog. And historical fiction readers, take note! Here's a great opportunity to win some lovely literary loot.

Friday, June 29, 2012

If George Lucas Wove the Bayeux Tapestry....

If you've seen the bookshelf in my living room, you'll know that one of my most prized books is The Bayeux Tapestry, a hardcover book with full color plates of the eleventh century tapestry telling the story of the Norman Conquest. Somehow, I don't remember this scene making its way into the tapestry....

Thanks to Adelaida Lucena-Lower for posting this pic on the Historical Novel Society Facebook page. I'm not sure who is the original creator of the pic.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wikipedia: The Bane and Boon of Historical Research

Just like the word Google, the word Wikipedia has become a regular verb in our vocabulary. If I don't know about something, I'll go "Wikipedia" it. I'm as big a fan of Wikipedia as anyone, but I still cringe when I see a history student or a historical novelist cite Wikipedia as the source of their information.

Why is that? Have I imbibed the ivory tower snobbery of academia? Do I think all valid historical perspectives must be vetted by peer-reviewed journals?

Wikipedia is an excellent and (usually) accurate reference guide for finding out basic facts. It is a summary of readily available information on a given subject. But for someone doing historical research, it is more the starting blocks than the finish line. Just like any encyclopedia, it will acquaint you with basic dates, names, and events, and (hopefully) point you in the direction of books and articles that will give you a fuller discussion of the topic.

The trouble comes when people begin to see Wikipedia as the end and not the beginning of their research. If a history student's paper is simply a summary of Wikipedia's summary, he has presented nothing new to the world. He may have interacted with the viewpoints of a few historians, but only the ones deemed relevant by the anonymous writer of the page he viewed. He may have seen pieces of primary sources, but reading Wikipedia's excerpts is not substitute for understanding them in the context of the entire work . By basing a paper on Wikipedia, the student has shown his ability to read and condense an article. He has not shown any ability to research, analyze, or synthesize.

This same truth applies to the historical novelist. Although the research in a historical novel is subservient to the story and should not be included simply for its own sake, it is still the bones keeping the body of fiction from flopping about like a jellyfish. The historical novelist who only culls information from Wikipedia's paragraphs, is someone satisfied with a pelvis, a humerus, half a cranium, and a few vertebrae. It's not exactly the complete skeleton, but still enough to give some semblance of the human body. By neglecting to do deeper research, the author will be hard put to produce a book with any kind of depth.

Of course, it is not just the history student or the historical novelist who can use Wikipedia as the end-all and the be-all of research. Readers who are history enthusiasts sometimes fall into this trap as well. It's always mind-boggling when a reader informs the world that he fact checked a book by Wikipedia-ing it--and then assumes that whatever historical plot points didn't show up on Wikipedia were fabricated by the novelist.

I should certainly hope that there are things in my book that you won't find on Wikipedia! And many of those things I didn't make them up--I found them out by reading *gasp* source material! If you really want to fact check, I've appended a several page long bibliography at the end of each of my novels. You'll find books by eminent historians, translations of medieval chronicles, guides to period costume, but the one thing you won't find is a bibliography entry for Wikipedia. Did I ever use it for research? You bet! But I'm far too embarrassed to admit it....

Monday, June 25, 2012

For Better or for Worse: A Book's Ability to Influence Its Readers

Dante's Inferno has always been a favorite of mine. I read it in high school, read it again in college, and taught it twice in a medieval literature class to secondary students. One scene that always stands out in my memory is the fate of Francesca da Rimini.

When Dante passes through the second circle of hell, he sees the punishment of the lustful ones, twisting about in the wind perpetually. The last couple he encounters are Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, two thirteenth century Italians who were caught up in an adulterous relationship and murdered by Francesca's husband. Canto V finds Dante pitying the lovers' punishment:
When finally I spoke, I sighed, "Alas,
all those sweet thoughts, and oh, how much desiring
brought these two down into this agony." 
And then I turned to them and tried to speak;
I said, "Francesca, the torment that you suffer
brings painful tears of pity to my eyes.  
But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighing
how, and by what signs, did love allow you
to recognize your dubious desires?"
A little further down, Francesca replies to Dante's question and describes the scene that sparked the adulterous affair:
"One day we read, to pass the time away,
of Lancelot, of how he fell in love;
we were alone, innocent of suspicion. 
Time and again our eyes were brought together
by the book we read; our faces flushed and paled.
To the moment of one line alone we yielded: 
it was when we read about those longed-for lips
now being kissed by such a famous lover,
that this one (who shall never leave my side) 
then kissed my mouth, and trembled as he did.
Our Gahelot [the knight who arranged the first secret meeting between Lancelot and Guinevere] was that book and he who wrote it.
That day we read no further."
Paolo and Francesca da Rimini
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

By reading of the adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere, Francesca and Paolo fell into the sin of adultery themselves--or at least, that's the way Dante chooses to tell it.

Dante's point? Stories have power. Stories affect their readers and change their lives either for the better or for the worse.

The Bible is one excellent example of a story that radically alters its readers' lives. Many people unfamiliar with the Bible assume that it is a rulebook laying out a moral code. But although the Bible does teach men how to live, it does so in a way one might not expect--it teaches through story. The majority of the Bible is in narrative form, with law sections like the Ten Commandments making up only a small percentage of the text.

The effect of a story on its readers is one thing that authors must consider as they bring their books into being. The oft-quoted phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" is not just a motto for Spiderman to live by.

This is not to say that there should be no evil in a story--to omit ugliness would be to deny the reality of the world we live in. But how does the author present the evil? Does he call evil evil, or does he call evil good?  In one sense, every tale is a morality tale and every author a preacher.

The responsibility that lies with the author does not divest readers of their own responsibilities. It is up to the reader to be aware of how a story is affecting him and to immerse himself in stories that will improve his character.

If Francesca and Paolo had been reading a different story, would their own story have been different? If Francesca and Paolo had been reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, would they ever have committed adultery?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Self-Doubt, Medieval Surgery, and Jane Austen's Ring: Saturday Links

Today's collection of Saturday Links are an eclectic bunch.

Christy English, a fellow historical novelist, posted on her blog this week about a feeling every writer is familiar with: self-doubt. Is what I'm writing any good? It's a quick read, and what's more, she suggests what you should do when you have that feeling.
There are so many times when I’m beginning a draft or a synopsis that I simply do not know where I am, where the book is going, or even if there should be a book. As I stare at the blank screen with my few scribbled notes beside me, I get overwhelmed by nerves and more than a little fear.... (read more
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The Lady of Winchester over at Medieval Reader posted last week about a gruesome injury Henry V received on the battlefield and even more gruesome surgery to remove the arrowhead from his face. This week she followed it up with a more general post about medieval surgery, debunking some myths about human dissection and women practicing medicine.

My favorite part, of course, is the end where the Lady of Winchester evaluates medieval medicine on its own terms:
What really appears to have hampered advances in medicine and medical knowledge was not so much ignorance and superstition, but the over-reliance of Medical professionals on ideas and theories deriving from ancient Greek and Classical authors such as Galen and Aristotle. As well as this, the risk of infection of wounds was also much greater in the Medieval period, although anti-septic remedies and substances (often herbal) could be used, and the lack of antibiotics to effectively treat diseases did not weigh in the favour of Medieval medicine. This said, it seems arrogant, and unfair in the extreme for modern people to become contemptuous and scornful of Medieval Medical men (and women) for their lack of Medical knowledge and expertise in methods, remedies and cures which were not discovered or originated until well after Medieval period came to an end. (read the rest!)
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If you have a spare £20,000-£30,000, it may interest you to know that a ring worn by Jane Austen is up for auction next month. Of course, that's just the starting price, and it's expected to sell for much higher. Isabella/Susan over at Two Nerdy History Girls gives the details on this piece of memorabilia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Too Insignificant to Mention: The Argument of Silence in History

Whenever I'm immersed in studying a particular piece of history, it always seems to be of monumental importance and world-shattering impact. It's a little bit of a shock to hear someone discount it as boring, irrelevant, or not worth their time.

No, I'm not talking about reviewers. I'm talking about historians, and dead historians, at that. I've heard second-hand that most medieval Muslim historians didn't even mention the First Crusade since it was too insignificant to be worth their time.

My most recent research reading is The History of the Seljuq Turks: The Saljuq-nama of Zahir al-Din Nishpuri a translation of a twelfth-century Muslim history which I obtained through interlibrary loan. I sped through the founding of the Seljuk empire and was on the edge of my seat to get to the reign of Sultan Barkyaruq, the man who reigned during the Western invasion of the Holy Land. When I got there, I discovered that the reports I'd heard were correct: the Crusaders were not even mentioned.

The closest thing that could be a reference to the Crusade was the introduction to Barkyaruq's reign:
"In his time there occurred many difficult events, unpleasant happenings, upheavals and much agitation." Of course, this sentence could also be referring to the internecine struggles which plagued his reign as he fought a war of succession with the sons of his father's other wives.

When historians are silent about a subject, it's easy to put your own interpretation on the reason. In this case, the standard interpretation is "the Crusade wasn't important enough to be mentioned." In an empire that stretched from Asia Minor, through Iraq, through Persia, and all the way to India, it is plausible that happenings on the coast of the Mediterranean might be of minor importance compared to battles between brothers in Baghdad or Khorosan.

And yet, in other places of the work, the historian shows that he is not ignorant or indifferent to the Mediterranean area of the world. The chapters discussing the reigns of previous sultans jubilantly recount the Turkish conquest of Christian Asia Minor--a large part of which the Westerners recaptured in the First Crusade. The historian is very interested in the Turks' interactions with Byzantium, especially the part where Alp Arslan crushed the Eastern Roman Emperor at the Battle of Manzikert. Why then is he not interested in the Byzantine counter-offensive (as the Crusaders were often considered, since they had been called to the East by Emperor Alexios)?

Perhaps one reason that the medieval Muslim historians do not like to mention the First Crusade is because it is primarily a story of Muslim failure. It is a story of a ragtag band of Western knights who overcame tremendous odds to free the Holy Sepulcher and carve out five kingdoms in the Middle East. Perhaps it's not so much that the Crusade held too little significance, but that its significance was too tremendous and too terrible to be mentioned. Perhaps my argument from silence is as plausible as the current interpretation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why Were All the Classics Written by Men?

Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Let's ignore Jane Austen and the Brontes for a minute and ask the question: why were all the classics written by men?

Many answers abound. I have never found the popular complaint about women being suppressed to be very satisfactory. I am also a firm believer in the fact that women are intellectually equal with men. So, why then? Why were all the classics written by men?

A few weeks ago, I ran across this excerpt from G. K. Chesterton's "What's Wrong with the World?"
Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school-mistress, but not a competitive school-mistress; a house decorator, but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests. This is what has been really aimed at from the first in what is called the seclusion, or even the oppression, of women. Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades. But the woman’s professions, unlike the child’s, were all truly and almost terribly fruitful.
Chesterton has hit upon something here. Women, though not limited in ability, are often limited in the extent to which they can pursue something because they are called to pursue so many different things.

This may not be true for all women, but I think that it is true for many, and I know that it is true for me. And, what is more, I enjoy this limitation. I revel in it.

I wouldn't care to write if it meant that I never got to bake. I wouldn't care to write if it meant that I never got to scrapbook. And, above all, I wouldn't care to write, if it meant that I never got to give my kids bubble baths, read them Goodnight Moon, take them for walks in the wagon, and make them pancakes with chocolate chips.

I don't want to just write historical fiction. I want to paint with watercolors, compose choral music, grow a vegetable garden, participate in church committees, and volunteer in community outreach. And if that means that all of those things, including my novels, end up being "second bests," then so be it. I'm too busy reading, singing, blogging, and living to worry too much about it.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Rain and Reviewers: Saturday Links

I've decided to start a new feature on my blog called Saturday Links, where each Saturday I introduce you to interesting articles that I discovered during the week. Some of these may have already received excited mentions in my Facebook or Twitter feed, but here's a chance to group them all together and save them for posterity.

* * * * *

The first article I want to highlight is M.M. Bennett's post, "Speaking of the weather..." M.M. is a historical novelist from England that I met in my English Historical Fiction Authors group. You don't have to be from England to be part of the group. You just have to write (or read) historical fiction set in the British Isles--which explains why I qualify.

But M.M., as I was saying, is actually from England, and in this article, she argues against the timeworn warnings for writers to refrain from mentioning the weather.

Talk about the weather?  It’s one of those things novelists are told never to do.  Not ever.  It’s boring, the writing teachers and the literary cognoscenti tell us.  But here in Britain, we talk about the weather constantly.... (read more
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Authors are not supposed to criticize reviewers. Not ever. Never. No matter what. But to be honest, I've been getting a little irritated lately at certain reviewers who think they are the gatekeepers to literature and that they know infinitely more than the authors of the books they review. Whenever I didn't like a book, my mother used to say, "Well, why don't you write a better one?" It's a piece of advice I sometimes feel like passing on....

This week I was intrigued to read Shawn Lamb's post "Review Styles of Writing Styles." Shawn is the author of Christian historical fiction and YA fantasy. In this post, Shawn gives general descriptions of certain kinds of reviewers, my favorite being Puffy the Book Slayer.
Think writers are the only ones with style? Nope, reviewers have styles, whether they mean to or not. In keeping with the tongue-in-cheek mode, here are some review styles that all authors encounter.... (read more

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Our Summer "Vacation"

I am not supposed to be blogging right now. I am supposed to be at the beach. Every year our church holds a Family Camp at Twin Rocks Friends Camp in Rockaway, Oregon. Sunshine or no sunshine, it's pretty much the best summer vacation ever. This year we had registered for our cabin, purchased our snacks from Costco, and got the oil in the car changed for the road trip when...disaster struck.

A year and a half ago, we found out that our oldest son Adam had biliary atresia, a condition where the bile ducts in his liver did not form correctly. He had surgery, an operation called the Kasai procedure, to connect his intestines directly to his liver so that the bile could flow out of his system. The doctors warned us that if he ever had a fever that couldn't be explained by flu or cold, it might be an infection of the liver.

Last Tuesday, Adam came down with a fever and started acting very sick. Wednesday, I took him in to the doctor's office for some labs. When the results came back, we were admitted to the Emergency Room at Doernbecher Children's Hospital. Adam was diagnosed with probable cholangitis (infection of the bile ducts), and put on a two-week regimen of IV antibiotics. An ultrasound showing increased scar tissue in his liver indicated that there might be more problems than just the cholangitis, but the doctors decided that's a problem for another day.

Turns out we're pros at trips to the hospital now. When we found out we had to go in, we had clothes, toiletries, blankets, the laptop, and the phone charger packed in five minutes. David took the night shift and I took the day shift--and aunties Amy, Jessica, and Ange helped out with the kids.

Our summer vacation was supposed to start on Sunday. Instead, we were released from the hospital on Monday, after a five night stay. A nurse came to our house and showed us how to administer the antibiotics through the PICC line in Adam's arm. No Oregon beaches for us this summer--we'll be roasting 'smores in our own backyard. No tide pools and surf this week--we'll be keeping a certain little boy's arm sterile and out of the sand.

While we're a little sad to have spent our summer vacation at the hospital, it's wonderful having our oldest boy (almost) healthy again. And though we're sorry to miss all the activities and time spent with friends, my husband would probably tell you that between camp food and hospital food, there isn't a whole lot of difference.

Adam hated being in the hospital room and wanted to go out
to the courtyard every chance he could get.

He really missed his twin Oliver who was only there for a few short visits.

Marcus was a trooper and stayed up at the hospital all day each day.

Pictures courtesy of Grammy Pics.

Heading home -- too tired to be excited.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Thanks to My Readers, Another Milestone!

A year and a half ago I posted about an important milestone in my authorial career--one thousand Kindle copies of I Serve sold. Now I have another milestone to share, a milestone I never even dreamed of when I self-published three years ago. Tallying up all electronic and print copies, I have now sold ten thousand copies of I Serve. I feel like I'm giving an acceptance speech at the Oscars, and I don't have much to say except thank you, thank you, thank you to all my readers, and God bless Amazon!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Getting Past the Hobbits: In Media Res

There's a running joke in my family about my dad and Lord of the Rings. After the movies came out, he decided he wanted to read the books for the first time. To make a long story short (yes, pun intended), he started The Fellowship of the Ring but couldn't get past the beginning section set in the Shire. "Too much stuff about hobbits," he complained, "and nothing was happening." Sacrilege, I know, to all true LOTR fans, but that was how he felt. After this incident, my family began to use the technical term "hobitty" for any book or movie that starts out slow.

Family members are always the kindest critics, and I've had my younger brother, more than once, refer to my first book I Serve as hobbity. My book hobbity? How dare he! What's wrong with a prologue? Victor Hugo himself spent eighty-some pages discussing Bishop Myriel before the protagonist, Jean Valjean, enters the scene.... Wait a minute. Bad example. I know more than a few people who skim through that part until the real action begins with the silverware thievery.

I'm rather fond of the prologue that leads into the story of I Serve, but recognizing that some readers dislike that style, I've attempted a different approach with The Chronicles of Tancred. Book I, Road from the West, begins with the Normans attacking a city and our hero, Tancred, striding off the field and leaving his post right in the middle of the assault. Book II, Flower of the Desert, also begins at a pivotal point in the story. I won't spoil the surprise my telling you what that is, but if you simply can't wait for the book to be released at the end of this year, I've posted Chapter One for your perusal.

There are many classics that begin a story from the very beginning with a thorough description of the setting or with a long, drawn-out history of the early life of the protagonist (The Mill on the Floss comes to mind). But in our current age of fast-paced television and fast-paced life, perhaps authors should adopt a different approach. Perhaps we should mimic Homer, one of the oldest storytellers of them all, and dive right into the action in media res.
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