Monday, July 30, 2012

The World's Best Writing, Part II

Last week I shared a scene from Jack London's The Call of the Wild as an example of great action writing. This week I want to share one of my favorite descriptive scenes--the opening paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night.

I love how the description is full but not florid. Every adjective is there for a reason. The similes and metaphors ("rotted like water lilies," "its tan prayer rug of a beach") are striking but not outlandish. The world of the story that is about to unfold is as vibrant as the sun on the Riviera.

On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed fa├žade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately is has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April. Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausse’s Hotel des Etrangers and Cannes, five miles away. 
The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one. In the early morning the distant image of Cannes, the pink and cream of old fortifications, the purple Alp that bounded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quavering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea-plants through the clear shallows. Before eight a man came down to the beach in a blue bathrobe and with much preliminary application to his person of the chilly water, and much grunting and loud breathing, floundered a minute in the sea. When he had gone, beach and bay were quiet for an hour. Merchantmen crawled westward on the horizon; bus boys shouted in the hotel court; the dew dried upon the pines. In another hour the horns of motors began to blow down from the winding road along the low range of the Maures, which separates the littoral from true Provencal France. 
A mile from the sea, where pines give way to dusty poplars, is an isolated railroad stop, whence one June morning in 1925 a victoria brought a woman and her daughter down to Gausse’s Hotel. The mother’s face was of a fading prettiness that would soon be patted with broken veins; her expression was both tranquil and aware in a pleasant way. However, one’s eye moved on quickly to her daughter, who had magic in her pink palms and cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening. Her fine forehead sloped gently up to where her hair, bordering it like an armorial shield, burst into lovelocks and waves and curlicues of ash blonde and gold. Her eyes were bright, big, clear, wet, and shining; the color of her cheeks was real, breaking close to the surface from the strong young pump of her heart. Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood—she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Grammar Nazis: Saturday Links

As a former English teacher and a current editor for Madison Street Publishing, I find grammar more essential than some do. This week I ran across an article that was written a few years ago on the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. The title was inflammatory and the article was caustic beyond belief. Elements of Style was a book I had to buy for my college rhetoric class, so naturally I was wanted to hear whether "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice" had any valid criticisms.

The gist of the article is given in the third paragraph:
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
The author goes on to explain that stylistic rules like "Avoid needless words" are pointless. People who know which words are needless don't need the rule, and people who don't know can't learn which ones from such a vague imperative. He argues that the authors of the book are grammar illiterates, using "examples" of the dreaded passive voice that aren't even passive constructions.

Many problems pointed out in this article are spot on--but throughout the whole thing, I still wanted to give the good, old Elements of Style the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps a kindlier approach would have lent the author more ethos. Perhaps a little more charity would have proved his point with readers.

* * * 

A slightly less caustic article appeared in the Harvard Business Review just this last week with the title, "I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why."

If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building. 
Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss's more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar "stickler." And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves — I have a "zero tolerance approach" to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.... (read more)

This article makes the important point that people who pay attention to their grammar also pay attention to other things. Detail oriented writers are detail oriented workers.
Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.
* * *

And, for the few who haven't seen it already, here is a short video about a grammar Nazi searching for Jews amid double negatives, run-on sentences, and dangling participles.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Shakespeare Meets Americana

I saw this on Facebook today and had to share....

Monday, July 23, 2012

The World's Best Writing, Part I

Once upon a time, when I used to teach high school English classes, I gave my students examples of writing that it would behoove them to imitate. They're also examples that I look to for writing style inspiration.

The scene below--from The Call of the Wild, by Jack London--describes events with a furious and breathless momentum that places you in the middle of the action. I love the strong verbs, the short clauses, and the effective use of ellipses in the second paragraph.
“Now, MUSH!” 
Thornton’s command cracked out like a pistol-shot. Buck threw himself forward, tightening the traces with a jarring lunge. His whole body was gathered compactly together in the tremendous effort, the muscles writhing and knotting like live things under the silky fur. His great chest was low to the ground, his head forward and down, while his feet were flying like mad, the claws scarring the hard-packed snow in parallel grooves. The sled swayed and trembled, half-started forward. One of his feet slipped, and one man groaned aloud. Then the sled lurched ahead in what appeared a rapid succession of jerks, though it never really came to a dead stop again…half an inch…an inch…two inches… The jerks perceptibly diminished; as the sled gained momentum, he caught them up, till it was moving steadily along.
Men gasped and began to breathe again, unaware that for a moment they had ceased to breathe. Thornton was running behind, encouraging Buck with short, cheery words. The distance had been measured off, and as he neared the pile of firewood which marked the end of the hundred yards, a cheer began to grow and grow, which burst into a roar as he passed the firewood and halted at command. Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson. Hats and mittens were flying in the air. Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Some Bad Reputations: Saturday Links

There are some characters in history at whom everyone loves to throw mud, and there are some characters who come out smelling far sweeter than they deserve. This week's Saturday links finds novelists trying to get to the truth of the matter as Elizabeth Chadwick sets out to clear Eleanor of Aquitaine's reputation, and M.m. Bennetts sets out to sully Napoleon's. One of the things I appreciate about both these authors is their dedication to historical research and their detailed use of primary sources.

Chadwick's post examines the charge of incest against Queen Eleanor.
One of the notorious players in Eleanor of Aquitaine's life story  is her paternal uncle Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch.  His notoriety is caused not least by the rumours of an affair between him and his niece when she visited him in his city during the second crusade....
Instead of gleefully accepting whatever scandals could be attached to Eleanor, Chadwick tries to get to the bottom of the matter and find out what really happened. She notes that the chroniclers commend Raymond of Antioch for "purity of conduct" and wonders if a man of such approved character could be guilty of incest. She examines John of Salisbury's account and offers an alternative explanation for what his ambiguous words could have referred to.

M.m. Bennetts' post examines the reputation of Napoleon and finds it far more whitewashed than it ought to be. It's a must read for those interested in the Napoleonic era and demonstrates how, with enough propaganda, even the blackest of crimes can be forgotten.
Time has a funny habit of softening the memory of things.  Of dulling the edges of pain, blurring the focus, and letting the unspeakable fall away, unmentioned and unlamented, to be replaced by a kinder, gentler, more palatable version of events and people past. 
Unless, of course, those events are constantly kept alive, in their full horror, and mankind is kept from relegating them to a place behind the forgetful cushion of time.  Like with the Holocaust or the Killing Fields of Rwanda or Cambodia… 
Two hundred years ago, Napoleon led his country and all of Europe to the verge of utter ruin and desolation.... (read more)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hero or Caterpillar?--Value Judgments in History

For a historical novelist, reconciling sources can be one of the most time consuming processes of writing a novel. So often, one chronicler will say that there were 500 men in a battle while another chronicler claims that there were 10,000. Which chronicler is more trustworthy? Which story is more plausible? Can both stories be true?

Besides contradictory facts, another thing that must be reconciled is contradictory value statements. Every medieval chronicler was quick to weigh down his narrative with moral judgments on the characters and actions therein. These judgments must be assessed as assiduously as the basic facts of the narrative.

The character of Bohemond, one of the most important characters in my trilogy The Chronicles of Tancred, is a case in point.

Ralph of Caen, a Norman who came East after the First Crusade and served Bohemond in Antioch, described Bohemond thus:
There was in those days a hero of great stature.... This was Bohemond, the son of that distinguished soldier Robert surnamed Guiscard, who was a vigorous emulator of his father's daring.
This passage compares Bohemond to his father in a very complimentary manner. Bohemond is a hero and Robert Guiscard is distinguished. The words used show how favorably this historian thought of his subjects.

Anna Comnena, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios, also wrote about Bohemond:
Bohemond resembled his father in all respects, in daring, strength, aristocratic and indomitable spirit. In short, Bohemond was the exact replica and living image of his father.... Bohemond was in fact like the acrid smoke which preceded the fire, the preliminary skirmish which comes before the great assault. Father and son you might liken to caterpillars and locusts, for what was left by Robert, his son fed on and devoured. 
Anna's account gives the same comparison as the one provided by Ralph of Caen, but the tone is very different. Bohemond is similar to his father, and this similarity is not necessarily a good thing. The similes Anna used to describe the two men (acrid smoke, caterpillars and locusts), make the reader dislike their daring and feel disgust at their indomitable spirit.

Both of these historians described Bohemond as a man similar to his father, but they each provided a different lens with which to view the men. They placed a value judgment on the given fact.

For the historical novelist, this kind of contradiction presents a whole new range of questions. Which value judgment should we accept? Is it possible to remain impartial, or must we take a side? Will we throw in our lot with the Byzantines, or raise our flag with the Normans? Was Bohemond a hero, or a caterpillar in disguise?

Bohemond's Mausoleum
in Canosa Di Puglia

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Poem for a Post

We are back at the hospital again with my son Adam. Same diagnosis as last time: cholangitis (infection of the bile ducts). He's getting a PICC line put in today so that we can continue giving him the IV antibiotics at home. Hopefully, he will be released tomorrow.

I usually like to post an essay every Monday on some sort of historical or writing-related topic, but things have been so crazy last week, that I haven't had the chance to write one. So, instead, I'll leave you with a poem that I submitted earlier this year for our church's Trinity Arts Festival.

Hymn to God the Son 
(inspired by John Donne's poem
"Hymn to God the Father")

I have a sin of fear that when the bolt
Of all mine own believing is unrolled
And Thou tak'st out Thy tape and shears of gold,
Thy measurements shall find my fabric short.

The pattern calls for thrice this length of cloth
To make the robes of righteousness aright,
And I, through lack of faith or else through sloth,
Must robeless stand, stark-naked in Thy sight.

"Ah, foolish child," said One in blood-white dress,
"To think thy cross-proved friend will not provide.
Was not thy very faith by Me supplied?
And will I now withhold My righteousness?"

Before my untamed tongue could proud protest--
"I will not wear the thread another spun!"--
Thou measured out Thy robe and I was dressed
In garments glorious as the golden sun.

O Jesu Christ, enfold me in Thy grace,
And clothe me with Thy royal clemency,
And like a silken sash around the waist
So cause me, Jesu Christ, to cling to Thee.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Victorian Zebras and Reluctant Time Travelers: Saturday Links

Two Nerdy History Girls has a post up this week about Lord Rothschild, "the heir both to a title and to a legendary financial empire." He also happened to be a dedicated zoologist.
A shy man, he was still willing to create a sensation to demonstrate a point. Victorians regarded zebras as irredeemably wild animals, resistant to being tamed and made useful to man, an unforgivable sin to the Victorian mind. Walter believed otherwise, and to prove it drove his carriage drawn by a team of well-trained Buckingham Palace. (read more)

Very stylish, wouldn't you agree?

* * *

Remember that ring of Jane Austen's that I mentioned a few weeks ago? It sold at auction for the tremendous price of £150,000, "more than five times its estimate." That's twice as expensive as my house! Just another indication that Austen-fever is alive and well in the twenty-first century. 

* * * 

Medieval Reader blogged recently about Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. She calls it a "lively introduction to the period," but notes that it is "punctuated by Mortimer’s apparent hostility towards what the author perceives as religious and moral ‘prudishness’." In the past, I had heard very high praise of this book, many historical authors citing it as a great source to provide background information for their novels. The review made me curious: is Mortimer's book "pop" history or is it serious stuff?

This week Spiegel featured an interview with Ian Mortimer where he answers questions about the book and about medieval life. I found some of his answers enlightening--although more enlightening about his attitude toward the Middle Ages than enlightening about the era itself.
SPIEGEL: Would people from that time period get along better in our time than we might in theirs? 
Mortimer: Absolutely not. People in the Middle Ages were utterly unfamiliar with change. They had no sense of what another time might be like. When they thought of the ancient Romans, they imagined them in medieval clothes. They would be completely at a loss here and wonder: "Where are we? This can't be the Earth!" 
Huh. By this argument people in the sixteenth and seventeenth century were utterly unfamiliar with change too, since all those Shakespearean actors performed Comedy of Errors in Elizabethan clothing.   
SPIEGEL: If a working time machine really existed, would you take a trip back to medieval England? 
Mortimer: Quite apart from the fact that, by my age, 44, I would probably have been carried off by some disease long ago, people in the Middle Ages were not exactly open-minded towards strangers, and they would have been quick to recognize my foreignness. They would not have been very nice to me. In short: No thanks!
Not exactly the response you'd expect from a tour guide. I understand that living in the dark and dirty Middle Ages doesn't appeal to everyone--but if Rick Steves told readers that he had no interest to going to any of the locations that he writes about, do you think readers would still buy his guide books?  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summer Ramblings

Summer is the time when you think you'll get lots of writing done. Summer is also the time when life accelerates and time fills up with pool wading, berry picking, and family vacationing. I know that I'm not the only one procrastinating on my WIP. My writers' group, The Inkblot Society, meets on Monday at my house and no one has submitted anything for critique this month. I guess that means the meeting will be short--maybe that'll give us more time to have a campfire in our backyard and roast some s'mores. 

Oliver and Adam, just sittin'
Sidewalk chalk on the 4th of July (Adam)
At the spray park with the Aunties (Adam)

So cold, but so fun (Oliver)
Too cool for school

Little climber (Oliver)
Marcus -- stuck at home with Mom

Monday, July 9, 2012

William the Conqueror's Coming of Age Story

I took a history elective in college titled "Norman Conquest," a class taught by the incomparable Christopher Schlect. He was a busy man, and he had a hard time fitting that class into his schedule--our classes alternated between 6:00am lectures in the student lounge and 8:30pm recitations at the professor's house. We studied through nearly every primary source relating to the Norman Conquest. It was one of the most exhaustive and rewarding bouts of research that I have ever done, and it was a tribute to both the topic and Professor Schlect's teaching that hardly any of the students dropped the course. Because of that class, the history surrounding the Norman Conquest remains one of my most favorite pieces of the past. It's another one of those time periods that I'm determined to turn into a novel someday.

Today I have something a little shorter than a novel to offer you on this fascinating topic. I have a post up on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog called, "William Before He Was the Conqueror."
He was born William the Bastard, illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy, but history knows him as William the Conqueror, first Norman king of England and compiler of the Domesday Book. Many historians focus on the year 1066 and the legitimacy of William’s claim to the English crown. But how did an illegitimate boy across the Channel become powerful enough to make that claim in the first place? What did he accomplish before he invaded England? What did he win before the Battle of Hastings?... (read more)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Great Gatsby and Great Libraries: Saturday Links

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels are some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read. I remember being awe-struck by the opening paragraphs of Tender is the Night, and The Great Gatsby is a book I have read three times and would still wish to read again. This week, Letters of Note featured an exchange of letters between Fitzgerald and his editor after Fitzgerald had finished writing Gatsby and was submitting it for publication. I completely agree with the editor's opinion:
I think the novel is a wonder. I'm taking it home to read again and shall then write my impressions in full;—but it has vitality to an extraordinary degree, and glamour, and a great deal of underlying thought of unusual quality. It has a kind of mystic atmosphere at times that you infused into parts of "Paradise" and have not since used. It is a marvelous fusion, into a unity of presentation, of the extraordinary incongruities of life today. And as for sheer writing, it's astonishing.... (read more)
* * *

Where better to read writing like Fitzgerald's than in a library that rivals its beauty? Last month, The Art of Manliness featured "The Libraries, Studies, and Writing Rooms of 15 Famous Men." Here are two of my favorites:

Rudyard Kipling's Study

William Randolph Hearst's "Gothic Study"

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why Romance Is a Modern Phenomenon

Many people like to read the opening chapters of the Iliad as if it were a romance. Achilles falls in love with his war bride Briseis and is heartbroken when Agamemnon takes her from him. But, as my college literature professor pointed out, the text shows that Achilles is heartbroken about something else entirely. He's heartbroken because Agamemnon has made him look bad. The loss of Briseis is nothing compared to his own loss of face before his fellow Greeks.

The ancient world was obsessed with glory and the importance of being remembered by posterity. "My fame will be secure to all my sons," is the constant refrain spoken by Gilgamesh, one of the great heroes of Mesopotamia. But in our culture--where romantic love is celebrated in nearly every song, book, and movie--such a worldview is entirely alien. One has only to look at the 2004 film Troy starring Brad Pitt to see how the ideal of romantic love has been foisted on the ancient epic. Either the screenwriters were oblivious to the worldview of Homer's contemporaries or they recognized it and "fixed" it so that the story would appeal to moderns.

Katharina Von Bora
(Martin Luther's wife)
How did we get from here to there? When did romance become so important? A couple years ago I heard Rich Bledsoe give some lectures, and in one of his tangents he mentioned that the Reformation was instrumental in developing the idea of romantic love between husband and wife. Before that, marriage was seen as much more of a "business".
The Reformation put marriage at the center. I suspect that Luther’s marriage to Katie is one of the most important and central relationships in the history of the world. Beyond Luther and the Reformational emphasis on the centrality of marriage, C.S. Lewis makes the case that it was the Puritans who virtually “invented” or made normal the very idea of “companionate marriage.” Indeed, the affection and love between husband and wife in Puritan and Reformed households was quite remarkable. Jonathan Edwards' famous marriage is only one outstanding example.
Martin Luther
Bledsoe's assertion is one that I would like to explore further someday. The chivalric romances of the Middle Ages definitely placed importance on the love between a man and a woman, but most of the relationships sung by the troubadours tended to be outside marriage and adulterous in nature. The pages of nearly every novel set during the Middle Ages dwell upon the fact that marriage of that time period was generally not undertaken for the sake of love. Yet nowadays, it would be hard to find two people who married for some reason other than love.

Was it indeed the Reformation that began to normalize romantic love between husband and wife? When Martin Luther rescued his future wife from a convent in a fish barrel, was he beginning the great romance that would change the modern world forever?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Christmas in July?--My Amazon Wish List

My birthday is not coming up soon, and it's a long way off till Christmas. But, nevertheless, my Amazon Wish List is still stuffed to the gills. And yes, *sigh* most of the items on the list are on the expensive side. If they were cheaper, I would have bought them already.

If you ignore the cookie press, the serving platters, and the white tablecloth, what you see on my Wish List are books--books that I'd like to research my various writing projects. Some of them are for my current WIP, Flower of the Desert: Book II of the Chronicles of Tancred.

The book that's been on there the longest is Jerusalem Delivered, a sixteenth century Italian epic that tells a very romanticized version of the First Crusade. Tancred plays a good-sized role in the epic, along with Clorinda and Erminia, two Muslim princesses who form a love triangle with our doughty hero. I've been able to access a free Kindle version of this book, but the translation of that one leaves something to be desired, and it's not as easy to flip through as an actual paper copy.

Another book needed for researching Flower of the Desert is The History of the Seljuq Turks. This is a translation of a twelfth century Turkish historian that chronicles the reigns of all the Seljuk sultans. I currently have this book out on interlibrary loan, but it's due back in a week and I'm far from finished with it. It would be a hassle to go down the library to renew it, but it may be easier than scraping together $190 to purchase the book.

The next book on the list is more for curiosity's sake than for research. The First Crusade: The Call from the East is a new book by historian Peter Frankopan. From what I've heard, Frankopan argues that Emperor Alexios had a far greater role in the First Crusade than is traditionally acknowledged. Although it's too late to change anything in Road from the West, I'm interested to see how Frankopan portrays Alexios and his appeal to the West for help.

It's hard to stay focused on one period of history when there are so many interesting eras to be studied. One person who has always piqued my interest is James Stewart, the Earl of Moray, half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots. James turned Protestant under the tutelage of John Knox, but because of his illegitimate birth was unable to claim the crown of Scotland. There's not much information on the man, but this book, James Stewart, Earl of Moray: A Political Study of the Reformation in Scotland, looks like a good--albeit expensive--source for more study.

The book that first introduced me to the Earl of Moray was James I: The Fool as King, by Otto Scott. The Earl of Moray, who became the regent of Scotland after Mary's imprisonment, plays an important part in the early life of James I. The copy I read as a teenager is still sitting on my mother's bookshelf. I'd like to have my own--especially if I write a novel about the Earl of Moray, as I plan to in the far off future.

What books do you have on your Amazon Wish List? Are you waiting for someone to buy them for you for a birthday or for Christmas, or is your Wish List more of a shopping list of books you'll eventually buy for yourself? 

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