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.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Husbandly Heroes, Medieval Monuments, and Regency Ramblings: Saturday Links

This week's Saturday Links take us on a trip from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages to the Regency Era.

Kate Quinn is the author of Daughters of Rome and Mistress of Rome, two novels set in--you guessed it!--Ancient Rome. She is also the wife of a U.S. Navy Sailor. In a recent article in Baseguide, titled "My Military Romance," she confesses that her real life hubby might have more than a little influence on the hero in her latest novel:

That's funny,” my husband commented when he flipped through my rough-draft of the first few chapters. “Your hero is a lot like me.” 
Me: “No, he's not!” 
Husband: (raising an eyebrow) “So it’s a complete coincidence that both your husband and your fictional hero are tall, freckled, left-handed, short-tempered, adrenaline-junkie military men who snore like a chain-saw, can't sit still without one foot jittering, and have a habit of pissing off superiors?”  
BUSTED.... (read more)
In my own historical novels, I have never self-consciously tried to model a character off of someone I know. But I always wonder--how many similarities to my real life creep in subconsciously?

* * *

A couple months ago the photography site Light Stalking put up "21 Amazing Images of Medieval Structures." The word amazing gets thrown around far too much, but in this case, the subjects really deserve that modifier. I would repost some of the pictures here to entice you to check out the rest, but there's been far too much broohaha lately about bloggers getting sued for using copyrighted images on their sites. So, click on over there and take a look for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

* * *

The Regency period has been on mind a lot lately, especially since I've been busy editing a Regency romance soon to be released by Madison Street Publishing. This article by Natalie Garbett entitled "Blinded By the White, Colour and Dresses 1796-1815" is very insightful for those interested in reconstructing the Regency period in book and film. It is also an excellent example of how to do historical research on the subject of clothing.

Ms. Garbett begins with questioning the conventional perception of Regency dresses:
Why do we choose to make mostly white dresses when creating dresses from 1796--1815?  It seems an obvious question to answer……’we choose white because it was the fashion and is period correct’……and evidence from surviving dresses, paintings, fashion plates and documentation support this theory……or does it?
Her next step is to catalogue the Regency dresses found in three prominent museum collections. She notes that the great majority of them were white, but then presents three interesting hypotheses on why that might be the case:
Could the mordant in the dyes in this period be caustic and therefore cause coloured dresses to rot easily over time?... Were coloured silk dresses more likely to be reused or cut up for use in later periods?... Were white dresses more associated with special occasions rather than everyday wear and therefore more likely to be preserved for sentimental value?
Following these hypotheses she then presents a great deal of primary source material from fashion plates and journals that show colored dresses were far more common than the museum collections might lead one to believe. I'm so pleased to have found this article--it was a fascinating read.

* * *

While we're on the subject of the Regency, it might interest you to know that Regency novelist D. W. Wilkin has compiled a Regency Lexicon to aid you in understanding those peculiar turns of phrase that Georgette Heyer so delighted in.

For instance, did you know that an "Act of Parliament" was "a military term for small beer, five pints of which, by an act of parliament, a landlord was formerly obliged to give to each soldier gratis"? No? Then perhaps you knew that a "juniper lecture" was "a round scolding bout," or that a "little clergyman" was "a young chimney-sweeper"? If not, head on over to the Lexicon and browse about for some Jane Austen period slang, most of which that good lady would have never included in one of her own novels.

Friday, August 17, 2012

I Serve Awarded "Indie Book of the Day"

This was a nice surprise to wake up to. Apparently, a fan nominated I Serve for Indie Book of the Day and the editorial staff selected it as today's winner. I even get a certificate and a badge and everything. Thanks to whoever nominated me. This really put a smile on my face.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy Six Months to the Third Boy

Marcus Jasper Spears - Six Months Old
He was ten pounds when we born, and I figured he'd catch up with the twins sooner or later. Well, it's sooner rather than later. All three boys are in the same size diapers now, and stretchy clothing like pajamas has become interchangeable. Adam and Oliver are still about 6 pounds heavier than Marcus, but the third boy is gaining fast.

We had Marcus' six month pics in the same blue chair
under the same apple tree in our back yard...
...where the twins had their six month pics.
It's fun to compare them. 

Pictures by Grammy Pics
Happy six months, Marcus! 
We like you lots.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Book inside Each of Us

"There's a book inside each of us." 

I'm not sure if this statement applies universally, but I know that with my husband and me, it certainly rings true. The interesting thing about it is how different each of our internal books happen to be.

The book inside of me is centuries old and half a world away. It comes complete with chain mail, catapults, famine, foes, visions, intrigue, and a love triangle or two.

The book inside of my husband deals with something far more modern. It involves statistics, graphs, personal anecdotes, and eighty hours of fieldwork at a nearby freeway exit ramp.

My book: a tale of the First Crusade.

His book: an economic case study on the profitability of panhandling.

Here's to hoping that both books gestate by the end of the year! Here's to hoping that one or both of them becomes a bestseller! Because the one thing I don't want my husband's fieldwork to prove is that there's more money to be made in panhandling than there is in writing books.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Quality Queries and Small Press Praises: Saturday Links

For those writers hoping to travel the traditional publishing route, there's a step in between writing a novel and finding an agent that's a bit of a doozy. That step is called writing a query letter. Earlier this week Sam Thomas, whose book The Midwife's Tale is slated to be released in January of next year, shared his query letter over at A Bloody Good Read along with some paragraph-by-paragraph instructions on how to write a bloody good letter of your own.
What I’ve got below is an annotated and slightly edited version of my own cover letter. I’ll mention at the outset that as letters go, it was pretty effective: I received manuscript requests from over half the agents I queried. (I would venture to say that my letter is better than my novel. Ah, well.)....(read more
* * *

As you probably know, I went the Indie route with my first book I Serve, and after learning the ropes of book production and marketing, my husband and I decided to start our own publishing company. Jessica Knauss had a guest post this week about the "Pros and Cons of Small Presses." I thought that her post was very valuable for new authors trying to decide whether to sign on with a small press. Many of her Pros were right on the money:

• Welcoming. Debut authors tend to get an unbiased reception. 
• Quick. A small staff can mean less bureaucracy and an easier decision process.... 
• Collaborative. It is likely that you, as the author, will have some say in the design of your book and its cover and possibly even release dates. 
• Creative. Small presses interested in their authors’ welfare and their own future will work with you to implement effective, low-cost marketing solutions and make the most of whatever resources are available.... (read more)

Her Cons were also insightful--no advances, a smaller level of distribution--but I was happy to see that one of them most emphatically does not apply at our company. Just because we're a small press does not mean that we offer authors a lower royalty than a big publisher would. At Madison Street Publishing our philosophy is author-centric, and we're committed to giving the lion's share of the profits to the one who actually created the book.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Not Exactly the Man from Braveheart

N. C. Wyeth's illustration of William Wallace
from The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter
It's my day to post on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, and for your delectation, I've elected to write about William Wallace of Braveheart fame--but not everyone agrees with Mel Gibson that Wallace was such a hero. Learn what one contemporary English source had to say about him.
About the time of the festival of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a certain Scot, by name William Wallace, an outcast from pity, a robber, a sacrilegious man, an incendiary and a homicide, a man more cruel than the cruelty of Herod, and more insane than the fury of Nero…a man who burnt alive boys in schools and churches, in great numbers.... (read more)
* * *

The English Historical Fiction Authors blog is quite an extraordinary collaborative effort. Spearheaded by author Debra Brown, it brings together over thirty authors who write historical fiction connected in some way with the British isles. Established in September, 2011, the blog has had to date nearly 56,000 unique visitors and has about 1000 page views per day. Yesterday, Mary Tod (who has been writing a series on top historical fiction sites) posted an interview with Debra Brown and some of the other EHFA authors. Head on over there to hear them talk about how the blog works and about historical fiction in general.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Show, Don't Tell--Or Not: Saturday Links

As a writer and an editor, I continually puzzle over the well-worn maxim "Show, don't tell." Where did the rule come from? What does it mean, exactly? And is it actually a good piece of advice for authors to follow? I read a couple posts recently on the topic--which led me to Google it and find some more information. Here are some of the detractors of the "Show, don't tell" rule:

Writer's Digest features a piece where thriller writer Lee Child's debunks the biggest writing myths:
Picture this: In a novel, a character wakes up and looks at himself in the mirror, noting his scars and other physical traits for the reader.  
“It is completely and utterly divorced from real life,” Child said.  
So why do writers do this? Child said it’s because they’ve been beaten down by the rule of Show, Don’t Tell. “They manufacture this entirely artificial thing.”
“We’re not story showers,” Child said. “We’re story tellers.”  
Child said there’s nothing wrong with simply saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars.... (read more)
Shawn Lamb gives a feet on the ground example of when she "tells" instead of "showing" in her YA series Allon.

There. The entrance Tristine anticipated. Twenty-year-old Ellan the brown-haired, blue-eye beauty wearing her new red and gold gown like a strutting peacock, smiling like she owned the world. Well, at least Ellis.

This lays the foundation by suggesting a jealousy rivalry between the sisters that carries on with action and verbal exchanges throughout the story. Yes, I know, some will say Show Don’t Tell concerning the paragraph, to which I reply Pshaw!  I established the scene from Tristine’s POV, so it is natural to include the way she views Ellan’s entrance. I’m not suddenly going to switch to Ellan’s mannerisms for show. However, Ellan's subsequent actions, reactions and speech once she is involved in the scene supports Tristine’s assessment.... (read more)
And finally, with the help of Google, I came across this older blog post on The Recalcitrant Scrivener which very eloquently laid out what's right and what's wrong with this maxim. Essentially, this writer says that all writing is a form of telling.
Contrary to this approach I would cite Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961. Here the author engages in a sustained critique of the “show, don’t tell” maxim. One of Booth’s main accomplishments is to demonstrate that there are a nearly infinite number of gradations between absolute telling and absolute showing, and that these can be used by fiction writers in a variety of ways. It’s worth noting that this is a work of criticism, not an off-the-shelf “how to” book.
My intention is to take Booth’s argument further. My claim is that the partisans of “show, don’t tell” suffer from a very specific conceptual confusion. The truth is that in an absolute, literal sense, narrative writing can only tell. 
The bullets whizzed by my ear. My guts fell to the floor. 
The shots narrowly missed Pearson. He felt his nerves tighten. 
Contrary to what certain people would tell you, both these sentences are forms of telling. The first is clearly more vivid, but it is nevertheless written as first-person narration, a manner of telling. If I were sitting next to you in a bar and said “The bullets whizzed by my ear…” I would be telling you something. I would have shown you nothing.... (read more)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Whole Art and Joy of Words

To say the thing you really mean,
the whole of it, nothing more or less or
other than what you really mean; 
that's the whole art and joy of words. 
--C. S. Lewis

I don't know if you've ever noticed it before--it's the quote on the header of this blog. The Greek tutor says it in C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, and it's one of my favorite quotes about writing.

What it all boils down to is precision--using language to convey precisely what you want to convey. And precision--as knife throwers, crane operators, and race car drivers know--can only come through practice. *sigh*

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