Thursday, November 22, 2012

I'm Thankful For....

Pumpkin pie, which I started eating yesterday

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

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

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

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

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

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

A God who never leaves us or forsakes us

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 10, 2012

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

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

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

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Deep Details and Ungentlemanly Gentlemen: Saturday Links

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

* * * 

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

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

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

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Widow's Redeemer by Philippa Jane Keyworth

The Widow's Redeemer

by Philippa Jane Keyworth

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

Thursday, November 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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