Category Archives: History

#amwriting: Physician to The Vampire

John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer and physician. He was best known for his involvement in the Romantic movement, an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. He is considered by many as the originator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the short story The Vampyre (1819), which was the first published, modern vampire story.

Perhaps because John Polidori was a physician, he was able to bring all the disparate elements of 19th-century vampirism mythology into a coherent, compelling short story.  With just that one short story, he spawned an entire literary genre.

How did this come about? The story had its genesis in the summer of 1816, the Year Without a Summer when Europe and parts of North America underwent a severe climate abnormality.

Lord Byron and his young, twenty-year-old physician, John Polidori were staying at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva.

On the run from creditors and Shelley’s ailing, understandably jealous wife, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later became Mary Shelley) and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, visited them.

The group was kept indoors by the incessant rain of that cold, wet, unpleasant summer during a three-day stretch in June. Bored at being cooped up, the five turned to telling fantastic tales, and which inspired them to write their own.

Reportedly, they were fueled by ghost stories such as the Fantasmagoriana, William Beckford’s Vathek, and laudanum, to which Byron was addicted. Mary Shelley, in collaboration with Percy Bysshe Shelley, produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Polidori was the outsider, the man who was only included as he was in the employ of Byron. Lord Byron made him the butt of many jokes at dinner parties, taking great pleasure in humiliating him. This cruel treatment of anyone in his power was well documented by his contemporaries.

the-vampyrePolidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron’s, Fragment of a Novel (1816), which is also known as “A Fragment” and “The Burial: A Fragment.” Over the course of several mornings, he wrote “The Vampyre.” The manuscript was overlooked for three years when it was discovered by a disreputable publisher, Henry Colburn. He published it in his New Monthly Magazine under the title “The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron.” It was received with acclaim, much to Polidori’s surprise and chagrin.

Polidori struggled to assert his rights to the work, and Lord Byron did have the grace to declare promptly the work was Polidori’s and not his. Despite that assertion, proper credit for authorship of the story was muddy for many years.

Still, Byron was firm that he was not the author. Apparently, Byron felt that the destruction of a man’s soul was no great thing, but theft of his intellectual property was a crime.

Polidori’s work had an immense impact on his contemporary readers. Numerous editions and translations of the tale were published. The influence of The Vampyre as described by Polidori has continued into the twenty-first century, as until recently, his work was frequently considered the primary source of what is accepted as “canon” when writing about vampirism.

What are the traditional tropes of vampire fantasy? First of all, we must think Lord Byron. He was an arrogant, self-centered, charismatic, sociopath with a gift for writing brilliant poetry. From birth, Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot and by the time he hired Polidori, he was addicted to laudanum which had been prescribed for the pain. He treated the young Polidori atrociously, engendering deep antipathy for his patient in the young doctor.

John_William_Polidori_by_F.G._GainsfordWithin the pages of Polidori’s diary, I see “The Vampyre” as an allegory of Byron’s abuse of John Polidori himself. It is easy to visualize Byron as a man possessed of the power to drain one of their soul when seen through the eyes of the man he had in his power, and whom he treated abominably as an employer.

Byron was described as the devourer of souls in the book, Glenarvon, by Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Byron’s former lovers.  “Ruthven” is the name Lady Caroline Lamb referred to Byron as in her novel. Polidori had read Glenarvon that summer, and blatantly used Lamb’s protagonist’s name for his vampire, and Byron proudly admitted he was the role model.

The Public Domain Review article, The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire, says this about the rocky relationship between Polidori and Byron:

“It was no great leap for Polidori to believe that Byron was sucking the life from him, just as others had accused Byron of possessing a charismatic power that eclipsed their own identities. Amelia Opie, one of the many women Byron had charmed, described him as having “such a voice as the devil tempted Eve with; you feared its fascination the moment you heard it,” a mesmeric quality that critics also found in his verse, which had, according to the critic Thomas Jones de Powis, “the facility of…bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection.”

So we know vampires are charismatic and seductive. Their bite would enslave their victims. Folktales from hundreds of years ago tell us they can take the form of bats and fly through the windows of even the tallest buildings. Historically, vampires are powerful, but unable to withstand the light of day, which would burn them, and destroy them forever.

A patch of Dry Skin, Stephen SwartzHowever, that which was once canon regarding vampires is no longer set in stone.

Modern vampires are often able to stay outside during the day, and some even sparkle.  Many are model citizens who get their blood from robbing blood banks.

I love Stephen Swartz’s medical take on vampirism in his book, A Dry Patch of Skin.

But underneath it all, I still have a fondness for the mad, bad, dangerous to know Lord Byron style of vampire.

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Filed under History, Literature, vampires, writing

#amwriting: Couriers, Pigeons, and Excalibur

Medieval_forest wikimedia commons PD 100 yrs

Russian Forest in medieval France (1405-1410) Gaston Phoebus

I have a great deal of interest in Medieval history because I have ancestors who lived then. I’m not bragging–everyone who is alive today is here because one or two ancestors survived the Dark Ages long enough to leave behind a child who did the same.

Life was perilous, even if you grew up in a fairly sheltered environment. No one was exempt from disease–even kings regularly died young from plagues and injuries. Regardless of their personal safety, medieval kings were forced to go to war in person. They did this for several reasons.

  1. The only way for the monarch to know what was actually happening on the battlefront was to be there
  2. It was expected that a monarch should understand the art of warfare and be proficient as a warrior. He was responsible for winning or losing the battle.

Portrait of Henry VIII (1491-1547) by Hans HolbeinDuring the Dark Ages, official news was delivered by a royal messenger and read aloud in church or in the market.

Messengers were a permanent fixture on the royal payroll. They were dedicated and well-paid to travel the kingdom continuously, carrying the king’s word. In medieval England, kings did not stay in London. Instead, they traveled all over their lands and the noble families were required to feed and house them at great expense. Their gypsy-like existence kept the messengers busy.

Wars were expensive. Henry VIII’s habit of medieval couch-surfing at the country homes of his noble courtiers was a great way for an impoverished king and his entourage to live well and cheaply, conserving the cash to pay for the troops. But it also meant that an organized and efficient messenger service was required to ensure that correspondence to and from the king: royal letters, grants, patents, and such, arrived at their intended destinations.

Tancred, Count of Lecce, King of Sicily via Wikimedia

Tancred, Count of Lecce, King of Sicily via Wikimedia

In the year 1190, when my direct maternal ancestor, Tancred, King of Sicily, faced Richard I of England, he was limited to what information a messenger could convey. Thus, their battles were fought in person and so were their negotiations.

These were not native Italians–the original Tancred of Hauteville (980 – 1041) was an 11th-century Norman and a minor baron of Normandy about whom little is known, other than eight of his twelve sons joined the crusades and became kings of southern Italy in the process.

So his illegitimate great-grandson, King Tancred, and King Richard the Lionhearted were Norman kings, squabbling over what was left of the Holy Land and the Mediterranean at the end of the crusades. However, Tancred was born and raised there so he was a third generation Sicilian, being the out-of-wedlock son of Roger III, the Norman duke of Apulia and Emma of Lecce, who was married to Ruggero III de Hauteville.

Quote from Wikipedia: “In 1190 Richard I of England arrived in Sicily at the head of a large crusading army on its way to the Holy Land. Richard immediately demanded the release of his sister, William II’s wife Joan, imprisoned by Tancred in 1189, along with every penny of her dowry and dower. He also insisted that Tancred fulfill the financial commitments made by William II to the crusade. When Tancred balked at these demands, Richard seized a monastery and the castle of La Bagnara.” (end quoted text)

Richard I Google Art Project via Wikimedia

Richard I Google Art Project via Wikimedia

Richard was joined in Sicily by the French crusading army, led by his soon-to-be-former friend,  King Philip II of France. The presence of two foreign armies highly aggravated the local citizens who, rightfully, demanded the foreigners leave their island.

Ever the good guest, King Richard responded by attacking Messina, which he captured on 4 October 1190. Once the city had been looted and burned, Richard established his base there and decided to stay the winter—after all, winters in Sicily are a bit more pleasant than those in Normandy.

But what’s a little looting and pillaging among friends? According to Wikipedia:

“Richard remained at Messina until March 1191, when Tancred finally agreed to a treaty. According to the treaty’s main terms:

  • Joan was to be released, receiving her dower along with the dowry.
  • Richard and Philip recognized Tancred as King of Sicily and vowed to keep the peace between all three of their kingdoms.
  • Richard officially proclaimed his nephew Arthur of Brittany as his heir presumptive, and Tancred promised to marry one of his daughters to Arthur when he came of age (Arthur was four years old at the time).
Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur London Film Museum via Wikipedia

After signing the treaty, Richard and Philip finally left Sicily for the Holy Land. It is rumored that before he left, Richard gave Tancred a sword he claimed was Excalibur in order to secure their friendship.”

Yes, you read this correctly. King Richard the Lionhearted gave my many-times great grandfather Excalibur, the legendary sword of mythical King Arthur.

I doubt Richard the Lionhearted would really give away a sword that was supposed to prove his lineage back to the Pendragon if he actually believed it was truly Arthur’s. However, it is a documented fact that he did indeed give this sword of historical significance to Tancred.

I suspect that Tancred believed it was the true sword of King Arthur as much as I do, but in the interest of peace, he most likely smiled and thanked his departing guest. Whatever he did with it, it was never seen again. When he came to reclaim his island after Tancred’s death, Henry IV, king of the Holy Roman Empire, pillaged Tancred’s treasury and the sword was not there.

But what, you ask, does my illegitimate many-times-great grandfather’s possession of the possibly faux Excalibur have to do with communication?

Tancred and Richard both had to be there in Sicily in person and had to communicate through messengers to arrange all this swapping of women and dowries and swords of dubious origin.

Good long-distance communication has always been seen as critical to good governing. Wars were won and lost based on the information those kings and generals received. During the Middle Ages, postal systems were invented, became corrupt, and fell into disuse all over Europe. This recurred at different times up through the eighteenth century.

In 1505, Emperor Maximilian I established one of the more stable postal systems, but it was not a thing the peasant class could avail themselves of. An illiterate peasant could hire a scribe, but then they would also have to scrape up more coins to get the note sent to its destination. It was better to pay a neighbor to carry the news to wherever it had to go.

420px-Pigeon_Messengers_(Harper's_Engraving)There was a faster method of getting a letter home. Long before the Middle Ages and during them, homing pigeons were used to carry messages. Rock pigeons have the ability that taken far from their nest, they’re able to find their way home. This due to a particularly developed sense of orientation. Messages were then tied around the legs of the pigeon, which was freed and could reach its original nest.

This is of limited usefulness because pigeons will only go back to the one place that they have identified as their home. Pigeon mail can only work when the sender has a specific recipient in mind and has possession of that receiver’s pigeons.

So how did they  do this? The sender had to hand-carry the pigeons with them. Once released, the pigeons would fly back home with the note. Correspondents could not send a pigeon anywhere but the one place the birds considered their home.

If you are an author writing in an era other than the modern times, be diligent and do the research before you write about things that are outside your personal experience. Readers may have knowledge that you don’t and they will definitely not be shy about letting you know where you’ve gone wrong.

Much of my work is set in medieval environments, and so I can’t have my characters getting instantaneous information from afar without divine intervention. If my characters need to communicate over long distances, I have to consider the length of time it would take even a fast messenger to travel over roads we would consider impassable, but which were the medieval equivalent of I-5.

This kind of information is available via the internet.  Researching my subject online is how I discovered that regular mail delivery is a relatively modern invention. Perusing Ancestry.com is how I discovered the medieval Norman/Sicilian roots of my mother’s family, the (Fitz)Rogers family.

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Filed under Battles, History, Humor, Literature, writing

St Albans – “Count the stars…”

Sue Vincent continues St. Albans, this time though the abbey itself. Seen through the eye of the photographer and the soul of the poet, we find ourselves in a holy place, where architecture meets the divine.

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

st albans january hols 072

We had finally made it into the Crossing at the centre of the Abbey… you barely remembered that the tiles beneath your feet had been made by Minton when you looked up. One incredible painted ceiling after another stretched away from the Tower Ceiling. The precise outlines of the stones on the white of the walls are an illusion created by medieval painters and the Norman arches that have stood a thousand years are decorated in ochre.

st albans january hols 099

Above them float the roses of St Albans. Although the bright painted panels we now see were only installed in the 1950s, they are an exact copy of the 15th C tiles that are still in place above them, now protected by their presence. One of the tiles can be seen against the painted stones of the aisle. The tiles show the red and white roses of the House of Lancaster and York…

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#amwriting fantasy: creating the landscape

Map of Mal Evol, color full size, no roadsWhen I am reading a fantasy, I can get completely immersed, if the author has been kind enough to use a mix of familiar earthly landscapes to create his world.  Readers do need to have a small bit of “the known” to hang their imaginations on.

In my book, Tower of Bones, I write about a landscape that has been devastated, first by war, and secondly by the slow, deliberate poisoning of the environment.  The God, Tauron, seeks to change Neveyah into a copy of his own desert world of Serende.  At the time of our story, the immense crater Valley of Mal Evol is a wasteland of thorn-bushes and scorpions.  Few people live there, and those who do are slaves to the Legions of D’Mal, the minotaur soldiers of the Bull God.

The World of Neveyah is actually the state of Washington, in all its bipolar glory, but “on steroids.”

The God Tauron carved the Valley of Mal Evol out of the mountains when he imprisoned his brother. That created the landscape that was not unlike that of Eastern Washington, some of which was carved by a disaster. Before the disaster, this land was likely similar to the area around Spokane and toward Colville, prairies with large forests of lodgepole pines.

Drumheller Channels, Washington State

Channeled Scablands, Washington State

The Channeled Scablands are a relatively barren and soil-free landscape on the eastern side of the  state of Washington near Grand Coulee Dam, and Dry Falls. It’s an area that was scoured by floods unleashed when a large glacial lake drained at the end of the last ice age. I took this landscape and magnified it, making it the place where two vastly different worlds touch.

I live 60 miles due north of Mt. St. Helens, an active stratovolcano that has erupted several times in my lifetime. As a teenager in the fall of 1970, 10 years before the eruption, my earth-science class visited the lava-tubes that were popular tourist destinations in those days.  The volcano was considered to be of no threat to anyone, practically dead, really.

Mt. St. Helens from Spirit Lake prior to 1980

Mt. St. Helens from Spirit Lake prior to 1980 via ABC news

As this photo shows, it had a beautiful shape to it, like Mt. Fuji, and was featured on calendars and postcards for its beauty and majesty.  The verdant forests were tall and thick, mostly Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar.  Spirit Lake, at its base, was a playground for summer vacationers.  My family spent many summer holidays at the campgrounds and the lodge there.

PD United States Geological Survey, via Wikipedia

PD United States Geological Survey, via Wikipedia

All that changed overnight on May 18th, 1980, when the mountain erupted.  We could see the ash column quite clearly from the lake in the Bald Hills of Thurston County, where we were fishing that morning, and we knew something really bad had happened at the mountain. Entire forests were blown down and buried under volcanic ash. Spirit Lake was both destroyed and reborn in a different form.

The destruction of the ecology is one of the underlying themes of the World of Neveyah series.

But the miraculous way the land around Mt. St. Helens has rebounded in the last 35 years is also working its way into my World of Neveyah–Tauron’s spell is broken, and the land will recover.  The devastation of Mal Evol looks permanent, and is terrible to those who know what it once was like, but they have hope that it will recover.

In the World of Neveyah series, I created the Mountains of the Moon, out of which the valley of Mal Evol was torn. I understood how mountains can rise high into the sky, blocking the rising or setting sun. Also, I used the climate of the Scablands here in Washington–the climate is typified by large seasonal temperature differences, with excruciatingly hot  summers and severely cold winters, and that is how I made Mal Evol. Remember, dealing with weather offers great opportunity for mayhem in the narrative.

I live on the heavily forested western side of the state, 50 miles west of 14,411 ft tall  Mount Rainier, beneath the Nisqually Glacier. That sight dominates my front-yard skyline on a clear day. The valley I live in was carved by glaciers and eruptions from this amazing pile of rock, ice, and fire. I took this idea, but I made my mountains taller and badder than the Himalayas on a bad Mt. Everest day.

Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier, ©2010 Walter Siegmund Via Wikipedia

Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier, © 2010 Walter Siegmund Via Wikipedia

We here in our bipolar State of Washington are able to see how the landscape can radically change if you just drive west east (thank you Scott Driscoll!) on I-90 for four hours.

Because  of my good fortune of living in the shadow of two large volcanoes, and between two high mountain ranges, the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade Range,  I have the opportunity to experience a wide diversity of ecologies in one day, going from saltwater to mountain range, to desert.

You may find your inspiration elsewhere. It could be in anything from architecture to ornamental gardens, to cornfields or sage brush.

Never_Cry_Wolf_PosterWhile the window of our own experience is an amazing place to find our inspiration for our fantasy environments, the internet is a valuable tool. Google Earth is a wonderful resource for viewing a real-time image of an area you need to see to understand.

Google Earth is as much of a squirrel as Facebook is, in that I got very little done when researching with it–I’m sure it was all research. Really.

Consider going to the movies–it’s amazing what great scenery you will find in an old movie. One thing I don’t have access to experience in person is wild caribou–for that reason much of my mental imagery for how wild herd animals of North America behave and the environment in which they live comes from a great movie, called Never Cry Wolf. The cinematography and the actual scenery is incredible, and the mood of the land is captured in one of the better films of the twentieth century.

The root ideas are what you hang the fabrication on, just a frame for the canvas you will paint with your words. It’s your world, but if it is to feel solid to the reader, there must be some small familiarity for them to have that  “Oh, I know this place” moment.

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Filed under Fantasy, History, Mt St Helens, Self Publishing, writing

#amwriting: keeping the Goliardic spark alive

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

I love ribald, rebellious humor in the works I read, and will go out of my way to read anything written by Sir Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, or Jasper Fforde. I admire their wit and ability to cause us to laugh at our own outrageousness.

Crazy humor at the expense of the establishment is nothing new. It’s part of the Human Condition. And to that end, I love goliardic poetry.

Carl Orff and his amazing cantata, Carmina Burana, catapulted me into the poetry of the Goliards. But who and what were the goliards?

During what we call the Middle Ages, noble and wealthy middle-class families had a tradition that the eldest son inherited everything, the second son went into the church, and the younger sons went to the crusades.

The old-fashioned practice of “primogeniture” or bestowing the rights of inheritance upon the eldest son, often leaving younger sons penniless, is responsible for some of the most ribald and hilarious poetry of the middle ages. This was because the church had far too many clergy who weren’t all that enthusiastic about having been forced into taking the ecclesiastical path, and who became, for lack a better definition, medieval frat-boys.

There was such an abundance of well-educated clergy that most were unable to gain a decent appointment within the church, despite good family connections.

Having been educated at the finest universities of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England these men weren’t content to spend their lives hidden away in a rural monastery painstakingly copying the great books written by others when they could be writing their own.

Going indie (or rogue) is nothing new.

The Peasant Dance, Pieter Bruegel

The Peasant Dance, Pieter Bruegel

They took their show on the road, going from town to town, protesting the growing contradictions within the church through song, poetry and performance.

The disillusionment and disappointment they experienced in regard to the hypocritical, abusive, greedy state of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of that time, was fertile soil for medieval mockery on a grand scale. 

Not unlike the current political climate here in the US.

Most goliardic poetry is written in Latin, as Latin was the language of commerce, and every educated person understood and read it. Remember, if someone could read, they were well off, and if they could read, they read Latin. Those were the people the indie was writing books for in the early Middle Ages.

Some of the goliards’ more popular church services when they would arrive in a new town included celebrating the annual Feast of Fools, a brief social revolution, where roles were reversed, and power, dignity and impunity was briefly conferred on the lowest of the social order. Thus, the town drunk, or the local fool would be made mayor for a day, feted and given the status of a lord for a day.

As you might imagine, the nobility was unimpressed with that particular “holy” festival, and rarely participated

Even less popular with those in power was the Feast of the Ass. From Wikipedia, the holy fount of all knowledge: A girl and a child on a donkey would be led through town to the church, where the donkey would stand beside the altar during the sermon, and the congregation would “hee-haw” their responses to the priest.

So, I guess you could say the goliards were a traveling Monty Python type of show, painfully hilarious and sometimes too good at what they did for the censor’s comfort.

Their point was that too much emphasis was placed on the pageantry and trappings of faith in Medieval Europe.

But they couldn’t run forever. Their satires were almost always directed against the church, attacking even the pope, and the church didn’t take that well. Heresy, during the Middle Ages, was not something you wanted to be accused of, as the famous heretic and collector of goliardic poetry, Peter Abelard would tell you. Yet, though he was harshly punished, he remains one of the most respected philosophers and free-thinkers of the Middle Ages.

By the 14th century, the word goliard had become synonymous with minstrel, no longer referring to this group of rebellious clergymen. However, a century after the overabundance of bored poor-little-rich-boy clergymen that spawned the goliards had been squashed by the church, that tradition of irreverence was carried on by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

carmina burana album coverFor me, Orff’s cantata was a ‘gateway drug.’ From first becoming intrigued by the libretto to  Carmina Burana, I moved on to “the hard stuff,” studying modern translations of the works of an author who was highly influenced by goliardic poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer.

Of course, eventually that meant I had to go to the source, learning a great deal about the roots of our modern English language at the same time.

Chaucer was unique, in that he wrote in Middle English, the vernacular of his time, rather than in Latin. Because of this, and the enduring hilarity of his works, Chaucer is considered the Father of English Literature.

The goliardic works that survive to this day still surprise us with how relevant the concepts put forth in those poems and tales are to contemporary society.

It is through the surviving literature and song that the truth of a past culture is discovered. The true nature of the common medieval man and woman survives in the rebellious, ribald literary tradition of the naughty clergy, the goliards.

We may be separated in time by centuries, but we are not too different from those ancestors of ours who survived the Dark and early Middle Ages by getting drunk and singing bawdy songs, and poking fun at the establishment.

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Filed under Books, History, Humor, writing

But what about poetry?

ode to the west wind-shelleyI love poetry because I love the many ways words can be manipulated on a blank page. To me, poetry is something beautiful and visually simple, a thing that looks like it should be uncomplicated. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

I guarrantee you, this post will not scratch the surface of why poetry is so much more than naughty limericks (which I do know a great many of and which are quite hilarious).

Bad poetry can be written by anyone, but writing great poetry takes a certain genius–I don’t consider myself a poet, although I do sometimes feel compelled to attempt poetry.

Poetry doesn’t always rhyme and it frequently involves complicated aesthetics that are both auditory and visual. This is because the reader may not always be reading the poem aloud, and so the visual art of the piece comes into play.

Sometimes, poetry is long, epic in actuality. Consider Manfred, by George Gordon, Lord Byron (From Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge): Manfred: A dramatic poem is a poem written in 1816–1817 by Lord Byron. It contains supernatural elements, in keeping with the popularity of the ghost story in England at the time. It is a typical example of a Romantic closet drama. (end quoted text)

Byron himself referred to his works as “closet dramas,” since they were intended more for the theater of the mind than the actual theater.

manfred-lord byronExcerpt from Act III, scene I of Manfred

There is a calm upon me–
Inexplicable stillness! which till now
Did not belong to what I knew of life.
If that I did not know philosophy
To be of all our vanities the motliest, 10
The merest word that ever fool’d the ear
From out the schoolman’s jargon, I should deem
The golden secret, the sought ‘Kalon,’ found,
And seated in my soul. It will not last,
But it is well to have known it, though but once.

And a “theater of the mind” is what Byron’s work sparks in me.

Words are bent and shaped by poets to evoke meanings, bent and formed into precise shapes. We novelists and writers’ of short fiction have the luxury of creating a long narrative. In poetry, space is intentionally limited by the author, forcing the the poet to write within narrow constraints. Thus, allegory, allusion, and indirection are common motifs in poetry.

Traditional forms have precise constraints: Sonnets are fourteen lines, following a set rhyme scheme and logical structure. Sonnets use iambic pentameter, which is characterized by the familiar “da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum” cadence of five sets of syllables.

Even in free verse, one must pay attention to the meter, the basic rhythmic structure  of a piece, the rhythm and cadence of the syllables. A clear example of this can be found in Walt Whitman’s poems, where he repeats certain phrases and uses commas to create both a rhythm and structure.

I love the poem,  When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, written in free verse in 206 lines. Whitman used many of the literary techniques associated with the pastoral elegy. He composed it during the summer of 1865, a period of profound national mourning. The country was reeling in the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, that occurred on April 14, 1865.

Despite the poem being an elegy to the fallen president, Whitman neither mentions Lincoln by name nor does he mention the circumstances of his death. Instead, Whitman used allegory–symbolic imagery:  the lilacs, a falling star in the western sky which was the planet Venus, and a shy bird, the hermit thrush. It is most definitely an elegy because he employed what scholars consider the traditional progression of the pastoral elegy: moving from grief toward an acceptance and knowledge of death.

It is is a beautiful poem, and is one I often return to. Lines 18-22 of Whitman’s leaves of grass-whitman When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

And how has poetry evolved into the 21st century? For one unique direction of evolution check out the works of Seattle poet, Bill Carty on Pinwheel

For more famous contemporary poets, check out 31 Contemporary Poets You Need to Read.

I have always been a fan of the classic masters: Dickinson, Browning, the Brontë sisters, Byron, Shelley, Frost, Whitman. Wordsworth, and my beloved Yeats, among many.  I was raised in a home with their works proudly displayed on the bookshelves in the living-room, massive tooled-leather volumes from Grolier, smelling of romance and ideas.

I didn’t always understand the works of the great poets, and I still don’t–but I love them.

I leave you with a rhyming poem, The Song of the old Mother by William Butler Yeats:

I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow;
And then I must scrub and bake and sweep
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;
And the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head,
And their days go over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift a tress:
While I must work because I am old,
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

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World building part 5: history

Richard IIISometimes we feel like our plot is in motion but the reasons driving the action feel purely random. It’s a worldbuilding failure, but an easy fix. In writing historical fiction, a sense of randomness can be a factor, despite having accounts of real events to go by. This is where research becomes critical, because those who win the wars write the history, and they write it to show themselves in the best light. Consider Richard III:

Richard’s history was written by the victors. He was the last Plantagenet King of England, and he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by the Henry Tudor. The Tudor dynasty lasted for a long time, including Henry VII, Henry VIII, (Bloody) Mary, and Elizabeth I. Consequently, he was mythologized as a tyrant, particularly by Shakespeare, writing during Elizabeth’s reign, two generations later.

Richard III new lookYet with uncovering of his bones in a parking lot, there is a growing evidence that the Richard III Society may not be entirely wrong: his story may have been a bit less damning, and certainly he was no worse than those who followed him. He was a man of his era, as much as Henry Tudor was.

That all-too-human tendency to cover up  our failures and atrocities in the light of our righteous victory over a declared evil introduces contradictions and ambiguities into official accounts of events. That makes the work of creating an accurate portrait of large-scale events difficult.

Looking backward from our viewpoint, and with our values, it’s hard to figure out how things really happened in a particular era, without going well beyond the general, official history offered up by the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and doing sincere, dedicated research. It’s easy to say “this happened this way and that’s that.” (It’s repetitious, too.)

But there will be accounts somewhere, and if they exist you will find them on the internet. Wikipedia is the starting point. Search for accounts that disagree with accepted dogma, and keep rephrasing your questions until you hit on the right one. Bookmark or keep a list in a word document of links directing you to the sites you have found, even if they had little to offer–you might need them later.

Remember, if you’re drawing on real-life history you must dig deep–don’t just skim the surface, reading the official recounting of events as written by the victors.  The internet is amazing. Historians are continually building our database of information and new discoveries regarding how ordinary people and marginalized groups truly lived. Many resources exist that will give a rounded account of life in the Middle Ages both in Western Europe and in countries around the world.

220px-HatshepsutIf you are relying on actual history to provide a framework for your world-building, you should reach beyond the official history of Europe. Asian history is rich and well documented, as is Egyptian. Of course the old adage that history is written by the victors holds true, as I said before, so let’s consider the story of Hatshepsut:

She was described by early Egyptologists as a minor player, only having served as a co-regent from approximately 1479 to 1458 BC, during years seven to twenty-one of the reign previously identified as that of Thutmose III. However, recent evidence shows that in reality, Hatshepsut reigned as pharaoh for more than twenty years.

Her successors, for whatever reason, attempted to rewrite history, erasing her name from monuments. Yet Hatshepsut was one of the most prolific builders in the ancient world, commissioning hundreds of construction projects throughout both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Her buildings were considered far grander than those of any of her Middle Kingdom predecessors’ works, and were certainly more numerous.

Despite the long period of prosperity during her rule and the amazing constructs she built of stone, Hatshepsut’s influence and accomplishments were marginalized and credit for her work was given to others. Early Egyptologists superimposed their own ideas and values on their interpretations of history.

270px-WLANL_-_koopmanrob_-_Maat-ka-Re_Hatsjepsoet_(RMO_Leiden)They failed to understand the ritual religious symbolism of statues an art depicting her and didn’t take into account the fact that many women and goddesses portrayed in ancient Egyptian art often lack delineation of breasts, and that the physical aspect of the gender of pharaohs was never stressed in the art. This is in part due to the fact that in ancient Egyptian religious art, subjects were romanticized to fit the ideal of the time, and viewing it from an Edwardian mindset, early scholars believed her merely an overly ambitious “King’s Great Wife” or queen consort.  Recent discoveries, however, are righting that wrong, and she is now considered one of the greatest pharaohs of Egyptian history.

Nowadays, it may be easier to find good, unbiased information on ancient Egypt than it is to get an impartial history of post WWII America.

Reality aside, what if your story revolves around a conflict of some sort in your fictional world?

A major worldbuilding trap that is easy to fall into is not clarifying why an event of apocalyptic proportions is taking place at this moment in time, rather than, say thirty years ago.

So in our second draft, one thing we want to strengthen is our sense of history. WHY is Evil Badguy making his move now? What stopped him from putting his nefarious plan into motion two years ago, and conversely, why can’t he wait until next week? Some critical factor must have prevented him from making his move, some obstacle which no longer holds him in check.

What you have to do is identify what it was that  kept your villain in check, and make sure it is somehow introduced into the story. This can be done in the same unobtrusive way you slip in other background. In the process you will discover factors that kept other political actors in your society in check as well. It’s all about checks and balances. What are the unwritten rules that everyone knows and which constrain their actions?

The main difference between writing historical fiction and speculative fiction is that the writer of speculative fiction can make the history fit the tale. The writer of historical fiction does not have that latitude.

 

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Gratitude

Pumpkin-Pie-Whole-SliceTomorrow, here in the US, is a national holiday, a day of Thanksgiving. We gather at the homes of relatives, overeat, and then some of us embark on  the 30 days of Christmas shopping.

I don’t.

Oh, I will go to my daughter’s house and overeat, and I will give sincere and heartfelt thanks for all the many blessings I have been given in this life. And I have been blessed, far more than I deserve. I am comfortable, and I have the luxury of being able to write full-time, because my husband has a good, fairly stable job.

But grandma does not shop. Grandma does not go to the midnight sales, the door-busters, the Black Friday events that seem to be a national sport here.

Grandma does the internet for all her shopping these days. Amazon, Zulily, Overstock.com–these are the stores grandma shops in.

christmas-gift-bagsAnd it’s nearly all done already. All I have to do is get a few little thing-a-ma-jigs for you-know-who, and then we’re set!

Shopping for loved ones is so darned difficult. I can’t tell you how much I hate it. No matter how hard I sweat, no matter how pretty I wrap them, the gifts I think are awesome for so-and-so never seem to live up to their potential.

Thus I have become the queen of gift-cards.

Starbucks, Amazon, Barnes&Noble–gift cards are the way to go. The recipient can get what they want, and I am off the hook for another year.

But if you are looking for the awesomest gift ever, may I recommend a book?  Books are small vacations, little diversions into foreign lands and cultures, windows into other people’s lives.

Books can also change the world.

The company that publishes my books, Myrddin Publishing, just announced the successful campaign to raise funds for the international charity, Water is Life, via sales of their Christmas anthology, Christmas O’Clock.

christmas oclock coverChristmas O’Clock is a collection of holiday-themed stories including magic, space travel, and Rudolph. With two complete chapter books, lots of stories, and plenty of spirit, this anthology is great for kids of all ages. Two of the stories in this collection are mine!

In 2014 the publishing group donated all the revenue generated from sales of this book, totaling over $200.00 in royalties. This purchased three bucket systems and eight drinking straws, providing fresh water to three families, and eight individuals. Their goal is to double that in 2015.

It may not seem like a lot, but for those families who now have clean water, it was huge.  We can do better, and this year we intend to.

All proceeds from this wonderful book go to Water Is Life to help children and families in an international effort.

Christmas O’Clock  can be purchased at www.amazon.com

Paperback via this link: http://bit.ly/CoCpaperback  $9.51

And for the Kindle via this link http://bit.ly/CoCusE  $2.99

a medieval tablesetup 1I live in a soft, easy world of plenty with clean, clear water and plenty of food. I have a warm, dry place to live that is safe and pestilence-free. Not every family has such luxury. My husband and I believe it is our duty to help those who don’t and we do this through actively volunteering in our community. You know that I am involved  as a municipal liaison for National Novel Writing Month and I contribute time and energy to literacy programs here locally, but my husband is far more active on a grassroots level, and what he does has a direct effect within our community.

MH900438718My husband, Greg,  is on the board of the Community Action Council, and has been for more than twenty years. Community Action Council is a private, non-profit 501c(3) agency governed by a volunteer Board of Directors.  Their multipurpose organization focuses on meeting the needs of low-income individuals and families through a variety of programs designed to help them become independent and more self-sufficient. They work collaboratively to develop strategies that address poverty in our local communities,  providing essential human services in Lewis, Mason and Thurston Counties since 1966.

I am Grateful, with a capital ‘G’, for all my many blessings, for my husband who works tirelessly in the service of our community and for the opportunities I’ve been given to help make a difference in this sometimes terrible world.

 

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Loki, Zorg, and why I love the bad-boys

Thor-Everything-LokiI love swashbuckling sword-fights and movies fraught with testosterone and machismo. I don’t need it in real life, thank you–that’s what I have books and movies for. So what are my favorite movies?

Thor–anything Thor will be a winner  from my point of view.

Let’s just say that anything featuring a bad-boy god with a twisted sense of humor is high on my list of must-watch movies. Plot? Sure, if you say so–but this is a movie so bring on the eye-candy now.

I love the character of Loki as played by Tom Hiddleston. He is everything the God of Mischief should be, and then some. He’s like that beloved ex-boyfriend–you’re always glad to see him, and even happier to see him leave.

Fifth_element_poster_(1997)What other sorts of movies intrigue me? Well, I am a huge fan of the 5th Element. I adore the character of Korben Dallas as played by Bruce Willis, but for me the man who stole the film was Zorg, as played by Gary Oldman.  Who doesn’t love a megalomaniac industrialist enslaved to The Great Evil? What a guy! And lets face it, Korben Dallas is just as much fun as Han Solo, and both are quintessential bad-boys.

The thing that intrigued me most about the 5th Element was the way the film portrays consumerism in that society as a living, breathing thing that has veered out of control. Extreme lust for technology and power is set against that of a simple man wanting a simple life–our own flaws are laid bare in the characters of Zorg and Korben Dallas.

But where is the eye-candy in that movie? Well you have to admit it is one of the most visually stunning films of the twentieth century.

You might wonder where I am going with this-so do I. Oh wait!  Bad-boys! Why I love to write about the bad-boys and read about them and even see the movies featuring them!

han-solo-smugglerThe bad-boys are intriguing, dangerous, and definitely not the boy your mama set you up with.

They are fun.  So I have two new manuscripts in the works and one features a bad-boy, a man who falls from grace and years later returns. Some of his experiences have changed him, but some things will never change. While his basic arrogance has been tempered, he is still the man he always was, but with a better grasp of what is truly important.

A bad-boy is a multidimensional character, made of many layers both good and bad, and as the story progress those layers are peeled away, revealing a new facet, but also hinting that more still lies hidden. The trick is to make those layers lure the reader (or watcher) in.  Loki, Han Solo, and Korben Dallas are all characters who intrigued me. They are written perfectly, because at the end of the movie, the observer still doesn’t know them well, but wants to.

From watching these movies, I’ve learned that one should dole out the character in small bits, showing a layer at a time, but always holding out the lure that far more lies hidden beneath the surface.

That is the trick, and it’s one thing to know it and another to do it.  But we try!

 

 

 

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Death Valley

Extreme-Heat-Death-ValleyEvery artist who has successfully created works other people enjoyed is a slave to the creative muse. Each artist endures those horrible moments when they question their choice of career–they have a series of bad days and inspiration is far from their grasp. Every note they play, every word they write, every picture painted is dead and dull. Forcing it doesn’t help, and indeed drives it further away.  These are the moments when we are walking in the Death Valley of creativity.

I have no magic bullet, no super-human powers of creativity to bestow upon you.  For me, the joy of creativity in music, art, and writing is the rebellious feeling of stealing the time to do it. I make music, I do graphics, and I write, doing each whenever the muse strikes me.

In the old days I would come home from work with a small notebook full of ideas and after I had fed the masses, everything else would fall by the way while I put those ideas to paper. Even when you must earn a living, creativity must be allowed to flow when you feel it, because it is a finite commodity.

But I will tell you this: You Are Not Alone. Margaret Mitchell only published one book: Gone With The Wind.

gone with the wind 2Quoted from the fount of all knowledge,  WikipediaMargaret Munnerlyn Mitchell (November 8, 1900 – August 16, 1949) was an American author and journalist. One novel by Mitchell was published during her lifetime, the American Civil War-era novel, Gone with the Wind, for which she won the National Book Award for Most Distinguished Novel of 1936[1] and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937. In more recent years, a collection of Mitchell’s girlhood writings and a novella she wrote as a teenager, Lost Laysen, have been published. A collection of articles written by Mitchell for The Atlanta Journal was republished in book form.

And did you know that Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde each only wrote one novel in their careers?  I am assuming this was because they suffered from long periods of having nothing they thought was worthy to show the world.

Poe understood the value of writing the short story. While he is generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre, his body of work consisted of–wait–how many short stories did he write? “Almost eighty” it says on page 373 of the official volume of the Big Read. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore says the number is sixty-nine – counting “both short fiction and novels.” This appears to be the most widely published number.
So how many short stories did Edgar Allan write? By all reports he was a troubled man, and it’s possible that not even he knew for sure.

Poe is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career. Are we surprised? I don’t think so.

narrative of arthur gordon pym edgar allen poeBut though he is considered by many to be the most famous of our American authors, he only published one novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) is the only complete novel written by our famous man, Edgar Allan Poe. The work relates the tale of the young Arthur Gordon Pym, who stows away aboard a whaling ship called the Grampus. Various adventures and misadventures befall the protagonist, Pym, including shipwreck, mutiny, and cannibalism, before he is rescued by the crew of the Jane Guy.

Indie author Mary W. Walters has written a wonderful blogpost on the subject of turning writers block into building blocks, available here.

So even if you feel the stream of creativity has run dry, it’s frustrating, yes–but nothing to get to worried about. At some point, when it is least convenient, that muse will strike again. You will once again feel that divine energy, that spark of madness that is the breath of life for a poem, a song, a novel or a painting. When you feel it, go with it.

 

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