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Ride a Horse to Imbue Your Writing with Truth

If you write historical fiction that’s based in a time-frame prior to the invention of the car (and most is), here’s a tip: learn to ride a horse. It was virtually the only mode of transportation for most of our characters and the experience of riding long distances and/or the relationship that one had with a horse can add to your historical fiction. The good news is that I’ve found a place where one can learn from a woman who loves historical fiction almost as much as she loves her horses. It’s called Wind In Your Hair Stables in Wanship UT and it’s a joy.

Wanship is just 20 minutes from Park City UT and 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, an easy drive through lovely hilly country. The stables and grounds are artfully rustic and pristine, built with rough-hewn wood. The owner, Sueanne, has a marvelous,  Read More 

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction but it’s a recent appreciation and it was born of a reading of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind because it’s a historical setting but a modern novel form and it is incredibly artful; it is literature because the period of time involved is usedas another device to examine a universal truth. It’s not just a story of the building of a bridge or a queen, a beheading, a war. It’s art.

I think it’s important to remember that fiction, regardless of genre, setting or format, is about illuminating the human condition; it’s not about “gosh, something interesting happened.” That doesn’t work for modern stories either. It has to be “gosh, this interesting thing happened and look at the fascinating emotional transformations that happened as a result.”

But historical fiction faces at least two additional challenges,  Read More 

Interview with the Author: Jess Wells on A Slender Tether and Christine de Pizan

Q: Tell us about Christine and what you’re trying to convey here
JW: I was drawn to write about Christine de Pizan because of her courage and determination. She wrote more than 20 volumes of work across a wide range of disciplines and was the first to argue for the political and social equality of women during the time. Today, there are thousands of professors and students who study her as a seminal voice of the Middle Ages. I was particularly compelled, though, by the desire to dramatize the struggle of a pioneer. It’s particularly important to me as we write stories of women of the past that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking them to be one-dimensional super-heroes. I teach writing historical fiction and I tell my students that despite our bumper stickers that say ‘Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History’ we seem to create female characters that are unblemished. In fact, many of our pioneers  Read More 
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Paracelsus, Father of Modern Surgery and Chemistry

Here’s for “My Main Character Blog hop”

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
a.Theo Paracelsus, a historic person, is considered the father of modern chemistry and was a brilliant scientist and renegade doctor of the 1400s. He published The Great Surgery Book in 1536, which was an astounding compendium of anatomy and surgical procedure.
2) When and where is the story set?
a. The Mandrake Broom is set in Europe during the witch-burning times 1465-1540 set mostly in Salerno, Italy and Paris, and centers on the fight to save medical knowledge. Paracelsus becomes the colleague and partner of my fictional main character, Luccia Alimenti, whose mandate was to carry the herbal and medical teachings of the famous Trotula throughout Europe. It’s my suggestion that their collaboration united the side of medicine from the wicca that was focused on herbs but not surgery, with the surgical side that cut but didn’t cure.
3) What should we know about him/her?
a. Paracelsus was an astoundingly free thinker, a physician, botanist and the first to champion the theories of psychology and toxicology. After a rigorous, traditional education, he became an itinerate doctor, traveling to battlefields and encampments of the poor to better understand disease and anatomy, which was unheard-of in his day.
4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
a. Paracelsus was a eunuch because of an illness in his childhood and also developed a serious addiction to laudanum, an opiate. The central conflict in his life, though, was his rage against the medical establishment and its close-minded ways. He got a reputation for being incredibly arrogant and incendiary, and in some situations had to sneak out of town for fear of imprisonment. He railed against his colleagues, burning some medical textbooks as evidence of fraud.
5) What is the personal goal of the character?
a. Paracelsus had a hunger for medical knowledge and a refusal to settle for the limits of knowledge of the time. As a contemporary of Leonardo de Vinci and Copernicus, he championed scientific thought at a time when the Inquisition made that extremely dangerous.
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Should You Hide the Identities of People in Memoir or Fiction?

Should you hide the identities of people in your fiction or memoir? What’s the impact of revealing family secrets in your work? Two excellent takes on the subject in today’s New York Times Book Review. The decorated Francine Prose says go for broke, except with children: you’re their custodians and it isn’t fair. Otherwise, look at the great fiction/memoirs that have relied on real life and consider what would have been done to them if the writer had been reticent. Of course, she says, you have to be prepared for the consequences.

In counterpoint (though they’re somewhat allied) Leslie Jameson has a wonderful view of the subject. I’ve seen this frequently in my teaching at The Writing Salon: “There’s the danger that overly autobiographical writing will be hampered by serving too many gods (fidelity and artistry at once) or be crippled by the involution of its gaze, made less ambitious by the umbilical cord of its genesis in lived experience.” But actually, she says we’re all creating fictional ‘terrariums’ (love the metaphor) where a certain version of ourselves can survive. And utilizing real people in our work isn’t ‘mining’ or extracting, but creating a type of alchemy, more like agriculture with the truth as the seed.  Read More 

Ambition as a Theme in A Slender Tether

Fiction is a great form, but so is the essay, and I find I want to explain the theme of ambition and its reversal -- disillusionment -- which underlies my story of Christine de Pizan, “The Raptor Among Blue-Birds” in my new book, A Slender Tether.

We owe our pioneers a great debt, and Christine de Pizan is one of our earliest and most eloquent pioneers. Genuine people, however, are multi-dimensional and the faceted sides of the human psyche give us an opportunity to examine the truth behind each side of the story, in this case the addictive and conflicted nature of ambition.

For example, all pioneers waffle between the inculcated lessons of the status quo (giving rise to self-loathing) and their determined, brilliant will to move forward. Pioneers know their position as an out-cast, as Christine does when she acknowledges that she is a raptor (ferocious and potentially deadly) amid a court of decorative and powerless blue-bird women. She sometimes feels reptilian in her alienation.

Her mother had her own form of ambition. It’s historical fact that  Read More 
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Hard-Wired to Crave Variety

(first posted 12/11/12)
Love it when science (especially when delivered by the New York Times) delivers a reason behind a craving, in this case my empty-nester’s new craving to pick up my purse and keys, throw on a black coat, and get out into the San Francisco night, to see young people out on dates, to go where the crowd is, to wander Valencia St. with no destination, out for the thrill of the dark…

“It’s cruel but true: We’re inclined – psychologically and physiologically – to take positive experiences for granted. ..Because…we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety. Variety and novelty affect the brain in much the same way that drugs do – that is, they trigger activity that involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, as do pharmacological highs…Surprise is a potent force. When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us…Surprise is apparently more satisfying than stability.”
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Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel

I’m always researching new scenes and stories from the Middle Ages. I’m particularly keen on characters who are tradespeople, so I’m looking into information on the length of time it takes to do things in the Middle Ages (re-calibrating your plot is key here.) Today’s investigation is from:

Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel.
(italics in the following are mine)
“There is evidence of monastic manuscript-making projects extending over years, and doubtless it was often very much a part-time occupation. An eleventh-century (1000AD) monastic scribe, in no great haste, might achieve three or four moderate-sized books a year. A professional scribe, however, working for a commercial bookshop in the fifteenth century (1400s), was paid by the job and not by the hour. There are manuscripts in which the scribe announces at the end that the work was started and finished
in a matter of days. The Renaissance scribe Giovanni Marco Cinico, who mostly worked in Naples 1458-98, boasted that he wrote full-length manuscripts in fifty-two or fifty-three hours, and he was nicknamed Velox, speedy. Perhaps a Book of Hours might usually be written out within a week, and the miniatures might well be executed at the rate of two or three a day. A professional artisan who knows his job and repeats it throughout a lifetime can often work extremely fast.” (pg. 7)

Here’s a great scene:

“The parchmenter is scraping last week’s skins while this week’s supply is soaking in vats in the shed. Fresh quills are drying out while the scribe is writing with earlier stock. The illuminator during a lunch break checks on the infusions of next week’s pigments in the pantry. Certain devices for speeding the process further were evolved during the centuries, culminating at last in the invention of printing around 1450.” Pg. 7

Another great scene/vivid detail:

“Sometimes too one can see tree-like vein marks on parchment, the result of blood in the skin when the animal died (this ought to be more common in pelts from hunted animals, like deer, than from those killed and bled in a butcher’s shop, but it is difficult to know how to set about proving it.) If the flaws were too rough and pronounced and yet the scribe decided to use the sheet nonetheless, a ring may have been drawn around the blemish and the scribe’s subsequent writing parts like the Red Sea to flow around it. On big pages one can sometimes detect denser ridges where the backbone transected the skin and perhaps on one edge one may observe (aided perhaps by imagination) the scalloped curve which was the neck of the animal.” (pg. 15)

“Until the twelfth century, most manuscripts were ruled in drypoint, that is, with blind lines scored with a stylus or back of the knife…Oblong pieces of lead have been excavated scribed with names like ROGERII and KAROLI SCRIPTORIS in the 13th or 14th century capitals, and are probably plummet markers for just such purposes as ruling manuscripts.” Pg. 23

“No facsimile can ever give the tactile experience of handling and running one’s fingers across soft leaves of medieval parchment. Even the smell is quite different from that of paper, and in fact varies enormously with manuscripts from one country to another. Within moderation, a bit of handling is said to be good for manuscripts because parchment, like leather, responds well to movement and can lose suppleness if untouched for centuries.” Pg. 13 (Love that one could tell where a book came from by its smell!)
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Lessons from AWP 2014

The first day of #AWP2014 ended brilliantly with Annie Proulx’s keynote, a witty, acerbic and delightful look at the history of publishing since the 1940s, the advances and retreats, the blindness of many to the changes until they were ‘cattle in the feedlot.’ With her hair sticking out in odd directions, a woman far older than I expected who rarely looked up from her script to make eye contact, she charmed the audience utterly and completely, nonetheless.

The panel discussions on craft were standing room only, all the aisles packed with people sitting on the floor, as opposed to the sessions on marketing or publishing. As this is my first AWP, I would say this is predominantly a writer’s conference, or maybe that they’ve underestimated how many writers vs. professors/publishers there are in attendance.

Interesting panel on “How Many Readers is Enough” with outstanding insights by Read More 

The Art of Being Still as a Writer

The Art of Being Still, by Silas House

"We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened. The wonderful nonfiction writer Joyce Dyer refers to this as seeing like an animal… We writers must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.
We are a people who are forever moving, who  Read More