Thursday, December 29, 2011

On This Day In History – The Murder of Thomas Becket

On December 29 in the year 1170, a group of knights in the service of King Henry II of England murdered Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. According to legend, the murder was set in motion by an offhand comment by King Henry, who famously uttered, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The knights, apparently, took this literally.

The murder shocked Western Europe, leading to Becket’s sainthood and a significant penance by Henry II, who had himself flogged for absolution and later walked three miles, barefoot, to submit himself at Becket’s tomb. And, as everyone who’s ever read Ken Follett’s most acclaimed work of historical fiction knows, this event inspired the final chapters of The Pillars of the Earth. Once again, that novel reminds us how significant events in history can give rise to wonderful works of fiction.

Have a Happy New Year everyone!

Sadly, St. Thomas of Canterbury did not make it to New Year's Eve in 1170.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Long Journeys Part III – Dark Descents

Holidays are tough on writers. Even when you think you’ll have time to write, something gets in the way. Agent Rachelle Gardner recently suggested that writers should plan out how much time they think they’ll have to write during the holidays – and then divide that in half. This year, I should’ve divided that number by ten. That’s how far behind I am, which is the reason for the current dearth of posts. 

For some, the end of the year can also be tough, especially when the year ends worse than planned. In the long journey of life there are always valleys, some more deep and dark than others. It’s how a person climbs out of those valleys that matters, which is another reason I find the story type called the “journey” or “quest” to be so appealing. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins not only had to make the long and dangerous physical journey to Mordor, but he also had to endure the grueling mental and emotional journey of bearing the One Ring. As anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings knows, it’s the latter journey that was the hardest to survive.   

In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, the gunslinger, Roland Deschain, has both a physical and a mental/emotional journey to overcome. One of my favorite episodes in that long journey is King’s second book in the series, The Drawing of the Three.

The novel starts where The Gunslinger ended, after Roland is reeling from his failures, lost in a guilt-ridden haze on the edge of the Western Sea. Then the unexpected occurs. Roland suffers a sudden attack by a creature from the sea, costing him the first two fingers of his right hand. This injury cripples his ability to fire a gun, which for a gunslinger is a very bad thing. Then infection sets in. Roland is going to die unless he can find away to recover from this terrible event, and that’s where The Drawing of the Three begins.  

Roland encounters three doorways along the beach, each of which is a portal from his world to ours. Through those doors he must draw three people who were revealed at the end of The Gunslinger as being crucial to his quest to find the Dark Tower. These three figures will also be the key to Roland’s own survival. But first, he must help them settle the score with their own demons. 

From here, King introduces us to three of his most memorable characters. The first is Eddie Dean, whose demon is an addiction to heroin, leading to some serious trouble with the mob. The second is Odetta Holmes, whose own demon – a violent and alternate personality named “Detta” – stems from a sudden and seemingly random childhood attack, which left her in a coma and damaged her mind. The third is Jack Mort, a sociopath whose evil deeds have touched more than one of the other characters’ lives. Roland’s journey continues through each of these doorways and his harrowing encounters with each of these characters. And by the end, Roland must fight for something more important than his mere survival – his redemption. 

Loss, failure and redemption are often elements of a good journey tale, and in my opinion The Drawing of the Three serves as a perfect example.

Stephen King has a new Dark Tower novel coming out in April 2012!
 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lion of Ireland

I’m still immersed in my research on Vikings, which leads me to another of my favorite Viking-related novels, Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn.  

Lion of Ireland tells the story of Brian Boru, perhaps the greatest Irish king who ever lived. He ruled at the end of the Tenth Century, during a time when Norse and Danish Vikings controlled large portions of Ireland, including the Viking towns of Limerick and Dublin. Rich with natural resources and monasteries laden with silver, Ireland had lured the Vikings for two centuries, but their reign ended in large part because of Brian Boru.

The story begins when an eight-year-old Brian, the youngest son of the King of Dal Cais, discovers his homestead burning and his mother and two of his brothers slain by Vikings. Here’s a brief passage from the scene leading up to the massacre of Brian’s family: 

The Norse riverboats glided down the breast of the Shannon and nosed toward the grassy verge where the geese had fed. In the lead boat, Eyrik Gunnarsson stood tall in the prow of the River Serpent, beating his hand against his thigh in time to the cadence of the oars. Death rode with him on the night wind, and he felt pride in carrying it.
Brian’s hatred of the Vikings fuels his ambition. As a grown man, he leads skirmishes against the Limerick Vikings, luring many to their death, and in time becomes the King of Munster and ultimately High King (Ard Ri) of all of Ireland.  

Llywelyn’s Boru is a hero much like Braveheart’s William Wallace, faced with as many enemies among the kings of Ireland as he has among the Danes and Norse. The novel is filled with treachery, intrigue, and conflict, perhaps none more interesting than Brian’s volatile relationship with the sensual and cunning Irish queen Gormlaith. Her beauty transfixes Brian, and “looking into her face, he sees Ireland itself.”  

In Gormlaith, however, Brian finds more than he bargained for. By the time they wed, she was already famous, having previously married two of Brian’s rivals: Olaf Cuaran, the Viking King of Dublin who left her a widow, and Malachi Mor, the High King of Ireland before Boru claimed the throne. Gormlaith also was the mother of Sitric Silkbeard, who succeeded Olaf as ruler of Dublin, and her fiery relationship with Brian ends up threatening the kingdom he has fought so hard to unite. For her son wants Brian dead, and to kill him Sitirc gathers a Viking army for a battle that will decide the fate of Ireland.   

If you are interested in one of the most fascinating figures in Irish history, or just want another good book about the Viking Age, I highly recommend Lion of Ireland.

Clontarf, 23 April 1014, the battle that would decide the fate of Ireland.
As an aside, I consider this novel in the historical fiction genre, but in a few places it approaches the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. The novel is riddled with talk of the Tuatha de Danann, Cu Chulainn and Finn mac Cool, as well as tales from Norse myths, characterizing the tension between Christianity and the old pagan ways. But there is one scene where Brian has a passionate and seemingly magical encounter with a woman who may or may not be the goddess of Ireland. The scene is clearly symbolic, but whether it was just Brian’s dream – or something quite real – is left for the reader to decide.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Break from the Norm

Today I'm taking a break from my focus on historical and fantasy fiction (at least of the medieval variety) to mention a new novel by one of my author friends, E. Kendrick Smith, titled Defeating Operation Hydra. It's available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, among other booksellers, in e-book, paperback and hard copy. Here's my take on it after this picture of the cover.


I'm not an avid reader of thrillers, but this book kept me turning the pages all the way to its riveting end. Despite its title, this novel is foremost a legal thriller with a heavy dose of international intrigue and military thriller mixed in. 

The story's protagonist is Sharon Weinstock, a brilliant but neurotic assistant New York D.A. with South Georgia roots. When Sharon loses a high profile murder case that seemed like a lock, she suffers an early career crisis and takes an impulsive vacation to Aruba, only to encounter the man she just prosecuted. From there, the story takes a dark and unexpected turn into a web of deceit and murder tied to Colombian drug lords and international terrorism. Soon, Sharon finds herself facing her own trial for a murder she didn't commit. Without her courtroom skills to aid her, she must help an old friend (and former opponent) prove her innocence and stop the real killers before they can kill thousands more.

The courtroom scenes are captivating, but the novel is equally exciting when it veers toward a military thriller, raising the stakes quite high, but always keeping a focus on Sharon and her plight. I really enjoyed Defeating Operation Hydra and suspect others will too.

Friday, November 25, 2011

On This Day In History ...

I love it when dramatic events in history give rise to great works of fiction. Today provides a perfect example.

On November 25, 1120, a royal vessel called the White Ship sank in the English Channel leaving only a single survivor. Among those killed was William Adelin, the son of Henry I, King of England. William’s death spawned a nineteen-year war of succession between Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, and Stephen’s cousin, Matilda, the daughter of Henry I and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany. This fascinating period in English history, called The Anarchy, provides the setting for one of my favorite works of historical fiction, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.

Follett builds his entire story around the events set in motion by the sinking of the White Ship. Indeed, the mystery surrounding this disaster – and its sole survivor – is a central part of the plot, starting with the novel’s very first scene, the hanging of Jack Shareburg. Other characters in the real-world historical drama feature prominently in the story, including Stephen, who rules as king during much of The Anarchy, and Matilda’s son, Henry II, who ends the war of succession by becoming King of England in 1154 and provides the catalyst for the climactic events at the novel’s end.

I won’t give away any more of the plot (and I’m sure most of you have read it anyway), but The Pillars of the Earth serves as a wonderful example of how an author can take a dramatic event in history and turn it into a fictional masterpiece.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Tiny Piece of Viking Trivia

The little things you learn in research can amaze you. While continuing my studies on Vikings, I came across the story of King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, who died after a battle with his rebellious son, Svein Forkbeard, circa 987 A.D. It turns out that Harald’s surname, “Bluetooth,” provides the name for the ever popular technology that we enjoy every day on our smart phones. 

In fact, the Bluetooth logo is comprised of Harald’s initials in Viking-age runes: Hagall (ᚼ) and  Bjarkan (ᛒ). It’s amazing how history more than a thousand years old can touch our modern lives.

Incidentally, Harald defeated Svein in a great sea battle off the coast of Jutland. But, according to at least one account, while Harald was warming himself that evening, naked by a campfire, one of Svein’s men ended up shooting Harald with a bow and arrow – right in Harald’s bare behind. That night Harald bled to death, paving the way for Svein Forkbeard to become King of Denmark.

Svein may have won the throne, but it's Harald's name that lives on.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Little Known Fact About Tolkien's Dwarves

Yesterday I stumbled across a little known fact about Dwarves. I say little known, when in fact it may be widely known. But it was news to me.

This month I started reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to my daughter, and we’re still at the scene where Thorin Oakenshield and all his Dwarves are invading Bilbo’s hobbit hole. I’ve also been continuing my research on Vikings for my next novel. Well, lo and behold, while studying a book called The Norse Myths, I came across a group of Dwarves that sounded very much like Tolkien’s.

Specifically, in the tale of Loki’s Children, the Norse gods get the Dwarves to make a chain to bind the monstrous wolf Fenrir. And among those chain-making Dwarves were Bifur, Bafur, Bombor and Nori. This sounds a lot like four of the Dwarves in Thorin’s party: Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Nori. I suspect this is not a coincidence. 

Where did these Dwarves come from?
Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and studied many Old English poems, including Beowulf, which has its origins in Norse myth. Also, the Norse gods and their myths are derived from more ancient Saxon and Germanic mythology. For example, the Norse god Odin probably has his origins in the Saxon and Germanic war god, Woden. Tolkien undoubtedly modeled the Dwarves and Elves of Middle Earth after those found in actual myths. Indeed, “Middle Earth” is likely a play on “Midgard,” the middle world of men in Norse and Germanic Mythology. 

Incidentally, some of the other Dwarves I stumbled across in The Norse Myths include Durin, Dain, Dvalin (Dwalin), Nain, and Nar. All of these Dwarves are mentioned somewhere in Tolkien’s mythology, including The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien took actual mythology and used it to build his own world – one that is much more memorable to today’s readers. 

Now, I’ve found no evidence that Snow White’s Dwarves are derived from Norse Mythology. But if I find reference to a Grumpy or a Sneezy while finishing my research, I’ll let you know.

This picture of Odin the Wanderer looks a lot like Gandalf the Grey.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Is the Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum a Dire Wolf?

It's been a few months, but the Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum has more than tripled in size. She was 8 pounds when we picked her up from the Humane Society. Now she's more than 24 lbs! The Humane Society told us she was a Jack Russell Terrier. Guess not.

At the rate she's growing, I'm starting to wonder if she's secretly a Dire Wolf. Of course, her name is "Lily," so she lacks a cool name like "Ghost" or "Grey Wind." But who knew? For those against the Dire Wolf theory, some think she's part English Pointer. Others think she's a Rat Terrier. For now, however, I shall assume she's part Dire Wolf!

Take a look at her picture and let me know what you think.

Dire Wolf for sure!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Beowulf Reimagined

Because I was travelling for the past five weeks, I had little time to do research on Vikings for my next novel. But I did have enough time to re-read another of my favorite stories about Vikings, Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead

The book is short (about 175 pages) and it has probably been twenty years since I first read it. But it struck me after this reading that Crichton was reimagining the classic story of Beowulf. Since I’ve been focusing on the re-imagining of legends and classic tales on this blog, I thought I’d write briefly about Crichton’s novel.

Crichton tells the story through the viewpoint of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, a real-life historical figure who served as an ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad to the King of the Bulgars in 922 A.D. Ibn Fadlan wrote one of the early accounts of the Rus, a group of Swedish Vikings who relocated to the Baltic region and ultimately gave their name to “Russia.” In Eaters of the Dead, Ibn Fadlan is chosen to be the thirteenth warrior on a Viking mission to save the land of Venden from a mysterious enemy that attacks from the mist. From that point on, the story mirrors the tale of Beowulf.

The leader of Crichton’s Vikings is a warrior aptly named Buliwyf. When they reach Venden, they are treated to feasts in the great mead hall of a Viking king named Rothgar. But at night, when the mist comes down from the mountains, Rothgar’s kingdom is attacked by mysterious and brutal creatures called the wendol. The beast-like wendol, though many in number, are a clear representation of Beowulf’s Grendel, and the story proceeds in the manner of the Old English poem, all the way down to a severed arm placed over the mead hall and a deadly encounter with the mother of the wendol. 

The story is tense and exciting, and the Vikings, observed through Ibn Fadlan’s eyes, start out as savages but end up being noble warriors. Crichton succeeds in this retelling of the legend of Beowulf, but what I liked the most about the novel is the explanation he provides for the wendol. Without spoiling the ending, Crichton suggests a scientific explanation for these creatures that led me to wonder if his wendol explain the stories of trolls, goblins and other monsters that have existed in myths for thousands of years. When a novel makes me think like that, I know it’s done its job well. 

If you’re interested in a quick read about Vikings or want to experience another legend reimagined, you won’t be disappointed in Eaters of the Dead.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Samain!

To the Celts, October 31st was Samain, a harvest festival that many believe became the inspiration for Halloween. I could write more about Samain, but today I’d like to simply quote the great opening passage of Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God. Cornwell, who reimagines the Arthurian myth, writes about a time when the old Celtic ways remained strong, despite the spread of Christianity in Ireland and Britain. So, in the words of Derfel Cardan ...

Today I have been thinking about the dead.
This is the last day of the old year. The bracken on the hill has turned brown, the elms at the valley’s end have lost their leaves and the winter slaughter of our cattle has begun. Tonight is Samain Eve.
Tonight the curtain that separates the dead from the living will quiver, fray, and finally vanish. Tonight the dead will cross the bridge of swords. Tonight the dead will come from the Otherworld to this world, but we shall not see them. They will be shadows in the darkness, mere whispers of wind in a windless night, but they will be here.
In this novel, Arthur discovers one of his worst nightmares.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Indie vs. Traditional Publishing – The Battle Rages On

As readers of this blog know, I am keenly interested in the debate about whether authors are better off self-publishing their novels or pursuing a literary agent and a traditional publishing deal. The good news for me, at least, is that the blogosphere is filled with arguments for both sides. Recently, the debate has become so intense I likened it to the Battle of Agincourt, but the question now is, which side in this debate represents the English and which side represents the French?

This past week, Jane Friedman posted an article on Writer Unboxed about the benefits of traditional publishing. Her article focuses on some of the primary concerns of many commentators on this blog, namely the higher quality (or perceived higher quality) of traditionally published novels. She concludes that some writers are simply better off with the professional assistance associated with traditional publishing.

On the other side of the battlefield, Joe Konrath, commenting on a guest post by Barry Eilser, makes another argument in favor of indie publishing. Among other things, Joe argues that both indie publishing and traditional publishing require "luck" for a book to sell, and he concludes that “legacy publishing requires a lot more luck than going solo.” He also notes that “[w]hen you throw in poor royalty rates, dwindling paper distribution, returns, and non-existent marketing budgets, it is almost astronomical that any new author ever makes money” in traditional publishing.

Now that my novel is finished, I’ll remain focused on this debate. But let me know what you think – which side is winning this battle?

Who represents the English and who represents the French?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Agincourt!

Happy Saint Crispin’s Day! And happy Saint Crispinian’s Day too! Nearly 600 years ago today, on the feast of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian, the French and the English fought the famous Battle of Agincourt – the inspiration for at least two great works of fiction and the topic of today’s post. 

The English won the Battle of Agincourt, but they weren’t supposed to. According to some accounts, the French army, with its heavy cavalry and plate-armored knights, stood five times larger than the English forces of Henry V, who had come off a long and costly siege at Harfleur. But thanks to overnight rains that turned the battlefield into a morass of thick mud, the French cavalry was unable to charge, leaving it at the mercy of the English archers and their deadly longbows. The Battle of Agincourt demoralized the French, who lost many of their best knights, and became one of the more legendary battles of the Hundred Years’ War. William Shakespeare featured the battle in Henry V, and so did Bernard Cornwell in one of my favorite novels, Agincourt.   

This is one of my favorites!
The hero of Agincourt is Nicholas Hook, a nineteen-year-old forester who escapes punishment for trying to murder one of his family rivals by serving as an archer in the English army occupying the French city of Soissons. Due to the treachery of an English knight, Nick gets caught up in the French massacre of Soissons, where he saves a nun named Melisande from being raped and starts hearing the voices of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian, the town’s patron saints.  

After the two saints help Nick and Melisande escape, Nick learns that Melisande is the daughter of a powerful French knight nicknamed the Lord of Hell, who is not too happy she’s taken up with Nick. Soon, Nick and Melisande end up in the army of Henry V at the siege of Harfleur in Normandy, but amid Henry’s forces, Nick encounters his old family rivals, who may be even more of a threat than the French. The novel culminates at Agincourt, where Nick must face all of his enemies, including the Lord of Hell and a French army larger and more powerful than Nick ever could have imagined.

The novel is classic Cornwell, filled with memorable characters, lots of tension, and thrilling scenes that lead up to the centerpiece battle at Agincourt. Conwell’s gift is making the reader feel like they’ve lived through this famous battle. But he does so much more. He makes the reader genuinely concerned for his heroes as he places them in one dangerous situation after another, all at the mercy of a host of villains that will leave you longing for the moment they meet their bitter end. The voices of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian add a hint of a fantasy to what is otherwise pure historical fiction, but I think the novel is better for it. If you like medieval historical fiction, odds are you’ll love Agincourt

The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25 October 1415

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Long Journeys Part II - Through the Mines of Moria!

I’m halfway through my recent travels, and – keeping with my journey tale analogies – I feel like I’ve made it through the Mines of Moria. But there’s still a long way to go and the Dead Marshes await, so it will be a while before I get back to writing on a regular basis.

In the brief time I have this week, I’m staying on the topic of journey tales. The late Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat! calls this plot type “The Golden Fleece,” based on the legend of Jason and his Argonauts. These stories embody the classic quest myth. Or, as Snyder puts it, a “hero goes ‘on the road’ in search of one thing and winds up discovering something else – himself.” Since Snyder wrote about screenplays, he offers several movie-related examples including the Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. But I think the two journey tales I wrote about last week, The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Tower, fit Snyder’s definition perfectly.

Although the quest in The Lord of the Rings involves destroying the One Ring, the journey transforms Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin from comfortable “everymen” to unlikely heroes. In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, the transformation of Roland Deschain is more subtle. Along the way, Roland encounters allies in Jake, Eddie and Susannah, and his relationship with them through the various trials they face tempers Roland’s ruthlessness with compassion. Roland’s change is just enough to have a critical impact in the novel’s shocking conclusion.

Jake helped Roland Change.
Much of the fun a journey story offers is all the interesting places the protagonist goes and the various obstacles he or she must overcome. We love the Mines of Moria and its Balrog, Fangorn Forest with its Ents, and the stairs of Cirith Ungol with its spidery queen. Yet, in what Snyder called one of his truisms about a good Golden Fleece tale, “it’s not the incidents, it’s what the hero learns about himself from those incidents that make the story work.”

I wholeheartedly agree. In most of the journey tales I’ve read that didn’t work, Snyder’s truism was lacking. I’ve tried to be mindful of this in my own novel, which is structured as a journey tale even though a puzzle is imbedded in story’s bones. But what do you think of Blake Snyder’s truism? Is it the key to a great journey tale?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Long Journeys

I haven’t been writing much because I’ve been on the road for work, and it looks like several more weeks of that are on the way. All this travelling, however, has had me thinking about storylines that involve long, arduous journeys. The classic tale, at least for fantasy fiction, is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Samwise have to get from the Shire to Mount Doom, though it's far from easy, and that long journey changes their lives.

Another grueling journey that jumps to mind is that of Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. King was inspired to write this series by The Lord of the Rings, and, like Frodo’s, Roland’s journey is fraught with challenges up until its very unexpected ending. Tolkien undoubtedly inspired numerous journey tales over the past few decades of fantasy fiction, including The Belgariad by David Eddings and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.

So as I embark on my next journey, let me know if there’s a favorite fictional journey that sticks in your mind.

Roland had one long journey!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Byzantium

Continuing my musings on Viking-related fiction, I thought I’d talk about a not-so-obvious Viking tale, Stephen R. Lawhead’s Byzantium.

When I picked up this novel at my local Borders, the last thing I thought this book would be about is Vikings. Set in the Ninth Century, the novel tells the story of Aidan, an Irish monk who is selected by his abbot to join an expedition to deliver the famous Books of Kells to the Emperor of Byzantium. While most of the novel takes place in and around Constantinople (formerly called Byzantium), Aidan only arrives there after he’s captured by Vikings.

Aidan ends up in the service of King Harald Bull-roar, a Danish king who is intent on sacking the fabled city of Miklagard, the Danish name for Byzantium. After travelling through Russia and Ukraine, Harald and his small fleet of longships arrive at Miklagard, which of course is more massive than any city in Christian Europe, guarded by towering walls and legions of Byzantine Greeks. The scenes that follow are truly amusing as the Viking king and his warriors are hell-bent on plundering the city, despite the obvious impossibility of doing so. Harald and his Vikings can’t even get into the secured harbors, let alone any of the well-guarded city gates. But Harald keeps trying.

Although it has many charming moments centered around Harald’s designs toward Byzantium, the novel is truly epic in scope with strong themes about faith and Christianity woven throughout the story.  After reaching Constantinople, Aidan becomes a spy to the Byzantine emperor (Basil the Macedonian) and must journey into Arab lands, dogged by his enemies in the Byzantine court, where he ultimately must decide whether to save King Harald and the Vikings who once enslaved him.  All of these story lines help make Byzantium the rich epic that it is. But it was Harald and his memorable Vikings that made this novel work so well for me.

Who would have thought this novel was about Vikings?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Last Kingdom

With the latest draft of my novel put to bed, I’ve started researching my next work. This one involves Vikings, so for the foreseeable future I’ll be immersing myself in a world of dragon-prowed longships, Norse gods, fierce warriors, beer, and plunder! All of which call to mind my favorite novels about Vikings.

This was not a welcome sight back in the Ninth Century!
While I’ve read many Viking-related novels that I’ll try to share on this blog, my favorite series is Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales, which tells the story of how the Vikings nearly conquered all of England in the Ninth Century. The first novel in the series is The Last Kingdom, where we’re introduced to Cornwell’s protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, one of my all-time favorite characters. 

Uhtred, the ten-year-old son of a Saxon lord, is captured by Danes when his father is killed during an attack on the Viking stronghold of York. His captor, Earl Ragnar, ends up raising Uhtred to manhood as a Viking, a life Uhtred adores. But Uhtred is still a Saxon by blood, and after treachery strikes his Viking family, he finds himself in the service of Alfred, the Saxon King of Wessex. Uhtred’s loyalties soon become torn between his new king and the Danes he loves like a brother. Yet as war between the Saxons and Vikings threatens to determine the fate of England, Uhtred must discover where his true allegiance lies.  

Cornwell’s masterful storytelling has the reader rooting for both sides in this conflict. The Danes are happy, life-loving people, while Alfred and his Saxons are quite dour. But still, Cornwell has us sympathizing with the Saxons’ plight. In the end, Uhtred’s decision is as difficult for the reader as it is for the main character, which is why this novel works so well. As far as novels about Vikings go, this one’s hard to beat!

This is a must-read Viking tale

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ithaca at Last!

Last month I wrote about my personal revision Odyssey as I embarked upon the sixth draft of my novel.  (Yes, I'm a glutton for punishment!)  Well, today I finished that sixth draft.  The process took about a month (losing some time due to work commitments), but in the end, I reduced the novel's length by another 3,000 words.  After a long journey, I have reached Ithaca.  But now what?  Here is where my ongoing debate about whether to seek an agent and pursue the traditional publishing route or venture into the bold new world of indie publishing takes center stage. 

One of the bloggers I follow, author Dean Wesley Smith, is so skeptical about the survival of traditional publishing that he suggests authors go the indie route for the next two years.  By then, we may know whether his predictions were right.  Author J.A. Konrath argues that traditional publishing is a dead man walking.  But others still value agents, publishing houses, and everything they have to offer. 

I'm still searching for the right answer, and I'm always open to advice.

Ithaca at last - but where do I go from here?


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Legends Reimagined

I recently finished Black Ships by Jo Graham, a novel that reimagnes The Aeneid in a more historically accurate way. I enjoyed Black Ships, and it reminded me how much I love novels that reimagine familiar legends.

 My all time favorite reimagining of a famous legend is Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles, which retells the legend of King Arthur from a historical perspective. Cornwell’s story, which consists of three novels, The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur, reimagines Arthur as a warlord, instead of a king, and is told through the viewpoint of Derfel Carden, a Saxon who is raised by Merlin and becomes one of Arthur’s most loyal warriors. What’s so enjoyable about the trilogy is that everything you’d expect from Arthurian legend has been turned on its head: Arthur now serves Uther’s son, a young King Mordred. Nimue, a druid priestess and Merlin’s lover, is the main female character, while Morgan plays only a bit role as a druidess turned Christian. Lancelot is a major villain and Guinevere is, well, complicated (let’s just say she fancies the cult of a certain Egyptian goddess whose religious rites play a major role in the second novel). Other than Arthur, who is a warrior without equal, the only other character that fully resembles his legendary personage is Merlin, who becomes one of most memorable characters of any telling of the Arthurian myth I’ve ever read. Familiar story lines such as the round table, the quest for the holy grail, and the death of Arthur are all present in some form or another, although not always as you might expect. The retelling is both fresh and facilitating, and I highly recommend these novels to every fan of Arthurian fiction.

Who says Arthur was a king?

In the past year I’ve also read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood, which reimagines the legend of Robin Hood as an Eleventh Century Welsh freedom fighter. Robin is now Bran ap Brychan, heir to the throne of Elfael, and William the Conqueror plays the role of King John. Friar Tuck and Maid Marian are still present, albeit not in a way you might recognize them from the legend’s various film adaptations.

Lawhead's Robin Hood is not like any you'd remember!

Black Ships is told from the viewpoint of Gull, a Trojan girl enslaved by the Greeks who becomes Sibyl, a priestess of the Goddess of Death. Because the novel retells The Aeneid, Aeneas plays a major role, but like Cornwell, Graham tells the story a from a historical perspective. Dido has been replaced by an Egyptian princess since Carthage didn’t exist back then, but Egypt under Ramses III was a major power. In fact, the scenes in Egyptian Memphis are among the best in the novel. Encounters with mythical creatures such as Charybdis and the Cyclops are gone, but the gods – with some truly creative theories as to their origins – are still present, as is Aeneas’ descent to the Underworld. I purchased Black Ships on a whim while visiting my local Borders before its demise. But I’m glad I did since it was an opportunity to experience yet another great legend reimagined. 

You'll like these Trojans!

For those who enjoy this type of fiction, I’d love to know if you have other great examples of famous legends reimagined.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Grim Reaper Cometh

Amid the debate between traditional publishing and indie publishing, including all the concerns about the quality of self-published works, we are reminded again about one hard reality: bookstores as we know them are ceasing to exist. 

Yesterday's article in the Detroit Free Press chronicled the death throes of one local Borders store.  And with shelf-space for new novels shrinking, I wonder whether indie publishing will become the only way for most aspiring writers to get their works published.  Maybe some new model will arise to bridge the gap between the traditional model -- which relied on stores like Borders -- and the wild west of self-publishing, but who knows?  Today, Joe Konrath wrote again about this new reality, and his prognosis for traditional publishing isn't good.  I have not made a decision about which avenue to pursue with my own novel, but I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't concerned about traditional publishing and the diminishing venues in which to sell their wares.

The Grim Reaper has arrived for Borders


Friday, September 9, 2011

Evily Amusing Reads

Of all the blogs I frequent, my favorite for quick and amusing reads is Evil Editor.  Evil Editor (or EE for short) provides critiques of query letters -- those partial summaries of a novel that are supposed to entice literary agents to want to read your book.  While a lot of EE's points are helpful to the writers, his critiques are intentionally hilarious. 

Many writers already know about his blog, but fans of fiction will enjoy it too, especially fans of fantasy fiction because most of the queries critiqued by EE fall somewhere in that genre.  As you would expect for fantasy, some of these story ideas are pretty far out there, which just gives EE more ammunition to work with.  On a recent plane ride from Chicago, I read about fifty of his critiques in a row and laughed almost the entire flight home.  (I'm sure the person next to me thought I had lost it!)  His post on werewolf popes still cracks me up, and his annotations on a magic painting for a story about two boys lost in the Middle Ages are priceless!  If you have a free moment, follow this link to his blog.  You won't regret it!

Falstaff would have loved Evil Editor!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Does Indie Publishing Need a Gatekeeper?

Whenever I post about the debate between traditional publishing and indie publishing, readers comment about their frustration over the morass of bad self-published books on the market. In short, they wonder if it’s worth the effort of sifting through all the garbage out there to find good self-published fiction. Some, like author Joe Konrath, believe readers will separate the wheat from the chaff by relying on sites like Goodreads.com. Today, on The Creative Penn, author Gerard de Marigny offers a different idea – create an association to establish quality standards for self-published books.

I’m not sure how an association like this would work, especially if it’s not tied in some way to the marketplace. I trust the marketplace – i.e., the readers – but I’m not so sure about an association of select individuals, especially since judging fiction is necessarily subjective. For now, I lean more toward Konrath’s view, although I understand that readers appreciate the “stamp of approval” that’s provided by traditional publishers. I’m curious about what you think. Would a stamp of approval from some association be the next best thing?


Charon was a gatekeeper of sorts - but would you trust him?

Monday, August 29, 2011

My Revision Odyssey

A few days ago, I started work on the sixth draft of my novel.  This is something I’ve been avoiding, because frankly it feels a little insane.  Why after four drafts, or even five, isn’t it finished?  I have no idea.  But this has become my Odyssey, and if I don’t get to Ithaca soon, I might dive into the jaws of Charybdis!

For those who haven’t read Homer’s epic in a while, the Odyssey depicts Odysseus’ ten year journey to return to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War.  About everything that can go wrong does go wrong on his voyage, including shipwrecks, run-ins with Cyclopes and Sirens, enslavements by a sorceress and a jealous nymph, and a really bad decision involving a bag of winds.  So, using the Odyssey as an analogy, here’s the tale of my own journey.

The First Draft – This was my siege of Troy.  It took forever and had its ups and downs, but ultimately ended in triumph.  I had finished the first draft of my first novel!  I celebrated with a bottle of Chateau de Beaucastle.  Life was good.  All I needed to do was finish another draft or two and I’d be home free, right?  Yep, bet that’s what Odysseus thought too.

First Draft Triumph!
 The Second Draft – This is where the editing and re-writing began.  It started badly, though not unexpectedly, when I realized the first draft was 142,000 words and filled with lots of bad writing.  Yet it got better quickly when the editing kicked in and turned bad writing into good.  The story started to sing.  I even shaved the length down to 131,000 words.  Again, life was good.  Just like Odysseus escaping the Lotus Eaters and defeating the Cyclops.  He was making progress – until that damn bag of wind ...

Defeating the Cyclops Seemed a Breeze!
 The Third Draft – After the second draft, I sent it to some friends to read.  I received a lot of good advice, but a lot of this advice involved making additions to the novel.  “Add more to the ending to make it more exciting.”  “Spend more time developing the characters’ backstory.”  “Gives us more scenes with the villains.”  So I tried to do this.  And here’s where I opened the bag of winds.  For those not up on their Odyssey, after Odysseus defeated the Cyclops, the Master of the Winds gives Odysseus a bag containing all but the West wind.  This allows him to sail all the way to Ithaca, where he can even see the shore.  But then some dumb-ass opens the bag of winds, blowing Odysseus way off course, which ultimately sends him and his crew to the witch-goddess Circe, where Odysseus’ crew gets turned into pigs and ends up stuck on her island for a year.  And that basically sums up my third draft.  All the additions ballooned the novel’s length to 144,000 words.  The novel was much better in many places, but it was also fat.  Like Odysseus’ crew after Circe tried to turn them into bacon.

Curse that Bag of Wind!

The Fourth Draft – Here’s where I had to trim it down.  Big time.  It was excruciating.  I ended up rewriting the first 100 pages from scratch to front-load some conflict and introduce my antagonist earlier.  And I had to make some painful cuts.  I had reached the straights of Scylla and Charybdis, and whichever path I chose, a whole lot of story was going to die.  Though scathed, I came through it after killing a whole lot of my darlings.  The novel was 22,000 words shorter, and it was tighter. 

Scylla or Charybdis?
The Fifth Draft – After so much rewriting, the novel needed to be polished.  This was basically a line edit.  I shaved off some more words and did it in a fairly short amount of time.  It was like skirting the Sirens.  Just tie yourself to the mast and press on.

Tie Yourself to the Mast and Press On!
The Sixth Draft – This is hopefully the final edit.  I’m trying to shave another thousand or so words from the story and fix any leftovers from Draft 4 that still need some fine tuning.  I feel like I can see the shores of Scheria, which means Ithaca can’t be far behind.

Ithaca Looks Close!
Of course, after this, the journey continues towards publication.  Back on Ithaca, all Odysseus had to do was shoot an arrow through the handle holes of a dozen axes.  Easy, right?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Are the End Times Approaching for Traditional Publishing?

Joe Konrath, a champion of the indie publishing movement, posted another great article titled “The End is Nigh,” about the potential demise of the traditional publishing model.  Konrath continues to make compelling arguments about the fate of traditional publishing and what authors should do in the face of it.  I’m a keenly interested observer in this debate, trying to decide whether to go the esteemed (or once-esteemed) traditional publishing route or embark on the bold new journey of indie publishing.  Articles like Konrath’s make me think.  But what are your views?  Is traditional publishing on the verge of an Apocalypse?

Are the Four Horseman charging down the streets of Manhattan?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Unpredictable Endings

Ann C. Crispin of Writer Beware posted a fantastic article today titled "How to Satisfy Your Reader Without Being Predictable."  It's about the need for unpredictable endings in genre fiction while still satisfying the reader's expectations.  She uses The Return of the King as an example of genre fiction which could have had a perfectly predictable and satisfying ending that was made better - and more satisfying - with its unpredictable twist.  (Think Mount Doom and a crazed Gollum!) 

I thought Ms. Crispin was spot on in her views, which made me ask - what other great historical or fantasy fiction has an unpredictable yet satisfying ending?  During my drive home tonight, the ending of Stephen King's The Gunslinger jumped to mind.  In fact, King is an absolute master of the unpredictable yet satisfying ending.  The Stand and The Dark Tower are two other great examples. 

Read Ms. Crispin's post and then let me know, what's your favorite example of an unpredictable yet satisfying ending?

Did you think Frodo would be the one to destroy Sauron's Ring?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Great First Lines

The first sentence may be the most important sentence in a novel.  A great first line can set the tone for the story or convey the essence of a character in just a few words.  So for today’s post, I thought I’d highlight some of my favorite first lines from historical and fantasy fiction:

  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • On a winter’s day in 1413, just before Christmas, Nicholas Hook decided to commit murder.  – Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell
  • The small boys came early to the hanging. – The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  • I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there. – Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead
  • In the time it takes to pluck a hen, I have ruined myself. – The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen
  • Creating a Golem requires patience, brilliance, study, prayer, and fasting. – The Book of Splendor by Frances Sherwood
  • Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.  – Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Today I have been thinking about the dead. – Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell
  • It was just past midday, not long before the third summons to prayer, that Ammar ibn Khairan passed through the Gate of the Bells and entered the palace of Al-Fontina in Silvenes to kill the last of the khalifs of Al-Rassan. – The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. – The Gunslinger by Stephen King
I’m curious to know if you have other good examples.  So, what are some of your favorite first lines?

A Great First Line Requires a Sharp Quill!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum

Writing can be a lonely job, but I no longer lack companionship in this endeavor.

Earlier this week, the official six-year-old daughter of Fresh-scraped Vellum decided she really, really needed a dog before school started for the fall.  This was actually something she had been lobbying for the entire summer; she even created a song, "I want a puppy, no matter what-y!"  So on Monday, while at work, I'm informed we have a new dog.  Not that I get a vote; no, we have a new dog.  She came from the Humane Society, where they named her "Lil," short for "Little" because she's undersized.  My daughter decided to put a "y" on the end, so the dog's name became "Lily."  And that's how I came to have an 8 pound Jack Russell Terrier mix in my office every morning as I write. 

And I could not be happier.

Lily, the Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum
  

Monday, August 15, 2011

Long Live the Epic! - A Song of Ice and Fire

This summer has been huge for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  First, HBO made Martin’s premiere novel in the series, A Games of Thrones, into a ten episode television series that concluded this past June and has been nominated for 13 Emmy Awards.  HBO has renewed the series for another season, which will focus on the events of Martin’s second novel, A Clash of Kings.  Then, a few weeks ago, Martin’s publisher released A Dance with Dragons, the long awaited fifth novel in the series, which is currently No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List (A Game of Thrones ranks 6 on the list, even though it was originally published in 1996).

The HBO series, for those who didn’t see it, is amazing and very true to the novel.  As for the books, A Song of Ice and Fire has risen into the pantheon of great fantasy works, right alongside J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Martin’s characters are richly drawn, making the reader truly care for them, so when tragedy strikes one of the most endearing characters in A Game of Thrones, the impact is profound.  Martin’s world building also places him at the top of his craft.  One of the ways he achieves both of these is through the novel’s length and its multiple viewpoint characters.  But few, if any, new authors today could ever get away with this.  Just imagine how most agents would react to the following line in a query letter:


Dear agent,

I am seeking representation for my fantasy epic, A Game of Thrones, a story of intrigue, murder, and war told through the viewpoint of eight different characters, complete at  298,000 words.
How fast can you say “form rejection”?  I suspect many agents and their assistants would reject this query on word count alone.  In fact, if you read industry blogs, the desired word count for a novel these days is barely 100,000 words, although fantasy manuscripts may survive if they’re in the 115,000 to 124,000 range – at least according to the Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog before it moved to its current location.  But whether it’s 100,000 or 124,000 words, this is far, far short of an epic like A Game of Thrones. 

Other famous fantasy and historical epics well exceed the current “standard” for word count.  According to one Internet resource, Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,000 words long.  Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World weighs in at 305,000 words.  And Stephen King’s The Dark Tower totals around 288,000 words.  Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth has to be of a similar length, and while I haven’t seen a word count for the novel, my copy is 973 pages long.  Clearly these are all famous authors, but they were writing epic fiction, and sometimes – to be done well – epics have to be long.

I’m not suggesting that every novel should be as large as a phone book, but I wonder if the publishing industry hasn’t gone overboard with its restrictive view towards word count.  Once upon a time, a longer novel meant higher printing costs, but surely in the age of e-books that’s not the case.  Maybe that’s where things are heading.  Authors of epic fiction may have to go the indie publishing route, where word count won’t really matter.  Maybe that’s the only way to get past the “form rejection” when writing an epic these days.  Thankfully, George R.R. Martin didn’t have to deal with this hurdle, or we may have never had the masterpiece that is A Game of Thrones.

There's nothing like a good epic!


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hope For Unpublished Authors!

This has nothing to do with historical fiction (at least that set in the Middle Ages) or fantasy fiction of any type.  But for all the aspiring writers out there, Kathryn Stockett, the author of the bestselling novel The Help, wrote an article about how she was rejected by 60 literary agents before finding one who would lead her to publication -- and ultimately a major motion picture.   I can't imagine how those other 60 agents feel today.  Yet I suppose the clear message to aspiring authors is - never give up! 



How many rejections would Shakespeare have had today?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pirates & the Caribbean

I recently returned from the Caribbean, which made me think of my favorite historical novel about pirates, Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes (okay, it’s the only historical novel about pirates I’ve read other than Treasure Island; in fact, I’m not even aware of other pirate novels, although I’m sure there are plenty).

The novel was discovered on Crichton’s computer after his death and is only his third novel I’d characterize as historical fiction, the other two being The Great Train Robbery and Eaters of the Dead.  (I’m not counting Timeline, even though much of the novel takes place in the Middle Ages, because it’s really about time travel, which I consider science fiction.)   I found the novel to be a well-researched and fun read, especially when imagining what the Caribbean must have been like in the days of pirates and privateers. 

I’ve reviewed the novel on Goodreads.com and Amazon and posted a copy after the picture of the book’s cover.  But with thoughts of the Caribbean still dancing in my head, I wonder: has anyone else read a novel about pirates that’s worth reading?



At barely 300 pages, Pirate Latitudes is a quick read that will remind Michael Crichton fans of The Great Train Robbery – except with pirates instead of Victorian-era thieves. 

Set in 1665, Pirate Latitudes involves a team of privateers, each with unique talents, who are hired to capture a treasure-laden galleon from an island fortress ruled by a brutal Spanish commander.  The novel’s protagonist is Captain Charles Hunter, a Harvard educated privateer from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but it’s his crew that makes the novel so enjoyable, including a Jewish explosives expert, a French assassin, a female marksman (who disguises herself as a man), and a mute strongman nicknamed The Moor.  In addition to a seemingly impossible mission, there’s a thrilling battle at sea, a hurricane, and a twist at the end.  This is not Crichton’s best novel, and I’m not even sure he was finished with it since the novel was discovered on his computer after his death.  But I’m glad it was published.  Pirate Latitudes is a thoroughly enjoyable read set during a fascinating period of history.      

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Fine Line Between History and Fantasy

One of the questions I faced when writing my first novel was whether to pitch it as historical fiction or historical fantasy.  The novel is set in Medieval Europe, involves a number of historical figures, and concerns several historic events.  That said, I concluded it could only be pitched as historical fantasy because of supernatural elements in the story, including a book of magic (which legend attributes to one of Charlemagne’s paladins), the appearance of a demon or two, and a biblical artifact with supposedly mystical powers.  But sometimes the line between historical fiction and historical fantasy is more blurred.

For example, Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell, about the famous battle between the English and the French, is almost universally considered historical fiction even though the main character at times has conversations with two long-dead saints.  The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay reads like historical fiction and contains barely a hint of the supernatural, except the story takes place in an entirely fictional land, albeit one based closely on Moorish Spain.  And Frances Sherwood’s The Book of Splendor is an excellent work of historical fiction set in Prague during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II; however the book is about a golem, which almost certainly pushes it into the realm of historical fantasy.

Many readers disagree on where the line should be drawn between these two genres, but assuming the book takes place in a historical setting, here are five things I consider in determining whether the line’s been crossed from historical fiction into historical fantasy:
  1. If the main character talks to the gods it may be historical fiction; but if the gods talk back it’s probably historical fantasy;

  2. If the book takes place in a setting that looks just like the Middle Ages or some other historical period, but that place never existed on earth, it’s historical fantasy;

  3. If anyone in the book can use magic (and I’m not talking Houdini or David Copperfield type magic), welcome to historical fantasy;

  4. If there are any supernatural beings or mythical creatures who appear in the story and do almost anything, ditto on historical fantasy; and

  5. If the characters talk about places like the Otherworld, Alfheim, or Hades it may be historical fiction; but if they actually find a way to get there, they’ve entered the realm of historical fantasy.
This list is far from comprehensive and doesn’t even touch sub-genres like Alternate History or Steampunk.  But I’m curious as to your views.  When does historical fiction cross the line into historical fantasy?