Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What is Fresh-scraped Vellum?

It’s a reference to the art of bookmaking during the Middle Ages. Back then, manuscripts were made from prepared calfskin called vellum or sheepskin called parchment, and making either was an arduous task.  First, the skins had to be soaked for days in limewater before they were stretched on a frame and then scraped free of hair until smooth. The skins were soaked a second time, stretched again while they dried, and scraped once more before being powdered with chalk or lime and finally cut into sheets, which were folded into pages. All this work was accomplished by monks cloistered in monasteries throughout medieval Europe. 

Once the vellum or parchment was ready, scribes armed with quill pens and working on tilted desks would create the text, working at pace of five to six words per minute using a Carolingian or insular script depending on where in Europe the book was made. When the scribes were finished, more specialized scribes called rubricators would add the chapter headings and initial capitals that began major sections, illuminating them with pictures and color. Illuminators would add the rest of the artwork that graced the margins and bodies of many medieval manuscripts. If mistakes were made, the vellum or parchment was scraped clean and the work began anew. The process was finished by bookbinders, who bound the pages between wooden boards often covered in leather and sometimes adorned with precious metals or stones. Depending on the size and quality of the manuscript, this process could take months or even years. 

As a fan of both history and fiction, I find this process of medieval bookmaking an apt analogy for the painstaking yet rewarding process of actually writing a novel in today’s world. The rigorous task of preparing the vellum or parchment is akin to the research, imagination and plotting necessary to create a compelling story. The work of the scribes, laying pen to vellum, represents the critical first draft.  The art of the rubricators and illuminators is like the editing and polishing that makes the story shine, while the work of the bookbinders represents the challenge of getting the novel published. So this is what I hope this blog will be about – fiction, both historical and fantasy, and the craft of writing it. 

I’m in the process of finishing my first book, a historical fantasy novel that took years to write after encountering a myriad of issues with plotting, pace, length, and many other elements. This resulted in four complete drafts and a brief, but brutal, stint of querying agents that compelled me to reduce the novel’s length by more than 22,000 words – perhaps the most grueling step of all. I’m nearing the point where I must decide whether to try the traditional publishing route one more time or take the bold leap into the world of indie publishing like so many pioneer new authors have done in this new age of e-readers.  

So here’s what to expect: book reviews and commentary on both classic and recent fiction in the historical and fantasy genres, along with posts on writing this type of fiction and tales from my own journey in seeing my first novel to print. I hope you will join me.

                                           Bookmaking was hard work in Medieval Europe!


Zooks said...

Fascinating! I love learning stuff like this. Thanks for sharing.

MWIII said...

Joseph, very nice site. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insight on this genre, as well as wine!! I look forward to reading your novel while enjoying a glass (or bottle!) of one of your recommended wines.