Thursday, July 28, 2011

What Dreams May Come

It's an unfortunately somber day at Fresh-scraped Vellum.  A dear member of my wife's family passed away, so the post I had planned to write will have to wait.  For times like this, one work of fiction comes to mind above all others -- Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come.  If you haven't read this novel, I strongly recommend it.  It's not religious, but it has a whole lot to say. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: The Arcanum

My post from a few weeks ago about Puzzle-like Plots made me think of one of my favorite books in that vein, Thomas Wheeler’s The ArcanumWhile I prefer historical-based fiction set earlier in history (especially the Middle Ages), The Arcanum (which is set in 1919) concerns the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text that tells the whole story behind that curious verse in Genesis 6:4 – “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days ... when the sons of God went into the daughters of men, who bore children to them.”  Puzzle-like plots based on religious mysteries are among my favorites, so The Arcanum was right up my alley.

I recently wrote a review of the novel of Goodreads.com and Amazon.com, but I’ve re-posted it here, after a picture of the book’s cover:


The Arcanum is a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end.  I’d describe the novel as historical fantasy, though some have called it an occult thriller.  Regardless, with a name like “Arcanum” you should expect some magic and plenty of supernatural happenings.  The novel is premised on Enochian myth, much like Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology

Set in 1919, after the end of World War I, the story begins as a whodunit, with the main character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, playing the role of his fictional alter ego, Sherlock Holmes.  He’s joined by Harry Houdini, H.P. Lovecraft and voodoo queen Marie Laveau, and together they investigate the death of Konstantin Duvall, the leader of their secret occult group called The Arcanum.  After they realize Duvall’s death may be connected with theft of the Book of Enoch, a lost book of the bible that supposedly chronicles God’s mistakes, their investigation takes a supernatural turn as they uncover secrets about an ancient conflict between light and darkness.  The fact that the characters are Doyle, Houdini and Lovecraft make this a fun read (the author even pays homage to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu at one point), and Laveau’s voodoo really spices up the story.  The book is fast-paced, so you’ll rip through it like one of Dan Brown’s thrillers.  But the mythology at the core of the plot is what makes it so special.  I’ve read this book twice now, and loved it each time.           

Friday, July 22, 2011

Was Robert the Bruce Really a Traitor, and Does it Matter?

On this day in the year 1298, the English and Scots fought the Battle of Falkirk – the famous battle where the army of King Edward Longshanks defeated William Wallace and his rebel Scotsmen.  In the movie Braveheart, it’s the battle where Wallace is almost killed before he’s dragged from the field by Robert the Bruce, who had sided with the English at the behest of his sinister father. 

Now Braveheart is a great movie, and that was a dramatic and compelling scene, but many historians have criticized both the scene and the film as being historically inaccurate.  For one, Robert the Bruce did not side with the English at Falkirk.  He wasn’t even there, although during his reign he did change sides between the rebel Scots and the English several times.  Nevertheless, was the artistic license taken in Braveheart defensible in the name of crafting good fiction?

One of my all-time favorite historical fiction authors is Bernard Cornwell.  For his novel Heretic, set during the Hundred Years War, he created several fictional places and personages central to the story, including a French count, a walled city and its lord, and a Cardinal from Livorno, which is not a real archdiocese.  In my opinion, Heretic is a fantastic novel and Cornwell’s artistic license is entirely justified.  In fact, unless you were a student of the French countryside or an aficionado of Italian archbishoprics, you’d not even know artistic license had been taken. 

I did something similar in my own novel, whose antagonist is a French bishop.  He’s not a nice man – and that’s being kind!  So instead of slandering the name and memory of some real bishop, I made this character the Bishop of Blois, even though Blois’ real bishopric was not created until centuries later.  I made this call for the sake of my story.  And I’m okay with that.

But others may disagree.   So what’s your view?  When does artistic license go too far in the name of historical fiction? 

                                                Does Robert the Bruce look like a traitor?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Another Point for Indie Publishing

As I near the point where I must decide whether to try the traditional publishing route of query letters and agent pitches one more time, or venture into the growing world of indie publishing (primarily self-publishing for e-readers), I am focused on the ongoing debate between these two sides -- a debate that's starting to look more like the fight between the French and the English at the Battle of Agincourt. 

With what appears to be the looming liquidation of Borders, author Joe Konrath continues his compelling arguments in favor of indie publishing in his post One More Nail in the Coffin. Konrath has been at the forefront of this debate on the side of self-publishing, and I find his arguments to be some of the most persuasive. I'm going to miss Borders, but its demise is yet another sign the world is changing. Almost everyone I know has an e-reader and many of them prefer e-books to hard covers or paperbacks. 

Any student of history knows that technology can have profound effects. The invention of the printing press made the bookmaking process used by medieval monks obsolete. Will the Kindle, Nook and iPad do the same for the traditional publishing model?


                                  The debate's starting to look like the Battle of Agincourt!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Puzzle-like Plots

This month on the SFWA Blog author Terry Bisson offers 60 Rules for Short SF and Fantasy.  I found Rule #3 particularly interesting: “The SF reader is a gamer who brings problem-solving intelligence to the story.  This is the SF writer’s one great advantage.  Use it."

While I don’t write science fiction, this got me thinking about the stories I enjoy reading.  Most of them involve some mystery or riddle the protagonist must solve, a puzzle that keeps the reader’s mind churning until the end of the novel.  My all-time favorite historical novel about medieval monks (a subject dear to this blog) is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery at heart, set in 1327.  The Name of the Rose helped spawn an entire subgenre of historical mysteries, and helped inspire my own novel.  While my novel is more historical fantasy than historical mystery (it’s certainly not a whodunit), there is a puzzle at core of the plot for both the protagonist and reader to solve.  In crafting it, I followed a basic rule: write what you like to read.

The puzzle or riddle plot type is one of twenty classic plot types listed in 20 Master Plots: And How To Build Them by Ronald Tobias.  Other plot types, such as the “Adventure” and the “Quest,” seem more common in the fantasy genres, but there are a handful of stories out there with puzzle-like plots.  The Harry Potter books, for example, have a mystery at the heart of each novel.  Maybe that’s one reason they were so fun to read.  Other books with puzzle-like plots include The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler, and Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz.  All these books kept me thinking – and turning the pages – until I had the puzzle solved. 

I’m curious as to your views.  Do you like a good puzzle at the heart of your plot?  A story where you, the reader, can bring your problem-solving intelligence to bear?  Or do you prefer other plot types for the fiction you read and write? 

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!