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by Mary Jo
I have an adorable picture of myself when I was three or four sitting on Santa’s lap. (All kids that age are adorable, it’s a law of nature.) Unfortunately, since I have to finish a book by the end of the weekend, I haven’t the time to figure out my recalcitrant scanner, so I can’t scan the picture. Maybe next year.
But I can talk about bringing in the tree. I grew up in the snow country of Western New York, where green Christmases were unheard of and I thought it normal that snow drifts were routinely above my head.
The Great Tree Hunt
We lived on a 70+ acre farm, with the back section woods, including some 3000 Scotch pines that my father got from the extension service and planted back there. (He had a degree in forestry and liked trees.)
So come December, he’d hitch the tractor to the wagon (think of the buckboards in old TV Westerns and you wouldn’t be far off) and we’d go bouncing over snow hills to pick a Christmas tree. Despite all those long-needled Scotch pines, we wanted a short needled spruce, and we had those, too.
A suitable tree would be chosen (my father’s vote was the deciding one), and he’d chop down the tree, put it on the wagon, and back to the house where with luck, my mother would have hot chocolate waiting. She wisely avoided the expedition to the back 40. <G>
Interestingly, when I talked to my older sister last night to confirm details, she said I didn’t much like these expeditions because it was Cold! And Wet! And Uncomfortable! Apparently I am my mother’s daughter, though I have no memory of disliking the process. But I do remember the tree trips.
Putting up the Tree
Even more I remember erecting the tree with an old tobacco can as a base. The physics of this were not geared for stability, so guy wires were improvised of heavy twine and fastened to doorknobs and hinges in the corner of the living room.
Then the decorating. My sister, who has always had more class than I, would careful drape each strand of tinsel in an exact place. Then, and now, I have always believed that good taste can be overdone, especially at Christmas. <G> I liked lots of tinsel, glittering madly. (This was the old fashion lead foil tinsel, by the way. The kind that breaks if you look at it cross-eyed.)
In an amazing bit of synchronicity with Joanna’s post yesterday about feline box sitting, it is also true that cats have a great affinity for trees. Especially indoor trees. With branches well spaced for climbing.
More than once, I remember a tree crashing over despite the guy wires. Smashing ornaments, swearing parents, and one or more cats hightailing it to the high timber, wearing their best “Who, me?” expressions. Ah, those were the days…!
Many things have changed over the years, but I am here to tell you that cats still like to climb Christmas trees. No, the cat above is not from my childhood, but entirely current. He is Reggie the Rascal, whom I have twice this year removed from the middle branches of the tree when he’s decided this isn’t a good idea, but he doesn’t know how to get down.
The tree hasn’t fallen—yet—because bases are a lot more stable these days. But all bets are off if Reggie decides to climb higher, since he is small but amazingly dense.
Other Christmas Critters?
In keeping with the theme, here are some of Laura Resnick’s pictures of this year’s Cincinnati Reindog parade, sponsored by the Cincinnati SPCA to raise money and also provide great entertainment for all concerned.
So—how do pets figure into your Christmas? Cats in trees, dogs treating the tree as if it was outdoors, parrots perching in the branches? If you have any good seasonal pet stories, by all means, share!
Mary Jo, adding that this is your last day to make a comment that will enter you in our Word Wenches giveaway -- a Word Wenches Library with a book from each of us for a winner picked at random from among all those who post on the blog in December! Good luck!
Joanna here, pondering that puzzling phenomenon of the holiday season -- boxsitting.
Yet, worldwide, millions of cats of all stripes and persuasions practice boxsitting.
The argument that this behavior is not some genetic happenstance, but ancient cat custom, is a strong one. There's a notable increase in boxsitting toward the end of the year. Is it merely an increase in the number of available boxes? Or could boxsitting be related to the Roman Festival of Janus, God of Doorways, celebrated the first of January?
Cats can be seen paying their everyday homage to Janus by passing, slowly, lingeringly, through doorways, stropping on the doorframe.
(You've wondered why they do this. Now you know.)
Cats may perform this doorway ritual several times an hour.
Janus, who oversees 'openings and closings' in general, is also considered the patron of crates, cartons and packaging. Perhaps this is why cats find the occupation of boxes an act of particular merit.
Boxsitting -- mysterious hereditary urge or ancient ritual? Catwatchers can only speculate as discarded Christmas boxes fill with felines and the New Year approaches.
Happy holidays to all! During Christmastide, we Wenches are celebrating some of our memories of the Christmas season.
I treasure my childhood Christmas memories as days gone by, with some of my family gone, too. I remember hushed and sparkling Christmas mornings when my sisters and I would tiptoe downstairs to see what Santa had left beneath the tree ... I found my first Barbie doll there, and a
pink and white bicycle, and lots of books... we lived in Upstate New York, where the holidays were usually enveloped in snow, draped white from the treetops to the porch steps -- we had Dylan Thomas sorts of snows there (though I took this photo last year in Maryland!):
"Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards." (A Child's Christmas in Wales)
Though now when I think on Christmas past, I remember my own kids at Christmas.
We had a big Christmas surprise with the birth of our first son just days before Christmas (he was due in January). That year, we were changing diapers and pulling all-nighters as new parents beside the glowing Christmas tree. With three sons, we had wonderful Christmases -- stories on Christmas Eve, cookies and milk for Santa, kids getting up at dawn to find toys and other gifts, laughing and silliness and some exhausting, lovely days.
Another Christmas, our youngest, age two, got strep throat and we spent Christmas day in the ER, while our houseguests finished cooking my turkey dinner and watched our other kids until we got back hours later... one Christmas, all three boys had chicken pox and we quaratined ourselves from visitors...another time the snowfall was so deep we couldn't leave the house on Christmas or for days afterward...
Here's a photo that encapsulates those kid-filled holidays for
me -- my sons at ages 8, 4 and 1 year on Christmas Eve, being sweet and goofy. Today, one is a doctor, one is an ICU RN, and the other is studying psychology -- but their mom will always remember them this way on Christmas.
Do you find yourself dealing with excited kids on Christmas, or do you have a Christmas calamity to share?
Remember, your December comments will enter you in our Word Wenches giveaway -- a Word Wenches Library with a book from each of us for a winner picked at random from among all those who post on the blog in December! Good luck!
May your holiday season be wonderful, and may 2011 be your best year ever!
As you may have noticed, the Wenches are doing celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas with daily little snippets from our childhood holidays. It's my turn to share, and as I cleaned up crumpled wrapping paper and tangled ribbons this year's holiday, it got me to thinking about presents past.
It’s funny how certain things stick in one’s mind . . . When I was very young, Christmas morning was always such a magical time—the tree glittering with its colorful lights, the stockings bulging with sweet treats, the presents beckoning with hand-lettered name tags. But there’s one present I remember above all others.
I was three, and as I had an older brother, I wanted to imitate everything he did. So it goes without saying that dolls were not on my wish list. (Like Pat, I never grew to like girly things. I was always a complete tomboy, and to this day I’d probably choose L.L. Bean boots over Manolo Blahnick stiletto heels) In any case, my brother wanted a cowboy outfit, so naturally I did too. My parents, to their everlasting credit, did not object to this gender-bending request and saw fit to grant my wish. Well, as you can see by my picture, I was one very happy buckaroo that morning.
But it’s memorable for more than that one moment. For some reason, that outfit really sparked my imagination. I spent countless hours creating elaborate stories and acting them out. (The poor family dog, who was very patient with me riding him bareback.) I become immersed in my own little world . . . and was inspired to write my first book about the Wild West! (Even then I was a horrible speller, but alas, Crayolas didn’t come with Spell-Check. I took many years of kidding about ‘horeses’ from my family.) I guess what I’m getting at is that present triggered a passion. The West gave way to Regency England, but my love for losing myself in my own make-believe world and spinning stories with people and events that came to life in my own little brain was a gift that stayed with me for a lifetime. I’m forever grateful for that beribboned box that held a pint-size ten gallon hat and fancy boots.
So how about you? What’s the most memorable gift you ever received? And did you ever get one that sparked a lifelong interest in something?
Happy Holidays, everyone! May you all have a happy and healthy 2011.
Anne here, making a brief departure from posts of Christmas past, and wishing you all the best for the holiday season with A Word Wench's 12 Days of Christmas...
On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the second day of Christmas my true love sent sent to me, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five golden RITAs, (these are Jo Beverley's), four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me six critics gushing, five golden RITAs, (these are Jo Beverley's), four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me a seven figure advance, six critics gushing, five golden RITAs, (these are Jo Beverley's), four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me eight wenches writing, a seven figure advance, six critics gushing, five golden RITAs, (these are Jo Beverley's), four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me nine ladies dancing, eight wenches writing, a seven figure advance, six critics gushing, five golden RITAs, (these are Jo Beverley's), four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me ten lairds for loving, nine ladies dancing, eight wenches writing, a seven figure advance, six critics gushing, five golden RITAs, (these are Jo Beverley's), four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me eleven warm fan letters, ten lairds for loving, nine ladies dancing, eight wenches writing, a seven figure advance, six critics gushing, five golden RITAs, (these are Jo Beverley's), four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me twelve ............ ................................., eleven warm fan letters, ten lords a'loving, nine ladies dancing, eight wenches writing, a seven figure advance, six critics gushing, five golden RITAs, (these are Jo Beverley's), four calling agents, three French translations, two Japanese mangas and an Eric Partridge Slang Dictionary.
* * * * *
Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to fill in the blank above -- twelve what? Whoever gives the best answer will win a copy of my Christmas novella The Virtuous Widow. And don't forget the wench basket of books giveaway that anyone who comments is eligible for.
And if you don't feel like word play, just tell us where you are and what you've been doing over the holidays.
Wherever you are in the world, stay safe and have a peaceful and happy holiday. All the very best, Anne
Happy Boxing Day, everyone! I have very few photographs from when I was a child but I have managed to find a photo of the family that was taken by my grandmother on a sunny Christmas Day. You can see the balloon decorations in the window! I'm the smallest person in the picture, with a cute hairband. I love my aunt's glamorous 1960s mini kilt and my mother's tartan dress! And the boy with the cat is my cousin Neil who I hero worshipped!
My parents divorced when I was about five and after that I rarely saw my father but I did spend one memorable Christmas with him and his new family when I was about nine years old. My father was the sort of man who might be called a raconteur - he was a great story teller and I often suspected that those stories had received a considerable amount of embroidery and polish. But after my experiences that Christmas I never doubted him again.
On Boxing Day, December 26th, we all set off to drive to the English Lake District for the day. It was beautiful sunny weather, cold but clear, and my father fancied a bracing walk on the Fells. The Boxing Day walk is a British tradition. We arrived in time for lunch at an inn in a village called Ambleside and most of the adults then went off to climb the mountain Scafell (in the photo), leaving me with my step-cousin Wendy and her mother for the afternoon. By the time that they returned some five hours later it was dark and very cold and the beautiful clear day had turned into a snowstorm with huge flakes falling. We set off for home but after about an hour we had barely gone a half mile. Then we drove into a snowdrift and were completely stuck. It got colder and colder. I remember my father wrapping me in a rug before he and his brother in law went off to fetch help. After about three hours we were rescued by a farmer on a tractor who dragged the car out and towed us back to the inn at Ambleside, where they revived us with Scotch Broth soup and mulled wine (very exciting and intoxicating for a nine year old!) The landlady put me to bed in a huge fourposter with a fat mattress and five hot water bottles. And when I got home the next day and my mother asked me how I had got on, I told her it had been the most exciting Boxing Day I had ever known!
Have you had a Christmas experience that didn't quite turn out as planned?
The Word Wenches will be giving away a fantastic prize on January 1st 2011 - a Word Wenches Library containing a book by each of the Wenches! For a chance to win, all you have to do is comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1, 2011 and pick a winner! (If you've already posted in December, you're already entered -- comment again for more chances to win!) Good luck to all and Happy Holidays!
I'm glad you've taken a moment to glance at the Word Wenches. I won't keep you long, but I have some memories to share.
One returned to me the other day when some people were finding pleasure in the snowy Christmas many of us are having here in the UK. It triggers no nostalgia in me. I know what does. We lived in Canada for over 30 years and thus had many white Christmases -- and I learned to dislike snow that lasts for more than a day.
Our last decade or so was spent in Victoria, which has a quite British climate, and our first Christmas there -- we had snow! Lots of it. So my epiphany came the next year, when the weather was normal and I went shopping, lingering in town as darkness fell. And there it was!
I glowed with delight. That's Christmas to me!
What weather triggers Christmas memories for you?
All wondrous wishes,
Like last year, the Wenches are celebrating the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas (follow the snopes link or this one: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp for a historical look at the song. Who knew such a silly song could cause so much controversy?) which run from Christmas Day to January 6th, the eve of Epiphany.
Each day during the season, a Wench will post a short fun holiday blog.
We've been throwing around ideas of childhood memories and snow. I don’t “do” snow, apparently not even in childhood since I have no pictures of me in winter, except in front of a fire or a Christmas tree. So I'm offering a memory and not a joyous wintry greeting today.
See that innocent child hugging her dollies? That child hated dollies. She later robbed her baby brother of the lion he’s holding in the second picture, because Leo was obviously meant for her, not an infant
who would just slobber all over the proud lion.
I’m not saying Santa makes mistakes, but someone did! Despite all the stuffed animals collected over the years, Leo remained my staunch companion through the trials and tribulations of the teenage years. I even learned to bandage his many wounds!
How about you? Do you have favorite Christmas memories to share?
The Word Wenches will be giving away a fantastic prize on January 1st 2011 - a Word Wenches Library containing a book by each of the Wenches! For a chance to win, all you have to do is comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1, 2011 and pick a winner! (If you've already posted in December, you're already entered -- comment again for more chances to win!) Good luck to all and Happy Holidays!
I've invoking the Wench Classic Clause today. Partly that's because I'm insanely trying to finish a book so I can transfer the burden from my computer to that of my YA editor. But also, I wrote this blog four years again and it ran just before Christmas in 2006, so it seemed like a good topic to revisit. So here goes!
There’s lots of warm fuzzy sentiment in the air just now, most of it generated by the multiple holidays at this season. (Happy Winter Solstice to everyone!) There’s lots of gatherings with family and friends, often presents and parties, and waaaaaaay too much unhealthy but delicious food and drink on offer.
It’s a good season—but for many of us, stress levels are off the scale. I had my hair done today, and my lovely and efficient hair stylist was dealing with the considerable demands of being a business owner, wife, mother, grandmother, serious church volunteer, providing refreshments for clients and a holiday meal for her staff. She was two clients behind when she finished me, and it was still morning. Part of this was because a long time client had to be squeezed in because of a death in the family. My stylist will survive and even enjoy the holidays, but relaxed? Not hardly!
And there are worse stresses, like the client who had just lost her nephew. Like the writer friend who posted that her family has just found out that her son-in-law’s return from Afghanistan has been moved further away—and his unit will redeploy there after six months back in the States.
Holiday tensions in general:
Even with less dramatic circumstances, holidays can be a letdown that don’t live up to our hopes and expectations. Our nearest and dearest can get on our nerves, and family relationships that are already tense can go into meltdown. Not to mention the traditional arguments about whose family to visit, and the conflicts in mixed religion households.
Accentuating the positive:
So I’m here to offer, if not a cure, at least a palliative. <G> Jo recently mentioned a study she’d read about that showed that even pessimistic people started feeling happier if they did exercises that required them to write down positive things in their lives--events and people they were grateful for. Times when they felt good about themselves. Consciously appreciating and thinking positive even raised their happiness scale six months down the road.
Three good things:
A simple form of this exercise is to relax and think of three good things that happened to you today. Maybe you can do it when you go to bed, rather than thinking of all the stuff that needs to be done tomorrow. Only three good things.
1) Two days ago, I got around to hanging my bird feeder, and all of a sudden I have beautiful birds munching seeds a foot and a half from my dining room window. This morning I glanced out the next window, and there in the midst of lush rhododendron greenery was a brilliant red cardinal, less than five feet away from me and looking like a Christmas card as he waited patiently for his turn.
Actually, maybe he wasn’t patient, maybe he was plotting a hostile takeover of the birdfeeder and a terrorization of finches, but he sure looked pretty! Often we get too busy to appreciate nature, but even a single image like this can leave me smiling. Look for nature, and enjoy it.
2) Another good thing: while on the way to my hairdresser, I tuned to a radio show where a woman called in on a rather scratchy cell phone to say that she was a teacher taking her students into Gettysburg to see Charlotte’s Web, and could the DJ play something the kids could sing to? His voice warm, he said, “Of course!” Within seconds, the first notes of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were sounding through my car. The thought of a whole busload of little kids happily singing along put another smile on my face.
3) After I left the hair salon, looking as spiffy as I’m capable of <g>, I had a holiday lunch with a friend. Most of the restaurants around were jam packed with people doing the same, and offices having holiday parties, so we ended up in a new little Italian restaurant I’d never seen before. Good food, good company, a good time.
I could go on—lots more than three good things happened today. (Along with a few not so good, but we won’t go there. <g>) But thinking of the good stuff makes me feel lighter and happier.
What are your good things for the day
So that’s your assignment for the holiday. Think of three good things every day. Maybe more. Perhaps that will lift your mood, relieve some stress, and make the holidays—and regular days—easier and more enjoyable.
And yes, you can count a perfect piece of chocolate as A Very Good Thing! What good things have happened to you that you'd like to share?
With the holidays fast approaching, the swirl of shopping and revelries can make things a bit hectic. Well, on top of that, I’ve been hit with some untimely edit deadlines, so I am hoping readers will, in the spirit of goodwill and good cheer, accept an Oldie but Goodie for today’s post. I promise that the new year will bring foray into history, but for y today, we’re going to rekindle a look at gunpowder, seing as the New Year will be welcomed in across the world with lots of fireworks!
So, without further ado . . .
A Blast from the Past
Gunpowder was invented in China sometime around the ninth century. Ironically enough, the alchemists of the time were looking to create a potion for eternal youth. Instead they ended up with something they called the “fire drug.” Gunpowder consists of three basic elements—saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal. The proportions were tweaked over the centuries to create more explosive power, but until the advent of our modern synthetic propellants, the basic formula remained unchanged.
Over the years, Chinese military leaders came to realize that the invention could be used as a formidable weapon. By the 1200s, gunpowder “bombs” filled with rocks or bits of metal were being thrown or dropped on an enemy. The Chinese also proved quite inventive in naming their new arsenal. Some of my favorites include “Bandit-Burning, Vision-Confusing Magic Fire-Ball” and “Bone-Burning and Bruising Fire Oil Magic Bomb”. Next came fire lances, which could launch arrows or spears. I’m particularly fond of “Nine-Arrow Heart-Piercing Magic-Poison Thunderous Fire Erupter.” The name alone must have been enough to rout an opposing army! The first gun on record is a small cannon, which dates from 1288.
A Booming Discovery
It’s not exactly certain how gunpowder came to the West, but the first reference to it in Europe appeared in 1267, when Roger Bacon, the famous medieval thinker, made mention of it in a letter to the Pope. By 1300 there is written evidence of a formula.
In 1346, Edward III of England used cannons to help his army of knights and archers defeat the much larger force of the French King. The Battle of Crecy is considered to mark the end of chivalry, as armor proved no match for the new weaponry. The use of cannons quickly spread throughout Europe.
Throughout the next few centuries, the methods for grinding gunpowder were refined, in order to add more force and stability. At first, powder was dampened to a paste, then formed into balls, which lasted longer than dry powder and were easier to transport. However, the process of “corning,” or forcing the paste through different sized screens to create “grains” was invented, and it remains the standard to this day. (Gunpowder is corned according to the intended weapon.)
The technique of casting metal for cannons also underwent great changes. Early European bombards grew to mammoth proportions. (“Mad Margaret” weighed 18 tons and had a barrel 16 feet long.} By the Renaissance, the technology had evolved enough that the smooth bore muzzle-loading cannon of the era would remain basically unchanged until the late 1800s. (Both Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were involved in designing fortifications to withstand cannonfire.)
Not to be outdone by their Chinese counterparts, European gunners were quite inventive when it came to naming their weapons. “The Brutal Butcher” is one early moniker, and Henry VIII had a battery of cannons known as “The Twelve Apostles.”
The earliest hand guns began appearing around 1400. At first they were heavy, awkward weapons that needed a tripod to hold them up. Various mechanisms were invented to hold the gunpowder charge, as well as spark the initial tiny explosion needed to propel a bullet through the gun barrel. Matchlocks, wheellocks, flintlocks . . . don’t ask. Suffice it to say that man was quite inventive in creating a lethal weapon.
The Devil's Distillate
The moral impact of gunpowder was not lost on theologians and intellectuals. Many called it “the devil’s distillate ” and blamed it for the death of chivalry. The stench and smoke given off by gunpowder added to its Satanic image. Echoing modern sentiment, a number of people bemoaned the fact that gunpowder made “violence too freely available.”
During the Age of Exploration, Vasco de Gama helped establish a lucrative trading empire for Portugal through use of gunpowder, and other European seafaring nations were quick to follow. The Conquistadors conquered the mighty Aztecs with a tiny force of soldiers and the “devil’s distillate.” Farther north, the French and English used their guns to carve out colonies in the New World. And in Africa, gunpowder was instrumental in allowing the slave trade to begin.
Up in Smoke
By the 1700s, war had become a carefully choreographed dance of opposing armies. Each soldier was now armed with a firearm, and arrayed in elegant, precise formations, they would march to within close range and exchange ritual fire until casualties forced one side to withdraw. Conflicts were escalating. And so was the carnage. (On a brighter note, George Frederich Handel was commissioned to create the lovely “Music for Royal Fireworks” in celebration of the 1748 Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession.)
The famous American Revolutionary War phrase, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” was not just manly bravado. It was based on the fact that muskets are wildly inaccurate at anything other than close range. That’s because it’s a smooth bore weapon (the inside of the barrel is, well, smooth!)
Rifling—which refers to a circular groove cut into the metal—imparts spin to a bullet, which adds stability to its flight and thus makes it far more likely to hit its target. The British thought the Americans—and their show of nascent Yankee ingenuity—were very unsporting to use their accurate hunting rifles to pick off Redcoats from great distances.
Re-equipping whole armies with the new technology was frightfully expensive, so most military forces fought with smooth bore muskets until well into the 1800s. The classic British “Brown Bess” musket was first issued in 1703 and remained in use for 140 years. A flintlock weapon, it could be fired every 12 seconds by a well- trained soldier.
But I digress . . .
A Force of Nature
As the Napoleonic Wars engulfed Europe, the production of gunpowder became a critical matter. Saltpeter is a bacterial waste product and occurs naturally in soil. But war demands LOTS of saltpeter. The substance is also found in human and animal waste. (Those of you who are squeamish might want to skip over the next paragraph.) In France, government officials called “Petermen” had the right to dig up a farmer’s barnyard to collect nitrate-rich soil—a law that was bitterly resented.
The English, through the East India trading empire, imported large amounts of cheap bird dung from India for the task. Even so, during the height of the wars, the government considered passing a law that would have required innkeepers to collect the urine of their patrons in barrels. (Brandy was said to produce the most desirable, er, raw material.)
By the 1820s, the old gunpowder cartridge—a greased paper cylinder filled with powder and bullet that was rammed by hand down the barrel of a musket—was giving way to a new technology. The “percussion cap” bullet used a small amount of gunpowder at the base of a metal cylinder. The strike of a gun’s hammer would ignite the powder and fire the metal projectile.
Combined with other innovations from inventors such as Samuel Colt, firearms became even more deadly. Colt’s invention of a multiple chamber to hold bullets allowed the development of the “six-shooter.” By the time of the American Civil War, armies were equipped with all manner of weapons that could fire with frightening rapidity. Again, the death toll in war grew to gruesome proportions.
Traditional black powder became obsolete in the late 1800s. Alfred Nobel—of Nobel Prize fame—developed the use of nitroglycerin, or dynamite, which was far more effective for blasting in mines and civil engineering. Modern chemistry also led to the discovery of better, more powerful “smokeless” powder to use in guns.
Today, gunpowder is still used in fireworks and for reenactments of traditional battles. The next time you watch a Fourth of July celebration, breath deep and smell the acrid scent of burned powder. Listen to the thunderous bangs and watch the thick smoke cloud the air. Let it spark your imagination, and carry you back in history to the epic battles of Bunker Hill, Borodino and Waterloo. It’s a living, breathing reminder of man’s incredible—and sometimes frightening—creative spirit.
When asked to name the most influential inventions in history, most intellectuals include gunpowder and printing among their choices. As both an author and an aficionado of history, I would have to agree. What historical inventions do you find fascinating? Terrifying?
The Wenches have a very special Wench Prize for one lucky reader! We will be giving away a Word Wenches Library on January 1, 2011, containing a book by each of the Wenches! For a chance to win, all you have to do is comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1 and pick a random winner. If you've left a comment on any of our posts in December, you're already entered. Comment again for more chances to win!
We think we have the best visitors/readers/commenters on the World Wide Web, and we wanted to do something special for you. We also wanted to wrap up the end of the year properly and start off the New Year with a bang. What better way to do that than with a big stack of books!
Happy holidays to all, and thanks for helping us make our blog one of the most informative and longest-running writers' blogs out there. And most especially, thanks to each and every one of you for making the blogging experience FUN!
Christmas holidays and music go together, and one of my favorite kinds of music – Christmasy and otherwise – is Celtic harp. And so it was a joy to incorporate my fondness and fascination for specifically Celtic (Irish and Scottish) harp music in the writing of Queen Hereafter, my newest release from Crown. The novel tells the story of Margaret of Scotland, Malcolm Canmore’s queen, in the 11th century—and it is also the story of a fictional bard, Eva of Moray, a young kinswoman of Lady Macbeth.
Brought to court by order of the king to serve as a court bard and act as a hostage for the good behavior of Lady Macbeth (who was otherwise disinclined to behave), Eva plays her harp for the court, and over time befriends Queen Margaret, both of them outcasts of a sort, the wild Celtic bard an unwilling royal captive, and the foreign queen restricted by her many obligations.
I am called Eva the Bard, daughter of a short-lived king. I have been a devoted student of Dermot, once chief bard in Macbeth’s court. He trained me in the ways of a seanchaidh: a thousand songs, a thousand tales, a thousand heroes keenly remembered through ancient ways of diligence, and more. Though I do not know my fate, I know my calling—to tell the old tales and coax melodies from the harp strings to soothe or excite the spirit. Some now accuse me of scheming, but my aim has ever been my craft, and honor. So say I.
Along with the other research needed for this book, I had the very pleasant task of researching the history of Celtic harp in medieval Scotland. This wasn’t the first time I had written about a medieval harper (the heroine of an earlier novel, The Angel Knight, was a harper as well), so I had some prior research to go on. For the first book, I had the good fortune to meet and host in my home one of the world’s most talented Celtic harpers, who shared some of her wonderful knowledge with me. For the second novel about a harper—Queen Hereafter—I relied on what I had learned earlier, and went a step further. I took several lessons in playing Celtic harp. I wanted to know what my character Eva would know, and literal hands-on research was the best way for me to do that. And I can even pluck out a few elementary Celtic tunes myself now – though I have a long, long way to go.
Celtic harp differs from the more traditional concert harp several ways, among them size and shape—the Celtic harp tends to be smaller, with a curved rather than a straight forepillar, a curved T-top or harmonic curve, and often a beautifully decorated soundboard. The size determines the number of strings, and the harps can be either brass or lighter material, most often nylon these days. In earlier centuries, strings would have been made of animal gut or, if metal, brass or even gold and silver. The two center strings, sometimes called The Lovers, were often of gold wire in a brass-stringed harp, and were tuned to an identical note, resonating together.
A truly traditional Irish or Celtic harp is played while resting it against the harper’s left shoulder, rather than the right shoulder position that is more normally seen with concert harpists. And that’s another interesting detail – Celtic harp musicians are more correctly termed harpers.
Early Celtic harpers were bards, sometimes court bards attached to a royal or noble household, and often itinerant, traveling from one household to another. They had a lofty and privileged status even in a king’s household, given a high seat at the king’s table and even a seat on the king’s council, and in the earliest Celtic societies, often it was the bards and harpers who led the warriors into battle. They were the keepers of tradition, history and genealogy, their memories filled with the names, the lineages, the epic stories and entertaining tales of generations and centuries of their people--and they had secret methods of storing hundreds, even thousands of songs and tales in their heads. One trick they used was to rest in a dark room for hours with a heavy stone on the abdomen--the bards would lie there reviewing all the songs and melodies in their heads, and the weight and presence of the stone would keep them focused.
Their music, instrumental and vocal, and their skill, and their very harps were accorded legendary and even magical qualities. In Irish poetry, for example, harps are described as “harp-trees” – the various woods that made up sound boxes and pillars selected for their symbolic strengths as much as their resonant qualities – and, in a wonderful description by some ancient Celtic poet, “the magical knot-carved one.” Any listener of the time would know exactly what was meant by that: a beautiful harp decorated in Celtic knotwork designs, capable of producing a mystical, powerful sort of music.
Eva, unwillingly brought from her home in northern Scotland to the king’s court, sits down to play for Malcolm and Margaret for the first time:
Propping the base of her harp on the lower stool set there for the purpose, Eva tipped the instrument so that it rested in the hollow of her left shoulder, and lifted her hands to the strings. Earlier she had tuned the metal strings, and now she tested, hearing a slight dissonance which she then corrected, twisting the pegs that held the strings by using a tiny ivory key that she kept in a leather pouch slung from her belt.
King Malcolm continued a low discussion with some of his men. The young Saxon queen waited, hands folded patiently. Eva paused, considering which song to play, then moved her fingers rapidly over the strings, brass and gold shimmering. She loved the moment when a melody began. A song might be ancient, its origins lost to memory, but a harper could spark the music to life again and join present and past. She plucked the strings: two together, one and two; three together, three and four. Her left hand repeated a rhythm in a lower register, while the fingers of her right hand flashed like quick fire along upper and lower strings, creating delicate traceries of sound.
She chose the song deliberately for its charm—had she given the court a song of loss or bitterness first, they would think of that when they thought of her. Better a lighter song in this place where she needed friends.
Later, Eva—who, like her kinswoman Lady Macbeth, cannot seem to keep her temper in check to stay out of trouble—uses her harp and its music for a little vengeance:
Eva settled the harp against her shoulder anew, lifted her hands to the strings, then paused. A few moments earlier, King Malcolm had dealt her and hers a slight with his insult toward the memory of her father, deceased as a too-young king. Most there knew only that she was one of the queen’s women, with a talent for music and a face worth gazing upon. Few would understand the song she was about to play. But Malcolm would comprehend it—and that was what mattered to her.
She plucked the path of strings. Had her harp been a weapon, it could not have fit the grip of her anger any better.
Eva gets into a heap of trouble for the song she plays, and suffers the consequences.
In medieval times, harpers could be punished for slights and transgressions by losing their harps, or even having their fingernails cut so that they were prevented from playing metal-stringed harps (gut-string harps, like nylon string today, are played with fingertips and with the twisting pressure of the sides of the fingers as well).
“Then she went and ordered her harp to be fetched.” Anglo-Saxon, 10th century
Note that this old bardic reference says "she!" Women were also trained and employed as bards historically in Irish and Scottish households. Men, of course, were primarily the bards of their day--at least they are the ones appearing most often in the scant records, which may skew the statistics right there--but it was not so unusual for women to be bards and harpers. They are referenced in tales and songs and appear in occasional documents from the earliest centuries through the 18th century in Scotland, when traditional bardic schools were still in existence. By that time in England and Europe, the large concert harp was a perfectly acceptable instrument for an accomplished lady.
Celtic bards and harpers, male and female, thrive today -- we buy their CDs, we watch their music videos, we listen to their songs. Next time you hear some Celtic harp music -- Christmas or otherwise -- think of what a proud and ancient tradition it is, and imagine yourself by a fireside in a medieval hall. Some of these wonderful songs are just that old, and have endured.
I hope you will look for Queen Hereafter the next time you're in a bookstore (or browsing online). I'm happy (and relieved!) to say that the reviews are wonderful, with lots of lovely superlatives. Currently I'm having fun with a busy blog tour of reviews, guest blogs and interviews, so watch for me around the web and on Read It Forward as well! You'll find a blog schedule on my website.
What sort of music do you like at holiday time? Celtic, Christmas rock, traditional? And had you ever thought about the bardic tradition behind all those Celtic harp songs played at this time of year?
Remember -- this month there's a chance to win a very special Wench Prize! The Word Wenches will be giving away a fantastic prize on January 1, 2011 -- a Word Wenches Library containing a book by each of the Wenches! For your chance to win, just comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1, 2011 and pick a winner! (If you've already posted in December, you're already entered -- comment again and again for more chances to win!) Good luck to all and Happy Holidays!
With the holidays in full swing, the frenetic rush of shopping and partying can make the days feel a little hectic. If you’re like me, you want to steal away and curl up with a good read. (I hope you are all putting lots of books on your gift list—remember, they make great stocking stuffers!)
But then, I’m an avid reader whatever the season. I’ve always got a book going, and take great delight in losing myself in another author’s story. So when one of our readers recently asked the Wenches how what we read influences us, we thought it made a great question for our monthly “Ask A Wench” feature. So thank you Jean Merriott for posing this query:
How are the Wenches influenced by what they read? Or do they consciously try NOT to be influenced?
Curious? Please read on to get the inside story!
Many authors worry about being over-influenced, perhaps to the point of imitation, but I never have. I think it's because my creative mind is so quirky
it seems unlikely to follow anyone else's.
However, I was inspired by Georgette Heyer and wanted to grow up to write books that gave readers pleasure, and by Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond books toward drama and pushing my characters into tortuous situations. But there, I mostly wimp out.
I read voraciously, across the board, never in just one genre. And I have No Memory. Everything seeps into my subconscious. Since I can't give up reading, I'm as likely to be influenced by a milk carton as by a book. To make life simpler, I just don't worry about what influences what I write. Yes, if I start glomming urban fantasy, I'm going to have urban fantasy ideas, but I'm quite certain my ideas aren't like anyone else's because I have a strange brain that rushes off on tangents that have nothing to do with the market, the genre, or anything else. Which makes it very hard to market books, admittedly!
I'm far more likely to be influenced by real life stories I hear or read about, or research I'm doing, or by song lyrics, than by anything I read for pleasure.
I have found that it is possible for my writing style to be directly influenced by what I read by a sort of unconscious writerly osmosis. I try very hard to avoid this ever since the time I wrote a beautifully crafted paragraph and realized to my horror upon re-reading it that it was someone else’s beautifully crafted paragraph and I had unconsciously absorbed and reproduced it.
When I was starting out writing I think I was very heavily influenced by Georgette Heyer and I suspect I’m not alone in that. As my own voice developed I hope that changed and that I found my own style. These days I avoid being influenced by reading no romance books at all whilst I am writing. I read crime, thrillers and non-fiction and save romance and historical fiction as my treat for when I am between books or on holiday.
That said, there are authors who I would very happily claim have influenced me in the wider sense: Mary Stewart and Daphne Du Maurier are two examples of authors who have influenced me to try to create strong characters and beautifully realized settings. Any book I read that is an inspiring example of its craft encourages me to raise my game so that can only be a good thing!
MARY JO PUTNEY
I worried a lot more about unconscious copying when I first started out. Now, not so much. For one thing, I have a good memory and will usually (well, often <g>) remember something that's distinctive so I can avoid using it. But more importantly, now I better appreciate how different we are in the way we put the elements together.
Take, for example, my book, LOVING A LOST LORD, and Anne Gracie's recent THE ACCIDENTAL WEDDING. Both features injured amnesiac heroes and the women who rescue them. Some would say they must be similar. If so, Some would be wrong. <G> The books are nothing alike. LALL is unmistakably an MJP book, and TAW is unmistakably an Anne Gracie. (I could list the points of difference, but that would take days. <G>)
Influence is a different matter. Everything I've read and experienced influences me, so no one book or writer is apt to overwhelm my own voice.
When I'm engaged in the first bout of creative work on a manuscript I have to stop reading Romance fiction altogether.
I don't know why this is, but Romance books mess with my voice. It's not that I start to sound like the other authors, but I start to 'think' about how I sound. I get self-conscious.
So I read Science Fiction and Nonfiction and Historical Fiction and the backs of cereal cartons and the small print that comes with common household appliances and none of that seems to bother me any. Eventually I get to the 'editing' part of a manuscript and I can read anything I want, which is a relief.
I discuss stories with other writers all the time but I'm not worried about taking their ideas (or vice versa) because even if all my writer friends took an identical story, with identical events, the stories would come out differently and each one, I'm sure would contain small surprises. That's the magic of "voice," where each author's individual approach -- their attitudes, their personality, their concerns, as well as their style -- flavor and build the story differently. It's like if you handed a dozen different cooks the same ingredients, they'd serve up a dozen different dishes.
Sometimes I admire aspects of other people's writing, and that influences me, but usually in a "must do better" sense, rather than any imitative sense. I think all good writing I read has a subtle influence on my own craft, and has all my reading life.
I get ideas while I'm reading other people's books, too, but usually they bear no relation to what I've just read. Often it's that some scene from my story isn't quite working and reading helps me stop fretting at it. And freed from my pecking at it, the muse throws up the solution. Sometimes it's just the simple realization that I was writing the scene from the wrong person's point of view. Or I'd set it in the wrong place. Or that it's rubbish and needs to be dropped.
I also admit to being influenced by Georgette Heyer. In a way, I grew up in the regency world she created — I've been reading and rereading her books since I was eleven -- and so I cannot help but inhabit my characters in a somewhat similar world. And we have a similar sense of humor. But I don't try to copy her -- in fact I try not to copy her -- though I daresay I sometimes unconsciously echo her. I catch myself using phrases in everyday speech that I know I picked up from Heyer. But even if I wanted to imitate Heyer or anyone else --which I don't -- I've never been able to stick to a recipe or follow a set of instructions exactly. I've always danced to my own tune. There's no joy in writing, otherwise.
SUSAN FRASER KING
I’m reading all the time, with several books in play all at once – fiction, nonfiction, historical, contemporary, mystery, romance, paranormal, cereal boxes, catalogues – and at the same time I’m writing something of my own. So the question of influence is a good one. Writers are always reading, absorbing, learning, thinking, and I learn a lot from reading. Yet there are inherent filters in the writing psyche, I think, and if there’s a strong sense of your own voice and story, undue influence isn’t a problem. Personally I can’t read in the same genre in which I’m actively writing, especially if the other book is good – suddenly what I’m doing seems stupid, and that unplugs the writing energy quickly. So I don’t read much when I’m writing, or else I read something completely different.
But sometimes I want to be influenced by someone’s writing. I’ll haul out something I love, like a Mary Stewart novel or some Dylan Thomas or one of my keepers. Then the creative well fills up a little, and I get inspired and impatient to go off and do my own work, in my own way.
I’ve been a voracious reader since I first learned the alphabet, and always have a book that I’m engrossed in—sometimes two or three, depending on my mood. Non-fiction, romance, mystery, historical fiction, arcane research . . . you name it, I’ll read it. Am I influenced by all those words? Absolutely! But not in a literal, linear way. The effect of other stories and other styles of writing is hard to define. From some books I get my own quirky ideas of a plot or character, and from others I see ways in which the prose is crafted that help me to see things I’d like to improve in my own writing.
The authors who have influenced me are too numerous to list—Austen, Heyer, Dorothy Sayers are just a few of the people who have shown me what magic cam be made through the use of words, To transport a reader to a world of the imagination is a wondrous thing, and that’s what makes me passionate about what I do.
For me, creativity is at odds with copying. I want to tell a story in my own way, and with my own vision. For that reason, copying would be no fun at all! As my brain whirs and churns, all sorts of offbeat things get stirred up, and trying to mold them into a coherent story is part of the pleasure and pain of the writing process. I swear, I’ve stuffed so many odd things into my head over the years, I don’t think that I could mimic someone else’s style if I tried.
However, like Joanna, I usually avoid reading romance when I am in the middle of writing one. Not because I am afraid of being influences, but because it makes me squirrelly and doubtful about my own writing. I’ll sit there and whimper, “Oh, that’s SO much better than what I’m putting on paper.” There are enough doubts and fears in bringing a story to life, so I find that it’s too stressful to add another. And while I used to worry about subconsciously picking up a similar plot from some other author, I don’t fret about it so much now. Most plots have been done many times over—it’s the author’s voice and characters that make a story unique. So I try to trust myself that I can give an idea my own special spin.
HOW ABOUT YOU?
Now it's your turn to share. Please tell us a little about how reading has influenced your life.
Posted by Andrea Penrose/Andrea Pickens/Cara Elliott on Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 09:04 PM in Andrea Pickens, Anne Gracie, Ask-a-Wench, Books, Cara Elliott, Jo Beverley, Joanna Bourne, Mary Jo Putney, Nicola Cornick, Patricia Rice, Susan King/Sarah Gabriel, Writing Topics | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack (0)
Anne here (with reindog), thinking about Christmas, in particular Christmas stories and books I have loved. Some of these stories were an integral part of my family Christmas traditions, and others I came to as an adult.
1. The Good Little Christmas Tree
My all time favorite Christmas picture book, by Ursula Moray Williams. Ours was my mother's copy, an old, battered, much beloved first edition, with illustrations made of papercuts, done by the author herself. Each year, as the story was read and reread, I'd marvel over the bright, bold, beautiful illustrations, made simply by cutting bits of paper. I'm sure I tried to make my own paper pictures, but nothing came close.
And the story itself is lovely. It's about a poor peasant family - a mother, father and a boy and a girl, who have never had a Christmas tree before. After the children are asleep, the father brings out a little Christmas tree, and the mother bakes cookies to hang on the tree, but that's all they have to decorate it, so they're a bit sad.
In the night, the little Christmas tree goes in search of things to make him more beautiful and make the poor family happy. He meets all kinds or people and creatures, and bit by bit he trades cookies and pine needles and branches for things to make him a worthy Christmas tree -- icicles, bright toadstools, diamonds, a toy for each of the children, etc. But by the time he's traded everything, he is a poor ragged tree and is too ashamed to return.
He meets St Nicholas, and begs him to take off all the pretty things and give them to another tree, so that the good family will not be disappointed. But St. Nicholas touches him, and all his branches and pine-needles grow back and he looks beautiful.(I always tear up at this point) St Nicholas leads him home in a beautiful procession.
Do you know the story by Charles Tazewell? It's about the donkey who carries Mary to Bethlehem. We had a scratchy old recording of Bing Crosby reading this story, and, it being about a donkey — and I was very fond of donkeys — I loved it. We'd put the record on after dinner, when it was quiet, with the Christmas tree lights blinking and the tinsel gleaming, and just listen.You can read it here.
3. The Littlest Angel
Another gorgeous story by Charles Tazewell — we had this one as a book, I think. I remember my dad reading it. Mum sometimes read it, too, but she always got choked up. Something I never realized then, was that the story was published after World War Two, when so many people were grieving for their lost sons and would be remembering them as little boys, which makes the story that much more poignant.
4. The Night Before Christmas
This classic, by Clement C. Moore, was always recited, usually by my father, sometimes interspersed with verses by my mother, and we children grew to know it too, and join in. I always imagined the "visions of sugar plums" as ballet dancers dancing the nutcracker suite, for some reason.
5. The Father Christmas Letters
This is a collection of the letters J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his children as Father Christmas. Delightful letters from the North Pole written in dark spidery writing, with beautiful and sometimes funny illustrations also done by Tolkien. I discovered this book when I was at university and I fell in love with it completely.
6. A Christmas Carol
I can't remember a time I didn't know this story by Charles Dickens, but it took on another special meaning when I began teaching adults how to read. I used to run a "book club" for adults learning to read -- there were people in it aged 16 to 82 years. Some were young tearaway teens, some had been born overseas and never had any schooling in English (and often not their first language, too) and some people had simply never learned to read in school.
We used to read an abridged version of this story together, and the kick they got from reading it, and gradually realizing they'd seen this in movies, and working out all the references in popular culture that came from a man born almost 200 years ago — and it was still a fantastic story — well, it made the reading of this book each year very special.
7. A Child's Christmas in Wales
It's by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. I'm told the very best way to hear this story is to hear a recording of Dylan Thomas himself reading it — or at the very least a good Welsh actor. It has the lushest language. Here's an example:
All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
And thus the story starts... You can read it here.
8. The Gift of the Magi
O. Henry's short story. I read it with my classes each year and each year the women get choked up and the men harrumph a lot and pretend not to be choked up, too.You can read it here.
Terry Pratchett's 20th Discworld novel. It's the perfect book to listen to as you drive to and from your family Christmas gathering. An antidote to all the sugary stuff, this is the story of how the Auditors plot to assassinate the Hogfather because he doesn't fit into their view of How The World Should Be. The Hogfather goes into hiding, and Death temporarily takes on his role, dressed in a long red robe. I won't explain much more, except to say it's very funny, especially if you're a devotee (as I am) of Pratchett's disc world series. If not, you might find it slightly bewildering at first, but hang in there -- you'll soon be addicted.
So that's 9 favorite books of mine. I know I've left out plenty, so I'm leaving the #10 spot for you all to suggest one (or more) of your favorite Christmas stories.
Anne here, welcoming Jennifer Kloester into the hallowed halls of Honorary Word-Wenchdom. Jennifer, this literary award, strangely unrecognized by most of the major universities, entitles you, nevertheless, to join the ranks of those excellent people, the Honorary Word Wenches listed in the right-hand column of this blog, and to put the initials HWW after your name. It will be recognized by Those In The Know —superior beings, one and all.
To go with this, we have spared no expense (truly, none at all!) in the purchase of a stunning cyber gift, the hire of a time machine in which you can return to the time of Heyer, and spend a week with Georgette at Greywalls in Scotland (or another place of your choice, including the grass hut in Tanganyika.)
Hello, Nicola here, and today I am very pleased to share with you a conversation I recently had with Word Wench Susan about her new release, Queen Hereafter, A Novel of Margaret of Scotland. There is nothing that I enjoy more than a good historical novel and as soon as I picked up Queen Hereafter I was hooked. I stopped writing, there were no walks for the dog and no one was fed until I had turned the final page. Not only does Susan create the most vivid setting for the book, making 11th century Scotland come alive for the reader (more on that later) but the love story of Margaret and Malcolm had me riveted from the start.
Here are some of my questions to Susan; I hope that you will have plenty of your own and join in the conversation!
NC: Susan, Queen Hereafter focuses on the life of Margaret of Scotland. What was it that made you want to tell her story? Why did you choose her?
SFK: The contrasts in Margaret’s life were so interesting—piety and power, gentleness and temper, obedience and mischief, saintliness and worldliness, all that was part of her, as I discovered in the research. We know a fair amount about the 11th century, though little about individuals, let alone the women, and yet Margaret emerges as a real person thanks to a rare biography written by her friend and confessor. He idealized her, but left tantalizing hints of a vital, fascinating young woman.
NC: It's interesting that her biographer also fell under Margaret's spell! That says something about her personality, I think, as well as the style of biography at the time. Margaret does indeed come across as a very real and fascinating character but there is also a lovely fairytale element to her story. Tell us a bit about that.
SFK: The fairy tale aspects of her true story are naturally romantic, and that attracted me too. A beautiful young princess in exile, a shipwreck, love at first sight, a brawny royal husband who adored her, eight healthy children, enough charm to win the affection of a resistant country, yet some inner torment kept her from being truly happy despite all she had – who could resist!
NC: Certainly not me! I loved that combination of history and fairytale romance, and I really enjoyed your blog about the fairytale element of the book here on Word Wenches. (The picture above is the site where Margaret is supposed to have landed in Scotland after the shipwreck). Getting back to the historical aspects, though (you can tell I’m a historian – I’m fascinated by this!) Margaret is a part of history at a critical moment, the period of the Norman Conquest of England. In what ways did the wider political background influence her young life?
SFK: She had a cosmopolitan upbringing between her early years in Hungary, a pious and Byzantine court, and the sophisticated Norman-influenced English court. Her Saxon father brought his family to England when Margaret was about ten, but her father, who would have been king of England, died within days of their arrival. Although a Saxon princess, Margaret was a foreigner in the English court, and when William of Normandy invaded England, she and her mother and siblings fled. She was royal and privileged, raised in a culture of warriors and saints—and she was a refugee in great danger until she and her family came under the wing of Malcolm Canmore of Scotland.
NC: How much is really known about Margaret as a historical figure? You’ve already mentioned that there is a biography of her written by her personal priest, Turgot, but are there other contemporary sources to draw upon? (This picture is from a 16th century armorial book).
SFK: Bishop Turgot created an amazing document in his Vita S. Margaretae, written for Margaret’s daughter—it’s full of anecdotes, insights and verifiable facts. Other primary sources mention her and her family, such as in annals and charters, and information from the monk-chronicler Simeon of Durham. The rest of the picture is provided by historical events and the actions of her husband, Malcolm Canmore, her brother, Edgar the Aetheling, and others. And of course there are lots of historical gaps, and some extrapolating and leaping needs to be done by either a novelist or a historian to create a complete portrayal of Margaret’s life.
NC: Queen Hereafter isn’t just Margaret’s story, of course. It is also told through the eyes of Eva, kinswoman to Gruadh, Lady Macbeth (whose story you have also told). Can you tell us what sort of contrast Eva provides to Margaret and why you chose to narrate this story through these two women in particular?
SFK: Eva came about as a fictional character for two reasons: I wanted to highlight the contrasts and comparisons between Margaret’s more European upbringing and the Celtic nature of Scotland when she became queen – and I had to work around Margaret’s piety. I began writing the book as a first-person narrative by Margaret, but her deep faith and constant prayerfulness were not easy to portray that way. So I switched to third person and created Eva to give another perspective of a queen who, as gentle, kind and devout as she was, sometimes bordered on fanaticism and obsession in her personality. The story needed another viewpoint, so Eva was a good vehicle for that.
NC: Combining a narrative from a real and a fictional character is a very interesting thing to do. What do you think are the pitfalls about writing about real historical figures – and what are the advantages? In what way does writing a fictional account of a historical figure differ from writing non-fiction or biography?
SFK: We’re making stuff up about people who actually lived – essentially, that’s the advantage and the pitfall, all at once. History can be a guideline for novels such as these, giving us some landmarks, but the rest needs to be filled in and invented. As novelists writing about actual historical people, we are writing history from a different perspective. I think there’s a certain responsibility to create an authentic picture with touches of accuracy, while letting imagination have full rein too. Finding nuggets of logic and insight that help to fill in the story is a fascinating challenge too. And while sometimes there are journals and diaries and biographies available, sometimes there is very little to go on, and the author then creates within the parameters of what makes the most sense for that time, those events, those people. How did they get from A to B – well, maybe this way. Maybe they realized this, felt that, did that.
NC: As I mentioned at the start, one of the hallmarks of Queen Hereafter is the fascinating 11th century Scottish background and setting, which you portray so vividly that they are almost another character in the story. How do you set about achieving that?
SFK: Thank you! It’s cumulative, I guess, from years spent studying Scottish history and culture, writing stories about Scotland, travelling there and just loving everything about it. What we love most we absorb in our heads and hearts, and it’s then easy to write – it’s almost second nature for me to write about historical Scotland now, like it’s second nature for you to write your wonderful stories about Regency England!
NC: Now I’m blushing! Thank you! I love that idea that what we love most we absorb in our heads and our hearts. I’m wondering what you find to be the most challenging and the most rewarding elements of writing historical fiction?
SFK: The research is the most challenging—and the most rewarding. I love doing research, I love following historical trails as I’m putting stories together, love solving historical puzzles. For Queen Hereafter and Lady Macbeth as well, I was able to make little historical leaps and insights here and there that were rewarding for me as a historian and as a novelist. But it’s tedious work, and takes up gobs of time to not only research it, but then to “world build” like a fantasy writer does, creating a historical world in which the reader feels comfortable as they move through the story. And you don’t want the research to show, which is tricky to pull off as well.
NC: And what do you consider to be the qualities that make a good historical novel?
SFK: Personally I love novels that are so beautifully written and crafted that I’m just sucked into the book. I like books that make me toss away that red pencil I carry around in my head. I do enjoy historical novels that are accurate and authentic as well, evoking the whole bubble of the era—setting, atmosphere, true characters and so on. And I love a story that’s accessible. Most importantly, I love a cracking good story. I can easily forgive historical wobbles for a great story.
I'm going to turn the tables now... Nicola, I’d love to know what you, as a British reader, knew about Margaret and Malcolm and the whole situation when you sat down to read Queen Hereafter. Did you have a basis of knowledge about her, being raised in England with an awareness of British history? Is she considered Scottish or English/Saxon?
NC: I knew very little about Malcolm Canmore although I have always enjoyed reading the history of the Kings and Queens of Scotland. In contrast, I remember reading about Margaret first when I was a child, though whether that was as part of my formal history lessons or purely out of interest, I am not sure now. Certainly I remember her identity being very firmly Scottish in the books that I read about her, which is very interesting now that I see her original background was quite different. To me as a British reader she was very much a Scottish heroine because Scotland has such a strong national identity and Margaret has become firmly associated with that identity.
SFK: And what do you consider the qualities of a good historical novel?
NC: For me, Queen Hereafter has all the hallmarks of the best historical novels – a story that grabs the reader, draws you in and doesn’t let you go; a book that creates a vivid and authentic world that you don’t want to leave. I love research too and I think that the best historical novels are beautifully written and researched but they wear that research lightly so that the reader barely notices that it is there. That is a real skill!
That is the question we would like to ask everyone - What qualities do you enjoy in a good historical novel? Susan is giving away a signed copy of Queen Hereafter (which as you can see has a stunning cover and looks beautiful on the bookcase or teh TBR pile!) to one commenter who posts a comment by Sunday morning (12th December) EST.
There is also the chance to win a very special Wench Prize this month! The Word Wenches will be giving away a fantastic prize on January 1st 2011 - a Word Wenches Library containing a book by each of the Wenches! For a chance to win, all you have to do is comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1, 2011 and pick a winner! (If you've already posted in December, you're already entered -- comment again for more chances to win!) Good luck to all and Happy Holidays!
With the time difference -- England is 5 hours ahead of the Eastern US -- I can, if I want, put up my blog in the morning when North Americans are still asleep. But not tomorrow. And I forgot to prepare. But no, I wasn't procrastinating; simply overlooking the practicalities.
So first, about things I skirt around when I write historicals.
The biggie -- dentistry. Or the lack of. There's no aspect of it that's good in the past, IMO. Treatment was unpleasant. Not getting treatment was unpleasant. Queen Elizabeth I suffered from rotten teeth for most of her later years. One of the pharoes died of an infected tooth.Charlie and Billy are celebrating not having any teeth at all. Though they've been known to look longingly at pizza.
Mind you, it's interesting to wonder how many people had good teeth. Apparently some people are naturally resistant to dental caries, so they don't get cavities.
There's also the question of uneven teeth. I had a debate with another writer once because she claimed that even teeth were an anachronism before orthodonty. That's silly. For one thing, I have even teeth and braces never came near my mouth.
So on that basis, my characters all have cavity-free, even teeth. So there.
There's an article here that supports some of my rose-tinted view, though some of the treatments mentioned support it in another way!
What are the okay bodily details?
My characters do use the chamber pot or convenient bushes if appropriate -- or a close stool as shown for preference -- and my female characters menstruate if the story lasts longer than a month and they're not pregnant or strongly breastfeeding. And if they're breastfeeding, they will sometimes leak milk.
You can have a close stool of your own. That one is from a company that makes reproductions of all sorts. A fascinating collection. Click here.
The occasional reader prefers that such things don't get a mention in a romance.
So what are the day-to-day things you prefer not to see in a historical romance.
And are there some you prefer to see, where you notice the lack?
Here on the south Devon coast we've had virtually no snow, but we now have a hard frost. It's quite pretty, but it can go now. *G* Come to think of it, I don't have many romantic snow scenes in my books. I much prefer blossoms and birds.
I’m still working on the proposal for the next book so I’m really not yet ready to murder my hero. He’s still charming and blithe and hiding his problems instead of giving me or my heroine grief. But while I was researching, I came across this charming tidbit about Regency wallpaper—the greens are poisonous.
The most relevant article is here: Janeaustensworld.com
Essentially, around 1812 a vivid new emerald green paint was developed using a chemical composition containing arsenic. Arsenic was used for many things at the time, including a treatment for syphilis. Unfortunately, the treatment could lead to headaches, confusion and drowsiness. If continued the usual arsenic poisoning symptoms would ensue, such as convulsions, diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, and eventually coma and death.
Arsenic treatments were seldom continued long enough to kill, but arsenic in the wallpaper, combined with the damp climate of England, created a kind of mold that people inhaled daily, for years. They did notice that people who grew sickly in winter when it was dampest seemed to revive when moved to a sunny, dry climate. But no one thought to examine the wallpaper—even after the arsenic theory was developed—until the Victorian era. Even then, it was widely disregarded and the chemicals used to develop the pigment were continued in use to kill barnacles on ships and as insecticide. Now, c’mon—paint your walls and kill insects? Ouch. (a more scientific explanation)
Paris green was a similar oil pigment formulation used by Impressionists as late as the early 20th century. Cézanne developed severe diabetes, which is a symptom of chronic arsenic poisoning. Monet’s blindness and Van Gogh's neurological disorders could also be related to their use of Paris Green, as well as lead pigments, mercury-based vermillion, and solvents such as turpentine. (In other words, he painted himself crazy.)
So maybe instead of murdering my hero with wallpaper, I could just develop a sickly sister or mother, then cure her with sunshine! Or maybe I need to research diabetes in the Regency era… Of course, they also used that green in fabrics—kill someone with a favorite shawl?
And here we thought we were the ones who developed pollution! Who knew environmental hazards could kill our ancestors? How can we possibly solve environmental contamination when even the natural elements conspire against us? Anyone else know some great ways to murder people naturally? (Oh, and there’s always lead-based paint…)
Isn’t it fun to be a writer?
This Friday you'll get two Wenches for the price of one! On December 10, Nicola Cornick will be interviewing Susan Fraser King regarding the release of Susan's newest book, Queen Hereafter: a Novel of Margaret of Scotland. Find out why readers, writers, and academics alike rave about this book! Join us Friday as Susan talks about the life of this remarkable woman.
I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on procrastination for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to it….
Okay, I couldn’t resist saying that. <G> In fact, while I have been a serious practitioner of procrastination for as long as I can remember, I never thought much about it, other than experiencing the usual guilt.
Then I read an article from a recent New Yorker called “Later.” Author James Surowiecki reviewed a book of essays called The Thief of Time, including broader information on the subject as well as applying it to himself.
The Quintessential Problem?
Procrastination has always been with us, but corrosive guilt about it is more of a modern phenomenon. Another vestige of our Puritan heritage, probably. We’re supposed to be working, and avoiding work feels like a sign of weak moral fiber. As the article says, “it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem.”
The interesting essence of procrastination is that it’s “doing something against one’s own better judgment.” We know we have to finish that term paper, calculate and file those taxes, finish that book. We want those good things to happen.
The Dangers of Self-Employment
Those who must structure their own time may be particularly prone to procrastination. Take academics. Finishing a PhD dissertation is a monstrously difficult undertaking, so much so that there is a term for people who have taken all the courses, done all the research, but not done the dissertation: ABD = All But Dissertation. Even my brother-in-law, a professor and one of the most cerebral and intelligent people I know, said that his dissertation was heavy gong.
Suroweicki’s article discusses several reasons why we procrastinate. Goals, for example. I really do want to read War and Peace, but right now, I am going to read the new JAK Arcane novel. I’ll read War and Peace over vacation when I have lots of time to sink into it. But vacation comes, and the new Sharon Shinn is out, and I want to read that instead.
A big reason we procrastinate is that there are multiple selves within us, and they often have conflicting goals. There are different terminologies for this, such as Freud’s classic Id, Ego, and Superego, but suffice it to say that the self that wants to finish the dissertation and read War and Peace is more interested in long term goals, while the self who goes for the fun book is more into short term gratification.
What you want now is probably what you’ll also want in the future. In other words, you want to lose weight, but you’ll start the diet tomorrow, right now there’s a chocolate cake in the office break room. Come tomorrow, and there are donuts, the diet can be started on Monday, always better to start a project on Monday.
Obviously, this can go on indefinitely. <G>
We Need More Time!
Procrastination is related to a concept that I recognized when Ellen Goodman, one of my favorite columnists, articulated it: the unconscious belief that in the future, we’ll have more time. I’m rushed and harried and behind on deadline and may not get my Christmas cards out this year, but NEXT YEAR WILL BE DIFFERENT!
Next year I’ll get into the current book sooner, schedule my time better, have my Christmas cards posted and my holiday shopping done by December 1st. Or at least by December 15th. (I procrastinate even in my daydreams. <G>) Yes, next year I’ll be better organized and everything will be different.
Of course, next year is probably not different. <g> One reason is, yes, procrastination. Another is that we tend to think of the ideal when we schedule projects. We’re going to sit down and get this book done in six months because we’ve written other books in six months.
What we tend to overlook is the normal hassles of everyday life: the cold caught in Croatia, the car that breaks down, the cat needs to be taken to the vet, the furnace fails at the first cold snap. These things aren’t specifically predictable, but some kinds of delay will invariably happen and we’ll get behind on the project.
Solutions, or at least, Coping Mechanisms
So how can we deal with procrastination?
One solution is bargaining. You may want to read a fun book now, and you will want to just as much in the future. So you tell yourself that after you read War and Peace, you’ll read fun books only for the next six months. This may work for some people, but the fun loving self often has the upper hand here.
Another solution is to raise the stakes. If you go to Weight Watchers or make a bet with a friend, you are setting yourself up to succeed or fail in the eyes of others. At Weight Watchers, I understand there are public weighings, plus a sympathetic peer group to help keep you on track. If you make a bet with a friend and lose, it may cost you money.
If you continuously put something off, eventually you may want to consider whether it actually needs doing. Most of us have zillions of things we feel we “ought” to do, but some of them probably deserve to be dropped altogether. Why waste guilt on an undeserving subject?? Maybe you don't really want to read War and Peace--you want to have read it, which is not at all the same thing.
A good solution is to set up artificial deadlines or constraints. Surowiecki’s article cites a study done by MIT psychologist David Ariely, who assigned a class three papers that had to be done during the semester. The students had the choice of delivering all three at the end of the term, or setting separate deadlines for each, spaced out through the semester. They didn’t get extra credit for delivering early, but if they set an earlier deadline and missed it, their grades would be docked.
Yet even though setting earlier deadlines risked a penalty, the majority of students choose to do that. They knew that they were unlikely to start early on all three and deliver them at semester’s end, so they chose external constraints to force them to do what they knew needed to be done.
Setting such constraints is called self-binding, and it can be done in numerous ways. One that I LOVE I learned about from Surowiecki. A PhD student in North Carolina (see “dissertation,” above <g>) wrote a piece of software that cuts off your internet access for anywhere from 15 minutes to 8 hours.
The software is called Freedom and can be downloaded in either a trial version or bought outright for ten bucks. (Despite the site name, it works fine for PCs as well as Macs.) You set the time you want to be offline, and the program dutifully blocks access. (If you really, suddenly do need to get online, you can clear the program by rebooting.)
Given that the internet is an invention of the devil and the all-time biggest timewaster there is, this is a fabulous invention. If you read the testimonials, you’ll see names you recognize. LOTS of writers. <g>
Or you can buy The Thief of Time itself, for it's surely full of marvelous insights. It costs $65, though. Maybe I’ll get it later… <G>
So—are you a procrastinator? Sometimes, not always? What tasks cause you to use a toothbrush to clean grout as an avoidance technique? And do you have any good coping strategies that you would be willing to share?
Mary Jo, who is amazed that she has ever managed to finish a book, much less dozens.
PS: Thanks to Anne Gracie for pointing out that I'd mispelled James Surowiecki's name wrong when I originally posted. That is now corrected.