Thursday, October 30, 2008
Second, here's what some historical figures would be named if you put their names in the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator:
Hugh le Despenser the younger: Recoil Mush Palin
Eleanor de Clare: Steam Fangs Palin (poor Eleanor!)
Queen Isabella: Knife Pile Palin (an apt one!)
Edward II: Clop Clutch Palin
Edward IV: Rock Crane Palin (Ooh!)
Elizabeth Woodville: Rankle Hiway Palin
Jane Shore: Bash Budweiser Palin
Richard III: Cue Manhunt Palin
Henry Tudor: Cuppa Invader Palin (Ricardians will like this one!)
Anne Boleyn: Plop Hero Palin
Henry VIII: Timber Challenger Palin
Elizabeth I: Clamp Noodle Palin (I dunno)
Marie Antoinette: Log Justice Palin (that has a nice revolutionary ring to it)
And my Palin name?
Bigger Channel Palin
Saturday, October 25, 2008
How Facts Made Fantasy into Fiction
By Nan Hawthorne, author of An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England
The very first words of what would become my novel, An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England www.shield-wall.com, were penned by me in 1964. My new friend Laura and I had met at a weeklong camp and started play-acting a medieval fantasy about a king named Lawrence and a queen named Sunshine. The first time pencil hit paper I was writing as the king to the queen from whom he was separated -- I can't remember why except that I lived in Juneau and Laura lived in Ketchikan. Even when the letters turned into narrative vignettes we maintained our love for the sort of medieval fantasy that adolescent girls favor. There was no consideration of the where and when, not really. Lawrence and the renamed Josephine reigned over Generic Medieval Kingdom in some sort of Generic Medieval Period.
But... I wanted more. I am enough of an ISTJ to want to know the when and where, and to have a sneaking desire to make it somewhere and sometime possible.
So, pre-web as it was, I did a little 14-uear old research and came up with the idea that "Dark Ages" meant no one knows a thing about the period, and I specifically chose the decades before the one event I knew about.. the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. I chose Lincolnshire to be where our kingdom lay -- since nothing was known about any of it, who would say me nay? -- merely because The Wash made it easy to locate on a map. In my romantic adolescent way I chose the name "Christenlande" for the kingdom. The year was 764 AD and everyone was living happily ever after in stone castles and the place was lousy with knights and tournaments and minstrels.
And that's where things stood when I started writing the stories again, or rather rewriting them for Ghostletters www.ghostletters.net . It was only when I had decided to turn my attention to a serious rewriting of "The Story" as we called it and turning it into a novel that I started to look into what was really known of the "Dark Ages". The opening scene of the novel had young Prince Lawrence taking three steps at a time as he ascended to his father's castle chamber. I was about to relearn my medieval fantasy. By the time I was on the second draft, facts had come along to help me create fiction that was better and to create a love in me for what they revealed.
Medieval fantasies are delightful. Fairy tales tend to be set at least in costuming in the Middle Ages. But somewhere out there was something many historical novelists who focus on the era discover, that reality, though often brutal, is even more appealing that fantasy. Had I persisted in my vaguely 12th century setting I would have been forced into changing who the characters were, but by leaving it late 8th century, I had to relearn history. As it turns out, that was a pleasure beyond reckoning. I lost a fantasy but I gain Anglo Saxon England.
Here is what the basic difference is. Instead of castles, the Anglo Saxons had vertical timber walled forts, meadhalls, and daub and wattle. Instead of feudalism they had tribalism. The very word "king" comes from "cyning", an Old English word that refers to kin, signifying that the only requirement to be king was to be within the kin of the ruling family. Instead of the eldest son following in the late king's place, a group of councilors called the Witan chose the most worthy man from the kin. Even better than that, it could happen, and did on several occasions, that the worthy kin was a woman, like Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. I learned that women had more rights in the period than they would again until the late 19th century. I learned that instead of knights one found warriors, housecarls, in shield-wall, and they fought on foot in the open, not encased in suits of armor on huge destriers. Towns were a new fangled concept. The distance between king and peasant had far fewer and less stringent layers.
In short, it was an era I could get my teeth into. The "Dark Ages" were filled with light in spite of the popular belief. There were people like Alfred the Great who wrote everything down, and I mean everything. There were monks galore who did the same. The archaeological evidence fills in much of what monks might not write about. There might not be tumbled down stone castles but there were cylindrical sections of earth where the material analyzed proved to be a foundation pole. As romantic and fun as the fantasy Middle Ages were, the reality of life in a highly developed agrarian society that gave us our jury system among other legal precedents was far more engaging.
The result of this journey of discovery is that I started out with a sweet little medieval knights and ladies fantasy but ended with five hundred years of a far more egalitarian and enlightened history than I knew existed. I ended up with a culture of which I cannot get enough. All my future novels will be set in Anglo Saxon England -- that is, unless I write a fictional biography of my prostitute grandmother's life in the Yukon.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Some worrywarts are concerned that if the McCain-Palin ticket wins the 2008 presidential election, we Americans will have a woman with quite limited qualifications sitting a heartbeat away from the presidency, occupied by a 72-year-old whose personality makes him a textbook candidate for a massive heart attack. But am I going to worry? Not me! I'm just going to sit back and pretend that I'm in medieval England. Because, as you will see, Palin would make a wonderful medieval queen.
- Inability to accurately describe vice-president's role shows grasp of need to expand role of queen when circumstances demand it
- Taking daughters uninvited to events at taxpayer expense, then claiming that they are there on official business, shows determination to groom them for hereditary office
- Hostility toward American constitutional principles (freedom of speech, freedom of the press, separation of church and state) augurs well for strength in grasping monarchical principles
- Proven ability to charm older men will come in handy for making alliances
- Beehive hairstyle is natural for crown
- Charging Alaskan taxpayers for living in own home demonstrates sound understanding of need to impose taxes to support regal lifestyle
- Appointment of high school friend as Secretary of Agriculture based on friend's childhood love of cows augurs well for distribution of patronage to a few favorites
- Firing of town and state employees on dubious grounds shows proper attitude toward underlings
- Refusal to answer questions from press, public indicates realization that access to sovereign must be limited in order to maintain royal dignity
- $150,000 wardrobe purchased for two-month campaign season shows understanding of need to dress well in order to impress lowly peasants
Monday, October 20, 2008
Crispin Guest—A Character Study
VEIL OF LIES; A MEDIEVAL NOIR, is the first in a series. It is my own subgenre of medieval mystery that I term "medieval noir." It's a hard-boiled detective set in the middle ages. Because of the darker themes, this called for an exceptional detective, one who would be compelling in book after book.
Enter Crispin Guest.
Now let's back up a bit. When an author devises a detective for a series, they have to keep certain things in mind: will he be equipped to solve the crimes that come his way? In an amateur sleuth story, it has to be believable when the detective comes upon murder after murder. In something like a private eye story it is a given that the detective will know what to do and how to proceed when encountering the ultimate crime.
But set the story in the distant past where there is little in the way of forensic science to help you, a vastly under-funded and under-trained "police force", coupled with the fear and superstition of a particular point in time, and you have special difficulties in allowing your detective to be able to solve a crime.
I needed a detective who was able to read and write. Not so easy in the middle ages when even some of the nobility could do neither. This is the reason that many medieval mystery protagonists are monks and nuns. The clerical class, for the most part, could read and had a bit of time on their hands.
But I also wanted someone who could move between the classes, someone who was well aware and even knew by name some of those in the upper echelons of society. He needed to be a man familiar with weapons so that he could fight his way out of any difficulty. He had also to be familiar with death so he could recognize an accidental death from a deliberate one, and a fresh corpse from an old one. This meant he had to be a man-at-arms, someone who had seen many battles and their aftermath. But it also meant that he could no longer be a part of the society to which he had been born. Forced to live among people that he never considered his equal, he would be imbued with ready-made angst and animosity. Throw in a sheriff who gives him grief at his change in station and we have the makings of a darker, character-driven morality play.
Crispin Guest was a man who had everything: a title, wealth, status at court. He was a possible candidate for Edward of Woodstock's privy council when he became king. As the protégé under John of Gaunt the duke of Lancaster (Edward's brother), Crispin had fought in battles and even led his own men. He had jousted in tournaments, and was well respected among the elite.
But when Edward of Woodstock (whom we know as the Black Prince) suddenly died and his father the king died soon thereafter, that left the throne in the hands of Edward's son, Richard II. Crispin well knew that Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, was the better man and should be king. And when there were murmurings to place Lancaster on the throne instead of his ten-year-old nephew, Crispin threw in with that lot, well knowing his choice was dangerous but also knowing in his heart that this was the right choice for England.
But what he had not known, was that the plot was little more than a trap set to discover any conspirators to usurp the rightful heir. Caught in the web, Crispin was arrested. The conspirators that could be found were executed most brutally, but Crispin's champion was John of Gaunt himself, who pleaded with the ten-year-old King Richard to spare his life. Richard did so, on the condition that Crispin lose all. Banished from court, stripped of his lands, wealth, and status, he was allowed to stay in London. But how to stay alive?
Men in similar straits took to highway robbery. But not Crispin. His honor would not allow it and he took many menial jobs before he stumbled upon the one that satisfied his pride if not his purse. He gained a reputation for finding lost objects—for tracking them down—hence, his new title as the Tracker...for sixpence a day, plus expenses.
Though Crispin is a character with a chip on his shoulder, he has a strong sense of honor coupled with great wit. He feels a certain sense of obligation toward the weakest in society, fulfilling his chivalric code even if he can no longer be a knight. He's a lover and a fighter. And, of course, endlessly curious.
So now I have a detective equipped and ever willing to use his wits to outsmart the murderer, getting into scrapes and causing a few bruises himself. Then I build my mysteries within the framework of the politics, people, characters, and events of the late 14th century, taking it down a notch into darker territory, delving into the grit of London.
There is no end to the ideas.
Visit Jeri on her website to read an excerpt from Veil of Lies at www.JeriWesterson.com.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Historical Fiction Online, by the by, is co-administered by Marg over at Reading Adventures and by yours truly. It's a fun site, and a very congenial one.
Now for the tidbit: a couple of days ago, I started reading The Passionate Queen by Barnaby Ross, a historical novel about Margaret of Anjou. Being a curious lass, I Googled to see what I could find out about Ross and discovered that it was a pseudonym for Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky, cousins who created the well-known Ellery Queen detective series. But the plot thickens: Nathan and Lepofsky also allowed a third writer, Don Tracy, to publish historical fiction as "Barnaby Ross," and it is he who wrote The Passionate Queen. Don Tracy (1905-1976), whose other historical novels can be seen at one of the links above, was a prolific writer of pulp crime fiction who also wrote under the name of Roger Fuller. He seems to have had very broad interests, writing crime fiction and historical fiction from a variety of periods and touching on subjects such as racism and alcoholism.
The Passionate Queen (1966) is quite well written, though I was somewhat taken aback when a few pages in, the narrator, a knight who serves Margaret of Anjou, relates how the seven-year-old Margaret instructs the 10-year-narrator to seduce her 15-year-old sister so that Margaret can steal one of her dresses. Our precocious hero duly performs his task and loses his virginity, a task that he informs us was made easy and pleasant by the sister's "lubricity." I was pleased to find that Margaret did not demonstrate similar lubricity, but has her son dutifully fathered by Henry VI.
In parting, here's the cover for the Pocket Books edition of The Passionate Queen (50 cents), on which a previous owner has scribbled "Henry IV Lancaster." With that hennin and that low-cut neckline, Margaret looks as if she could easily go airborne. I also like the last page of the book, which on one side contains an ad for Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (75 cents) and on the other for a series of Playboy books, including the perennial More Playboy's Party Jokes (also 75 cents), accompanied by cartoons of lubricious young women wearing nothing but black stockings. Something was lost when the publishing world decided to start issuing historical novels in decorous trade paperbacks, wasn't it?
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Jasper starts his will, dated December 15, 1495, and given at his manor of Thornbury, by bequeathing his "soul to almighty God to our blessed lady his mother the Virgin Mary and to all saints." Most of the rest is concerned with monetary bequests to religious houses and provisions for the welfare of his own soul, those of his parents, and that of his brother Edmund. (The transcriber supplied me both transcriptions in the original spelling and in modern English. In the modern English version, Jasper asks that land be amortised "for the finding of 4 priests to sin perpetually." I was disappointed to find out that this was a typo by the transcriber and that the priests were to sing perpetually. The former request sounds like a lot more fun, and lends itself to considerable creativity.)
A number of religious houses received rich garments from Jasper. His chosen burial place, Keynsham Abbey, received his best gown of cloth of gold, which was to be made into vestments "to the honour of God and his blessed mother." The monastery of St. Kenelme of Winchcombe received a gown of crimson velvet for a cope. The church of Thornbury got a black velvet gown for the same purpose. A second gown of cloth of gold was given to the Grey Friars of Haverford, where Owen Tudor was buried, for a cope or vestments. Another black velvet gown went to the church of Pembroke for a cope. Jasper left the Blessed Trinity of Crichurch (the Priory of Holy Trinity in London) a jacket of cloth of gold, which was to be used to make two jackets. (Did Jasper's jacket contain a lot of excess fabric, or had Jasper grown a trifle plump following his return from his long exile?)
Jasper left his household servants a year's wages and asked that his household be kept from the day of his death until the following Easter. The land that Jasper held in fee simple was to be retained for 20 years for the payment of his debts and the satisfaction of his will, after which it was to go to Jasper's nephew, King Henry VII, "and to his heirs kings of England forever." Jasper also asked that Henry see the will executed "for my old since devotion to his Grace." He appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, Giles, Lord Dawbeny, Dr. Owen Poole, Richard Newton, John Browne, and Morgan Kydwelly as his executors. When the will was probated on July 2, 1496, Dawbeny and Kydwelly were appointed the executors.
The reason I requested a transcript of the will was to determine whether the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was correct in saying that Jasper failed to mention his wife, Katherine, in his will. (Katherine, for those of you don't follow this blog breathlessly, was the former Katherine Woodville, sister to Queen Elizabeth Woodville and widow of the executed Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. She married Jasper after the Battle of Bosworth.) To my delight, Katherine, who had wealth of her own thanks to her jointure from Buckingham, did indeed get a mention in Jasper's will, albeit of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety. Jasper placed the residue of his goods in the hands of his executors and asked that "my Lady my wife and all other persons have such dues as shall be thought to them appertaining by right law and conscience."
It's interesting, though, to note that Katherine was not made one of husband's executors. Perhaps she was a bit of a ditz regarding business affairs, for Carol Rawcliffe, noting her son Edward's meticulous record-keeping, described her as "rather negligent over the care and custody of her muniments." In any event, Jasper was probably wise in omitting his widow from the list of executors, for just two months after Jasper's death, Katherine showed that she had other things on her mind: she married, without royal license, Richard Wingfield, a young man probably about twelve years Katherine's junior.
Friday, October 10, 2008
The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran. This is the story of Nefertari, whose aunt's story was told in Moran's first novel, Nefertiti. As the niece of the deceased and disgraced Nefertiti, Nefertari has grown up as an outcast in the royal palace, but she is determined to marry her childhood friend, the future Ramesses the Great, and win the love of the people. The royal palace, however, is rife with enemies and plotting, and the people are none too happy about Ramesses' choosing Nefertari as his bride. Adding to the plot is one Ahmoses, who is determined to enlist Nefertari's help in getting his people out of Egypt.
Like its predecessor, this was an enjoyable, fast-paced, and well written novel, with an engaging and likable heroine (who narrates the novel). Nefertari is saved from being too perfect by her self-doubts and her occasional blunder, and her having to come to terms with her family's history adds more depth to her character. It's a keeper.
The Green Salamander by Pamela Hill. This is the story of Margaret Douglas, niece to Henry VIII, who famously was cast into the Tower three times for love matters. Told in the third person, the novel follows Margaret from girlhood to old age. Though the paperback version I read has a bodice-popping cover of a beautiful Margaret being embraced by a handsome courtier, it's grossly misleading, as there's no sex and very little romance in this novel.
Unfortunately, though Margaret's life makes for an interesting story, I found that most of the characters here never really came alive for me. Margaret's first two love interests, Thomas Howard and Charles Howard, are little more than mannequins, which is especially unfortunate since Margaret suffers so much for her romances with them. Her husband Matthew Lennox (whose son with Margaret, Darnley, marries Mary, Queen of Scots) is somewhat more vivid, but since he and Margaret are often apart, he too remains somewhat shadowy. We never get to know Darnley very well either. Margaret herself, though she exhibits courage and stamina throughout the novel, never really engaged me. All in all, while it was good to see a novelist tackle Margaret's story, I think I'd like to see someone else have a go at it.
Jean Plaidy, Madame Serpent. About time I read another Plaidy, huh? This is the first book of Plaidy's trilogy about Catherine de Medici, and is not what I'd call uplifting. Catherine has a miserable childhood among her sinister relations in Italy until she is sent to France to marry the lecherous king's second son, Henry. Though Catherine longs for the affections of her second husband, he is in thrall to his beautiful, older mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
Plaidy keeps Catherine marginally sympathetic as she slowly changes from a naive girl to a ruthless woman, but this was rather a gloomy read without any characters that one could root for. This was written in 1951; since then, Leonie Frieda has written a biography of Catherine that shows her in rather a more balanced light. I understand that C. W. Gortner has a novel about her scheduled for publication next year; I'm looking forward to it.
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson. This book, about the assassination of Lincoln and the pursuit of his killer, is nonfiction, and it's one of the best books I've read this year--indeed, it's given me an urge to step outside of medieval England for my next novel. Aside from Swanson's day-by-day account of the assassination and the aftermath, it was fascinating to learn that John Wilkes Booth inspired his own survival myth--years after he was shot by federal troops, there were Booth pretenders who claimed to have survived the events of 1865. Even if you're not particularly interested in this period of history, this is a book that makes for a fascinating read.
Monday, October 06, 2008
Cassandra and Jane is a historical novel about Jane Austen and her older sister, Cassandra. Told in the first person by Cassandra, it takes the sisters from early childhood to the aftermath of Jane's death, as Cassandra seeks to protect her sister's privacy as well as her literary legacy.
Cassandra sees herself very much as being in Jane's shadow, and save for Cassandra's brief engagement, which ends tragically with the death of her fiance, this is essentially Jane's story. We see her romantic entanglements, her fraught relationship with her mother, her resentment at her economic dependence on her brothers, her sometimes touchy relationship with Cassandra, and, above all, her growth as a writer. Pitkeathley's great respect for both sisters is obvious, as is her familiarity with and love for Austen's works.
I was curious about the historical basis for one incident in the novel, where Jane and a clergyman meet and court, mostly by letter. To my disappointment, though Pitkeathley does include an author's note, she doesn't discuss that particular episode there. (In an interview, however, she notes that she based it on a reference by one of Jane Austen's relations.) This omission in the author's note didn't at all detract from my enjoyment of the novel, but as it's the sort of question a reader is likely to have after reading the novel, it's a pity it wasn't addressed. This aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and recommend it to both Austen fans and Austen novices alike.
My second Regency read was a book of nonfiction, Charlotte and Leopold: The True Story of the Original People's Princess, which tells the story of Charlotte and her marriage to Prince Leopold, which was soon tragically followed by Charlotte's death from complications of childbirth.
Charlotte was the daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV and Princess Caroline, as ill-assorted a royal couple as one could possibly hope for. In medieval times, one of the spouses would have probably found a way to get rid of the other; as it was, the warring spouses fought out their differences through their subordinates, the press, Parliament, and through poor Charlotte. When not being used to score points by one parent or the other (neither of whom is depicted here as having very many redeeming qualities), she was pretty much forgotten. Nonetheless, she did not grow up to be a neurotic wreck or a libertine, but a lively, spirited young woman with a warm heart and sound morals. She and her somewhat stodgy husband loved each other dearly, and her untimely death marred his personality for life, though he had the satisfaction of seeing his beloved niece Victoria come to the throne.
Chambers's short biography is eminently readable and full of interesting details. I was particularly relieved to hear of the happy fate of Charlotte's parrot, who was neglected by Leopold after her death but who found a happy future with Leopold's equally neglected mistress. Incidentally, Charlotte (like her father, who cannot be faulted for a lack of taste) was an early fan of Jane Austen's novels. Referring to Sense and Sensibility, which at the time was published anonymously, she said, "I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like."