In a vein similar to “Why I am an English major”

First off, you may not be hearing much from me for another week. This weekend is crazy with concerts and trips to the Cities and that sort of thing, and my grandfather coming to visit.

Someone may be wondering, or will read Wind Age someday and then wonder, why I chose early seventh-century England. Next to nobody writes anything set there. The Conversion Era of Britain gets a paragraph, if you’re really lucky, in a history book.

People writing things set in, say, Tudor England have people’s wills, diaries, christening/wedding/funeral records, sometimes tombs or statues, to go on. We have lots of art that realistically depicts what people were wearing. We have lots of poetry reflecting social ideas of the day. There’s no end of things to go on as far as research. Seventh-century England? We have very little art, very few remains in graves, not a whole lot written down. Chronicles (written by those monks, again, I told you they were handy), which, although they are good at telling us who reigned where for how long over whom, aren’t very good at giving us details like what they ate for dinner, which can be important for getting across a realistic feel in a story. We call them the Dark Ages because we don’t know a whole lot about them. Knowing your time and place practically inside-out is essential for a writer trying to do anything with historical fiction. So how can you reconcile these two? Is your book doomed from the start?

Well, I hope not. I have done a bit of research, looking at re-enactors’ groups and blogs and such — re-enactors tend to have high standards for historical accuracy, and if they’re nice enough to share their work, you can learn a lot from them. I’ve also drawn on Norse mythology, which is similar to the Germanic lore the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought to Britain from the Continent. Occasionally Norse fashions influence the clothes (the Vikings had not yet started raiding, but at this point were explorers and traders). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (translated) is probably one of the best primary sources. We’re not entirely in the dark.

As for why I chose this period — well, I didn’t. In the car one evening on the way home from school, when I saw the Wild Hunt in the clouds (I have told you how I got the idea for Wind Age, haven’t I?), I knew that it was in England during the time it was — slowly — converting. At the time I didn’t even know what century that was, but made a wild guess that it was 9th century. I’ve learned a lot in the last year. The story would lose its essence if it were put in any other period or any other place.

Writers, has it ever happened to you that you didn’t choose a character, or setting, or era, but it just was that way even though you knew diddly-squat about it beforehand and certainly wouldn’t have chosen it had you been able to do the choosing? I’m curious.

Posted in Historical fiction, Research, Wind Age | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Wind Age and music

Music actually had a great deal to do with my time writing Wind Age. I collected enough pieces of music, each for a certain part of the story, that I arranged them in a playlist — a private one, though, as some of the music that I listened to for the purposes of setting a certain mood is not the kind of music I would recommend.

When I completed the story, and after I let it sit for about a month, I printed it out and took a highlighter to it. The first time I read through the story I could tell, for any given scene, what I’d been listening to while writing it — not intentionally calling up words or tune, but they were there in my mind all the same. Sometimes words here and there echoed the words of the songs, when the music I was listening to had words. By the fourth and fifth round, I lost that, though if I ask myself what music I was listening to I can still answer, but the story no longer owes quite so much to the music. Now I see it as a complete whole within itself, with parts relating to each other more than to the music that inspired, or evoked the mood for, or influenced details of, individual scenes.

Unfortunately I had a great shortage of period music to listen to. In other parts of England, in the seventh century, you get Gregorian chant, which is lovely and some of it sets a good monastic mood. However, Irish missionaries, being cut off from Rome for so long, wouldn’t have it — it was a pretty new thing at the time — so they brought hymns from Ireland. St Columba (the tune) may date from then, though we’re not sure. St Patrick’s Breastplate is certainly something they would have brought with them. As a matter of fact I listened to it while writing a certain very important part, and some lines from it are themes in a certain other part. But besides the Lorica the playlist is more than half Heather Dale  — that’s where most of the stuff I wouldn’t recommend comes from, though in all fairness quite a bit of her work isn’t half bad, especially her SCA songs — and the rest is almost all classical or church music, things like Albinoni’s Beatitudes or Bach.

One day around noon we were listening to the radio, the classical station by this time because the news was over, and a piece came on that was perfect for the end of Wind Age. I went and found the name and remembered it. The final scene, for which I had vague ideas in mind, had to be as good as I could get it, and a satisfying kind of ending, one that fits the story. I didn’t know the details of that yet, but when the music was on I’d started to see it. When the time came to write the ending, I looked it up, and it didn’t fail me. And no, I’m not putting a link here, not yet — my betas haven’t finished the story.

Within the story itself, music doesn’t have quite as much of a part, considering how little music we know of — doubtless they had quite a lot, but we’ve lost the vast majority. I mention people singing hymns where appropriate, but in most cases I can’t go into a lot of detail with them, except the scene where the Lorica is mentioned.

Note on “music I listen to but don’t recommend”: Sometimes I run across a song that works well for writing a part of a story involving either bad things happening, or bad people doing. . . things. What bad people do. The music helps me get into their minds. So it’s useful, but I also don’t listen to it when other people are around to notice that she’s listening to that. Not that even Mordred’s Lullaby is the worst thing I’ve ever had to hear, but that doesn’t mean that listening to it without good reason is something I want to do. I figure I’m writing about a fairly dark time, that it involves paganism, and presenting the dark as it truly is, is worth that. Thoughts?

Posted in Wind Age | Tagged , | 12 Comments

For once it wasn’t knights who saved the world.

You know those chapters that you always come back to in a book even when you’ve read the whole thing so often you’re tired of most of it? The next chapter of Wind Age is one of those. At least, I come back to it over and over again(I hope it’s the same way for my readers), and in fact it distracted me and I forgot that I have to write a blog post and have it up before I leave today, which is earlier than usual. But something in it did give me a ready idea of what to write about, which is good.

The general public, as a rule, does not know much about the Middle Ages. Oh, that’s when everybody followed the Church blindly and peasants all wore dirt-coloured sacks, right? And nobody lived very long either. But when it comes to the Dark Ages, our education has left out even more. The common idea is that everyone was a barbarian and they all lived like dogs. This, of course, is false.

I’ve come across a few misunderstandings so far with my beta-readers, who fortunately know better than to assume that all girls get married off at twelve and things like that. I’ve been deep enough in research for the past year that I tend to forget what’s common knowledge and what isn’t. I assumed the resemblance of “hlafdige” to “lady” was obvious enough I didn’t have to note that the words mean pretty much the same thing — until one reader, inferring from the context that “hlafdige” means “seeress”, mentioned it. Oops.

The early seventh century is still technically in the Dark Ages, which are called that (here’s another common misconception) not because they were dark in the sense that the light of civilization had gone out and everyone was unwashed and talked in grunts, but because we have no writing from the time to tell us what was going on. Therefore the events of them are hidden to us because we can’t shine any kind of historical light on them. The Christian missionaries who came from Rome or Ireland to England and Europe, beginning at the very end of the sixth century, were literate. They kept chronicles of the histories of the places they settled in. They also taught people about rotating crops. They kept bees and made honey easier to get. (Honey is not only good inside you, but outside, on wounds. Also it can be used in ink.)

Starting in the eighth century, Norsemen started going a-Viking with a vengeance, and one of the worst things they did was to attack monasteries. Not only is it rather low to attack peaceful men who a) haven’t hurt you, and b) can’t very well defend themselves, once they took the gold and valuable things, the Vikings burned the monasteries — including, of course, the records the monks were keeping. So we have lost many of their works and can only guess at what we’re missing. It’s almost as bad as the burning of the Alexandrian library.

People may ignorantly talk about the Church holding the world back from progress, of being stingy and harsh and the opiate of the masses (thank you, Karl Marx, for nothing), of being a burden and a drag on civilization, but in reality, when the rest of the world had lost so much learning and decency, it was the Church that preserved and revived it. Next time someone tells you that Christianity was in some way responsible for the length of the Dark Ages, gently remind him about the literate nuns of Barking, or inform him that monasteries were also schools for the young.

What about you, good readers? What myths about the medieval era most bother you, and what are your best arguments against them?

Posted in History, Wind Age | Tagged , | 7 Comments

A wonder on the wave: water became bone.

Since I have time, today being still Spring Break, you get an extra post this week. It is somewhat related to Wind Age things.

Before you ask, yes, I have had a good Spring Break. It was nice not having to go anywhere, and nice not having deadlines, and very nice not having to think about what strangers think of me. I got a lot of work done on Wind Age, and I think not having a deadline for it helped me be more motivated — perhaps because I’m not writing to order.

The news is: I have an empty distaff!

I’ve been doing a lot of spinning this week, being home and all, and this morning around ten o’clock I took the last bits of fluff off the distaff. I now have a full spindle and an empty distaff, and I think there ought to be an Anglo-Saxon-style riddle in that somewhere.

When I give to my wife

the greater she grows

fashioning a fine thing

while I wane.

Name me my name.

Or something like that. The only problem is that the words for distaff are feminine nouns, so the double meaning (the picture of a man providing for his wife who’s with child) doesn’t work.

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Here’s the lovely couple. Lorh is made of buckthorn found growing in our grove. The darker branch was dead already when we cut her, which is why it’s more brown than the rest. The bit of bark still on the end I left there because when we cut it to fit me (Olivia did most of the cutting, which is why I’m saying “we”) I ended up wanting her a little longer than I thought she’d be when I peeled the bark. I may eventually peel the rest, or I may not. Spinel is not period, with a large flat whorl glued to the shaft for a long, slow spin. I learned from Lois Swales’ videos that medieval spinners valued short, quick spins and so used smaller, rounder whorls, sometimes intentionally making the spindle wobble to get faster. It helps when you’re making really thin yarn.  Someday  I should like to make a more accurate spindle myself.

This picture isn’t very good quality, being taken in a hurry last night before we left for Book Discussion at church. I am here spinning in something like a position found in medieval art. Granted, not in my own period. But then we don’t have very much from mine, and I figure spinning in a style 300 years too late is better than one 650 years later than that.

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Yes, that is my pocketknife you see. And yes, we’re about to walk out the door and I’m barefoot. Bare feet are period.

In case any of you followed the link to 15th Century Spinning and are now wondering what kind I’m doing, it’s suspended. Only in this picture I’ve just gotten started, so my hands aren’t as far apart as they tend to be.

I found out that although I am usually left-handed, I spin right-handed. I’m not sure why. Period art shows women spinning both ways.

I can do a longer thread at one time if I’m standing to spin, but there I need a belt to tuck the distaff in, and I never wear belts except when I’m in garb, so I often forget to grab one. In period I’d probably have been spinning while standing and walking more than when sitting.

What think you, reader? Do you like this kind of post? Or would you rather hear about the domestic dispute that led, indirectly or otherwise, to the Synod of Whitby? Or is that equally boring?

The title is an Anglo-Saxon riddle. Can you guess the answer? Googling it is cheating. 

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Introductions and Salutations

My work today is mainly on writing an introduction to Wind Age, giving historical context and such things so as to avoid infodumping in the story itself. Part of that means I’m reviewing a lot of sources I haven’t looked at in a while, just to make sure that the things I’ve been taking for granted all through this story are true.

I’ve gotten lots of questions from my beta-readers about what such-and-such means, or why I included this, or whether that is what they think it is, and isn’t this event historically unlikely, and what about Dark Ages stereotypes? It can be a little overwhelming.

The Introduction, along with a dictionary, is my attempt to solve that problem. But it brought a new problem with it: shall I add a Bibliography as well? Oh dear.

Today, while trying to document an Anglo-Saxon deity equivalent to Balder (Wikipedia says there is one, but has no sources; an equally (un)reliable source said his cult developed in the 12th century, in Iceland), I discovered a journal from Cambridge University Press, called simply Anglo-Saxon England, which is about everything from the time and place that you can think of — and all academic articles, too. Unfortunately the articles don’t seem to be available for free.

A lot of the time when I’m researching something, if it’s nothing our libraries are likely to have much on (such as “at what age was a girl considered a woman in pagan England”), and if I’ve tried Jstor (a database of journal articles and books, where sometimes you have to pay to read and sometimes you don’t), I’ll try searching Google using the most specific words I can. It’s always better to use “pre-Christian” instead of “pagan” when searching, I’ve found.

I was surprised at how easily I found a good source on how much land is in a ‘hide’ in an unlikely place. (Though I should add that although it credits the Encyclopedia Britannica, I have no way of knowing whether it was excerpted with permission.)

For most questions, such as the difference between thegns, cnechts, and eorls, re-enactment groups often have good resources. A re-enactor’s blog can be a good source, too, and it’s usually easy to tell, by looking at how many years of experience they have, what kinds of sources they used, and how much detail they put into their work and their writing about it, how reliable they are. Re-enactors also often encourage people to experiment on their own.

SCAdians tend to have helpful blogs, though I haven’t found very many who do Conversion-Era or Late Anglo-Saxon — most of the ones who play Anglo-Saxon are from the 5th and 6th centuries, and most of them are also Kentish. But occasionally I’ll find something. Often for garb I end up borrowing from Norse styles, which is a long story and merits a post of its own if anyone’s interested. For an example of how difficult it can be to come up with anything definite, here’s two articles on veils: Norse, from which I borrow some ideas, and a pretty thorough article (for English) that also draws from Continental sources. That gives some idea of how hard it can be, even where we do have evidence, to figure out just what it’s evidence for. (I could do an entire post on my SCA garb for veils alone.)

So how goes the Introduction? So far it’s surprisingly easy. I move more easily through the nice distinctions between the Irish and Roman churches than I can between a lot of the political parties in America in the last century. Hopefully whoever reads it finds it interesting and helpful.

Posted in Research, Wind Age, work in progress, Writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

In the words of Fripsky von Chiggatron, “Do tell!”

I started Wind Age a year ago this month, as near as I can figure. Since it’s being beta-read right now, it’s on my mind a lot even apart from the anniversary, so my posts this month are going to be, with perhaps the usual digressions on the deplorable state of art in this century, mostly about this story.

First, I have a confession to make. I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction, and next to nothing set in this period. Writers are told to read extensively in their genre, to get to know how it’s done and what sells and what readers of that genre like that makes them read it and not something else. I haven’t done that, mainly because I want to avoid writing genre fiction. I’d rather not be influenced by the popular things or the tropes that show up so often. I have heard of people like Rosemary Sutcliff but not read their books (though it sounds like I should because hers are good literature on their own). So I’m not very familiar with what most readers of historical fiction like or think.

This could be a problem. A couple of my beta-readers, who as of this writing now have the fourth chapter, have said my opening is slow. They’ve been quick to say they don’t find it a big problem, though other people might. And I, with my lack of experience with historical fiction, have to stop and think.

Is a slow opening normal in this genre? Does showing the normal pace and details of life in such-and-such a period work for readers who are looking for something set in the past? (It seems safe to assume that they are, since they’re knowingly and willingly reading historical fiction.) And so on.

A good explanation for the slow plot in the beginning might be that I was going to start the story in what is now the middle, and then I found I was having to cram a lot of backstory in, then that the backstory was worth giving a proper place in the story, being quite unusual and hard to summarize without leaving out all kinds of important parts to it. So I moved the beginning back about a decade or a little more.

Another explanation could be that since, when I started it, I didn’t know where it was going to end up, and so I was sort of wandering around putting in everything that might prove later to be important. It is true that I didn’t know how the ending was going to be until I was about three-quarters of the way through. But in writing the story I was far from aimless. Alfhild knew where it was going and went there.

Still, neither of these answers for why the beginning is slow do a whole lot to help tighten it up.

Readers, do tell! What is your favourite work of historical fiction? (Do you know of any good ones set in seventh-century England?) How do slow beginnings make you feel? (Now this is for posterity, so please be honest.)

Quote is one of Oskar’s, from the Wingfeather Saga.

Posted in Historical fiction, Wind Age | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Apropos of nothing, as Professor Greenberg says

We have spiders in our house.

Normally when we discover arachnid tenants, they die in gruesome ways. My father has a strong dislike of spiders, and often when he finds one, if there’s not a vacuum handy to suck it up with, he’ll call someone else to kill it. I tend to be fonder of creepy-crawlies, but if I see one of those miserly spiders that’s all brown legs, or one of those fat black Shelob-like ones (how those do crunch when you squish them), or a wolf spider, I kill them without qualms.

But in our first house, little jumping spiders used to live on my windowsill in the summer, and they were very friendly — they’d wave their front legs, or come up onto my hand when I said hi, and never bite. They never got very big, either. We moved to the country and found that the jumping spiders get a lot bigger here. They also tend to be a lot more shy.

A couple of weeks ago my father was going to open the drapes in the morning, when he felt quite certain that there was a Jertain in the curtain. A rather large jumping spider was sitting on it, looking at him. He left the curtain closed.

Putting the spider out wasn’t much of a solution, because there’s a hole in the door that is quite big enough for him to come back in. So the mature specimen of Phidippus Audax (audax being scientific Latin for bold) has lived in the area of the sunroom since then, catching flies and eating them and dropping the empty ones on the floor.

I wanted to call him the Jertain, because after all he does live in the curtain, but Olivia was equally certain that he is Oskar, Appreciator of the Strange, Neat, and/or Yummy. (If it comes to that, we don’t know with certainty that he’s a he at all. We’ll find out if he builds a nest in the spring.)

A day or two ago, some other member of my family made a discovery. A smaller jumpy had made his home on our octagonal window by the stairs (a favourite place for bugs). He turned out not to be quite as bold as Oskar, though perhaps that will change as he gets used to us.

The question came up of what to name him? Oskar’s name is pretty much settled, which is a pity, because Thing One and Thing Two would fit the pair well. In the end we went with Minus, which is the word used for Thing Two in the Latin translation of The Cat in the Hat.

How long can two spiders, however fuzzy and friendly and even helpful, in their own small way, coexist with four humans, one of whom is bent on efficiency and cleanliness, and another of whom is a bit afraid of them? We’ll find out.

I like Oskar and Minus myself. Does that make me a villain?

Posted in Ordinary life | 2 Comments