Monday, July 16, 2018

Dark Ages

We moderns often think we know it all, that the past was benighted, and we have progressed so far.

The truth is that history is not about forward progress at all. It is about the swings from enlightened eras to dark ages and back. In ways, that is discouraging. In ways, it offers hope. If you think what is happening today is bad, or even good, wait a bit and it will change—much like the weather in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the swing from light to dark is often insidious, almost invisible, until the family next door is taken away in the middle of the night, you see armed guards with dogs at a railway station, or your child is murdered for pointing a finger at someone holding a gun. The return to enlightenment, however, all too often seems to require a catastrophe of such magnitude that there is no doubt that the dark path was the wrong one. Germany of today has come a long way from Hitler, but the cause was the Holocaust, a slaughter so horrible that words remain inadequate. The US finally abolished slavery after the fracture of the Union and approximately 620,000 war deaths, not counting the mutilations and psychological damage.

I wish we learned better from history. Demagogues and dictators frequently do not fare well. Mussolini was hanged upside down like a piece of meat after being shot. Joseph McCarthy died at age 48 from the effects of alcoholism. Yet aspiring demagogues and dictators never seem to learn. They keep popping up. The only thing we can hope is that we see through their paper-thin promises and ploys and cast them aside before they take us to the brink of destruction.

So was the distant past the Dark Ages compared to us? Sometimes, other times not. We certainly know more about science than the medievals did. Yet we lost the recipe for concrete for centuries and still don’t really know how the builders of Stonehenge could be so precise or get those rocks in place. When we walk city streets today, the poor areas are little better (other than better sewage disposal) than in past eras while the folks of greater means get the garage hauled faster and more efficiently. And the best medical advice from medieval doctors sounds all too similar today: everything in moderation and get more exercise.

Of course, we have made improvements, but we should be very cautious about assuming the past doesn’t hold valuable secrets that have been lost. What we arrogantly assume were dark ages compared to modern times might surprise us. Most of all, perhaps, we should never forget the greatest lesson history has to teach us: dark ages will follow brighter ones, just as brighter times will eventually overcome the shadows.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Arthur, the Cat

           I often say that I can’t write real people so anyone, who might have offended me in the last seventy years, should feel perfectly safe. Authorial vengeance is not my style.
            For every rule, however, there is an exception. Arthur, Prioress Eleanor’s cat, is based on a couple of real, adored felines who used to rule in this household.
           Contrary to common assumptions, medievals did have pets. Aelred of Rievaulx warned anchoresses that, although pets were not appropriate to their stern vocation, a cat was acceptable. He was probably being practical, but I also suspect he had his own soft spot for the creatures. A delightful book, Medieval Pets by Meikle-Walker, details the extent to which favored animals were spoiled, adored, and, yes, virtually worshipped. Of course, dogs hunted, and cats were the ultimate mouse/ rat deterrents, but people have always had a weakness for animals. As much as I am not a reptile fan, I do wonder if Eve rather fancied snakes…
           In most literature, primary source or fictional, women who headed religious houses tended to fancy little dogs. Although I like dogs, I decided that my prioress wasn’t a lap dog sort. She has a stern element to her. She insists on a strict Benedictine diet with no red meat and runs her priory with a rational but firm rule.
So why a pet at all? Leadership is a lonely thing, and my prioress isn’t heartless. Besides, red tabbies are irresistible. Tell me: I have had two of them. She also needed someone to talk to when she mused, someone who wouldn’t argue or distract her from the decisions she had to make. In short, someone who would simply cuddle up in a warm ball and purr encouragement.
Nonetheless, Arthur is no spoiled fellow. Oh, he gets treats enough and has a bit of old wool he sleeps on, which rests on Prioress Eleanor’s narrow bed, but he has a job. Every morning, he leaves his residence, heads to the kitchen, and rids the place of rodents. His other function, although it might be one that wouldn’t immediately come to mind, is to provide the priory with generations of equally fine hunters. Cats were not neutered in medieval times, although stallions and bulls were, so, in this house vowed to celibacy, Arthur is anything but… He is so active in this responsibility that it is hard not to trip over his progeny. And medieval monastics were not prim and proper Victorians. Most would have been amused.
As you likely know, I don’t like to change history to suit some whim, but I realized a book or so ago that I had a real problem. Veterinary care in the Middle Ages was not as advanced as it is today. The lifespan of dogs and cats wasn’t long. No shots or tooth cleaning. Must I write of Arthur’s death? The thought horrified me. It was like breaking the rule that one never kills an animal in a mystery. What was I to do?

Cowardly, I punted. Now on my 15th book, Arthur is 12ish. There is no reason I cannot make him the Methuselah of cats. Some must have been. People were known to live long lives even for modern times. But one of these days, I will be forced to make a decision. To be honest, I’m not sure I can write that awful scene and break Prioress Eleanor’s heart… 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Virtual Vs Real Life

The topic of virtual vs. real life in historical mysteries is fun. Let’s start with the question often asked: do I change the facts of history? There are many answers, some of which are:

1.      Adding fictional characters is changing history;
2.      No matter how I may try to “think” 13th century, I was still born in the mid-20th  and cannot successfully escape this fact entirely;
3.      When it comes to human nature, there is nothing new under the sun;
4.      The survival of primary sources is accidental.     

That may suggest I play fast and loose with history. I do not. Why write historical fiction if the emphasis is on fiction? This is where I get to my definition of real vs. virtual reality.  

I don’t want to change dates and events because they must have an impact on my characters to give a sense of the era. That is the real life in my books. That I write about fictional characters is part of the virtual reality of the stories.

As for the way my characters behave or think, Answer # 3 is significant. This is not the 21th century speaking. Ecclesiastes, my favorite grump, said the same thing almost 3000 years ago. And so I let people do things many might think modern because there were medieval people who did or thought some surprising things. What I won’t ignore is that they will express themselves and rationalize their actions within the logic of their time just as people always have and always will. Neither we nor they invented hate, compassion, willful ignorance, analytical curiosity, acceptance of diversity or rejection of same. Each era may mix elements like these differently, but they are all to be found anywhere in human history. To me, this is as real as the date William the Bastard conquered England. How I portray it in books with my characters is the virtual part.

Documentation from older eras often lacks variety of opinion which leads reasonable people to say that it is proof certain attitudes could not have existed. In reply, I offer this observation. As a child I was told that “everyone did that (or thought that way) then”, when referring to the opinions like: African-Americans were inferior; it was reasonable to send Americans of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during WW II; a woman must marry because she was incapable of protecting or adequately providing for herself. Even if many did have these points of view, we still live in a time when there is ample proof that many did not. But wars happen, natural catastrophes occur, evidence crumbles into dust. (See Answer #4) In some future time, many will again say: “there is no proof that people thought that way then.” Which viewpoint survives as predominant is up to chance.

So with care and a respectful bow to the preponderance of documentation, I choose to have my fictional characters exhibiting age-old human behavior. This may be virtual reality, but it has elements of the real as well. In showing the variance of opinion and experience in any era, we learn that history has more dimension and relevance to our problems today. It also gives less comfort to those who want justification for bigotry.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Writing Gay Characters

A gay character is, in western fiction, inevitably the “other”, the minority, and often the “outcast”.

Including this kind of character in mysteries is good because “the other” sees what the mainstream does not. Even in general fiction, “the other” provides insights and perspective that majority culture characters cannot because they are trained to see what they are expected to see. It requires “the other” to see the discrepancies.

Creating the gay character requires understanding the dominant culture in any era because the majority always defines society’s rules, expectations and practices.

As the outcast or minority, the gay character must learn to hide within those rules and practices to both survive and flourish. When they do not, they are viewed as criminals, either morally or legally. When they do, they become invisible or at least deceptively “untainted”.

When my character, Brother Thomas, told me he was a gay man in the 13th century, I knew I had a lot of research to do if I was not going to make him into the usual limp-wristed modern stereotype. In some respects, I had it easy.

Medieval England was a male-dominant, warrior culture. As such, male bonding was a useful practice, as the ancient Spartans (just one example) found out in battle. Medieval men hugged, kissed, and wept with abandon. They had rituals where unrelated men formed bonds of brotherhood. All this allowed men to show affection, emotion, and build long-term, committed relationships. In battle, a man fought harder with his “brother” by his side, and, if the pair was well-liked and good warriors, any sexual relationship was simply ignored. As has always been true, we see what we want to see in the way we find it most useful to see.

The danger was that these practical habits could lead to homosexual sex. Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th century prior, dealt with this by allowing open affection amongst his monks with clear rules. One example was that elderly monks, impotent though they might be, could not sleep in the same bed. But until the 14th century, when sodomy became equated with heresy, the Church often viewed same gender sex as a forgivable sin. The greater sin was being the “passive” male because he was behaving like a woman and in opposition to his god-given gender. The lesser male sinner was the “active” partner. Same logic, and Ruth Karras has written some excellent books on the subject.

With this environment in mind, I have developed Brother Thomas as a man who can fit within his culture as long as he hides within common and acceptable practices. He suffers due to the tragedy of his past, but, as he grows, he learns how to survive positively and eventually I think he may well find some solace.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Technology in Stories

Did I really opt to talk about that? Was I crazy? Moi?

Well, part of my DNA is mechanically inclined. The Dutch part. If you have the chutzpah to push the North Sea back for a little extra farmland, you better be technologically astute lest you wake up some night, six feet under water. Maybe the spirit of my one great-grandfather, who was a stone mason, will help me with this subject? Nah, all that does is explain my fondness for rocks—especially those that sit, one on top of another and form something architectural.

OK. Let’s try this again.

I write about the medieval period, and, contrary to a few opinions, there really was technology. That trebuchet was pretty impressive. Having watched some TV program where moderns tried to recreate one and badly botched their shattering of a stone wall, I concluded that successful use of the weapon required more knowledge of math and science than most of us have. (For me, that would be near-zilch.) And, if you have watched any of the House of Windsor marriages, you saw some great views of Westminster Abbey. Now that place required some impressive technology. Yes, a medieval cathedral or two is sinking due to bad site positioning, but few of us can quarrel with the skill required in building gothic churches, many of which were capable of surviving longer than innumerable modern structures.

For those of us who write historicals, we often run up against the modern reader assumption that all the complex stuff was done by us while our distant ancestors were pretty much mud and wattle types. That allows writers the fun of putting a few technological surprises in our stories. Remember the pyramids or Stonehenge? We may have some theories about how those structures were built, but, for all our great knowledge, we are still terribly clueless. And one of my favorite stories is that of Filippo Brunelleschi who built the cathedral in Florence during the 15th century with no concrete and only three construction deaths in sixteen years. The recipe for making concrete, by the way, was lost after the fall of Rome for several centuries. How much more have we lost or forgotten in technology that might improve on what we have? Now that is a perspective just dying for a good story!

So have I included lots of fascinating technology in my mysteries?

Now is the time to quietly slink off and do some research…

Monday, May 7, 2018

Discarded Ideas

Think about your own work. How many times have you begun a book with A Great Idea, a plot filled with Great Characters, Wonderful Setting…and several months later, the only thing you have left is the title (maybe) and a couple of characters.

For the most part, I’ve been very lucky. Most of my titles have stuck as well as the basic premise of the books. From there, however, the finished product has always varied in several degrees from the original concept.

My favorite example was the plot for Forsaken Soul. This book was originally meant to be the introduction of Sir Hugh, Prioress Eleanor’s eldest brother, who had just returned from crusade with King Edward. In that same book, I also wanted to bring back Juliana, the somewhat crazy (or maybe too sane) friend of Prioress Eleanor, who begged entrance to the priory as an anchoress in Tyrant of the Mind.

Have you ever been at a gathering where there were two people of such strong personalities that conflict was bound to happen? Same thing can be the case with characters in a book. Hugh and Juliana warred with each other to the point that the book became less a story about (spoiler deletion) than about their dislike for each other. One had to go, along with his or her subplot. At the same time I was struggling with this, I also experienced six weeks of sciatica. That gave birth to a character and her back-story which hadn’t been part of the original plot at all. By the time I finished tossing Hugh, placating Juliana, giving depth to this new person, adding a new killer with a new motive, and reworking the first half of the story, I had a very different book.

None of this is a bad thing. In fact, if you aren’t under some hellacious deadline, it can be fun. Over time I have learned to listen to my characters. In Tyrant of the Mind, I could not get the story going until I put Brother Thomas in the first chapter instead of Prioress Eleanor, a change he was demanding. In Forsaken Soul I had to choose between characters (rest assured that Hugh got his book later) and let another one in.

While listening to what your characters are telling you, don’t discard your original ideas. Record them. Muses don’t toss ideas at us without at least expecting them to become mental compost. An idea, character, setting, or phrase can be helpful later. With Sir Hugh, I was able to expand on his character in A Killing Season because I had kept notes on him and mulled them over for a couple of years.  And don’t think discarding ideas, rewriting most of the book, or even changing the focus are indications of failure. Part of craft is experimentation and learning what works. That is also what helps us keep our creativity fresh.

Monday, April 23, 2018


What would we do without libraries?

I admit that I shunned them for decades, after being shooed out of the adult history section when I had escaped the children’s books in my quest for something interesting to read. But even I do not hold a grudge until death do us part. Not only have I returned to the fold, I’ve fallen in love with the institution.

Why?  Libraries are full of readers!

I have been troubled for a bit, not just by the closing of bookstores, but by the reduced number of events and the trend toward charging fees to hear the writer talk. This might be fine for the known and big publisher authors, or those dealing with popular subjects, but it hurts the new or adventurous writer, the increasing number published by the smaller presses, the indie published, and those who go to e-reader format alone. As much as I sympathize with the plight of brick and mortars, I fear this approach only adds to the ominously increasing, homogeneous nature of the literature we are offered to read.  

So what is the “unconventional writer” supposed to do, besides leap into the Internet world? There are still readers out there who are eager for new ideas, want stunning craft and unusual subjects, or long for eras outside the popular ones. I know because I’m one of them.

The library is an excellent place to meet just those people. As writers, we need to take advantage of this free advertising, and, lest we forget, libraries also buy books.

Many libraries have book clubs and would love to have the author join them for discussion. Arrange some form of event at the local branch. Sometimes you can sell your books after a talk. If nothing else, you can donate a copy. If there is enough reader interest in your first, the library will often buy the next. The more reader enthusiasm, the more copies of the book the library will buy. That first “freebie” gift or talk can pay off. If a single author event doesn’t interest your local branch, go with a group. If the library doesn’t have a “mystery week/month”, ask how to organize one and offer speakers. Many organizations, like Sisters In Crime or Romance Writers of America, have speaker bureaus. Join and tell them you are eager to visit libraries. On rare occasions, you may get a small check for your efforts but just remember that this is advertising and you get face time with readers.

In this brave new world of cyber-space and shrinking access to traditional methods of catching the reader’s eye, it’s wonderful that one of our oldest democratic institutions, the public library, remains a harbor for exciting ideas and new fans.