A Celtic Litany to Christ

On this Good Friday, I share with you a litany that comes to us from the Irish monks of the tenth century, but could have been used much earlier. A litany is often used during a procession, or it could be a prayer in which the participants (the monks, for example) would chant the lines back and forth.

This particular one is much longer, but I have given you enough to get the flavour of it (after “believers” on the second last line, there are thirty-two more!). These short little lines are all various ways to describe Christ, and are worth slow contemplation on this very somber day.

May God bless you as you contemplate the mystery of the crucifixion and celebrate the resurrection with joy!

He lives!

Featured image is a detail from one of the surviving high crosses from the monastery at Monasterboice, likely erected sometime between 900-923 AD. Image from bluffton.edu.


 

Have mercy on us, O God the Almighty,

Jesus Christ Son of the Living God. 

O son twice-born,

O sole-begotten of the Father. 

O First-born of the Virgin Mary. 

O Son of David. 

O Son of Abraham. 

O Beginner of all things. 

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This is one of the earliest surviving images of the crucifixion in Ireland. Dating from the 8th century, it is made of hammered and engraved bronze and was likely made to adorn a book, a cross, or a shrine. The two figures at the top are angels, the two flanking Christ at the bottom are the two Roman soldiers, one who offered him wine and the other who speared his side after he was dead. From Irish Archeology.

O Fulfilment of the world. 

O Word of God.

O Path to the heavenly realms. 

O Life of all things. 

O eternal Truth. 

O Image, O Likeness, O Model of God the Father. 

O Hand of God. 

O Arm of God. 

O Power of God. 

O Right-Hand of God. 

O true Knowledge.

O true Light of love, who enlightens all darkness. 

O guiding Light. 

O Sun of truth. 

O Morning Star. 

O Brightness of the divinity. 

O Radiance of eternal brightness. 

O Fountain of eternal life. 

O Intelligence of mystic life. 

O Mediator of God and humanity. 

O Promised One of the Church. 

O Loyal Shepherd of the flock. 

O Hope of believers…

…O eternal judge, have mercy on us. 

 

Casting a Pod, or, Podcasts

One of the great blessings of living in this internet age is easy access to information. Even though it is easy to get lost in an internet jungle filled with trolls and bots, if you tread carefully you can find some pretty great treasures on your travels.

There is all sorts of wonderful information out there that you can access with just a click of a mouse. And for writers, in particular, there are great tools, websites, and podcasts that can be a great deal of help.

Podcasts can be very useful for writers. Over the last few years I have come across some that I have found to be very valuable as I seek to learn and grow as a writer.

In no particular order, they are:

  1. Writing Excuses. The tagline of this podcast is Fifteen Minutes Long, Because You’re in a Hurry, and We’re Not That Smart. But don’t let the title fool you. This Hugo Award-winning podcast is hosted by bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler, and they are pretty “smart” writers, indeed. This year they have added some others to the core crew, namely Wesley Chu, Piper J. Drake, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. Each week four of the cast is  on the show, talking about all the various aspects of the writing craft. It isn’t always just fifteen minutes, they sometimes go over by five or ten minutes, but trust me, you won’t mind. This podcast is an excellent place to Writing-2BExcuses-2B-2BCoverlearn from experts about writing, whether it be writing great characters, pacing, world building or endings. Writing Excuses was created in 2008, and the first five years had seasons of only 25-30 episodes each, so the “seasons” overlapped the calendar years. Starting in 2012 the seasons mirrored the calendar year, with 52 episodes per year. In Season 10 they did a Master Class of writing, where they took you through every part of writing a book/story, from ideas to ending and everything in between. I am slowly making my way through this season and finding it excellent. The authors are pretty much all fantasy/sci-fi writers (Howard Tayler writes/draws the online comic Schlock Mercenary) but everything they cover on their podcast is relevant to any genre of writing. Each week they also give you writing prompts on the topic they are covering. This podcast is excellent for beginning writers and professionals alike, and I highly recommend it.

2.  Novel Marketing. This podcast, hosted by author James L. Rubart and Thomas Umstattd, Jr, CEO of AuthorMedia, is all about marketing your novel. There is lots of advice out there for how to market yourself as a non-fiction writer, but as a fiction writer things getUnknown a little trickier. How do you sell yourself when you haven’t been published yet?  A blog is recommended for authors, but what do you write about? How do you attract
readers to your website/blog? The hosts are sympathetic to the struggles authors face in trying to get their work “seen” by the right people. This podcast is especially relevant to self-published authors, but even those who have contracts with publishing companies will find something useful here, I’m sure. Each episode is around thirty minutes long, so it’s not a big time committment. If you are wondering how to market yourself and your book, this is a great place to start.

3. Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast. As you can tell, I am trying to learn about marketing myself and my books before I actually have a book to sell (hah). This podcast is hosted by writers Lindsey Buroker, Joseph Lazlo, Jeffery M. Poole, and Laura Kirwan. Each episode they interview authors about how they market their books, and in the process you get lots of tips and information about what works and what doesn’t. This podcast is longer, about an hour, so it’s more of a time commitment than theUnknown-1 other two. Really great information to be found here. I find it fascinating and a bit intimidating, to be honest, all of these authors are writing a lot more than I am, so at times I feel a bit inadequate, but oh well, the information they give is great and I learn a lot from them. Don’t ever think you can just publish your book to Kindle and wait for the money to roll in, there’s a lot of books being published every single day, and you need a strategy for marketing your work or it will sink faster than you can imagine. This podcast is a great place to figure out what to do when it comes to marketing, and they occasionally will cover other aspects of writing as well, such as the how-tos like plotting, characters, and the like. It’s aimed at sci-fi/fantasy writers (hence the title) but any fiction writer can learn from this podcast.

There are so many other podcasts out there for writers – those are the ones I listen to fairly regularly but if you do a search for “writing podcasts” you will see there are a whole lot more. If I had more time I would listen to more of them! 

And here’s a couple “extras” that are not writing-related per se but I find very informative! 

4. The British History Podcast. This is a chronological telling of the history of Britain, starting at the Ice Ages. Not dry history, but focussed on the lives of the people who lived through the various time periods covered. The host is Jamie Jeffers, and he doeUnknown-2s a great job of making history come alive. They recommend that you start at the beginning and work your way through it, but you don’t have to. I started at the Dark Ages section (no surprise there) and didn’t feel like I had to listen to all the stuff before it for it to make sense. If you are writing about any period of British history up to Alfred the Great (that’s as far as he’s got so far) this is an excellent resource. Enjoyable for anyone who is interested in history, whether you are a writer or not.

5. What Should I Read Next? You may have noticed that my reading series this year comes from  Modern Mrs. Darcy. I found out about it through this podcast hosted by Anne Bogel, Modern Mrs. Darcy herself.  Each episode Anne hosts various guests, from authors to bookstore owners to other podcast hosts, and has a chat with theUnknown-3m about books and reading. Specifically she asks each guest to tell her three books they love, one they hate, and what they are currently reading. Out of that list (and the conversation she has with them about the books) she recommends books for the guest to read next. This podcast is a great deal of fun, and you come away from it with all sorts of ideas on what you might want to read next, too. On the website she highlights weekly deals on Kindle, often featuring some of the books she has talked about on the podcast, so needless to say my Kindle is filling up with great books to read. Really enjoy this podcast. It has helped me to discover some new books and authors I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

There are so many good podcasts out there, on any topic you can imagine. If you have never dipped into the podcast universe, give it a try. You’ll be glad you did, come the next road trip you take! 

What’s for Dinner, Ecgfrida?

As a historical fiction author, getting all the little details right about the era you are writing about can make you break out in a cold sweat. Unless, of course, you happen to be an expert in that era of history and can write all about it with ease. Most of us, however, rely on research to get the details needed to support the story we are trying to tell and make the era come alive.

Little details,  like what the people of the time wore, and, more importantly, what they ate. Why is food so important to a writer? Well, if you think about it, we humans spend quite a lot of time acquiring food, preparing food, and eating food, don’t we? Perhaps “acquiring” doesn’t take so long in our modern era, but in the Dark Ages they didn’t exactly have supermarkets to run to when they ran out of milk.

It’s not to say that your story has to have endless lists of what people are eating, but when you do have your characters sitting down for a meal, you had better know what’s on the menu, right? I suppose you could  avoid writing about eating at all. But doing so takes away from the writer an important setting in which people talk to one another. Having your characters sit down at a meal is a handy way to have them interact.

So, figuring out what they would be eating is important. It gets complicated, though.  First of all, forget the food for a moment. My books are set in Anglo-Saxon 7th century Britain. What about the plates? Utensils? They wouldn’t be dining on fine china and using the family silver, right?

There’s not a whole raft of information out there about the Dark Ages in general and the 7th century in particular, although there is more than you might think. However, little details like this are even more difficult to determine, just because we don’t have a lot of first-hand written information about the customs of the people, especially those of the everyday people.

But for a quick answer, no, more than likely people would not use plates, at least not china ones, but bowls or wooden (or bread) trenchers. Pottery dishes were used, and even glass ones, but those would have been for the upper class, only. Horns from cattle and oxen were also made into drinking vessels, decorated with bands of silver or brass. Utensils would consists of  spoons and knives, but no forks. Those came much later.

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Amazingly, this 7th century glass beaker was found intact (!) by a bulldozer operator in 1977, in Cambridgeshire. Note the narrow, rounded bottom. It was not meant to be set on the table, but held in the hand until the drink was finished. Bottoms up! Image from BBC History of the World.

So, back to the menu. What were the Anglo-Saxons eating, anyway?

Much less meat than we do, for a start, and a whole lot more grains, legumes, vegetables, and fish. Fruits, such as grapes, apples, and pears, were fairly common in Britain at the time, along with various nuts such as hazelnuts and walnuts.

There was game to eat, certainly, such as hares (rabbits were imported by the Romans but didn’t get established in the wild until the twelfth century), deer, and the Saxon’s favourite, boars. Poaching (and the related land laws) was not as big a deal at this era as it would become later, so ordinary people could hunt for game. But hunting was not exactly easy, and it required specialized tools (bows, spears, or even falcons), and it came with a certain amount of danger as well as uncertainty.

In other words, if you didn’t have the time or means to hunt, you couldn’t rely on it for a steady source of meat. One alternative, which was much more popular (at least according to archeological digs, where they can see what kind of bones are left behind) was fish and seafood.

This makes sense, seeing as Britain is a relatively small island, with access to both the sea and lakes and rivers. And people made use of the bounty they found there. Fish, oysters, mussels, even porpoises show up in Anglo-Saxon garbage heaps. And don’t forget the lowly eel, which seems to have been very popular as a dish.

Other sources of protein were eggs, and milk. Milk was probably not drank much past childhood, but it certainly was made into cheese and butter. Cows as well as sheep and goats would be a source of milk. Also a source of meat, although it seems, from what archeologists can determine, that pigs were the domesticated animal most often eaten by the regular person. Which makes sense, I suppose. The other animals are useful for other things besides their meat, but what else can you do with a pig? Plus, although all of the domesticated animals then would have been smaller than today’s varieties, pigs can provide a fair amount of meat.

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In 2012, archeologists found the skeleton of a woman who had been buried with a cow in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, dating from the late 5th century. This is extremely unusual, only 31 animals have ever been found buried in England, all horses buried with men as part of their grave-goods.  A cow is a high-value item due to it’s meat, to bury it with the woman shows the respect others had for her. She also had jewelry and other objects indicating high status. Photo (and interesting article, click on link to read) from BBC.com

Cultivated grains and legumes were of course a large part of the menu. Barley was the most common cereal grain to be grown, but wheat started to make an inroad at this time, and other grains such as rye and oats were also eaten. Bread, using barley, and in the later years, wheat, was baked on hearth-stones, and would have been small, and round. It could be unleavened, or made with wild yeast (captured from the air) or even made using the sourdough method, by which you keep a continual source of fermenting dough on hand.

After the cereal grains, the most important part of the diet would have been pulses such as beans and peas. In fact, it seems likely that each household probably had a pot of briw  simmering over the fire all the time. This was a sort of pottage or stew in which broth, cereal grains, peas or beans, and whatever else was handy was thrown together. If you were lucky the day’s briw might even contain some meat.

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A typical Anglo-Saxon briw. Image (and pottage, with anachronistically orange carrots) by Abigail Young on PictureBritain

The leek was the vegetable of choice for the Anglo-Saxons, which was a catch-all word that covered not only what we think of leeks but also garlic and onion. They also grew cabbage, beets, turnips, and carrots (which were white, not orange). Potatoes were not introduced into Britain until much later, 1586 to be exact). Herbs were grown, too, although it seems that many of the herbs we would use for flavouring they used for medicinal purposes, and not for food.

People did drink water, if they could find a spring or other sources of fresh water. But just like us, they would prefer some kind of flavoured drink such as beer, ale, or cider over plain water. Ale (a type of beer made without hops) was a popular drink, but don’t think that everyone was drunk all the time because they drank a lot of alcohol. The alcohol content in their everyday ale would have been quite low, although I am sure that for special feasts they would make stronger drinks. Wine and mead (a type of honeyed beer) were mainly for the upper class.

Honey was used for a sweetener. Sugar, although being produced in Africa at the time, did not generally make it to Britain’s shores. There is some evidence of sweet treats being made for desserts but these were not on the menu regularly.

On the whole the Anglo-Saxons had a fairly healthy diet, especially in comparison to our own, with its over-indulgences in meat and sugar. Their main problem would have been getting enough to survive and on top of that, giving some to the king as food-rent for the privilege of being his subject (basically…although the king was supposed to provide things like roads and bridges and the upkeep of such, as well keep a secure and prosperous kingdom, etc).  But if the harvest was good and your animals free of disease (or attack by wolves) and the winter not too harsh and the kingdom (and therefore your holding) not in upheaval due to wars or raids, you had a good chance of sitting down to a fairly good meal every day.

Smoked eel, anyone?


Featured image by Mandy Barrow, from PrimaryHomeworkHelp

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: The Unputdownable Book

I am working my way through my 2017 Reading Challenge , albeit slightly chaotically, and this month I decided to read a book that is said to be unputdownable.

I am trying, as much as I can, to choose books that are generally speculative fiction for the challenge. I do read any genre, pretty much, but my aim is to keep this blog focussed on Dark Ages history (relates to my work-in-progress historical fantasy book), a little bit about my own personal writing journey, some short stories, and book reviews or author interviews. I don’t want to widen the scope of the blog too far, if I can help it.

Over at the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog she has some suggestions for the books on the list, and this science fiction thriller was one of them. Perfect!

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This is NOT a book I would pick up because of the cover (see my first post in this Reading Challenge) but once you read the book the cover makes sense, stylistically.

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, was published in 2016, and is about a college physics professor, Jason Dessen, who is abducted and knocked unconscious. When he wakes, he finds himself in a place that is similar to, but significantly different from, the world he knows.

He quickly realizes that the people who greet him enthusiastically think that he is a scientist who has invented a machine that would allow him to explore other, parallel Earths, and they think he is the first person to come back to them after making such a journey. In this new world, the happy family life he has come from has evaporated. Here, he is unmarried; a driven, brilliant researcher who has is doing ground-breaking work in physics.

But that is not his life….or is it? Is the world he thought he knew not his life, and this one the true one? Who was the person who abducted him, and why? And how can he get back to the one life he wants above all others?

Oh, yes, this was unputdownable – which means that I would give myself a half hour longer here and there to keep going, because I had to find out what was going on. That’s as close to binge-reading as I can get these days. But it was a great deal of fun. It’s been awhile since I got quite so caught up in compulsive page-turning.

The physics behind the invention are a little over my head, to be honest, but Crouch does a good job of giving you just enough information to help you grasp the concept, but not so much you get lost in the weeds. For books like these, I want just enough tech-talk to know that such a thing might be possible in theory, and then I don’t worry about the hows. I do have a lot of admiration for authors who write science fiction, though, especially this type of “real world” science fiction. They have to know how it works to make it believable. I think Crouch succeeded in that task in this book.

brace-yourself-physics

“…physics ARE coming…”? Hmm…Nope. Awkward.

The great thing about this book is that it is not just a science fiction thriller. There is some  thought-provoking philosophy in the story as well. Just before he gets knocked out, his abductor asks Jason, “Are you happy with your life?” This  question is the foundation of the book in many ways, and it is one that we ponder about our own lives as we see Jason’s attempts to get back to the life he wants.

The book also forces you to look at the consequences of the choices we make every day: to date that person or not, to take that job or not, to give up that opportunity for career advancement at the cost of your family life, or not. In the book Jason gets to visit several different versions of himself and the life he could have had, and it makes us wonder about what those “other” lives would be like in our case, as well.

Technically speaking, from a writing point of view, for the most part I had no issues with Crouch’s writing. He certainly knows how to keep you turning the pages! The only thing that began to wear on me after awhile was use of lots of short, choppy sentences.

For example, here’s a scene from the beginning of the book, just after Jason wakes up after being abducted and is getting debriefed about his experience.

“Let’s try a different approach,” Amanda says. “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up in the hangar?” 

“I was at a bar.” 

“What were you doing there?” 

“Seeing an old friend.”

“And where was this bar?” she asks. 

“Logan Square.” 

“Okay, can you describe…?”

Her voice drops off into silence. 

I see the El. 

It’s dark.

Too quiet.

Too quiet for Chicago.

Someone is coming. 

Someone who wants to hurt me.

My heart begins to race. 

My hands sweat.

I set the glass down on the table.

“Jason, Leighton is telling me your vitals are becoming elevated.” 

Her voice is back but still an ocean away.

Is this a trick? 

Am I being messed with?

The whole book is not like this, but there is quite a lot of it, and I did find it a bit tiresome in places. But this type of short sentence structure is one trick an author can use to keep a reader barreling through a story, and is particularly effective in this kind of thriller.

A well-crafted story, with high page-turnability, and which leaves you something to think about once you have finished. I give Dark Matter five stars.


Previous posts in this series: 

A Book I Read Because I Liked the Cover

A Book I’ve Been Dying to Read

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday Short: Dust

Texas Panhandle, 1933

“Dust is comin’, mister, ain’t you heard?”

The man at the desk squinted at me, as if judging my sanity. He had every right to, seeing as I had come to this flea-bit town specifically for the dust storm, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. Or that what was coming with the dust was my particular interest.

I just slapped my money on the desk and shrugged. “Lookin’ for work. I’ve been shoveling up dust two counties over, when they was hit. Heard the wind was blowin’ this way, thought I’d try my luck.”

He scooped up the coin with a snort. “Your funeral.”

I felt that tickle on the back of my neck I get when something isn’t right. This whole town gave me that feeling, from the minute I arrived.

“Not today,” I said. Not if I can help it.

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The town folk were rankled up, too. Their eyes were tight, tempers short. All of them looking over their shoulder, checking the sky. I knew the cause even if they didn’t: a Dustman was coming, looking to scour this place clean.

The afternoon stretched out long and slow. Midday the wind kicked up, coming from the east. People rushed home, dragging screeching children behind them. I watched them from my perch at the soda fountain counter, a fierce anger seizing me at the thought of all these turned to dust, play things for the ghoul.

A creature I’d seen, that used the storm as a handy vehicle to ride in on. A cloak, if you will.

Not every dust storm had one. In fact, I hadn’t quite figured if there were more than one, but I had my suspicions. All I knew for certain is what I’d seen a month ago, when I’d been caught in the storm that had billowed over Coalvale like a coarse pillow. When it was done the town was empty of none but dust and a few people who spoke of the strange man they had seen through the gritty veil of the storm. I’d seen him too, and what I saw brought me screaming awake more than once.

People in the Panhandle were spooked, and for good reason. Two towns mysteriously emptied after a dust storm hit them, and no explanation seemed to fit.

Three nights ago I had a dream that woke me to a steely purpose, one that brought me to this town, where the wind would soon bring the dust.

Some folks said the storms were God’s judgment. I weren’t too sure about that, but the Dustman was something else entirely, I reckoned. My dream had showed me a way to stop him. Maybe the nightmares would stop, too.

#

An hour later I was squinting at the sky, standing just outside of town, the wind gusting in my face. The air smelt hot and burnt. Far away, a dog barked once. On the horizon a black cloud was boiling towards the town, and I braced myself.

Lord, have mercy.

The dust hit then, all scour and grit, and I put up my handkerchief, my eyes burning.

I felt him first, felt the cold snaking through the air, cutting through the dust and heat like a knife. He whirled into shape in the midst of the storm, the dust spinning around him as the edges of his silhouette grew sharper, and then he was stepping towards me in that murky, dusty light, a slight smirk on his face.

He looked like an ordinary man, if you didn’t look close enough to see the pitiless scorn in his eyes, or the way he faded under the light. Most people never got the chance to notice, I suppose. One touch of his long, spindly fingers and they dissolved to dust right there and then.

It’s what I saw in Coalvale, the memory that haunted my dreams.

The wind died down a notch, but the dust still swirled, blocking out the sun, casting the day into gloom.

“That’s far enough,” I said. My heart hammered in my chest. My dream-directed plan seemed a flimsy one, now, made of mere vapours and hope.

He stopped, cocked his head, nostrils twitching like he was trying to scent me.

“You ain’t welcome here,” I said, gathering my courage. “Or anywhere, for that matter. I’m here to tell you your days are at an end.”

He looked me over, and I had to work not to flinch.

“From dust you came, and to dust you will return,” he said, his voice a dry, gritty whisper as he stepped towards me, his hand lifting.

My gut clenched. I had to let him get close enough.

He took one more step and I twisted around, bending over and grabbing the bucket I had brought, water sloshing over the side as I did so.

I caught a quick glimpse of his eyes widening and the smirk changing to a screech that whistled around my ears as I heaved and flung that bucket of water right at him.

This was the moment I saw in my dream; the water hitting him full force and him melting like an ice cube on a hot day in July, the edges of him collapsing inwards, mud spattering my face as I dropped the bucket.

I wiped my face, and bent down, coughing on the dust as I examined the mud pooling at my feet. Just ordinary dirt, far as I could tell.

I straightened up, spitting out grit, wondering for a moment at the strange turns of the world. From dust I came, sure enough. But no cause to go back just yet, thank you God.

I tightened the handkerchief around my face and turned back to the town, hugging myself against the wind that blew in a wild sandpaper scrape against me.

Just another drifter, looking for work.


This story is one of a series of original short stories. I hope to get more of these up on the blog, if y’all like them!

You can find the others here:

A Delicious Irony

Red

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

Featured image: Dust bowl, from the USDA, on Flickr

What’s In a Word?

Near the beginning of my writing journey I was in a second-hand store, and as I always do, was looking at the piles of books. I checked out the non-fiction section, looking for “how-to” books on writing, and I came across what has turned out to be one of my favourite and most-used writing tool.

I present to you, with small fanfare, the big red book of deliciousness:

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The Synonym Finder was first published in 1961, this book is the 1978 revised edition. It was written by J.I. Rodale, who was a publisher, editor, and playwright. He actually is more well known for his early advocacy of sustainable agriculture and organic farming in the U.S. rather than his writing, however. His publishing empire, Rodale, Inc., published many magazines including Prevention magazine and is still putting out that magazine, and many others, today.

His other claim to fame, if you want to call it that, was that he died at the age of 72 of a heart-attack while participating as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show. Understandably, the show was never aired.

I’m not sure what prompted Rodale to write The Synonym Finder, but I am very glad he did. The book contains over one million synonyms, organized dictionary style in alphabetical order. This type of book is known as a thesaurus, and it is an invaluable tool for any writer.

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Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Now I do realize that it is easy to find synonyms online. Or so you’d think. On a whim, I just looked up hosanna in the Mirriam-Webster Thesaurus online. That word doesn’t exist in their database. I had to retype “hosanna synonym” into Google to finally find some alternate words.

On the other hand, a quick flip to the “h’s” in my trusty book and I find:

hosanna, n. shout of praise, hallelujah, allelujah; hurrah, huzzah, cheer, whoop; song of praise, paean, laud, laudation, glorification, exaltation. 

This entry also highlights one of the reasons I love this book so much. You will note that the list of synonyms are divided by comma and semi-colons. That is because Rodale has given us three sets of synonyms for the word, divided by semi-colons, depending on the context of the sentence the writer wishes to use it in.So the first set, praise, hallelujah, allelujah;  has slightly different connotation than the second, hurrah, huzzah, cheer, whoop.  And the final set, song of praise, paean, laud, laudation, glorification, exaltation has meanings similar to the first set, but, again, slightly different all the same.

You don’t tend to get that level of subtlety in an online thesaurus. English is a tricky language, and just how tricky it is can be seen by even a cursory look into The Synonym Finder. Take the word flush, for example. You will see it is a noun, with synonyms such as blush, flooding, thrill, vigour, fever, flow, or excite. However, it is also an adjective, with synonyms such as smooth, adjacent, well-to-do or abundant. Rodale lists many more synonyms than I have given here, I use these just as examples.

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Hmmm…..according to The Synonym Finder, nope. The closest entry is synonymous, which lists words such as equivalent, parallel, similar, and corresponding.

This book is a treasure-trove of words. When I am stuck on a certain word, or have used one word too many times in a descriptive passage, or just need some inspiration, The Synonym Finder never disappoints.  I am very grateful J.I. Rodale collected these million-plus words. It must have been a massive undertaking!

I’m also appreciative, thankful, obliged, indebted, and filled with gratitude.

The Trouble with Tropes

If you are a writer worth your salt, one of the cardinal rules you must follow is to make sure you follow the submission guidelines of the publications in which you hope to be published.

Mainly these are fairly prosaic: guidelines about line spacing, font preferred, word count, type of file to send, etc.

But often I will see other recommendations, not so much about the nuts and bolts but more about the meat and bones of the story. These are equally as important to pay attention to, if you want to give your work any kind of chance at all.

Often these will mention avoiding tropes. Tropes, according to Wikipedia, are “commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative work.”

Every genre has its own tropes. Think of the hardboiled detective in mystery novels, or the swashbuckling hero in romances. Fantasy is no exception. There are many of these tropes, but just to give you an idea, here is some of the advice given to hopeful writers from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly:

Witty banter usually isn’t.

Stories that start in an inn are usually out.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious individual who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire).

Double ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious man who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire) who then turns on the very adventurers he/she/it hired only to be thwarted by the one dwarf in the party.  In fact, toss us a dwarf curveball.  So far we’ve never seen a story with a dwarf character where that character doesn’t kick ass from beginning to end.

We are not all that interested in stories with vampires.  We feel much the same re: zombies.

Neither are we terribly keen on pirates; just remove that word and your odds go up.

There’s more, but you get the drift. (Let us all spare a moment of sympathy for editors everywhere, who have to sort through piles of drivel in order to strike gold, and who,in most cases, are doing this just for the sheer love of stories, with not a coin exchanged in compensation.)

A few of the fantasy tropes are listed here, such as the inn as meeting place, the overuse of sorcerers/vampires/zombies, the hard-as-nails dwarf. Once you start thinking about it,  if you have read any fantasy at all, you will be able to come up with quite a few more. How about:

The orphan whose mysterious past vaults him into the role of hero, sometimes (often) reluctantly. Chosen One, anyone?

The peaceful, nature loving, mysterious elves; the grumpy dwarves; the terrifying orcs/monsters; the wise wizard/mentor. 

The quest for the sacred sword/jewel/manuscript/whatever. 

The evil Empire. 

Fake-medieval Europe/England setting. 

Weird names with apostrophes. Tal’c or Ryl’d or Sh’one or whatever. (I first encountered this in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, and there, the Dragonriders were given a new name that was a shorter form of their original name, as a form of honorific that denoted they had become Dragonriders. Fair enough. But I see this so often now, and often for no reason except that it looks exotic.)

One evil twin, one good twin, separated at birth. 

The school for youngsters where they learn how to use magic.

Villain is hero’s father. 

I could go on, and likely you could think of many more.

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The scantily clad, ferocious warrior-chick is a fantasy trope I’m more than happy to say good-bye to!

It’s a bit terrifying as a writer, to be honest. How do you avoid all these clichés? They are so ingrained in our collective well of story-telling that often you find yourself using them, even though you are trying to be original.

The good news is, you don’t have to, at least, not entirely. It is true that it is easy to fall into the trope-trap, and if your story has too many of these, it is likely not going to be published. However, there are plenty of excellent stories and books being published today in which you can find more than one of these tropes and yet they still feel fresh, exciting, and original.

Pieter_van_Os_Horsemen_and_travellers_outside_an_inn

“An elf, a wizard, and a giant walked into an inn…” (Horsemen and Travellers Outside an Inn, by Pieter van Os, on Wikicommons. )

Take The Name of the Wind, by Pathrick Rothfuss, for example. That book is full of standard fantasy tropes including the orphaned hero, the school for magic-learning, the vaguely medieval setting. And it even starts in an inn!  But Rothfuss takes these tropes and, through the power of strong storytelling and beautiful prose, creates a compelling and original book.

Of course, George Lucas famously studied Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and used it as the basis of his Star Wars movie. Which of course became a cultural force to be reckoned with (pun intended!).

So tropes aren’t necessarily bad. Including them in a story isn’t necessarily lazy storytelling. In fact, in some cases such as The Name of the Wind, or Star Wars, readers and movie-goers have rewarded the storytellers who use them in their works.

Why? Perhaps it’s because there is something about the hero’s journey (embodied in many of the tropes) that speaks to us on a deep and subconscious level, something that resonates with the story of the backwater nobody who becomes the hero, the forgotten prince who arrives on the scene to rescue his people, the group of friends who band together and conquer the evil in their world.

The great Christian writer and philosopher, C.S. Lewis,  would explain this resonance by saying that there are deeper truths hinted at by the hero’s journey. In other words, we long to be rescued, and stories allows us to vicariously fulfill that longing, which is why they are told over and over again and continue to be popular. Lewis would say that the  story of the prince who came to rescue his enslaved people is the true story which is the foundation of all the hero stories, and it is the story that is told over and over again in the Bible, culminating in the final telling of the story of the life of Jesus.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. Half the battle is being aware of them, and the other half is using them sparingly and wisely.

So let your wizard wander into an inn. Carefully.

 

Featured image: The Wizard, by Sean McGrath, on Wikicommons