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.

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“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

 

 

 

 

Hild of Whitby

There a few women whose stories are known from the Early Middle Ages – although, perhaps more than you think are mentioned in the scant sources of information that we have from this era. Most of those are Queens, but some are not. Hild of Whitby is one such woman, whose remarkable life ensured her story would remain to come down to us today.

Hild (sometimes called Hilda) was born to a Deiran noble family in 614 A.D.. Her father was the nephew of King Edwin, but Hild never knew him, for when she was an infant he was poisoned while they were in exile at the court of the  King of Elmet, now West Yorkshire. Edwin eventually avenged her father’s death by killing the King and annexing his territory, which I assume was not the result the Elmet King had in mind when he committed this murder.

Hild and her older sister (and mother, presumably) became part of the royal household, and was baptized along with the rest of the court when Edwin, influenced by his new wife Aethelburh of Kent, converted to Christianity in 627 A.D.

The curtain closes on Hild until 647 A.D., when she was 33. It’s likely she would have been married, as she was an eligible princess and thus useful for Edwin in making strategic alliances with his various neighbours and/or enemies. We don’t know. What we do know is that in 647 A.D. Hild is single, and heads to East Anglia to join her widowed older sister Hereswith who has become a nun in France (technically Gaul).

She spent a year in East Anglia preparing for the convent, but she never made it there. Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne asks her, instead, to come back to Northumbria. One assumes that Aidan knew her, or at least knew of her reputation of piety and intelligence. After another year, in which Bede says she “lived a monastic life, with few companions”, presumably being trained in the monastic life, Aidan appoints her as Abbess of Hereteu monastery.

Hereteu (now called Hartlepool, further south along the coast from Lindisfarne) had been founded by Heiu, the first Northumbrian woman to become a nun. But Heiu leaves soon after and Aidan fills the vacancy with Hild.

As Bede says,

Hilda, the handmaid of Christ, being set over that monastery, began immediately to order it in all things under a rule of life, according as she had been instructed by learned men; for Bishop Aidan, and others of the religious that knew her, frequently visited her and loved her heartily, and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and love of the service of God.

In other words, she was a smart cookie. After a few years, King Oswy gifted her some land, possibly as part of a vow he made in connection with his victory over Penda,  a little further south from Hartlepool. There Hild established a monastery in 657  A.D.. At the time it was called Streaneshalch, but now is known as Whitby.* Hild was now technically Abbess of both monasteries, but she lived at Streaneshalch.

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A detail from the monument of St. Hilda at Whitby. Note the five bishops peering over her shoulders! Also, she is not standing on waves, but snakes. According to legend she turned snakes into stone, and fossilized ammonites found on the shore at Whitby were proof of this. Image from Wikipedia.

Now if you know anything at all about monasteries, you should be thinking, “Wait. How can a woman become the head over a monastery?”

Ah. Good question! I have mentioned before that there were some differences between the Celtic “brand” of Christianity and that which was brought to the Island with Augustine in 597 AD from Rome when Pope Gregory sent him on a mission to convert the Angles. However, there were some of the native British (Celts) who didn’t need converting, as they had been happily practicing the faith on their own since the Romans left them to their own devices almost two hundred years before. When the Roman church finally caught up to them again, the Celtic church had developed a few inconsistencies from Rome. Not in doctrine, mainly, but in practice.

The big ones in the eyes of Rome seemed to be the tonsure and the dating of Lent, but another significant one was that it was quite common for the Celts to have double monasteries, containing both monks and nuns, living separately but with a common church in the middle at which they worshipped together.

Hartlepool was one such monastery. The fact that Hild was the Abbess over the monastery speaks both to her intelligence and her character, and it also gives us a little glimpse into the role of women in Celtic society.

The idea of double monasteries was not unknown at this time. There were some in Gaul, which was also populated by Celts, and it seems that Hild took her inspiration from both Aidan and the example of the monasteries in Gaul when she established Whitby.

The roles of  women  in Celtic societies were quite different from that of women in Greco-Romano culture. Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote of the Celts, “There is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne or the command of the armies.” The most famous example of that would be Boudicca, Queen of the Celtic tribe known as the Iceni,  who led an uprising against the Romans in Britain in 60 or 61 A.D.

In the pagan religion of the Irish Celts, women could become priests, and I suppose it is this cultural custom that allowed for women to be the head of a double monastery in the Celtic Christian church of the time.

At any rate, Hild did an exemplary job as Abbess, from all accounts. Well, at least from Bede’s account, which is pretty much everything that we know about her. He writes,

She taught [at Whitby] the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive Church, no one there was rich, and none poor, for they had all things common, and none had any private property. [By primitive Church, he is referring to the first Christians in the book of Acts. See Acts 2:42].Her prudence was so great, that not only meaner men in their need, but sometimes even kings and princes, sought and received her counsel; she obliged those who were under her direction to give so much time to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might readily be found there fit for the priesthood and the service of the altar.

One has to keep in mind that Bede, being from the Roman Christian persuasion, does generally not look too fondly on those who followed the Celtic Christian ways. In his mind, they were skirting around the edges of heresy. Therefore it is all the more remarkable when you find him praising a monk or nun (or Abbess, as in this case) who was a Celtic Christian, as he does here.**

He certainly can’t deny her influence, because in the next paragraph he tells us that under her tutelage and example, five men from Whitby became bishops, including the darling of the Roman Christians, Wilfrid, who was another fascinating figure that I will be writing about on the blog some day.

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The dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey. This is the ruins of the 13th century Benedictine Abbey that was built on the same site as Hild’s Abbey. Her monastery would have been in the Celtic style: small wooden, thatched roof buildings that housed one of two monks/nuns each, with a larger church and other buildings such as a guesthouse, school, kitchen, etc. Unfortunately the original monastery was sacked by the Viking invaders in 867 A.D. 

Running a monastery (or two!) required more than just teaching skills, in fact, the bulk of the work would probably be more administrative. She had lands and people to manage as she kept the work of the monasteries going.  The monasteries had land on which they grew crops and raised animals, in order to feed the monks (and the poor who came to them for charity) but also for the production of vellum for the manuscripts they produced.

They would also have craftsmen who would make the liturgical vessels and the ordinary implements used by the monks in their herb gardens, kitchens, and ale or mead making endeavours.

She must have had quite the reputation at the time, for many nobles and kings came to her for advice, and would have also sent their children to her monasteries for schooling under the monks and nuns.

Ultimately it was at Whitby that King Oswy decided to hold his famous meeting with all the nobles and high-ranking churchmen of the day, in which they were going to decide once and for all whether to follow the Celtic or Roman customs of the faith.

That he would hold such an important meeting there shows the respect he had for Hild. He must have valued her advice a great deal.

She also had time for the common people, it seems, though. One of the charming stories Bede relates is that of Caedmon, the first English poet. He cared for the animals at Whitby, and through miraculous means God gave him the words of the first English Christian hymn, and it was through Hild’s encouragement that he developed his gift of song and poetry. A lover of the arts, then!

I am so grateful that Hild’s story survives. It gives us a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary woman living in difficult times, who made a substantial impact on her society.


*Fun fact about Whitby: Bram Stoker was holidaying in Whitby (the town that grew up around the Abbey) when he wandered into the library and discovered a book about Vlad the Impaler, which was his inspiration for Dracula. In the book Dracula (in the form of a large dog) comes to England after a shipwreck and bounds up the 199 steps to St. Mary’s Church, situated below the Abbey (which is on the headland looking out to sea).

**Bede does not call them Celtic Christians, he refers to them as the British, as opposed to the “English”. He is not necessarily defining them on tribal grounds but on religious. It is true that it  was mainly the Celts (the native British) who followed the Celtic Christian path, although, due to the influence of the Irish monks, the Christian Anglian kings of Northumbria practiced their faith in the Celtic style too. In order for clarity I refer to them by the term Celtic Christian rather than British.

Featured image from Wikicommons. She is portrayed in this icon as holding Whitby Abbey.

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

I’m not exactly going in order through Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge. Last month I did the first one (a book I read because I liked the cover), but this month I skipped ahead, to the second-last one in the list: a book I was excited to buy or borrow but haven’t read yet. 

This was surprisingly easy, given the backlog of books by my bed and on my Kindle. I decided to read The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. I bought this book last year, when it was available as a Kindle deal – in fact I think I might have got it for free. I’ve heard lots of good things about this 2014 fantasy novel, and I was quite happy to give myself permission to read it, finally!

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Yes, this is also a book I would read because of the cover! 

 

Kelsea Gwynn is a nineteen year old princess whose mother, the former queen of the Tearling, is dead. Kelsea has been living in an isolated forest home, raised by two guardians who have kept her hidden from those who would harm her, in particular, the Red Queen of the rival kingdom of Montmesne, who is a witch who has lived longer than she should and has ruled over Montmesne for over one hundred years.  But her time of isolation is over, and the book opens with the Queen’s Guards coming to escort her to the capital, where she will be crowned as Queen.

Kelsea is not your average fairy-tale princess. She is overweight, and plain. But she has spent a lot of time reading during her time of exile, and she is smart and compassionate. Her journey to the capital is fraught with danger, for her Uncle who is Regent is not exactly thrilled to give up the throne, and the Red Queen wants her out of the way as well.

The young queen must prove herself at every turn, to her hardened guards, her advisers, and most importantly, to herself. She struggles with doing the right thing, because she is often unaware of what that might be, just like in real life. And there is much that is hidden from her, including important details about her mother, whose memory she idolizes. No one knows who her father is, and it is hinted that this is a vital piece of information, especially to the Red Queen.

There is some magic in this book, but not a lot. Kelsea has a blue stone that she wears around her neck, given to her as an infant, which is one of the ways the Guards know that she is, indeed, the princess they seek. This stone gives her prophetic dreams and superhuman strength at times, but Kelsea is unsure how it works.

Most of the book is about Kelsea settling into her role as Queen, and trying to prepare for the war with Montmesne that she knows is coming, due to the fact that her first act as Queen is to stop the shipping of slaves from Tearling to Montmesne.

I enjoyed this book, with some very large reservations:

The setting. As the book begins you assume this is a medieval-type fantasy, set in an alternate world, as the people ride horses and don’t have electricity or any modern conveniences. But soon you find out that this book is set on Earth, in the future, after some kind of disaster that prompted William Tearling to set off in a boat with a bunch of survivors, discovering this heretofore undiscovered continent. Right. In fact this premise was so obviously bad that I kept giving the author the benefit of the doubt, and pretty much convinced myself that the “ship” must have been a spaceship, and that this was a new planet. But alas, nope. Somehow with all our satellites and images of the Earth from space, we have totally missed a continent. Huh? This was more than annoying to me, and every time the Crossing was mentioned, or the fact that they used to have this or that technology, or mentions of Harry Potter (!), it totally threw me out of the story. Which is a bad thing. I just don’t understand why keeping the setting as Earth was necessary to the story, when it would have been much better set on a different world altogether.

The magic system. As I said, there is a little bit of magic in the book, but given that this is supposed to be Earth in the future, well, how? None of that is explained. Kelsea has her stones that give her some powers, and the Red Queen has done some kind of deal with the Devil (or the Dark Thing as it is called in the book) and one supposes that is why she has some magic powers, but it’s all very nebulous.

Bashing of religion. I’ve said this before, but I get tired of books that portray religion and religious people as Bad or Stupid. Here are some quotes from the book:

“(…) If you can tolerate my arguments, you’re free to minister to or convert any other occupant of this Keep, not excepting the pigs and chickens.”

***

“You make sport of my religion, Lady,” (…)

“I make sport of all things inconsistent, Father.”

***

Andalie pursed her lips (…), “I’m not a religious woman, Lady. I’m sorry if it pains you, but I believe in no god, and even less do I believe in any church.”

***

“How do you expect anyone to believe in your God in these times?”

“I believe in my God, Majesty.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

Okay, we get it.  Enough already. Obviously the author has bought into the cultural narrative that religion, and in particular, the Christian religion, is Bad. In particular, the Catholic Church, as this is the only religion that is portrayed. What happened to all the other denominations and all the other faiths isn’t explained. Another problem with setting this book on a futuristic Earth.

What audience is this for, anyway? I thought this book was  an adult fantasy, when I first started reading it.  But given that the main character is nineteen, and the story line seemed to be about her transition from child to adult, I began to think that perhaps this was meant to be a Young Adult book.   However, there are some pretty sexual themes and scenes in this book, and some strong language, mainly in the scenes with the Red Queen, who likes to have sex with her slaves to alleviate her frustration at not being able to find Kelsea, and tortures them as well when they displease her. And she uses them as a sacrifice to the Dark Thing. So a little too intense for Young Adult,  I would say. I found it a bit jarring, as the lack of strong world-building and the focus at times on Kelsea’s appearance and her unrequited attraction to the charming rogue, the Fetch, seemed pretty YA territory to me, which was interspersed with scenes featuring the  sad0-masochistic Red Queen. It seemed like Johansen was trying to write to two different audiences.

The villain. Kelsea has a bit of a set-to with her uncle, but he is quickly dealt with (and left to go high-tailing to the Red Queen, which doesn’t seem like a great idea), but aside from that, the danger comes from the Red Queen, and it’s a very far-off danger. The two don’t even meet in the book, although Kelsea has vague dreams of her (and vice-versa). We see the Red Queen’s obsession with Kelsea, but we are not sure why, other than Kelsea is Queen of a rival kingdom that under the Regent had been subjected to Montmesne. It’s all a little too unfocused and unclear for me, and even though I was interested in Kelsea’s growth as a person and as a Queen, I would have liked to have seen more about this conflict in the book.I suppose the fact that this is the first book in a series has something to do with that. Presumably the conflict between Kelsea and the Red Queen will intensify.  But we still need some conflict in this book, and I don’t see it. The Regent Uncle, although nasty, is taken off the scene early, and the Red Queen is a remote threat. And while we are on the subject of the Red Queen, this is how she is described:

No one knew who she was, or where she had come from, but she had become a powerful monarch, presiding over a long and bloody reign…

Hmm. No one knew who she was or where she had come from? Really. Presumably she had at least come off the ship with the rest, hadn’t she? And for that matter, if there was a previously undiscovered continent on Earth, were there people there, or not? Maybe the Red Queen was the only remaining person of the Lost Tribe on the Lost Continent? Which, for all the problems with that premise, is at least more interesting than the above description.

I have heard this book compared to The Hunger Games and The Game of Thrones. I’m not sure why, to tell you the truth. I didn’t particularly like The Hunger Games, but the story and the world-building was much more compelling than what I found in the  Queen of the Tearling. And while Johansen is a competent writer, she has nowhere near the skill of George R. R. Martin, never mind that the political machinations in Tearling are not nearly as compelling as those in Westeros.

So, I’m a bit conflicted about this one. It held my attention, and I liked the fact that the heroine was not your typical beautiful, svelte princess. I really wanted to love it. But the confusing setting and the lack of real conflict was a big drawback. This is the first book in the series, so perhaps it gets better in subsequent books, now that the scene is set and the characters are in place. Maybe. But I’m not sure I liked this one enough to pick up the next ones.

Emma Watson is set to play Kelsea in the upcoming movie based on the book (unattractive and frumpy she is NOT, but oh well). Maybe the movie will fix some of the obvious plot holes. We can only hope.

My rating: three stars.

Amanda McKitterick Ros – A Cautionary Tale

I am currently forging into revisions on my book, trying to follow my editor’s advice. I would be foolish not to follow it; first of all because I refuse to waste the money I paid her to give me her objective and educated opinion, and secondly, I will be the first to admit that there are lots of people who know a lot more than I do about how to make a story sing, and she is likely one of them.

So, after a month or so of gloom as I digested her advice, I am now ruthlessly doing as she suggests, which could be boiled down to “Look, you don’t have three books, you have one. How about if you take out all the scenes that aren’t necessary and see what happens?” Or, as I am sure she wanted to say but was too professional to do so, “Only one-third of your words are necessary, and instead of enhancing the story, they are bogging it down. Cut, cut, CUT!” Or, as Stephen King succinctly says, “Kill your darlings.”

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Oh, it’s hard!

It all boils down to, what is good writing, anyway? Well, one of the ways to find out what good writing is, is to take a look at what good writing isn’t.

Enter our heroine, the famous (infamous?) Amanda McKittrick Ros.

Amanda was born Anna Margaret McKittrick  in 1860 in Ireland, and became a teacher. She married Andrew Ross in 1887 and on their tenth anniversary in he financed the publicatioin of her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, which turned out to be a gift not only  to her, but to the whole world.

She wrote under the pen name Amanda McKittrick Ros, which some feel was an attempt to suggest a connection to the influential de Ros family of County Down. This gives you a little hint of her personality.

Let’s put it this way. Our Amanda was nothing if not sell-confident in herself and her writing abilities. She wrote of the “million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen”, and predicted that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years.” Which is likely true, but I think you might be getting the idea that it might not be precisely for the reason she thought it would be.

Unfortunately, only her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, is available (for free, on Kindle), unless you want to spend big bucks buying them at auction, if you can find them. She wrote two novels and a couple books of poetry.

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Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860 – 1939). 

It’s hard to explain her writing without giving you a taste of it, so here is the opening line of Irene Iddesleigh:

Sympathize with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futility; dash it against the rock  of gossip; or better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosum of buried scorn. 

Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected. Sympathy can wound the breast of trodden patience,- it hath no rival to insure the feelings we possess, save that of sorrow.

Er. Yes. You are probably starting to get the picture, no?

Ros is championed as possibly the worst writer ever. She was fond (to put it mildly) of what is called “purple prose” – the overuse of adverbs and metaphors to the point of being ludicrous. In fact The Inklings, the writer’s group in Oxford made up of writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and others, famously held competitions to see who could make it through a reading of Ros’ work the furthest without breaking into laughter.

Which would have been hard. I would love to be able to read her poems but they are not in print. But you can find excerpts from some here and there on the internet, including this opening verse to the poem, “Verses on Visiting Westminster Abbey”:

Holy Moses! 

Take a look! 

Flesh escaped in every nook!

Some rare bits of brain lie here, 

Mortal loads of beef and beer. 

Her poetry books are called Fumes of Formation and Poems of Puncture. Well it emits fumes, alright, but I’m not sure “formation” is the word I would use to describe the source of the fumes….

Lest you think I am perhaps judging her by the standards of our day, not her own, be assured that the critics of the day did not think too fondly of her works. A copy of Irene was sent to humorist Barry Pain, a contemporary of hers, who in a review  called it “a thing that happens once in a million years”. He wrote that he initially was entertained, but soon “shrank before it in tears and terror.”

Mark Twain called Irene, one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.”

I am tempted to feel sorry for Ros, a fellow writer who basically self-published her treasured words and faced the scorn of many. However, she would not accept my pity, I am sure. In her preface to her second novel, Delina Delaney, she called Pain a “clay crab of corruption,” and called others of her critics “bastard donkey-headed mites” and “evil minded snapshots of spleen.”

So, here’s what I need to learn from Amanda McKittrick Ros:

  1. A little humility goes a long way. Even if I think my writing is okay,  I have to be open to the possibility that others might not see it in quite the same rosy light. And seeing as I imagine her husband told Amanda she was the best writer ever (I mean, can you see him disagreeing with her? Me neither.), I need to remember that family and friends might not be the most objective readers in the world. Which is not to say I don’t value their feedback. I certainly do. It’s just that I need to make sure theirs is not the only feedback I get.

2. If a professional, objective editor tells me I need to cut, I had better cut. So, I going through my book and taking a scalpel (and in some cases, an ax) to it. Scenes that are dead-wood, that don’t move the story along, are gone. As are passages that repeat what I said earlier, and places where there is too much exposition and not enough action. And in general I am tightening everything up, particularly descriptive passages, where I have used too many words to describe something.

How do I do that? Well, for example, here’s a random sentence from Irene, typical of most of them (!), where Ros is describing the garden outside the mansion where Irene lives:

Within the venerable walls surrounding this erection of amazement and wonder may be seen species of trees rarely, if ever, met with; yea, within the beaded borders of this grand old mansion the eye of the privileged beholds the magnificent lake, studded on every side with stone of costliest cut and finish; the richest vineries, the most elegant ferns, the daintiest conservatories, the flowers and plants of almost every clime in abundance, the most fashionable walks, the most intricate windings that imagination could possibly conceive or genius contrive.

Now, if you were Amanda’s editor (one shudders to contemplate it, but play along), how would you suggest she rewrite that?

How about:

The mansion had a beautiful garden. 

Or, if you want a little more detail:

Crumbling walls bounded the mansion’s garden, enclosing a beautiful garden.  Walking paths wound through it, edged by ferns and delicate flowers, leading to the lake that was in the middle. 

That’s still not great, but at least it doesn’t exhaust you, as Amanda’s description does.

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It has been hard to do such drastic cutting from my book. Getting rid of two-thirds of it is not easy! And I’m not sure that I will be able to condense it all into one book, to tell you the truth. But I’m going to make the attempt, at any rate, just to see what happens.

It’s interesting. I am finding that as I cut and trim, the story is starting to sparkle, my characters have more room to breathe. Perhaps all those words were tying them down, suffocating them and the story they want to tell.

I’m doing my best to set them free, and with Amanda’s shadow looming over me, I dare not hold them back.

And if I’m tempted to think that I really don’t need to trim quite so much, I shall read the following quote from Irene Iddelsleigh, and get right back to work:

He was tempted to invest in the polluted stocks of magnified extension, and when their banks seemed swollen with rotten gear, gathered too often from the winds of wilful wrong, how the misty dust blinded his sense of sight and drove him through the field of fashion and feeble effeminacy, which he once never meant to tread, landing him on the slippery rock of smutty touch, to wander into its hidden cavities of ancient fame, there to remain a blinded son of injustice and unparalleled wrong!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragons and Wryms and Wyverns….

One of the most enduring creatures of myth, legend, and fantasy is that of the dragon, a great fire-breathing serpent with wings. At least that is how most of us from the Western tradition think of a dragon.

When you look into the history of this legend, though, you will see that stories of these creatures permeate many cultures, and although similar, they are not all the same.

The stories of dragons go back a long time. Satan is described as “a great dragon” in the Biblical book of Revelation, and dragons appear in Greek and Roman legends as well. The word “dragon” comes from the Latin, draco, which comes from the Greek word drakon.

The Hellenistic and Roman dragons are more serpentine than our familiar lizard-like dragons. They often have a poisonous bite, and may or may not have legs, or the capability to breath fire.

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This beautiful Greek dragon mosaic comes from the 3rd century A.D., and was found in southern Italy in an area where there were many Greek settlers. Photo from Wikicommons

The Anglo-Saxons and the Celts of 7th century Britain certainly had their dragon legends, told around the fire on a cold winter’s night, no doubt. A dragon appears in the marvellous poem Beowulf, and it is in fact a dragon that finally kills Beowulf himself. In the poem, a slave steals a jewelled cup from a dragon’s lair, awakening the beast, who goes on a rampage of destruction, prompting Beowulf to gather some men to go kill it.

So the king of the Geats [i.e. Beowulf]
raised his hand and struck hard
at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper
went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
billowed and spewed. (2575-2583)

There are many familiar dragon-elements in this story: the treasure, the scales, the breath of fire, and the fact the dragon lives underground, in a mound.

Beowulf is the first mention of a heroic dragon-slayer in English literature, but he is certainly not the last.* In fact, St. George, the patron saint of England, famously slew a dragon to rescue a doomed princess, given as a sacrifice to appease the creature. And this motif appeared many times in the centuries to follow. What would King Arthur’s knights have done with themselves if they hadn’t had lots of princesses to rescue from lots of dragons?

Speaking of Arthurian legend, the dragon on the Welsh flag is said to refer to the legend of Merlin where he saw a vision of a red dragon, representing Britain, fighting a white dragon, which represented the Saxon invaders.

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I happily claim Welsh heritage. This flag was a familiar one in my childhood home, as my mother was born there. Photo from Wikicommons.

Dragons were called wyrm in Saxon legends as well as draco. Wyrm means worm, and it indicates both the earth-dwelling nature and the snake-like appearance of the creature.

Around the seventeenth century another dragon-like creature appeared in legend, that of the wyvern. This is similar to a dragon but with two legs instead of four, and often are portrayed as as smaller and less intelligent than dragons, at least in more modern-day interpretations.

In all of the depictions of dragons in the European continent, they are generally viewed as evil creatures, greedy and bestial. But another important source of dragon legends comes from the Far East. Dragons there are seen as bringing good luck and prosperity. They also can be shape-shifters. They do not have wings, but can fly using magic means. They start out as water-serpents, and eventually change into dragons, with scales. This is just a brief sketch of the typical Eastern dragon – there is lots of information about them if you want to spend a fascinating afternoon searching the web!

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This is the flag of the Qing dynasty (1889-1912), showing a typical Chinese dragon. Photo from Wikicommons. 

Dragons are a staple of fantasy literature. At the beginning, dragons generally were portrayed in stories as evil, mirroring the myths they were based on. Tolkien’s Smaug was a deliberate nod to Beowulf’s dragon, and many others followed suit.

But interestingly enough, dragons have undergone a bit of an evolution in fantasy stories. I believe Anne McCaffrey started this trend in modern times, with her fantastic Dragonriders of Pern series, the first of which, Dragonflight, was published in 1968.. Her Pern dragons were intelligent, sensitive creatures who bonded telepathically with their riders, becoming their constant companions and partners for life. They used their fire-breathing capabilities to flame the deadly Thread which rained down on Pern every few years, causing massive destruction if it wasn’t destroyed before it hit the ground.

 

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This was the first Pern story I read, in the 1980s, and oh, how I love it! The concept of the dragons is fantastic, but not only that, it features a strong female protagonist, which I hadn’t seen much of in fantasy literature up to that point. 

These books are treasures, and if you haven’t read them, I highly recommend them. Naomi Novik’s popular Temeraire series, beginning with Her Majesty’s Dragon, owes a huge nod to Pern. Novik’s dragons are similar to the Pern dragons, and their riders also share a special bond with them. Novik plays on the differences between European dragons and Asian dragons in her series too, which is fun.

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The Napoleonic Wars with dragons. ‘Nuff said. Read it. 

Thankfully, stories about dragons aren’t going away soon. I often wonder if these stories, which go back so very far in human history, have some basis in reality. Some speculate they stem from snakes that spit poisonous venom, or pterodactyls that survived the dinosaur extinction, or Komodo dragons. I don’t know. These myths are so ancient, I’d like to think they are pointing back to a deeper reality than we can even imagine. Maybe, just maybe, one day we’ll find out that dragons actually existed.**

Wouldn’t that be cool?  (Or hot, I suppose.)


*If you want to see an epic clip of Beowulf fighting the dragon from the 2007 movie Beowulf, click here.

**The cautionary note to that wish is found in the 2002 movie, Reign of Fire.

Featured image by David REVOY, via Wikimedia commons.

Penda: King of Mercia

One of the joys of writing about any period of history is discovering some of the fascinating people who lived at that time, at least some of the ones whose stories have come to us through the long years that separate us. Of course, they are usually kings or high churchmen, or upper class nobles, or the like. The regular people, although no doubt fascinating in and of themselves, don’t get any ink.

I have highlighted a couple of the people who lived during the time that my books are set, that being Britain in the 7th century A.D., including Oswald, King of Bernicia, and the Venerable Bede.

Penda, the wily king of Mercia, the powerful pagan king of the Midlands who was a thorn in the side of Oswald and his brother Oswy in their rule of Northumbria, is another figure who looms large over the 7th century landscape, and he is a fascinating man. Although there is quite a lot we know about him, relative to others in that time period, there is also quite  a lot we do not know.

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Mercia was located on the south west of Deira, surrounding the river Trent.  It’s capital was Tamworth, which is located in present-day Staffordshire. The marvellous Staffordshire Hoard was found close to Tamworth – it could have come from a Mercian warlord hastily burying his treasure as he escaped from a battle. Maybe it belonged to Penda himself…?

First of all, his origins are rather murky. The name, Penda, could be of British (Welsh) origin, which might help to explain the various alliances this pagan Saxon king had with some the Christian kings of Wales. Conversely, the name might also have Germanic origins. We don’t know for certain. We do know that he was the son of Pybba, possibly one of twelve sons, but some of the names listed as sons of Pybba could have been added to his line after the fact by other kings purporting to be descended of Pybba as well.

Why would other kings do this? Well, Pybba was an Iclingas, from the House of Icel, a legendary (or perhaps semi-legendary) figure from the time when the Anglo-Saxons were first migrating to Britain after the Roman legions left.  And Icel’s lineage went right back to Woden, one of the Saxon gods. Having Woden in your lineage was an important thing for the Saxon kings. So if your own family history couldn’t be traced that far back, it would be in your advantage to claim that you were related somehow to someone who certainly could, and in that way gain legitimacy for your kingship. And after a few generations had passed, who was going to dispute the claim?

Penda, being a legitimate son of Pybba, definitely had the credentials, then, to be king, but interestingly enough there is some doubt about how and when he actually gained the throne. The king just before Penda, Cearl, is another murky figure, who might have been a dynastic rival of Penda’s, but at any rate he seems to be off the scene by 626 A.D..

You will note that I haven’t given the date for Penda’s birth. That’s because we don’t know what it was. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that he became king in 626 A.D. and ruled for thirty years, and was fifty at the time he became king. However these dates need to be taken with a grain of salt, because that would make him in his eighties when some of his children were still quite young, so that’s not really likely. Most historians prefer Bede’s dates in the Ecclesiastical History of Britainwhich states that Penda became king in 633 A.D., after he and Cadwallon of Gwynedd combined forces to defeat Edwin of Northumbria in  the Battle of Hatfield Chase.

Murky, like I said. It seems to me more likely that he was a younger man in 633 A.D. rather than an older one. Some suggest that perhaps the Chronicle meant that he was actually fifty when he died in 655 A.D., not when he gained the throne. And as for what happened between 626 and 633 in Mercia in terms of who was the ruler, well, it’s unknown. Penda could have been one of multiple rulers of Mercia, each being overlord of a small portion of it.

It is also possible that Penda was a landless noble of the royal Mercian house, a mercenary of sorts, who, with his loyal war band, managed to fight his way onto the throne, basically. There is no doubt he was a powerful king. Once crowned he managed to hold onto his throne for twenty-two years (if you agree with Bede), and that is a long time by the standards of the day.

He is also a pivotal figure in British history as he is the last pagan king of Mercia. It is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say that when he died, the pagan Saxon religion died with him, but certainly by the time of his death Christianity was well-established in the island and the writing was certainly on the wall.

Throughout his reign he did what successful Saxon kings did best: made war on his neighbours in order to expand his kingdom and have more tribute to distribute to his loyal retainers. There is a suggestion that he could have been a co-ruler with his brother Eowa for the early part of his reign, who may or may not have been a puppet of Oswald of Northumbria (the mind boggles at all the scheming and plotting that must have occupied their days).

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Replica of the beautiful reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet, done by the Royal Armouries for the British Museum. This helmet is from Wessex, not Mercia, but it is contemporary to Penda’s time and he might have worn a helmet quite like it. Photo from Wikicommons

At any rate he quickly became a force to be reckoned with, and some suggest that it was his burgeoning power that prompted Oswald to take him out, so to speak. Which didn’t turn out so well for Oswald, for Penda (and his Welsh allies) killed the powerful bretwalda (High King) at the battle of Maserfield and, adding insult to injury, cut up his body and impaled his head, arms and hands on spears.

This was certainly insulting, but it is possible that it also was a sacrificial offering to the pagan Saxon gods. Eventually one of Oswald’s arms and his head managed to get back to Bernicia, where they became powerful relics of the Church, but that is another story!

Although the Northumbrians had lost Oswald, their powerful king, they were not out of the picture by any means. Certainly the united kingdom of Northumbria broke back down into its two sub-kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, and Oswy, Oswald’s brother who gained the Bernician throne, had to start the work of trying to gain the thegns and aethelings trust and respect in order for him to reach the same heights of power his brother had achieved.

Penda would not make it easy for him, of course. The prize of overlordship of all of Mercia and Northumbria was an irresistible one for Penda and Oswy both, and these two kings tangled frequently over the next decade. There were some periods of calm, and even an alliance or two involving their children, and once Penda had Oswy on the ropes, laying siege to Bamburgh itself.

But in the end, Oswy had the upper hand, defeating and killing Penda in 655 when  Penda invaded Bernicia, even though Penda’s army was much larger than his own.

Penda was a quintessetial Saxon warrior-king, who managed to carve out a stable kingdom in the chaos of 7th century Britain. He must have had some charisma and some leadership skills, plus his skill as a warrior,  in order for him to stay on the throne that long.

And even though the uncertain details of his origins and his rule are frustrating for historians, I don’t mind it much as a novelist. It gives me freedom to spin my own story of this Dark Ages king who was a worthy adversary to Oswy, the king who features in my books.


Featured image:  Stained glass window in the cloister of Worcester Cathedral representing the death of Penda of Mercia. From Wikicommons.

2017 Reading Challenge: Cover Crush!

Here I am at the first book of my (fun) 2017 Reading Challenge, which I got from the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. I don’t suppose that the books have to be read in any certain order, but because I only had about a week and a half to read the first book of the year if I wanted to get one read in January, I didn’t have a lot of time to fuss around.

So I figured the easiest one to pick would be the first one on the list: a book I read because I liked the cover.

Now,  caveats abound on this one. First of all, I live in a small town, and I don’t have a book store to visit. And although there are a small selection of books in a few stores around town it seemed to me easiest to go to the library and pick a book from there. However, I quickly realized this was not such a great idea. I don’t know about your library, but mine is fairly small, and most of the books are lined up on the shelves, with a few scattered here and there on the tops of the bookcases or in special displays. And who’s got time to go through all the books on the shelves to look at their covers and find one I like? Not me! Although I did briefly flirt with the idea of picking the spine I liked the most….but that’s not really fair. Not a lot of books have much happening on the spine, although I will admit to being intrigued by a couple. So I limited myself to picking a book from the ones displayed in the library.

Secondly, even with the limited selection available, I got bogged down. I would find a cover I liked, but the description didn’t intrigue me. I realize that perhaps to stick with the letter of the law on this one I could have picked one of those, but with the short time I had to get it read, I just couldn’t pick a book I would have to force myself to read. So, it had to be a book with a cover I liked and that I thought I would enjoy.

Even so, this was a fun exercise. Without further ado, here is my choice for the book I read because I liked the cover:

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This one was sitting with a few others on top of the bookcase set aside for sci-fi/fantasy, and it attracted me right away. Ok, first of all because it was on top of the fantasy section, but the black and white picture with the hints of green drew the eye. The cityscape with the tunnel (?) underneath hinted at some subterranean goings-on, and I like stories about other worlds or civilizations under our own, found in the forgotten tunnels of subway systems or abandoned cellars or whatever.

The clincher for me was the man in the overcoat with a gun in one hand and what looked like a wand or stick in the other – probably a wand, due to the intriguing symbols spurting out from it.

Man in overcoat, city scape, a possible magic wand…oh, this was ringing all my Harry Dresden bells, and I love me some Harry Dresden! And when I picked up the book to look at it more closely, I saw to my delight I was right. You can see the byline on the top: “A potent mix of gangsters and magic…” (unfortunately the rest is cut off, but that’s enough to hook me).

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This is my favourite Dresden cover. Also mainly black and white. There seems to be a pattern here…

The description on the back begins:

Mick Oberon may look like just another 1930s private detective, but beneath the fedora and the overcoat, he’s got pointy ears and he’s packing a wand. Among the last in a line of aristocratic Fae, Mick turned his back on his kind and their Court a long time ago….

Oh, I was definitely in now. The Dresden similarities are many, of course, but I liked the 1930s twist and I especially liked the fact that this private eye is an exiled Fae, not a wizard. You might say I have a thing for stories featuring the Fae hiding among humanity, it’s the premise of my own novel.

Besides historical fantasy, urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres, so I took this home happy to delve into it and see if I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.

And in a word, yes!

Oberon is a PI in 1930s Chicago, and he is given the case by a mobster’s wife to find her daughter, her real daughter, that is, because it is quickly becoming evident that the girl she thought was her daughter is actually a changeling – some kind of Otherworldly creature swapped for her real daughter at birth. The changeling is 16 now and starting to, well, change, and Mrs. Ottati wants her real girl back.

So really, it’s a historicial urban fantasy. I really couldn’t go wrong, could I?

Just like in the Dresden books, in this book most humans don’t know that they are occupying Earth with various supernatural creatures, but there are some who do, including the Ottati family, whose matriarch is a foreboding witch who, as it turns out, has her own reasons for aiding Oberon in his task.

The story is a great deal of fun, as we follow Oberon through the underbelly of 1930s Chicago, mobsters and all. The case is tricky, and he ends up having to go to the Otherworld to get some help and in the process ends up owing a favour to the Unseelies, which you know will come back to haunt him someday.

The book is firmly set in 1930s Chicago, referencing real-life figures such as Al Capone. Mick uses a lot of slang from that time period, which can be a bit confusing, but I didn’t mind it, as it helped to ground the story in that time period.

Through the first part of the book I thought that I was actually reading the second book of the series, as there was obviously a lot of backstory that Oberon hints at but isn’t explained. This was driving me slightly crazy as I really, really hate not starting at the beginning of a series (or a TV show, or whatever. Ask my hubby how many times I have forced him to rewind to watch the first minute of a movie that really didn’t matter anyway, but hey. It’s how I roll.).

It got to me enough that I had to stop part way through and find out how many more books came before this one, and lo and behold this is the first of the series. The Dresden books are like this a bit, too, there’s a lot going on before the first book that is eventually filled out in subsequent novels.

And speaking of Dresden comparisons, which you can’t really help, the one thing that I didn’t like much about this character and the magic system was his wand. It makes sense that Dresden has a wand (well, ok, a staff) because he is a wizard. But Oberon is Fae. Why does he need a physical object to do his “magic” – which mainly consisted of stripping or enhancing people’s (or his own) luck in order to make events move more or less smoothly (someone might trip when they are running after him, for example)?

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This is another cover for the book, from GraphicAudio. I don’t like this one nearly as much. You can see the pointy ears under his hat, but the coat’s belt makes it look like he has a tail. The tag line “A Mick Oberon Job” is bigger than the title. The whole thing is a bit messy, in my opinion.

I like the way the Marmell toyed with the Fae mythology and included glamour, and the twisting of luck, and their connection to the nature as part of the magic system. I think he could have gone further with this, though, to make it more Fae-like and less wizard-y.

There’s a references to vampires and a policeman friend of Oberon’s seems to be a werewolf (but this is just hinted at), but other magical creatures,  except for those familiar to English folktales such as kelpies, pixies, leprachauns and the like, do not appear in this story. So I’m not really sure why they are even mentioned, although I suppose they might come in handy for future books.

One other small negative – the language is a little rough at times. Quite a lot of f-bombs, especially from one of the mobster characters. It jarred me a bit. Aside from the profanity, was that word used commonly as a swear word back then? I suspect that it possibly wasn’t, but I’m not certain on that, so I’ll hold off judgement on the historicity of it.

I give this book three stars (out of four). I don’t mind that it’s a Dresden wanna-be, but in my opinion the author could have branched out a little further from the Dresden template and done a little more with his world to make it (and his hard-boiled wise-cracking main character) stand out a bit more from Dresden’s Chicago other than move it back to the 30s as opposed to Dresden’s present-day setting.

There’s three books in the series so far. I liked this one enough to pick up the next one to see how it unfolds. A fun historical urban fantasy read, and there’s nothing wrong with that!