Columba, the Dove of Ireland and Scotland

On December 7th, 521 AD, in what is now County Donegal, in the north-west of Ireland, a baby was born into a noble family. I’m sure  great expectations were placed on him, as on his father’s side he was the great-great-grandson on Niall of the Nine Hostages, one of Ireland’s most famous High Kings from the 5th century.

The baby was either named Cille (Irish Gaelic for “dove”) at birth or adopted this name later in life. The addition of “colm” (church) likely came during his lifetime.  Either way, it is this name, Colmcille (“dove of the church”), later Anglicized into Columba, that he is known to us today. He is one of the most important ecclesiastical figures in Ireland and Scotland, responsible for the establishment of the great monastery at Iona, known then as Hii. 

I haven’t been able to find out much about his family other than his noble ancestor. Like many of his contemporaries in noble society, Columba was sent to a monastic school for education, and like many others, he stayed in the church. From all accounts he was a tall, good-looking man, with a melodious voice that carried from hilltop to hilltop when he preached.

When he was around twenty, and a deacon, he left his first school and went to study under an elderly theologian and bard, Gemman, and here Columba became a poet himself. Two poems attributed to him survive today. After that he moved on to a famous school of Clonard, headed by a monk named Finnian. To give you an idea of the popularity of these schools, it is said that at one point over three thousand students were gathered there, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Gaul and Germany.

Columba was eventually ordained a priest and for fifteen years travelled throughout Ireland, preaching and founding monasteries, the most notable being Durrow, Derry, and Kells.

Columba, like all the Irish monks, loved books and in his travels tried to obtain as many as he could for the use of his monks in the various monasteries he founded. And it was because of this that an incident happened that would profoundly change the course of his life.

His former teacher Finnian had been on pilgrimage to Rome many years previous, and had brought back with him a copy of St. Jerome’s Psalter, a forth-century Latin translation of the Scriptures. This was the first translation of the Scriptures into Latin, and it was a very precious manuscript indeed.

Columba was given permission to look at it, but surreptitiously copied it for his own use, and refused to surrender it when Finnian demanded that he do so. Finnian appealed to Columba’s relative Diarmait mac Cerbaill, the high king of Tara, and Diarmiat ruled on Finnian’s behalf.

Around this same time, insult was added to injury in Columba’s mind. A young noble, Prince Curnan of Connaught, fatally injured a rival during a hurling match (hurling is an ancient Gaelic form of football).  Curnan, a relative of Columba’s, sought sanctuary with Columba but was dragged out and killed by Diarmait’s men, which was against the laws of sanctuary.

There was probably a lot of other things going on in terms of ancient rivalries or grievances or family pressures that we don’t know about, but the result was that Columba roused his clan, the Ui Nialls, against the clans loyal to Diarmait, and war broke out, culminating in the battle of Cuil Dremme, in which over three thousand were killed.

It is interesting to note that, at this time, monks were not against strapping on a sword themselves and joining in a fight. It is very possible that Columba himself took part in this battle. After the battle, in which Columba’s clans were victorious, a church synod (meeting) was called to discuss Columba’s responsibility in the death of all those killed. After all, it was he who instigated it all.

From all accounts Columba, himself, was troubled by it all. He likely would have been excommunicated, but for another monk, Brendan, who intervened on his behalf (not Brendan the Navigator, although the two were contemporaries and friends). But after some advice from trusted elders of the church, Columba decided that in expiation for his sins he would exile himself from Ireland and win for Christ as many souls as had perished in the battle.

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What happened to that disputed copy, you ask? Well, this is a page from the Cathrach of St. Columba, which dates back to Columba’s time, and was purported to be that very copy (although that claim is disputed, now). This cathrach (battler) was an important relic of the O’Donnell clan in Ireland and was used as a rallying cry and a protector in battle. It was strapped, in a special carrier, to the chest of a designated monk/holy man, who would circle the assembled troops three times before a battle, to ensure their protection/victory. I have a feeling that Columba would not have approved of this, given the history of this manuscript and his guilt over starting a war over it.. Regardless, this is the oldest surviving manuscript in Ireland, and a very precious manuscript indeed, perhaps straight from the hand of Columba himself, or from one of his monks. Picture from Wikicommons. 

Thus it was that Columba set sail in a leather currach with twelve other monks and headed to what is now called Scotland, then the home of the British (Celtic) Dál Riatans, whose king, Conall, was a relative of Columba’s. They landed on the island of Hii, which Conall gave to Columba and his monks, and there he built the monastery that was to become the centre of Irish missionary work and learning for the next three centuries, until the Vikings sacked it and so many other of the monasteries in the 8th century.

From Hii (now called Iona) Columba had fairly easy access to the Picts in the east and the many tribes and clans in the north. He went on many missionary journeys, establishing monasteries and teaching the converts. Many miracles were attributed to him, and it is in the stories of his travels that we find the first recorded encounter with the Loch Ness monster! Loch Ness was along the route from Iona to the lands of the Picts, and during one of these journey a terrible “water beast” attacked them, and Columba banished it to the depths of the River Ness after it killed a Pict and tried to attack his disciple Lugne. It wasn’t exactly in the Loch itself, but close enough to count, perhaps!

Along with his significant influence on the church, Columba had a great deal of influence on the politics of the time. His status as a churchman (coupled with his high status in society) would have meant that the local tribes would have turned to him to help in diplomacy in the various disputes among them. He influenced the choice to the successor of King Conall of Dal Riata, and crowned Aidan (not Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne) at Iona in his role as chief ecclesiastical ruler. And, although he maintained his self-imposed exile for the rest of his life, his influence in Irish affairs was great. He attended a church synod in 575 AD at County Meath (legend says he took along a piece of sod from Iona to stand on so that he could truthfully say his feet never touched Irish soil again and so not break his vow) and it was his veto that stopped a proposal to abolish the order of bards. He also secured an exemption for women from all military service.

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Beautiful Iona today. This, of course, would not be what Columba’s Iona looked like, for his monastery would have been a collection of buildings made out of wood, with small cells for the monks. This building is a restoration of the medieval Benedictine abbey that was destroyed in the Reformation, and dates from the early 20th century. Iona is still an important centre for the Christian faith, many people still go there for pilgrimages and teaching, and there are still regular church services there. Definitely another place for my bucket list! 

Even after his death in 597 AD his influence continued, for it was St. Columba who appeared to Oswald in a dream before the crucial battle of Heavenfield in 634 AD and told him that despite his smaller army, Oswald would be successful in the upcoming battle against the usurper king, Cadwallon. Oswald described the dream to his war council and they agreed to be baptized as Christians after the battle if they were successful (Oswald himself was Christian already).  They were, and they did, and Oswald’s reign as the first Christian king of Northumbria began.

Columba’s rule for his monks (the prescribed schedule of prayers, work, and every other detail that made up life in a monastery) was based on the eastern Rule of St. Basil, and he very much led by example. He slept on a slab of rock and ate oat cakes and drank only water. His monks did not have such severe restrictions, but still, his Rule, which spread along with the monasteries that he founded, was quite austere and was the basis for monastic life for centuries until it became superseded by the easier Rule of St. Benedict which Charlemagne encouraged the Western European monks to adopt.

What we know about Columba comes mainly to us from Adomnán (624 – 704 AD), the ninth Bishop of Iona, who wrote the Vitae Columba (Life of Columba) sometime between 697-700 AD. Adomnán probably drew from an earlier work written around 640 AD by a previous Bishop of Iona. Adomnan was also a cousin of Columba’s on his father’s side, and likely grew up with stories about his famous relative and fellow churchman.

Adomnán wrote of Columba,

He had the face of an angel; he was of excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in council. He never let a single hour pass without engaging in prayer or reading or writing or some other occupation. He endured the hardships of fasting and vigils without intermission by day and night; the burden of a single one of his labors would have seemed beyond the powers of man. And, in the midst of all his toils, he appeared loving unto all, serene and holy, rejoicing in the joy of the Holy Spirit in his inmost heart.

There is likely a little “padding” in that description, but still, taking into account his accomplishments and influence, it’s probably not too far from the truth.

The day before his death at the age of 76, he was copying a Psalter and had just finished writing “They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing,” and stopped, saying, “Here I must stop; let Baithin do the rest.” Baithin was his cousin, whom he had already appointed successor to him. The next day Columba died in church, in front of the altar.

From all accounts, an amazing man, who loved God and loved people, and who left a legacy of faith and learning that continues to this day.

Revision, or, In the Trenches

Last year I read a really good essay about artists – whether they be painters, writers, musicians, whatever. I wish I could remember who wrote it, because I would give you the reference. The gist of it was that when a person starts out in her craft, she is doing it in part because she has been inspired by the creatives who came before her. And she sees those others ahead of her, and basks in the enjoyment of the marvellous art they have created.

And then she puts pen to paper, or brush to canvas, and creates garbage. Because she has not been doing the craft long enough to get the techniques and foundation down well enough to enable her to create a masterpiece. And the woe of it all is that she can see the wonderful art Da Vinci has created, and knows what she is aiming at, but she is only capable of stick figures.

The challenge becomes to keep creating art in the midst of knowing that what you are creating is awful. And your pathetic stick figures are really very poor, indeed, but try as you might, that’s all that seems to appear.

Until eventually, if you persevere long enough, your creations will finally catch up to your knowledge of what is good, and you start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

But, oh, that road is hard. I’m somewhere in the middle of it, I think.

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And it’s actually a little more tricky than that, because you don’t always think it’s garbage. At times you think it’s pretty good. But when you look at that “pretty good” stuff a couple of years down the line, a couple years in which you have been working at the craft and continuing to grow and develop as an artist, you realize that what you thought then was “pretty good” is, in reality, not so much. It is certainly better than the stuff you did a couple years before that, but not as good as what you are doing now.

You see the problem? You soon get haunted by the feeling that your current work, although perhaps acceptable and even good in your eyes, will no longer be so good when you look at it in the future.

It’s maddening, because this kind of thing tends to paralyze you. The only thing to do is to keep going and do the best you can. There are lots of writers, painters, or other artists who cringe a bit when they see their earlier work, so you have to take heart at that and continue.

It’s helpful to have objective third parties look at your work, which is why beta readers and editors are so very good for writers. But in the end you have to make the final decisions, sometimes operating more by instinct than anything else.

For example, here is a passage from my MS that I am working on right now. The first is from the original first draft. Keep in mind I wrote this over seven years ago (Ack. I know).

The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rode, and in an hour’s time they were once again closed in by trees. The path up ahead curved around a stand of poplars. Smoke curled through the trees around them – the breeze was blowing it towards them. Celyn reined in Arawn, putting up his hand, and they all pulled their horses to a halt. 

“How much further, Father?” he asked. 

“The trees thin out ahead, and then we will be upon it. It – “ he stopped abruptly. A thin moan pierced the air, brought to them on the breeze. A human voice – someone in distress. 

“God have mercy!” Eata breathed, as Celyn pulled his sword out of his sheath.

“Follow closely!” he said, and touched his heels to Arawn’s sides again. 

Eata was right. After a short gallop, they broke out of the trees, and reined their horses to a halt, surveying the scene before them. 

The holding was ablaze. 3 structures burned, snapping and crackling, throwing heat into the winter’s chill air. A fourth, larger structure stood unharmed – obviously the main dwelling for the family. There were empty pens where pigs had been, and a dead goat lying stiff-legged in a pasture. Small lumps of feathers scattered around the yard – chickens, dead, their feathers lifting in the breeze as it passed. The air was full of smoke from the burning structures, stinging their eyes and lungs. Thomas pulled up his scarf, to try to filter the smoke out of the air he breathed. 

So. It’s not bad, but there are definitely things to fix. And keeping in mind that I am striving to cut as much as possible where I can, here is the revised version.

The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rode. Soon it was visible in the air around them, curling through the trees. 

 Celyn reined in Arawn, putting up his hand, and they all pulled their horses to a halt. “How much further, Father?” 

“The trees thin out ahead, and then we will be upon it. It—“ Eata stopped abruptly, interrupted by a thin moan which pierced the air. “God have mercy!” 

Celyn pulled his sword out of his sheath.“Follow closely!” 

After a short gallop, they broke out of the trees and reined their horses to a halt, surveying the scene before them. 

The holding was ablaze. Three structures burned, the flames snapping and crackling, throwing heat into the winter’s chill air. A fourth, larger, structure stood unharmed. There were empty pens where pigs had been, and a dead goat lying stiff-legged in a pasture. Small lumps of feathers scattered around the yard—chickens, dead, their feathers intermittently lifting in the breeze. The air was full of smoke from the burning structures, stinging their eyes, mixing with the steadily falling snow to obscure the details. Thomas pulled up his scarf, to try to filter the smoke out of the air he breathed. 

You can see that first of all, I fixed the paragraph problems, putting the dialogue in the same paragraph with the person speaking it. In doing so it not only flows better, but I am able to cut out some of the unnecessary speech tags, like he said and he asked. Bonus.

I also fixed the places where I added action that I didn’t need. I find that I do this a lot. I over-explain things. You see this in the first section, where I write,

“Follow closely!” he said, and touched his heels to Arawn’s side again. 

I took the and touched his heels to Arawn’s side again out, because you can see that in my revised version I don’t need it, right? I have to watch this in my writing. Too often I am explaining things like the character stood here, or walked there, or whatever. I have to back off and let my readers fill in the blanks.

I pondered over the first paragraph for awhile, because this is one of those places where it’s a bit of a grey area. The original has some details that I cut in the revision. The time indicator (after about an hour’s time) was an easy cut. Again, too much detail. But the next sentence, The path up ahead curved around a stand of poplars, was trickier. I like the addition of the poplars into the scene, as they bring some detail to life. But do I really need it, especially in the light of the fact that I have to cut about half the words from my MS to get it into one book?

Well, no, I suppose not. So out it goes. But I do worry that taking too much of the details out will make it bland, with no zing. I have to find the happy medium between too much and not enough, and I have to do it sentence by sentence. I’m also wondering about that longer paragraph, with the details of the chickens and the burning buildings. Too much? I should probably take that hyphen out (I tend to overuse those, too) and rework that sentence. Decisions, decisions.

Even as I am looking at this, I can see other things I can fix, little things, words here and there. At some point, though, you have to set it aside and move on.

 

A lot of this comes down to style, personal preference, and the genre you are writing. There is a lot of second- and third-guessing. And you have to constantly ignore the niggling voice that’s telling you it all belongs on the garbage heap.

The other difficulty of  doing these micro-edits, word by word, is that you tend to lose the sweep and emotional resonance of the story. Recently I downloaded the sections I have done to this point to my Kindle and did a read-through, just to see if it is working at all, and was heartened to see that it was.

I think. Hah. Ask me in a few years.

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Lookee me go! The chapters with the white flags are the ones I have revised. Ones in blue are yet to be done. So…I have four chapters to go until my MIDPOINT of the story. Yay!! The clapper icons are chapters that I am debating about cutting. I’ve indicated them so that when I get to the end of the story and find I still need places to cut I can go back and reconsider.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

As I work my way through the Year of Fun Reading I am finding it a bit tricky to keep my focus on finding a book that meets the category for the month as well as keeping to my own standard of that book being one in the speculative fiction genre.

This month, in which I was to read a book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit, was particularly challenging. I mean, I suppose there are lots of fantasy worlds I would love to visit–Narnia, Middle Earth, or The Land (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) spring to mind– but I wanted to keep the spirit of the challenge, which meant finding a speculative fiction novel set on Earth.

So. I browsed through some of the suggested titles, and, eureka, found one I thought would fit.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Book 1), by Liani Taylor, is  an urban fantasy, set in modern-day Prague. So, seeing as anywhere in Europe is on my bucket list of places to visit, I figured this one might just work. And I love urban fantasy, so, bonus.

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Cool cover!

Karou is seventeen and attends school at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia, a private school for students of the arts. She has blue hair and interesting tattoos, and a secret: she has been raised by  half-human creatures called chimaera, the chief of which is a demonic looking being named Brimstone.

Brimstone is the Wishmonger, who barters teeth for wishes. He is her adopted father, who has raised Karou since she was a baby. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, and she longs to discover who she is and how she is connected to the chimaera.

Brimstone’s workshop is in another place, separate from Earth, which she accesses by going through a door that is opened to her from the inside, by the Gatekeeper, Issa, who is half-snake. These portals are all around the world, and Karou uses them when Brimstone sends her on errands to collect teeth from various traders and dealers.

Karou isn’t exactly sure what the connection is between the teeth and the magical crafting of wishes, which Brimstone makes into beads of various size, shape and power, but her questions are left unanswered, as do the ones about her own origins.

An encounter with the seraph Akiva in the streets of Morocco starts a chain of events that leads Karou to the answers she seeks, even though they are not necessarily the answers she wants to hear…

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I am always amazed at fan art. This picture of Karou and Brimstone was done by the talented Natalie Braconnot, on Tumblr.

Taylor is a New York Times bestselling author, with many books to her credit. This book (published 2011) is the first of a trilogy, all of which are available now. Her new book, Strange the Dreamer, which begins a new series, has just been released.

I will admit to feeling a bit conflicted about Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Taylor writes well, and the plot had enough twists and turns to keep me reading.

However….although I can see that this book would be very popular with a certain audience, I can’t say I loved it. Here’s why:

  1. It’s Young Adult. I didn’t realize that this was a young adult book until I started reading it. I know that young adult is one of the most popular type of books out there, especially when it comes to speculative fiction, but they are just not my cup of tea. I find the plots often revolve too much around teenage angst, which, while great for teenagers, is not too interesting to me. Too often the plots and character development can be a bit simplistic, as well. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a little better than some in the plot department, but I did find the characterizations a bit ho-hum at times. I also have a problem with the romance that is usually part and parcel of this genre, and is in the forefront here. In this book, Karou is seventeen and as the book opens she is recovering from a relationship gone bad. And although I know that there are many teens out there who are involved in sexual relationships I can’t help the jarring feeling I get when I read about these when they are presented like it’s no big deal. Call me a prude, whatever.  Karou gets involved with another partner, and things get quite steamy indeed. And all the while the voice in my head is saying, “She’s only seventeen!” There are certainly a lot of “paranormal romance” books out there featuring adult characters, and while I don’t particularly like those either, when they are aimed at teenagers I find it icky.
  2. Tropes. I, for one, am heartily sick of the warrior chick with the vulnerable heart trope. Although Karou has an interesting back story and is well fleshed-out, basically her character embodies this trope. I find myself getting bored by it, to tell you the truth.
  3. The world building. So, as I mentioned above, one of the main characters is the seraph, Akiva. Seraph is short for seraphim, and yes, he is supposed to be an angel. But not an angel in the Christian tradition, of course. For, as Karou is confronted with Akiva the first time, she recalls what Brimstone has taught her:

She’d heard the word before; seraphim were some high order of angels, at least according to the Christian mythos, for which Brimstone had utter contempt, as he did for all religion. “Humans have gotten glimpses of things over time,” he’d said. “Just enough to make the rest up. It’s all a quilt of fairy tales with a patch here and there of truth.” 

Ok, fine. Let’s dismiss all of religion, except use bits and pieces of it where convenient for the plot. And it is very convenient to have an utterly beautiful otherworldly being with wings and supernatural power for Karou to fall in love with.

I realize for the average reader, this dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular would not be a problem, but it irritates me.  Especially when it has to be dismissed to make a major part of the story work, as in this case. And doubly especially when the author dismissed all of the world’s religions as “myths” and then runs smack into the problem that her characters actually need some kind of religion or mythos of their own to make the story work. So, when Akiva and Karou discuss how Brimstone makes his wish-beads, Akiva says, in answering Karou’s question of why pain and not joy is necessary in the crafting of wish-magic, Akiva says,

“That’s a good point. But I didn’t create the system.” 

“Who did?”

“My people believe it was the godstars. The chimaera have as many stories as races.” 

Ok, so every Earth religion is a quilt of fairy tales, but the seraphim and the chimaera have their own stories and myths, which are….what? Fairy tales too? Or are they the truth behind the stories?  And if so, why?

This highlights the problem of the philosophy that says every religion is just as good as another. If it brings you comfort, go for it, in other words. Any religion will do. But if it brings you comfort and isn’t ultimately TRUE then what is the point?

This is a minor part of the plot and to be fair, Taylor builds just enough of the world of the seraphim and chimaera to make it work for the book’s purposes, which is to serve as a backdrop to the story of Karou and Akiva.

I guess what I’m saying is that sexy angels just don’t work for me.

I give this one two stars/five, with the caveat that I know a lot of people would probably like this more than I did. If you like young adult fantasy featuring Romeo-and-Juliet-type love angst, and it doesn’t bother you that a handsome, poster-boy angel is the love interest, you will probably like this book.

Next month: A book I’ve already read. Oh, so many to choose from! Tune in on the last Friday in the month of May to see my pick. 


 Other posts in this series: 

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

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.

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“…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