Archive for December, 2011

James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary

I have always read historical fiction.   When I was a child I associated fiction with times and places far removed from my current suburban routine, from the Little House books to the Great Brain series.  As I grew up my fiction continued to be historical.  I graduated to the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen.  As a teenager I read the Mists of Avalon, which crossed me over from history to fantasy and I took a side path into science fiction.  As an adult I became interested in the actual history, and my reading took me all over the world in all times while I enjoyed learning about what people did when it was not the twentieth century.

I have been so used to the idea that a story is set long ago or far away that when I began to imagine my own stories it never occurred to me that they would be contemporary.  There is not as much excitement in taking a cab as there is in being swept up by a knight on a war charger pounding its way along a dirt path into adventure.

I’ve been in a cab.  I’ve been on a horse.  No contest.

I chose the late medieval period for my story about books and knowledge because of the richness of the background of the times.  The Turks had captured Constantinople about 50 years before, and the city’s fleeing scholars flooded Europe with the ancient manuscripts they carried away from the carnage.  My characters are hunting these books and scrolls. Perfect timing.

Because I have had so many years immersed in history, it was not difficult to set my characters there, nor did I struggle to remember what had been invented yet.  Anachronisms are a constant challenge, but handy references can prevent embarrassment.  The most important reference I have for avoiding them is the Oxford English Dictionary.  The OED has extensive etymological information on every word.  I use it when I want to mention something, but am not sure if the item or the concept has even entered the vocabulary at the time.

Sensitivity to anachronism is vital for an historical author.  The readers are smart, and they will find a mistake even editors may miss.  In one of my favorite books there is a scene where the castle ladies are out picking fruit…in Scotland in April.  In real life they would be lucky to see blossoms on the trees at that time of year.  They would never be picking fruit.  It is a time-travel story, but not that kind of time.  In another book the beautiful heroine is feeling lonely in her castle tower in the 1150’s.  She muses at the window and then lays down her sketchbook.

Maybe there was a window.  Maybe.  Though the writer did not elaborate upon the incredible wealth of this heroine’s father.  Glass windows existed, but were more commonly seen in cathedrals at that time.  Paper was so expensive then that it was equally unlikely that this teenager was given quantities of it for sketching.

Small mistakes like these can shake a reader from the imaginary world of the characters and interrupt the flow of the story.  What was happening was real in the reader’s mind until they were stunned by an out-of-place sketchbook.  It hurts.  Even in science fiction, the weirdness of the environment must be explained by the author.  Small questions like, “How do they breathe?” and “What do they eat?” can nag at a reader until the author relieves them with an explanation.

I try to have my characters breathe and eat and sleep and scratch and grumble about the weather.  These small details connect them with readers who also have the occasional itch and hate being cold and wet.  Placing light sources within a scene is also a detail I often use to emphasize the time period.  In modern times we take light for granted, but before power stations and incandescent bulbs it might not be so easy to read the expression on another’s face, and shadows were prevalent.  We don’t see shadows so much anymore.

I try to draw the reader into the past with those details they share with the characters, rather than go out of my way to describe the differences.  When Nadira is hungry, I hope the reader feels a little urge to go to the fridge.  When she is cold, I hope the reader tucks her feet under her on that comfy sofa and pulls her sweater around her shoulders.  When Montrose bends down to kiss her, I hope the reader feels the rough stubble on his chin.  I know I do.

Another tool is language.  This is more difficult to achieve.  I want the reader to play the story in their imaginations, not stumble over thee and thou.  I also want to evoke the time period, so I cannot allow any idiom or slang from other centuries.  I choose the dialogue very carefully, keeping in mind that the purpose of the words is to convey information and emotion.  Those are the elements of the story; I don’t want so much historical accuracy that I have to insert words that will annoy the reader.  One can read a book about Chaucer’s time without having to read it in Middle English.

I was pleased when a recent review of The Hermetica of Elysium praised the language.  It was an aspect of the book I had worked very hard to create.  This reader, at least, had been able to both enjoy the story with ease as well as stay in the medieval atmosphere.  This is due partly to my trusty OED, and partly to my own desire to get on with the adventure.

Here comes that charging horse…

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How can you know what is “True”?  Is there one Truth?  The current political drama running on all stations makes me shake my head and turn to philosophy.

Truth is subjective.  On the other hand, one may argue that if you crash a car into a wall a million times the car will always crumble, therefore it must be an objective truth that moveable and immovable objects do not mix well.  But I would postulate that if you ran that car into a wall an infinite number of times, in an infinite number of universes, at least once the wall would crumble and leave the car unscathed.  Physicists are wondering if a broken glass could unbreak if given an infinite number of universes.  It could happen.

A better analogy would be the man who looks out of his house one morning to find there is an earthquake and fire in his city.  He believes the Apocalypse has come.  He is killed by a falling brick.  For him it was the apocalypse.  For another man on that same morning 50 miles away. it was a nice day to work in the garden.

For the man killed in the disaster, it was the Truth…but it was also a nice day in the garden.

As for the broken glass, we see it is not repairable in our lifetimes, or in our universe, so go ahead and buy another one.  No one wants to wait for infinity to have another glass of wine.  That is true, too.

Understanding that there are many truths, equally valid, would go a long way to calming the political debate.  I can only see and hear many people arguing vehemently that there is only ONE TRUTH…and they have it.  The delight of delusion.

(The image above is Arthur Rackham’s illustration from the Ring of the Nibelung of Brunnhilde awakening.  Brunnhilde wakes to a world she is about to destroy in an apocalyptic extravaganza, complete with a full orchestral soundtrack…but that is another story. )


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The “Epic of Gilgamesh” in cuniform on clay

It’s been said that “All stories are Gilgemesh”.  It can be entertaining to try to deconstruct all of Western Literature into one sentence.  In Lit class I remember the instructor saying, “There are only two stories in the whole world: ‘Someone goes on a journey’ or “A stranger comes to town’.









Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is a fabulous book exploring the core of storytelling in that vein.  The myths and stories of all the humans on earth are explored, their similarities and differences discussed as well as the psychological need humans have to hear stories.






Nowadays we have film and computer-generated images to expand our imaginations. Music and light delight the ear as well as the eye and lead us into the world of storytelling.

Opera was the big-budget platform for storytelling before technology made music and images available to everyone at the local theatre. When I think of the collective effort that goes into producing a complete Ring of the Nibelung, I am astounded.  And of course, it is a live performance requiring the hard work of several hundred people.  It is like a battle, I think, getting everyone in their places when the curtain goes up…every note from every instrument, every voice raised in song, every swish of a costume and every flash of dragon-fire or valkyrie cry had to be planned, rehearsed and executed.  This is 15 hours of live performance.  Not played back to back…but if one opera is given every night for four nights it is still a formidable story-telling extravaganza.  Perhaps the biggest and longest in the world.

Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones as Siegmund and Brunnhilde

Humans will always tell stories.  You know that just by standing at the office water-cooler.

The delivery system has changed over the centuries, but the human stories have not.  We still want to see evil defeated, the lovers united, and the weak become powerful by overcoming all odds.

The Epic of Gilgemesh may be 26 hundred years old, but it is still a good story, even today.  I am eagerly waiting for the Feature Film.  It’s about time.


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Carl Jung was an important 20th century alchemist, but he did not spend years in a tower with beakers and flasks.  The transformation he searched for was within himself.  Psychology and Alchemy (Princeton University Press 1980) has been widely available, though not so widely accessible,  and  in the 21st century his notebook The Red Book was published (W.W. Norton 2009).

The Red Book is like a journal, but is much more.  He illustrated his dreams and visions.  This drawing of a Mandala reminds me of some of the images in the Voynich Manuscript.  Here is an image from the Red Book and an image from the German alchemy book Die Gab Gottes 1598

Jung said,  “The real mystery does not behave mysteriously or secretively; it speaks a secret language, it adumbrates itself by a variety of images which all indicate its true nature. I am not speaking of a secret personally guarded by someone, with a content known to its possessor, but of a mystery, a matter or circumstance which is “secret,” i.e., known only through vague hints but essentially unknown. The real nature of matter was unknown to the alchemist: he knew it only in hints. In seeking to explore it he projected the unconscious into the darkness of matter in order to illuminate it. In order to explain the mystery of matter he projected yet another mystery – his own psychic background -into what was to be explained.”  —Psychology and Alchemy (Part 3 Chapter 2).

In the Hermetica of Elysium I tried to show both aspects of the medieval alchemists.  I wanted to describe how the people who were focused on earthly treasure and power sought to gain an advantage over their competitors using any means possible…including maintaining a resident alchemist who was supposed to be working on turning base metals to gold, while at the same time he was really working on discoveries of the mind.  This is a fertile field for adventure and excitement…how could a novelist resist?

Jung spent years in research, and his collected works would take years to study.  His ideas about what it means to be a human being have tremendously influenced the field of psychology.  His Synchronicity theories tie in with String Theory and link psychology with theoretical physics in ways that make both psychologists and physicists uncomfortable.

Remember, magic is just science we don’t understand.







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The Yale Beinecke Library has put the entire Voynich online so that everyone can see this fascinating book.  It was written in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and was once owned by Elizabeth I’s magician John Dee.  The entire book is in code, and has yet to be deciphered, though many have tried over the years.

You can look at the book here.

If you go to the site you can get all the details and see each page.  I heard about this book while doing research for The Elysium Texts Trilogy, and used many of the ideas it generated as plot devices.  The Voynich is full of plant drawings like this one:

And I thought, how strange that a Herbal needed to be in code.  Then I realized that a Herbal did not.  There were many Herbals at the time.  They were very useful books as they were PDR’s before modern medicine.  If it were not a Herbal…why all the plants?  then I saw this image:

This drawing of many ladies in a cocoon of sorts with tubes leading out of their heads to…well…another place, made me think these plant parts were not being used to cure a cough.

I had learned from my research that before there was a language of science, there was no vocabulary to describe scientific principles.  The ladies in the drawing most likely represent elements or ingredients for the recipe and the drawing is a representation like this one (not from the Voynich, but from a 17th century alchemy book):

Describing how they are combined and distilled.  Even so, it is a rich area for the imagination that I mined for the plot of the novel.  The secrecy and cryptic aspects make it fascinating.  The plant mentioned above is obviously a lily or a lotus.  These plants have certain intriguing qualities (from Wikipedia) :

Recent studies have shown Nymphaea caerulea to have psychedelic properties, and may have been used as a sacrament in ancient Egypt and certain ancient South American cultures. Dosages of 5 to 10 grams of the flowers induces slight stimulation, a shift in thought processes, enhanced visual perception, and mild closed-eye visuals. Nymphaea caerulea is related to, and possesses similar activity as Nelumbo nucifera, the Sacred Lotus. Both Nymphaea caerulea and Nelumbo nucifera contain the alkaloids nuciferine and apomorphine, which have been recently isolated by independent labs.[citation needed]

These psychoactive effects make Nymphaea caerulea a likely candidate (among several) for the lotus plant eaten by the mythical Lotophagi in Homer‘s Odyssey.

Used in aromatherapy, Nymphaea caerulea is purported to have a “divine” essence, bringing euphoria, heightened awareness and tranquility.[citation needed]

Other sources cite anti-spasmodic and sedative, purifying and calming properties.

Some of the recognizable plants in the Voynich have similar attributes.  The alchemists made various elixirs for various purposes, we know that is true.  I have a copy of a book called The Elixirs of Nostradamus which is very interesting, though I noticed the text at the end of the book specifically mentioned that some of his more “dangerous” concoctions were not included.  Nostradamus travelled somewhere to gather his predictions.  His body was in the tower, but his mind was far far away.

The alchemists were very busy in their towers. How about that first image from the Voynich?  The blue circles?  I wonder what the alchemists were seeing…

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What makes a man appealing?  I am sure this question has many different answers, but in Western Culture there are a few qualities that stand out as givens.  While looking at my website statistics, I discovered one lonely search term for Baron Montrose.  All the other terms are for my name or Nadira’s.  Someone somewhere remembered Montrose and was looking for my website with his name.  He must have touched them.

I thought about how I created his character so many years ago.  I started with an idea.  I wanted an interesting man.  A sexy man.  Of course I did.  All novelists do.

Extreme self-confidence is the most sexy trait there is.

I am reminded of this while listening to the radio in the car yesterday.  The new holiday Dos Equis commercial played, you know the one…with “the most interesting man in the world”…and I laughed so hard I almost missed a traffic light.  A dangerous commercial, indeed.

This is the line that got me: “He is the reason the Nine Ladies are Dancing.”

I think the success of the Dos Equis media campaign is due to inspiration by the many amusing Chuck Norris jokes.  He is another man who is neither young nor handsome, and yet he is admired for his fictitious super-powers:  “His tears could cure cancer…but he never cries” etc.

When I create a character I want readers to admire I remember all the characters I have admired over the years, real people and imaginary ones.  When I wanted Nadira to have a counterpoint in this story, I needed to create a person who was opposite her in thinking and behavior, yet had a hidden core I planned to reveal slowly over several books.

I first went to Mr Darcy (of course…the most interesting man in literature…) but he was too dignified.  I then thought of Rochester…but he was too cruel.  I imagined Aragorn…but he was too…ok folks, admit it.  He is not the sharpest tack…right?  And who can forget Heathcliff?  The King of Angst.  The beauty of being a novelist is the ability to create a character by borrowing traits from everywhere.

I imagined a man strong and capable, with a fierce sense of self…who harbored secret doubts about what he had been taught as a child, what his father had taught him about what it means to be a fine man.  But admiration changes based on who is doing the admiring.  Is the admirable man a chameleon?  Does he change to suit his environment and his purpose?  How can one be admired by all unless this is done?

If so, then who are you?  You would have to define yourself by how others see you.  You would be relying on their admiration to determine your own self worth.

This is my hero’s journey.  He was told that he needed to be strong, to be stoic, to be skilled.  He was punished for showing any signs of weakness or emotion.  His duties were set before him, and failure was not tolerated.  When a child is given these directives, what kind of man is produced?

My hero, Montrose, must struggle with opposing forces between the contents of his own heart and mind and the directives of his society.  Long-held beliefs are not easily jettisoned.  Yet extraordinary circumstances can often be the catalyst for amazing self-discovery.  Amazing to Montrose, that is.  The adventure I have created forces the characters to examine everything they have known to be true…and realize how wrong they have been.  This is a difficult process for anyone.  No one likes to admit they are wrong.

But such an admission is admirable in every case.  Mr. Darcy realizes he has been wound a bit too tightly.  Do you remember his smile at the end of the BBC production (the one with Colin Firth)?  Do you realize that for 5 hours you had not seen him smile?  Not once.  What a shock that was, what an emotional release!  And Rochester…his novelist treated him with the most cruelty of all.  I would not have punished him so, but perhaps Bronte felt his cruelty needed to be met with equal retribution to bring him to his knees.  How your heart breaks, seeing this proud man humbled.  And Aragorn…thank goodness for Arwen.  She will keep him in line if he just lets her run the kingdom.

Which brings me back to The Most Interesting Man In the World.  He is many men, and one man.  We know him when we meet him.  The combination of confidence and vulnerability is his strength.  He has the courage to root out his own flaws and amend them.  He may want to be admired by other men for his abilities, but more importantly, he wants to be worthy of his woman’s love.  He wants her admiration more than anyone else’s and will strive for it, overcome all obstacles for it, go to the ends of the earth for it.  Darcy does it, Rochester does it, Aragorn finally picks up that heavy sword.  The hero will persevere until he achieves his goal.  Montrose does it.

He is the reason his lady is dancing.

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