Posts Tagged ‘history’


I am in love with Dead People

TE-1935Thomas Edward Lawrence

Richard-Burton-38898-1-402Sir Richard Burton

Not Kemaleddin, but his nephew, Piri

Not Kemaleddin, but his nephew, Piri




     No.  Not necrophilia.  Not zombies.  History.

     It has been said that history is full of dead people, and this is true.  History is a mausoleum of humanity.  Historical fiction is a method of resurrecting the dead in a pleasant way that does not require candles, chanting and a scary-looking necromancer raising his staff over a pentagram.

     People are born, they live, they die.  This cycle continues through the centuries without end, yet a single human lifespan is not long enough to experience everything a person could see and hear and do.  Two lifetimes are not.  Three or four or five are not.  Have you stood in the biography section of a large library?  A thousand life spans are not enough.  Through books, we living humans can peer into the lives of those who have come before us.  They are strangers, but still are people who have been babies, children, lovers, parents and then old men and women who always, without exception, pass into Hamlet’s undiscovered country.

     We can learn more about what it means to exist than merely what we experience personally.  In fact, it is often not until someone is dead that their lives begin to blossom.  A second life, so to speak, immortality only hinted at while they were alive.  Samuel Pepys was not sharing his diary in the seventeenth century, but readers now can know what he had for supper, or whether his wife was moody on one day or another.  We can know more about a person after their death than we did while they lived.  Biographers sometimes start writing before their subject’s demise, but the juicier bits of a life do not sprout until the body is laid to rest in the ground.

     Adventurer Sir Richard Burton is one of my favorite dead people.  He did things in his life that I would not do in mine, but I enjoy reading of his exploits.  Some of the more colorful and disreputable adventures are shocking enough even today to make for jaw-dropping reading.  His real life does not need a fictional re-telling, a biography will do just fine in his case.

      Other dead people need a bit of fiction to resurrect them and put some meat on the skeletal facts of their lives.  The clothing of the cadavers with imaginary events and conversations does not make their stories less true.  I fell in love with Kemaleddin Reis after reading his sixteenth century eulogy, lovingly composed by his nephew Piri.  Research showed only the bare bones of Kemal’s life, but some tidbits nearly screamed at me to flesh out.  His own sultan had imprisoned Kemal for almost a year.  There was a hint that the Reis was being punished because he had acted without orders.  This tells me Kemal had extreme confidence in his decisions and a certain amount of contempt for politicians. Novelists must clothe their subjects in fantasy to bring them back to life.  This is the method of literary necromancers.  Kemaleddin Reis is duly resurrected in my novels.

      Once a dead person lives and breathes and speaks on a page, we are closer to them than even to the living persons in our lives.  This intimacy comes from being inside their heads, listening to their thoughts and feeling their emotional responses to events which could not be done while they lived, even if you knew them personally.

     Recently I researched T.E. Lawrence as part of a study I was doing for the next novel.  The study started as a fact-finding mission, but after reading thousands of pages I found I was in love with Ned Lawrence.  He has been dead for 78 years.

      Even if I had met T.E. Lawrence in 1925 at a dinner party, I would not know as much about him as I do now that his letters and biographies have been published.  He had to be dead and then resurrected by other besotted writers before he could truly come alive for all of us to meet him and listen to his words forever.

      I am in love with dead people.  I enjoy resurrecting them so others can dance with them along with me, but I prefer mine to be fully fleshed and speaking in complete sentences.  Zombies are less interesting and their stilted conversations are limited to the texture and flavor of brains.

History is better.

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Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

How can an old man and a monk be sexy?  We are talking about the two categories of men that are usually relegated to the opposite side of the word.  This was intriguing to me as I watched the 1994 Mystery series on Netflix.  Because everything I see or hear will eventually end up in a novel, I was curious to deconstruct the character to see what elements were involved that made Cadfael so appealing.

First, I will define sexy.  The simple definition would suggest that something sexy is  someone or something one would want to have sex with.  But inanimate objects are described as “sexy” all the time.  Most notably automobiles…The meaning of the word has achieved some creeping connotations with the success of the advertising industry.  For simplicity I will define “sexy” as “emotionally appealing”.  (That will cover automobiles as well.)

Cadfael is a Benedictine Brother, not a priest, in Shrewsbury (near Wales) in the 12th century and was created in the 1970’s by mystery novelist Ellis Peters. He is an herbalist and healer and finds himself solving murders in a time where justice had a very different meaning than it does today.  This is part of his appeal.

In his youth he was a soldier in the Crusades and was exposed to ideas and cultures of the Middle East when the vast majority of Englishmen rarely traveled ten miles from their place of birth in their entire lives.  This is another part: his great intelligence and worldly experience.

But how can he be so deliciously wonderful?  It is not just me, folks, so let’s get that out of the way.  The series of books was and is very popular and if you have seen the series you can see the enormous expense in filming the thirteen 90 minute episodes.  It is a gorgeous and historically rich production.

So, back to deconstruction.  First, his age.  He is older, yes, though still handsome in a Derek Jacobi way.  He is tall and has broad shoulders, so physically he is imposing and impressive.  Those attributes transcend youth and are always sexy.  He has a limp…he was badly wounded in the Crusades, so this lends an air of vulnerability as well as valor to his character.  Also appealing.

He has retired to peace and quiet, which in the 12th century means a monastery.  He had enough adventure in his youth.  He is not a priest, but has taken vows of obedience and chastity.  This makes him somewhat righteous…and I am thinking of all the youthful “bad boy” motorcycle and vampire characters that are so appealing to young women.  Why? Because bad boys defy authority and act against the social norm. They are courageous in their naughtiness.  Those boys reflect tendencies that are the opposite of a righteous monk.  Cadfael should be boring, un-sexy and dull.  But he is not.

Because Cadfael is a Bad Boy.

Yes.  That is why he is sexy.  Cadfael brings to the stories of murder and mayhem the naughtiness of compassion and intelligence that was sorely lacking in Medieval times.  He insists on finding the truth, wants justice for the dead and the wronged, and will defy the local authority figures to get it.  He does it by outsmarting them.  That is what is appealing to me.  He does not rush in with a sword and kill all the bad guys.  You do not see him walking towards you in slow motion as behind him thatched cottages erupt in righteous and vengeful flames…he outsmarts them…he outsmarts them.


And he lets a confessed murderer go free (In the episode, The Leper of St Giles).  He has a much much deeper understanding of justice than we see today, or for all time.  His compassion is the true compassion of his God, and though the Medieval Church is focused on penitence and punishment, Cadfael (who fought for those ideas in a bloody and senseless Crusade) has transcended those limited beliefs and out-Christians the Christians.  This is delicious too.

And his vows?  The conflict between his great love and compassion for humanity and the necessary renunciation of any kind of physical human contact is painfully evident in the novels and the script.  This aspect makes you want to give him a hug, because he needs a hug many times (he is haunted by the horrors of battle and the loss of his true love)…and yet hugs are not possible.  He flinches from even a touch.  So we have this chasm of compassion for him as well.

Cadfael exists beyond touch, in the pages of a novel and in the light of a screen.  But he touches our hearts.

Cadfael and Beringar discussing murder most foul

Thank you, Ellis Peters.

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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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This photograph is an image of some reclaimed history.  The knife was put there for dramatic effect when I composed the picture to be a background for my blog…but there is a story behind the manuscript and the book.

Back in the early 1990’s when I has a bookbuyer I got a call from my supervisor who was out in the field looking at someone’s books.  He was very excited and said, “quick, find out what you can about 18th century manuscripts with skippets and seals and 16th century breviaries”.

Uhm.  This was like, way before the internet would answer those questions in an eyeblink.  I sat there at my desk wondering what to look for.  I picked up my copies of price guides and a book on auction selling prices.  My supervisor returned with the books and manuscripts in a wooden ammunition box.  “I have such a story to tell you,”  he said.

“This older gentleman was a soldier in Europe in the aftermath of World War II.  He is now settling his estate and moving to a nursing home.  He wanted to sell his books to a dealer in Chicago.  In Chicago he says he was treated so badly by the dealers that he picked up his books and came home.  Even though I was not able to offer him as much as they did, he said he was happier to let the books go to a booklover than to the snotty antiquarian dealers in Chicago.”

I am so happy the book folks in Chicago are uppity.  My boss continued,

“He says he was stationed in, what was in the 1940’s, Czechoslovakia.  He was patrolling a manor house with his rifle over his back, ambling through the dark and drafty corridors.  He came to inspect the library because he could see an unusual amount of light coming through the doorway.  He stood there on the threshhold, shocked.  The people inside were systematically grabbing handfuls of books from the shelves and shoveling the contents into the fireplace.  He tried to stop them, but they pointed out that they were freezing and had already burned the furniture.

“He quickly grabbed at the next handful about to be tossed into the flames, tugging at the bundle of books.  The other person would not let go until the soldier promised to trade him a carton of cigarettes for the books.  At that point the soldier handed over his smokes and tucked his treasures inside his coat.  He had no idea what he had just saved from the flames.  He was not able to stop the folks from grabbing another handful from the shelves.  When he got back to base he placed his books in the ammunition box and that is how they made their way back to the US.”

The soldier had saved a breviary from 1516.  Two manuscripts, one on vellum and one on paper from 1713 and 1738 both with skippets and seals inside.  One is the Prussian eagle.  Three other books from the 17th century were also saved, but I was not able to buy those so I do not remember them specifically.  But I whipped out my credit card as soon as I saw these and never once regretted the year or two it took me to pay them off.

I can imagine what that library must have looked like.  I try to think about starving and freezing people and how little the historical artifacts meant to them when their survival was at stake.  I like to remember the old man and how, when he was a young man, saving books was akin to saving people.  He never sold these books.  He kept them in the ammunition case for 50 years, safe with him.  But the books outlived him as they have outlived their owners for 450 years.  Now I have them (and the case too).  I have his story, which is just as valuable.  When I am gone, they will belong to someone else.

I have tried to read the manuscripts.  They are in a mixture of Latin and German. I took both languages in high school, but am not proficient in the least.  Also, the script itself is difficult.  I can tell they are legal documents.  One is most probably the record of a loan for 800 rials.  The other I cannot make out the specifics, but it is signed by the Burgermeister of Stuttgart.  The breviaria has woodblock illustrations and a pasted-in bookplate with a coat of arms as well as red ink printed for certain sections and the calendar of holy days.

It was while trying to read these wonderful treasures that I got the inspiration for The Hermetica. I imagined these books and manuscripts might contain something important that someone wrote down 400 years ago…but I was never going to be able to know what it was.  I imagined how I would feel if the books were in another alphabet or in code.  The message would be just as lost.  These treasures are interesting, but without a translator, they are silent.

This adventure in bookselling is what started the adventures of Nadira the Reader.  I am pleased to be bringing these treasures and their story to my book launch December 8.  Folks who come can look at and handle the books and feel the soft vellum.  Maybe someone there can read Old High German in manuscript and tell me the message that has been silent for 300 years and almost lost to the flames.

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