Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Blue Damask

Blue Damask Cover Final small

Find Blue Damask on Amazon

Eighteen months ago I had an idea while I was floating in the pool staring at the Arizona sky.  Ideas are like that.  They often come when you do not have a pen or pencil or stylus or notepad.  Fortunately, this was not a fleeting idea, but grew steadily larger and wider and I found myself thinking the story while I stirred spaghetti sauce or drove to work.  When an idea refuses to go away, it means I have to start another novel.  The characters began to speak to each other and to me, and then exciting things blossom into scenes involving biplanes and horses and trains and long knives and bottles of whiskey–the words and images flew around inside my mind and insisted they become a story on paper.

So I began another book.  Here it is.  If you had told me it would be a year and a half before the idea became a real physical item, I might have been discouraged that it would take so long to become “real”.  Instead, I enjoyed every moment of the creation from the blank page to the cover design to the formatting headaches.  It was always a “work in progress” …and now the progress has ended!  It is a strange feeling.  I have been living the characters so long they are as real to me as anyone I know.  Surely they are not dead now that the book is done!

Then yesterday I had another idea.

Blue Damask will be free on Kindle for three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the 25th -27th of January.  Two paperback copies will be entered in a Giveaway on Goodreads.  Enter to win one of them before February 28th!

Happy New Year!

Read Full Post »

The first part of third book in the series of the Elysium Texts, the Books of the Dead, takes place in the mountains of Persia.  The adventurers meet up with Sufi dervishes in the mountains in their search for followers of Zarathustra and the remnants of the disbanded Assasssins.  In my research I have become fascinated with the dervishes and their hypnotic dance meditation.  Sadly, an authentic audience is unlikely for many reasons.  One can still see the tourist versions in Turkey, however, and I posted a short clip of one of those.

The Persian poet, Rumi, discovered this very zen way of communing with God in the 13th century.  The practice has ebbed and flowed over the years depending on the political situation.  Every culture has a shamanic mysticism preserved somewhere inside.  This one shares attributes with Tai Chi, Labyrinth-walking, chanting and even the modern Rave.  There is a disciplined ritual to the movements, each of which has a significance in the communion with god.  The costume as well.  Rumi’s esctatic poems reflect the insight and enlightenment he achieved by touching god in this manner.  He says,

Just like God you will rip and tear down

and at the same time sew and repair.

You will open and close

Both at the same time.

If you want you can appear and conceal yourself however you like.

You will see everyone everything bare and naked.

Yet no one can see you

In the land of soul

You will be sultan of sultans.

Wonderful things can happen when one goes ’round and ’round.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

16 and a half feet long...and two feet from the deep blue sea

In writing conferences we are often admonished to “write what you know” and this came home to me recently as I edited the manuscript for Necromancer.  I have written a sea battle for the novel and then another one for the Free Short Story that is offered on the publisher’s website prior to the release of each novel.  Sea battles will figure prominently in the third book, the Chaldean Codex.  But really, have I been in sea battle?

Well, yes.  Sort of.

Perhaps not in a 15th century galleon (though I have stood on the deck of a tall ship in the harbor at San Diego, but that is another story) but I have battled the wind and the waves.  When I was 16 years old I had a magnificent boyfriend who was just a bit older than me.  He and I met on a school bus when our fathers were stationed on the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.  His dad was a sea captain and mine was a flight instructor.  Between the two of us we encompassed the purpose of a Naval Air Station.

He was no novice at sea, his dad owned a cruiser and he had been sailing for years.  Our first date was on the water.  But this adventure occurred at least a year later, after I had become skilled as a deck hand.  I could hold my own on the little boats, the Sunfish and Lasers, and knew how to follow orders on the larger ones.  I could set and pack a spinnaker…a great triumph for me.  But on this day we were in a little O’Day, a sixteen foot wooden day sailer practicing for a regatta he was going to race the next weekend.

After school we met at the marina and checked out the little boat.  We planned to practice along the Intercoastal Waterway because he wanted to cruise along the regatta’s route.  He was at the rudder and I was on the sails.  It all started out sunny and warm and cheerful, as most adventures do.  I was telling him a story I heard from my father about the Intercoastal this week.  Dad was telling us at dinner how in one of the training exercises the pilots must complete is a parachute drop.  The men are in their flight suits and dropped into the water with chutes open and then dragged by a boat through the waves.  The idea is to train them to untangle themselves and inflate their vests for a sea rescue in the event that they had bailed from a damaged plane into the water.

This week the Navy suspended that training temporarily.  On their first run that week, as they were dragging the pilots through the water, fins began to appear behind them.  The Navy was trolling for sharks, using their expensive pilots as bait.  We laughed about this, but it wasn’t funny about an hour later.

The Intercoastal is like a huge canal between the mainland and outrigger islands used by freighters for shipping.  There are periodic openings in the islands to allow passage to the Gulf of Mexico, and there is healthy traffic on this waterway.  It is like an interstate highway for shipping.  Our little O’Day seemed big enough in the water around the marina, and comfortable in Pensacola Bay.  It was like a toy boat in the Intercoastal.  We had to sail around the great aircraft carrier, Lexington.  I looked up and up and up. It was like a mountain.  And the freighters are nothing to sneeze at either.  I suppose it is like riding a bike between big rigs on the interstate…

But we practiced tacking back and forth and zooming through the waves as the wind picked up as it always did around 4 o’clock every afternoon.  Florida weather is fairly predictable.  But then the sky darkened and it looked like  a thunderstorm was brewing.  Not unusual at all.  We looked at the sky , then looked back toward the marina, gauging distance and time.  Uh oh.  We were farther away from home than we realized, and the way back was toward the storm and upwind…and the Intercoastal is long and narrow, which means a lot of back and forth against the wind.  Very slow and we have to cross the shipping lanes with each tack.

We came about and started the hard work.  We made good time in the freshening wind, but as we approached the final turn around where the Lexington was moored, the sea had begun to come in through the channel.  We never paid much attention to the tide because we usually sailed in the bay where it had a negligible influence on the water (except for one time when we went aground in a larger boat, but that is another adventure).  I remember looking at him.  I had not been afraid this whole time.  My trust in him was absolute. He was amazing on any sailboat and could make them do anything he wanted.  He was their lord and master.  But when I saw what the incoming tide was doing to the channel, I turned to see what he thought about that.  I remember feeling that stab of real panic at the moment I saw his face.  He was frightened.  If he was frightened, then we were in real trouble.

The tide was pouring through a narrow opening between two islands, churning the water that flowed through the Intercoastal.  Huge waves were created by the surge of the water flowing in different directions with nowhere to go.  The bouys had begun to rock and their warning bells added to the sound of the wind in the rigging. These were not swells that you could sail up and over like a hill, but smashing waves from all four directions, like if you had a dishpan full of water and shook it hard. And the wind was picking up in irregular squalls from the approaching thunderstorm and all this angry Nature was between us and the marina.  And we were in this, suddenly, very very tiny boat.  Then I remembered the sharks.  I looked down at the foamy water sliding past the hull just a foot beneath me.  I think this was the first time in my whole life that I knew what real fear was.  I actually suggested we ground the boat and walk home, but he just gave me a disgusted look.

We both knew what had to be done, so there was no confusion or anything,  It was hard work and we were both concentrating with every brain cell…I remember an extreme heightened awareness of everything: wind, water, sky, lines, sails, balance.  The little boat was up and down like a bucking horse and it never stopped.  We were still sailing upwind, which meant a change in direction every two or three minutes.  I was actually looking up at the waves…very scary.  We went up up up then down down down then back and forth then up again.  Ocean splashed over the rails, we were both soaked and there was no time to bail the water that sloshed at our feet.  His arms strained constantly at the rudder, for he had to move it with each wave and the choppy water meant that the bow did not want to stay in one place, and pointing the bow was how we kept air in the sails so we could go forward.  I was watching the tell-tales to keep us from stalling, but even with our best effort the current would grab us and pull us backward even as the wind bounced us forward.  We were stationary off the landmark I was watching on shore.  When we tacked, he pushed the rudder so hard the rails were almost in the water, trying to get some kind of forward purchase.  I scrambled up the sides each time, ducked the boom and leaped to the other side over and over until my legs were rubber.  I figured we were dead.  The storm was closer, the sky was black and it was obvious we had just exceeded the  recommended Beaufort wind scale for this class of day sailer.  I thought about those sharks again. (If my parents are reading this, sorry Mom and Dad.  I never told you this story because I was afraid you would never let me out on the water again).

A big squall was visible ahead. You can see these bastards coming because they disturb the surface of the water in a way that is different from the straight winds.  In little boats (and big ones, too, I suppose) you are constantly scanning the water for them because they will capsize you before you can say, “ahoy” if you do not turn or set your sails for them before they get there.  He said, “fuck” and “bloody hell”.  I just wanted to pee myself.  He had me drop my lines and he turned the boat into the squall.  We let the sails flap and as we waited for it, we felt ourselves surge backward with the current, losing all the distance we had just killed ourselves for.   It didn’t just hit, but slammed.  I’d like to think I became one with the wind and the waves and the boat, but this was long before I read any zen.  I do remember the crescendo of fear and how it spread out all over me as I held on for dear life as the rails dipped into  the water then lifted to pitch and yaw.  The strange thing was how after the fear reached a peak it went away like the squall.  It was like it passed through me and I felt each stab like electricity, but then it was gone, and I was just tired.  We looked at each other, glad to be upright.  He nodded to the lines and I picked them up again and set the sails to catch the straight winds.  He leaned into the rudder and set the bow.  We were both silent the whole way back, as that little boat inched its way toward the marina.  We made it back just as the thunderstorm crashed all around us.  I loved my boyfriend so much as the little boat glided into the slip and I reached for the dock.

It was after dark when I got home.

The parents asked, “Did you have a good time?”



Read Full Post »

Not a Franciscan Friar

But there is a reason George Lucas dressed his Jedi this way.

All characters in a novel have to come from somewhere and I have read many humorous accounts written by novelists about where their characters come from.  No one who is friend to a novelist is safe, and I remember hearing a threat at a writer’s conference from the table behind me.  Someone said, “You’d better stop that, or I will put you in the next book.”

In my case I was thinking about Friar William, who is a major character in The Necromancer’s Grimoire, the sequel to Hermetica.  I am not a Catholic, so I have limited exposure to that culture, but I did have one very intense experience that was the genesis for William.  I will tell you what happened.

When I was nineteen years old I was in a crowded plane traveling halfway across the country.  I was in the aisle seat and in front of me I could see the top of man’s head.  A bald head.  All through the flight I kept having a strange feeling, and as a student of mysticism, I was acutely aware that something very interesting was happening…so I was paying attention.

After we landed, and everyone knows what happens, the passengers stand and get their luggage from overhead compartments, then wait impatiently for the crew to open the door and LET US OUT.  I stood, and the man in front of me stood.  That is when I saw that he was dressed in the traditional coarse dark brown cassock of a Franciscan.  He had the twisted cord around his waist and the hood hung low on his back.  He never turned around, so I never got to see his face, but that doesn’t matter.  I knew he was young, he had honey-brown hair over his ears below the carefully shaved tonsure, it was  almost blond, and he was shorter than I am.  I was pressed nearly up against his back by the other passengers behind me.  Our clothing was touching. This situation is one of the only ones in our culture that permits absolute strangers to stand this close to one another.  He smelled like soap.

A warm glow emanated from him and entered me, working its way up inside me, little round circle by circle from the base of my spine up to my throat making me almost dizzy with its intensity.  I had been feeling it as I sat behind him, but didn’t know it was coming from the man in front of me.  Those of you who have studied these things know what I mean.  When I was then squashed against his body, it was like a wave of heat.

I was shocked at first, because I had assumed that organized religions, especially those that have a history of unpleasant events could not produce such an aura in a follower.  This was my lesson that day.  I almost felt faint from this feeling, it was so full of love and compassion.  I wanted to throw my arms around him and squeeze!  Seriously.  I was making fists to keep myself from doing that.

There were tears in my eyes when we finally got to the gate and the crowd dispersed and he disappeared among the many bobbing heads crowding the exits.  I had to go sit down in one of those plastic blue airport chairs until I could walk steadily again.  This is what people mean when they speak with wonder about feeling the love of god.  It was seriously intense.

Now, you may ask why I did not rush to the nearest church and become a Catholic.  This feeling is not a thing specific to any particular religion.  Some years later the same feeling happened to me when I attended a performance of chanting by Tibetan monks.  I knew that even at nineteen, so the Catholics were safe from my heresy that day.

But I never ever forgot that moment, or that friar.  He appears again in my novel.  And the lesson I learned about making assumptions and prejudice about the sincerity of any particular religious adherant was one of the most important of my life.  Without letting those ideas go, I would have had no room inside my head for the many lessons that came after.  In fact, it reminds me now of the Zen koan about the overrunning teacup.  That day was the day I emptied my teacup of all the preconceived ideas I had about organized religion.

I would love to know what it was that happened to George Lucas…

Read Full Post »

Not Kemaleddin, but his nephew, Piri

As happens when one writes historical fiction, sometimes the lines blur.  I am in a blurry area now in The Necromancer’s Grimoire, the sequel to The Hermetica of Elysium.  I have introduced a character who was a real man in 1495, Ahmed Kemaleddin Reis, newly appointed admiral of the Ottoman fleet.  So I must do my research to make sure I do not dishonor him by keeping him alive when he was dead, or killing him while he was alive.

I have found precious little about this man.  This is good and bad.  It is good because it gives me a lot of room to write about him.  It is bad because the more I learn, the more I wish there was more.  Kemal Reis was widely respected in his day for his seamanship and his honor.  He was one of the first to arm his fleet with cannon.  He was sent by his sultan to Spain to  rescue and evacuate more than a thousand Jews from Cadiz after Ferdinand and Isabella made it lethal to be a Jew in that country.  He was known for his encyclopedic memory of the coastlines of the Mediterranean and of the waves and the wind.  He was a dreaded privateer in his youth, and men fought to be members of his crew on his ships.

Which brings up issues about historical fiction in the first place.  The Reis lived long enough ago and in such as faded area of history that if I keep the known facts correct, I can probably enjoy some freedom with his personal life.  But because he was such a magnificent man, part of me feels guilty messing with him.  In my imagination, his much more famous nephew, Piri Reis, looks down on me from history with a stern no-nonsense expression.  Piri became his uncle’s shadow at the age of 13.  Most likely they were rarely separated and everything Piri knew he learned from his father’s brother.

As I researched Kemal Reis,  I found a eulogy written by Piri by way of the introduction to his magnum opus, the Kitab-ı Bahriye This poem was so lovingly contructed that even in translation one can hear his grief.  When I read this the first time, I said to myself, I must put this man Kemaleddin in the novel and resurrect him.  He cannot just be a slight mention or a chance meeting in Istanbul.  Kemal must come alive again.

And so he will.  You will meet him up close and very very personal.

Here is the eulogy:

Good friend, I want you                                        

To remember us in your prayers,

And remember Kemal Reis, our master,

May his soul be content!

He had perfect knowledge of the seas

And knew the science of navigation.

He knew innumerable seas;

No one could stop him…

We sailed the Mediterranean together

And saw all its great cities.

We went to Frankish lands

And defeated the infidel.

One day an order from

Sultan Bayezid arrived.

“Tell Kemal Reis to come to me,”

It said, “and advise me on affairs of the sea.”

So in 1495, the year of this command,

We returned to our country.

By the sultan’s command we set out

And won many victories…

Kemal Reis sailed hoping to come back,

But was lost at sea.

Everyone once spoke of him;

Now even his name is forgotten…

The angel of death caught him

While he was serving Sultan Bayezid.

May God give peace to those

Who remember Kemal Reis with a prayer.

Kemal died and went to the next world

And we found ourselves alone in this.


Kemal drowned in 1510 around the age of 60, 15 years after that letter from the sultan asking for his advice.  His ship went down with several others during a violent storm in the Mediteranean.  He was commanding a fleet of 35 ships and protected a shipment of iron, wood, arrows, guns, gunpowder, and copper from Istanbul to Alexandria.  His loss was a severe blow to the Ottoman navy.

(Piri has been brought to life again in Assassin’s Creed, though the game description of him that I read took great liberties with history.  I love the costume, however.)

Piri Reis as video game character

Piri Reis’ beautiful maps

The wonders of unknown history

Read Full Post »

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…

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: