December 30, 2010

A Bit O' The Classics - Emma

Emma isn't my favorite Austen novel, nor my least favorite; it ranks somewhere in the ever-shifting middle, below Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park, and possibly below Sense & Sensibility. However, all of Austen's novels are enjoyable, each for different reasons - Pride & Prejudice for its vivacity and wit; Mansfield Park for the sweetness of its heroine and the story's mellow tone; Sense & Sensibility for the drama, theme, and contrasting characters of Elinor and Marianne; Persuasion for its touch of melancholy; Northanger Abbey for its sprightly, somewhat off-the-wall humor; and Emma for its own hilarity.

There are plenty of other things about Emma that make it enjoyable, such as Mr. Knightley's (pardon the pun) chivalrous character, the twist Austen gives to the romances, and the sheer number of errors that Emma Woodhouse brings about in her attempt to be a matchmaker for her friends. But one of the most interesting points about the novel, I found, was that Jane Austen managed to have such a bratty, spoiled character...and yet make her so likable as well. Surprisingly few people dislike the book, whereas one would think that Emma's inconsiderate nature and harebrained schemes would turn people off. Some modern authors have attempted to have such characters, either with the thought of redeeming them in the end, or merely with the hope of crafting something different from the usual sympathetic character; but generally speaking, these efforts fall flat where Austen's Emma Woodhouse did not.

Several reasons can be found for why Jane Austen succeeded where others cannot, the first and most broad-brush of which is that she was a classic writer and managed to get away with things that the little people cannot. However, not only is this a very depressing and irksome reason, but even if a book is a classic, readers are unlikely to enjoy a bratty main character unless the author does a remarkable job in pulling it off. (An example of this for Austen would be that, classic or no, most Austen fans put Mansfield Park at the bottom of their list because they feel that Fanny Price is a doormat.)

A better reason why readers like Emma Woodhouse is that Jane Austen did not make her wholly snobbish and selfish. Emma is shown as a generally kind and goodhearted young woman whose virtues are sometimes hidden under the fact that she is spoiled and that she has a somewhat wild streak of fun in her nature which often leads her to act before she thinks. Austen does not merely show her in her faults, such as ridiculing the interminable Miss Bates; she also shows Emma's gentler side as she regrets her harsh words, when she watches over her father, and in her affection for Mr. Knightley. An author simply cannot have a character with irritating faults without making amends in other places, or they will alienate readers.

Another, and perhaps greater, reason for Emma's likability is the way Austen contrasts her actions with Mr. Knightley's and has him play the role of guardian and corrector, rebuking Emma and showing her the errors of her ways. These reprimands are gentled by the revelation that Mr. Knightley is and has been in love with Emma, and their fruitfulness throughout reveals Emma's growing character. On the other hand, a last minute change of heart on the part of a character who has been annoying for the entirety of the novel does not work, as it is unbelievable and leaves no room for growth or time for the character to redeem himself.

December 27, 2010

Christmas Books

All Christmas presents are wonderful, and every year the gifts seem more lovely than the ones previous. This year I got a nice selection of books from various people, some that I've already read but that I lacked copies of, some that I've never read before. All are books that I placed on my shelf proudly.

All Loves Excelling: My friend Anna gave me this little Puritan Paperback by John Bunyan, more popularly known as the author of Pilgrim's Progress. However, he also wrote such books as the allegory The Holy War and the work Grace Abounding. All Loves Excelling is a look at Ephesians 3:17-19: "...that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height — to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." I just love having a friend who gives such wholesome, lovely, hearty presents! She truly is a dear.

The Pilgrim's Progress: I was also given this more commonly known work of John Bunyan in fine, pretty hardback. It is a recent reprint by John L. Dagg Publishing of a 1891 edition and has at least some of the original illustrations; I didn't own a copy, and I'm very pleased to have such a nice one of Bunyan's classic allegory of a man fleeing from the wrath to come and journeying to the Celestial City.

A Shiver of Wonder: Interestingly, this relatively short biography of C.S. Lewis by Derick Bingham was published by Ambassador Emerald, the same house that published my Soldier's Cross and Jenny's The Shadow Things. Jenny picked it up at a nearby bookstore and gave it to me. I have not yet read it, so for its theme I can only quote the back cover: "...[Bingham] seeks to show the deep influence the environment of Belfast and the nearby County Down had on Lewis’s imagination and sets out to trace the hand of God in seeking one who so actively denied Him."

Till We Have Faces: I have another copy of this one, but it is very tattered, so I was very glad to get a nice new edition; I'm still keeping the old one for sentimental reasons, though. Till We Have Faces is probably one of the most - if not the most - difficult of Lewis' works of fiction, but it was his last and favourite novel. It takes a great deal of getting into to understand any of it, but I love it all the same for its depth and the pictures Lewis paints, and the deeply rooted allegory and truth in the narrative. "Now I know, Lord, why you give no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face all questions fade away..."

The Chronicles of Narnia: Since Jenny moved out and carted away our only set of Lewis' Chronicles, I have been attempting to piece together my own collection - to little avail. I mostly had duplicates of three books in the seven-book-series, some hardback, some paperback. Thankfully, my sister-in-law took pity on me this year and got me a lovely Barnes & Noble leather-bound book of all seven. (Of course, she got Jenny one as well...)

I love books. And I'm running out of room on my bookshelf.

December 23, 2010

A Bit O' The Classics - Cooper

I admit to being more familiar with, and more fond of, British classics than American ones. America is young enough that many of its famous works are heavily flavored with post-modernism and can be quite dark and hopeless, like Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. However, a little while ago I was forced to read James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. I waded through the first couple of chapters with an effort, struggling onward through Cooper's often laborious descriptions because I had to and because my father had enjoyed the novel. It looked like it was shaping up to be just one more example of how American classics are inferior to British - but then the action started. And I was absolutely caught up in it.

I love a great many books, but there are few that have actually made me tremble by the end, and Last of the Mohicans was one of those. I laughed at some parts and cried at others, and I didn't get over the ending for a couple days; I still get a tight feeling in my chest when I think about it. I refuse to see the movie, knowing that I will either rant about all the things they altered or sob uncontrollably for a week over the drama, or perhaps both. Looked at simply from the perspective of a reader, the novel was beautiful and poignant.

However, it also offers a wealth of interesting points for the writer that leaped out at me while I read it and afterward. Cooper packed an unusual amount of power into his novel, whether he realized it or not, and the effect, especially as seen in the character Uncas, is startling. The events are seen through the eyes of the officer Heyward, who is appointed by Colonel Munro to watch over his daughters, Cora and Alice; but the main character is of course Natty Bumppo, known for the entirety of the story simply as Hawkeye. The young Mohican Uncas has very few lines in the story, less even than his father, Chingachgook. Yet for all that Hawkeye and Heyward are so much in the spotlight, Uncas is perhaps the most powerful, sympathetic, and fascinating character of the entire cast. It was what happened to him that mattered most to me while I read the novel, and even Hawkeye, though a wonderful character himself, seemed to fade into the background.

The ways Cooper managed to bring this about were surprisingly simple. First of all, he wisely showed the story from the viewpoint of Heyward rather than Hawkeye or Uncas himself. Seeing it from Uncas' perspective would have absolutely ruined the magnificence and mystery of his character, while seeing it from Hawkeye's would have made himself less impressive. In essence, Heyward was expendable and not meant to hold the same interest for readers as Hawkeye and Uncas; and, too, the savageness of the American frontier and of the villain Magua were made more horrible as witnessed by a young, inexperienced officer.

Secondly, Uncas' very silence went far to emphasize his character. A person who talks a great deal simply cannot be as impressive as one who speaks little - think Mr. Darcy versus Mr. Bingley. Cooper showed who Uncas was through his actions and the few short sentences he spoke, and it was these things that made him the hero of The Last of the Mohicans.

"My child!" said Munro, speaking quickly and wildly; "give me my child!"

"Uncas will try," was the short and touching answer.

December 18, 2010

Day One

Day One of the busy weekend is officially over, and though it was quite tiring, it was also immensely satisfying.

In the morning Jenny and I had a TV interview with the Channel 7 spot Your Carolina. It was a short segment, but it's certainly interesting to be able to say that I have been on TV. And, unlike Mike of "Monsters, Inc." fame, Jack and Kimberley were kind enough not to put the logo over my face. You can view the clip on the Your Carolina website.

The afternoon was, I am grateful to say, uneventful. At 7:00 we had a booksigning at Barnes & Noble, and we occupied a table right by the door for over two hours. It was very enjoyable and rewarding to talk with the people who came to look at the books and the evening was a success, so thank you to everyone who managed to come - and I hope you enjoy your books!

Tonight is Spill the Beans downtown. A booksigning at a cafe on a winter evening has a cozy sound to it, doesn't it?

December 8, 2010

What Do You Read?

Reading has somewhat gone out of vogue nowadays as more and more people spend their time in other, quicker pastimes, such as watching movies and playing video games; reading good books seems to have lost even more charm. The classics are still revered as classics, but few people dare to open one. Biographies and histories are considered pretty dull things. Theology, philosophy, sermon-collections, and the like seem to be the most disliked of all categories, even among believers. If people do read, they generally turn to the action-packed, romance-stuffed, gore-filled, often plotless novels produced in mass quantities today.

This is unfortunately true of many writers, as well. Reading is not considered necessary for someone to be able to write. However, what you read, and if you read at all, will color your writing - for good or ill. If you want to write, it is important to read, and to read extensively. Just as some people don't read at all and other people read only the latest vampire novel, others lock themselves into a certain category - be it Christian fiction, mystery, romance, or any other genre - and read very little outside this appointed comfort zone. However, this is almost as bad as not reading at all; your writing (and your whole outlook on life) will be so affected by this one genre that it is likely that there will be little originality and little of yourself in your work.

Just like with any diet, reading demands variety. While I'll never recommend reading a trashy novel for the sake of "something new" (that's kind of like eating a tub of lard for the same reason), there are plenty of novels that are not specifically Christian, yet are clean, inspiring, and thought-provoking; take many of the classics, for instance. A good dose of nonfiction can not only be very enjoyable, but will also enlighten you and make you think - and, too, histories can easily inspire a story in undeveloped territory. A knowledge of history, as a whole and in detail, will give your stories depth. Something more than a glancing acquaintance with the writing styles of "the Great Ones" will help your own writing progress.

What are you reading? What are some of your favorite books?

December 2, 2010

December Book Signings

November and NaNoWriMo are over, introducing the month of December, which is promising to be still more eventful. Jenny and I have three book signings coming up in one weekend and a TV interview with Your Carolina as well, so the schedule looks like this -

Barnes and Noble
The Shops at Greenridge
1125 Woodruff Road Suite 1810,
Greenville, SC 29607

Spill The Beans (coffee shop)
531 South Main Street
Greenville, SC 29601
Spill The Beans is also offering free regular coffee to those who buy books - a plus for all caffeine-lovers who want to stay up late reading the novels!

2465 Laurens Road
Greenville, SC 29607

December is looking very interesting right now, between these events, editing and sending out queries for Wordcrafter, and working on White Sail's Shaking. Not to mention Christmas. NaNo seems tame in comparison!

November 17, 2010

Inspiration for The White Sail's Shaking

Awhile ago I did a post on what inspired me to write my novel Wordcrafter (the rough draft of which is now complete and going through edits). Since I am now fairly deep into my story The White Sail's Shaking, I thought I would do the same for it.

1. It started with this history of the rise of the U.S. Navy after the Revolution, Six Frigates by Ian Toll. I was far more interested in the British Navy during the Age of Sail than with the American before reading this, but the colorful history, especially that of the original six frigates, intrigued me. A story was brewing before I finished this book.

2. The most interesting part of Six Frigates was, I thought, the period of the First Barbary War. It was fairly small and gets much less press in history texts than the War of 1812, but all the same, it had some grand exploits, plenty of drama, and a gorgeous setting on the Mediterranean - perfect for a novel.

3. Stephen Decatur was a fascinating character. However, since writing a novel actually based on a historical figure, no matter how obscure, is very risky, I had no desire to try it out with Decatur; he does figures prominently in The White Sail's Shaking, since my character serves under him.

4. The Age of Sail, though quite bloody and, when one gets down to bare facts, unromantic, still thrills me. I love the old sailing ships and the British Navy during this period of time has long interested me with its assortment of famous ships, battles, and men.

5. I have a difficult time remembering when I didn't enjoy the first four Hornblower movies (The Duel/An Even Chance, The Fire Ship/Examination for Lieutenant, The Duchess and the Devil, and The Wrong War/The Frogs and the Lobsters). I used to watch them just for the sake of rewinding the VHS after someone was shot, to watch them "fall" upright again. While I don't enjoy either the books or the newer movies as much, I still love those first four and watch one when I need inspiration.

6. The sea is mysterious and enchanting, and frightening. The yearly trip that my family takes to the beach has made me grow to love the sound of the waves on the shore and the smell of salt, and the grey days that hang over the water like a cloak, and the feel of a storm off the water. There are few settings that could be more inspiring than that.

7. As I have some Sicilian blood, Sicily's history interests me more than the boot of Italy does, inspiring the character of Marta and some of the scenes during the novel. Also, the beauty of the Mediterranean is a huge plus.

8. The Prince of Egypt soundtrack is wonderful for writing, as it has a wide variety of tunes - epic, haunting, bittersweet - and the vocalization is just right for the setting on the lower Mediterranean.

9. John Masefield's poem Sea Fever inspired the title - "I must go down to the sea again / to the lonely sea and sky / and all I ask is a tall ship / and a star to steer her by, / and the wheel's kick and the wind's song / and the white sail's shaking, / and a grey mist on the sea's face / and a grey dawn breaking."

Post inspired by K.M. Weiland's Fifteen Degrees of Inspiration.

November 7, 2010

NaNo: Pros, Cons, and News From the Front

Photo by vonslatt, Flickr.

National Novel Writing Month is the incredibly fun, incredibly insane time of year where writers attempt to bang out 50,000 words of a novel from day one of November to day thirty, hoping to get something good from their efforts. This is my third year participating in it and watching others participate in it, and the pros and cons of it become pretty apparent the first or second year; a home-school curriculum that my family once used listed in its catalog who would benefit from using their material, but also who wouldn't. And it is true that while NaNo is very fun, it may not help everyone with their writing. So here are some of the pros and cons that I've noticed while doing NaNo myself.

Pro: The primary goal of National Novel Writing Month is to get people to just write - to sit down and finally bang out whatever story has been itching in their brains. This is very helpful for those who want to write but believe that they don't have the time; it will amaze you how much time you realize you actually have when you've got a deadline.

Con: What you bang out may be abominable. I know the organizers of NaNo would probably say that this isn't the point, but it's true: what you write may be riddled with grammatical flaws, plot holes, and characters who appear to have schizophrenia. You may cringe at the thought of editing the thing.

Pro: But chances are, you'll come out with something good, even if it's a diamond in the rough. You're at least writing the outline of a story that can be expanded and revised after November comes to a close, and if nothing else, it's at least good practice for people just starting to stretch their wings in writing.

Pro: The goal is reasonable. It's not like the Write-Or-Die program that threatens to delete your document if you don't type like a rabid squirrel. 50,000 words sounds very daunting when taken as a whole, but once you break it down and realize that the daily count only has to be 1,667 words, it doesn't seem so large anymore. Plus, you have the encouragement of watching your wordcount rise.

Con: Targeting a certain amount of words in a certain amount of time does lend itself to manuscripts full of what is called "adjective-padding," "adverb abuse," and what my friend calls "blargh-spackling" - the making up of nonsense words to boost one's wordcount. This really isn't a decent way to do NaNo, especially when even the creators of NaNo try to make it clear that the wordcount isn't the purpose of the organization. If you end up with 50,006 words, 35,629 of which do not aid the plot and 1,885 of which border on blargh-spackling, your month of typing was in vain. What you've ended up with is fluff, not a story. Don't. Blargh-Spackle.

Con: After you get through that month-long rush of creativity in November, you may hit a slump. It's easy to lose interest and set your partially-finished novel aside, especially if you feel like what you wrote is rubbish. Many people squeak by 50,000 during November or even get a larger wordcount, but stop writing on December 1. Since that date is outside the jurisdiction of NaNo, technically this is an acceptable way of doing it; however, if you won't stick to it and make something of what you've been wrestling with for a month, NaNo has been a failure and a waste of time. Don't do NaNo if you don't have some reason for writing that will keep you going.

And now, news from the front.

Novel in Progress: The White Sail's Shaking

Genre: Historical Fiction

Time Period: 1803-1804, set during America's First Barbary War

Favourite Theme: The Chariot Race, Prince of Egypt Soundtrack

Wordcount as of 10:45 am November 8: 17,010

October 28, 2010

Guest Post - K.M. Weiland

K.M Weiland, authoress of novels A Man Called Outlaw and Behold the Dawn, recently released a CD on how writers can cultivate a life of inspiration instead of waiting for a lightning bolt to strike them. This is a reposting of a great article she wrote some time ago about inspiration on her blog Wordplay - Opening Yourself Up to Inspiration.

If you’re like most writers, coming up with story ideas is rarely a problem. More than likely, your brain bubbles over with more ideas than you’d be able to use in two and half lifetimes. I’ve yet to meet a writer who decided Hmm, I’d like to be an author—and then sat down to brainstorm ideas. Instead, I suspect most of us first turned to writing as a way to release the pressure of all the ideas already ricocheting around in our brains.

For many of us, the problem isn’t that we have too few ideas, but rather that we’ll never live long enough to write the ideas we already have. Of course, that really isn’t a problem; it’s a tremendous blessing. And if a little blessing is good, a lot of blessing must be even better, right? If a little bit of inspiration has us soaring up near the ceiling, why not go whole hog and open yourself to inspiration in every possible way?

Ultimately, inspiration is an intensely personal experience, unrepeatable and often unresponsive to conscious prodding. You can’t force inspiration. It either happens or it doesn’t. You can’t sit yourself down at your desk, squeeze your eyes shut, and demand that inspiration appear in front of you complete with drumroll and a puff of smoke. Inspiration is a gift, and like all gifts it must be treated with gratitude and responsibility.

But none of this is to say that we can’t position ourselves in the path of inspiration. Instead of just waiting around for the muse to hit us in the head with a lightning bolt, we can ingrain in ourselves the habit of “opening” ourselves to inspiration.

So (as if you didn’t already have too many stories to write), here’s a handful of tips for composing an invitation that Madame Inspiration won’t be able to resist.

Pay Attention to the Details

Writing is the details. Without these little garnishes, most stories could easily be summed up in a sentence or two. (Don’t believe me? Check out Book-A-Minute Classics.) People read fiction because they want to experience life. They want to see the way the dust motes turn to gold in a shaft of sunlight, and they want to smell the delicate spray of an orange rind as it is peeled back.

In order to share all these minutiae with readers, we first have to notice them ourselves. But don’t just notice it; experience it. In the end, a story is about the little things as much, if not more so, than the grand scope of life and death. So pay attention to the color of the sky right before the sun dips below the horizon, notice the way the bass in a sound system thrums in the soles of your feet, absorb the smell of rain so deeply that you can describe it without even trying. Not only will paying attention to the details plump up your prose, who knows when you’ll stumble upon some inconsequential and heretofore unnoticed facet that will spur your next story.

Look Beyond the Cliché

Keep your eyes wide open for the unexpected. Look beyond the obvious in search of surprising juxtapositions. Broaden your horizons; start searching for esoteric and little-known nuggets. When you find yourself with an idea for a story that could easily turn into a familiar plotline, hang onto it for a bit and go in search of some unexpected ingredient you can throw into the mix. Say you want to tell a mystery story. Don’t just settle for a tale about a hard-boiled cop in an inner-city district. Dig deeper. What would be unexpected? What would be out of the ordinary? For me, a story isn’t ready to be written until I’ve been able to add at least two or three layers of juxtaposition.


Never underestimate your subconscious. When you’ve come to a snarl in your plot, don’t think too hard. You can only push your conscious brain so far. On more than one occasion, after I’ve backed myself and my characters into a seemingly insurmountable corner, I’ve sat at the keyboard for hours, racking my brain for an answer that just wouldn't come. But when I return to the problem the next day, after my subconscious has had a chance to mull over the matter for the night, the solution is practically staring me in the face.

When you come across an interesting snippet of an idea that you aren’t quite certain how to develop — toss it into your subconscious for a while. Sometimes ideas stew in the back of my mind for years before suddenly reappearing on center stage as something worth pursuing.


Nobody says you always have to wait for inspiration to come to you. Put your conscious mind to work and brainstorm. Give yourself “idea deadlines” (e.g. I’m going to come up with a new story idea every day). Buy a book of journaling prompts (such as Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book) or google the Web for one of the hundreds of websites that offers prompts. Schedule idea-hunting day trips and sally forth with notebook and pen in hand.

I will admit that most of my best ideas have not been the product of a conscious effort. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from brainstorming sessions. Even if I don’t walk away from every session with a viable idea, at least I’ve given the ol’ brain a good workout.

Don’t Wait for Inspiration

Finally, and most importantly, don’t wait for inspiration. We’d all like to take up permanent residence in that rarefied atmosphere where the “inspiration high” is a constant state of being. But, as all writers discover sooner or later, that high will inevitably run dry. If we allow our writing to dry up with it, we’ll never so much as finish a story, much less be read by anyone.

Inspiration is much more likely to strike when your mind is active. So even on the days when the mental well seems to have evaporated and blown away in clouds of steam, sit yourself down at your desk and keep writing. Inspiration, after all, is really a very small part of the big picture.

- Check out K.M. Weiland's blogs Wordplay and AuthorCulture for more posts on writing! -

October 26, 2010

Jane Austen's Manuscripts

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is perhaps one of the most popular of classic British authors today: her novels are nowhere near as difficult to get through as those of Charles Dickens, do not wade through moral and social problems like Elizabeth Gaskell's, and are, quite simply, light and enjoyable reads. Her classic novel Pride and Prejudice has been adapted as a movie or a television serial numerous times, and then there are all the spin-offs that line the shelves of Barnes & Noble (though how one fits zombies into Pride and Prejudice is beyond me, and I prefer not to find out).

For the past few years the University of Oxford and King's College London have been working together on making digital versions of Jane Austen's original manuscripts, spanning from the age of about 12 to her death in 1817. The collection includes the Juvenilia (short or unfinished stories written early in Austen's life), scraps of her more famous novel Persuasion, and other unfinished works like Sanditon and The Watsons. The manuscripts show an amusingly large amount of blotted words and scratched out lines, dashes all over the place, and randomly capitalized letters until the pages are all but illegible. In fact, modern researchers have concluded that, contrary to Austen's brother's claim, not everything "came finished from her pen" - in short, the editor had a lot to do with Austen's polished style.

Of course, in the late 1700s/early 1800s, spelling was not as strict as it is today and the English language was fairly fluid; also, writing by hand does not leave much room for neat edits and revisions, so Austen's blurred style is understandable. The manuscripts shown on the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts website are very similar to the Oxford Jane Austen Collection, where the idiosyncrasies in her style are preserved, and it is fascinating to see how Jane Austen wrote. It certainly does not detract from the charm of her writing, nor, I'll wager, does it do much to lower her in the opinions of her faithful fans. It just puts the editor in a more heroic light.

October 16, 2010

Research - Stephen Decatur

The Age of Sail has intrigued me for a long time, but I had never studied it in-depth or read many books about it, nonfiction or fiction. Recently, however, I read Six Frigates by Ian W. Toll - a history of the founding of the U.S. Navy - and remembered just why, and how much, I enjoyed reading about the wooden ships of the time. What I knew about them was concentrated on the British navy, naturally enough; I knew very little about the development of the United States'. But in my reading I came across the interesting character of Stephen Decatur, Jr., who is to play a fairly important role in my NaNo novel The White Sail's Shaking.

Stephen Decatur, Jr., was born in 1779 in Sinepuxent, Maryland, to parents Stephen and Ann (Pine) Decatur. His grandfather, Étienne (Stephen) Decatur, was French, but renounced that citizenship to marry Priscilla Hill; her family had been in Rhode Island since the early 1600s. Stephen Decatur, Jr., studied at the University of Pennsylvania and was encouraged by his mother not to go to sea; however, both Stephen Decatur's father and grandfather had careers on the sea, and in 1799, during America's Quasi War with France, Decatur became a midshipman on one of the famous six frigates of the United States, the USS United States. A mere month later, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

Decatur was an interesting character in personality as well as his naval career. In his biography of Decatur, Spencer Tucker quotes one man as saying,

"[he] possessed, in an eminent degree, the happy art of governing sailors rather by their affections than their fears. He was averse to punishment, and rarely had occasion to resort to it, being usually able to rely, for the preservation of discipline, on the reluctance of his inferiors to displease him. It was remarked of him at this period, by an officer, that 'he seemed, as if by magic, to hold a boundless sway over the hearts of seamen at first sight.'"

In an age where most leaders found it necessary to resort to floggings and the like to keep their crew out of the rum, free of mutinous thoughts, and on their proper ship, a man who could run his crew merely by the effect his own person had on them is an interesting one to study.

What is probably the most famous event in Decatur's career came during the first Barbary War, or the Tripolitan War, when he, still a lieutenant, commanded the USS Enterprize during the commodore-ship of Edward Preble. After the massive USS Philadelphia ran aground off the bay of Tripoli and its crew and officers were taken by the Tripolitans, Decatur led a night expedition in the converted Tripolitan boat Intrepid to burn the Philadelphia before the enemy could make use of it. He was successful, surprisingly so, and the event soon earned him a two-rung promotion to the rank of captain that bypassed the rank of master commandant.

Just a few years after the end of the first Barbary War, Decatur served in the War of 1812, during which he commanded his old ship, the USS United States. In October he captured the HMS Macedonian, fulfilling a bet that had been made by the Macedonian's captain, Carden, years before that if the two ships were to meet in battle, Carden would win; but he lost, and Decatur refitted the Macedonian to return to the United States. Both ships were driven into a Connecticut port by a British blockade and stayed there for the rest of the war.

British blockades during the war made it difficult for individual ships, and certainly larger squadrons, to leave their home ports. After Decatur moved his command to the frigate President, stationed at New York, he and his small squadron were commanded to sail to the Caribbean; attempting to run the blockade, he was forced to surrender to the massive ships outside port. He spent the rest of the war in Bermuda as a prisoner and then was released in February of 1815. That May, he commanded a squadron that sailed to the Mediterranean again to positively show the Barbary nations that the United States would not pay tribute; he was successful in his mission and earned himself the title of "Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates."

Perhaps the next most famous event of Decatur's life came in 1820 - his duel with Commodore James Barron, and his death as a result. Barron had commanded the USS Chesapeake (thought to be an unlucky ship) during the famous Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, when Barron had not ordered his men into readiness and had subsequently been captured by the British in the Leopard with no fight. Due to criticism Decatur gave on the subject and the fact that he had served on the court martial that found Barron guilty of unpreparedness, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel. Dueling was technically illegal in the United States at the time (Alexander Hamilton had died in his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804), but it was a matter of honor, and Decatur accepted.

His plan, apparently, was only to wound Barron; Barron had bitterness on his side, however, and he shot Decatur in the abdomen. Decatur soon died, only forty-one years old.

My coming novel The White Sail's Shaking takes place during the First Barbary War, and while it doesn't follow Decatur, the main character serves aboard his ship, the Enterprize.

Note: Copies of The Soldier's Cross are now available for pre-order on the blog sidebar. If buying more than one copy, remember to select the correct drop-down section to get a discount, and put the number of copies you would like in your PayPal shopping cart. Thank you!

October 7, 2010

What is "Christian" Fiction?

I don't read many contemporary novels, Christian or secular. It's difficult to find ones of any worth amid the muddle of copycat authors, immorality, and skeleton-strewn covers, so I primarily stick to those whose authors have been dead for, oh, at least forty or fifty years. But I also run a review site and I wanted to get it set up to receive free copies of books to review, and, of course, those books are contemporary - hot off the press, actually; so, since I received a copy from a publishing house, I recently read a contemporary Christian novel.

I'm not going to go into rant-mode about the atrocities of modern writing, etc. I was more shocked by the realization (I had known it before, but, sticking to the classics as I do, I had never witnessed it) of how the word "Christian" is used as a label, on books, on music, even on churches. The book I read was basically a romance, sprinkled with prayer and a few moral revelations, such as "Oh, lying isn't a good thing!" and "What do you know! God is sovereign!" This, apparently, makes a book "Christian," despite the fact there was no hint of the Gospel message in the pages.

Now, I can very easily appreciate a novel without its depicting a clearly Christian worldview. Most classic novels take a moral stance in looking at the world, like Dickens and Austen, but not one that is founded on the heart of Scripture - the complete depravity of man and the need for the gift of redemption through Christ's sacrifice; rather, they are built on the basic moral code set in every man. Not that these writers were utterly godless, for Dickens often speaks reverently of God in his works; Jane Austen wrote some very stirring prayers and defends the Church in some of her novels; Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre had many facets that seemed to be more than just moral; and Louisa May Alcott's stories are extremely moral and works-based. But are they Christian? No; they merely reflect the emerging deistic or theistic philosophies of their time.

So how do contemporary novels of the same brand gain the right to be labeled "Christian"? There are several different possible answers that spring to mind immediately. The first is what I already posited - they get called "Christian" because they're moral and they have God as a fairly central figure (even if He does seem like a bit of an afterthought crowded in there). But does that really count as Christian? If an unbeliever picked up a book after seeing that it was labeled "Christian" and read it, might he not come away with the misunderstanding that the God we claim to worship is really nothing more than a sort of appendage stuck on our lives, or a prayer machine, or perhaps that it is mere morality that we are celebrating? And even if we say that unbelievers aren't likely to be reading it anyway, and that it is for believers, I can't help thinking that the result isn't going to be much better for Christians, either. These sorts of novels with a bit of God shoved in cultivate an attitude of regarding the Sovereign, Almighty God - the One who "holds all things together by the word of His power" and "in [whom] we live and move and have our being" - of regarding Him as something less than the focus of our lives.

The second possible reason is that the books are called Christian because their authors profess to be Christian, and perhaps they feel guilty writing something that doesn't at least have some Christian teaching clearly tacked on. I don't believe that this is a valid argument, for two reasons. One is essentially what I talked about above: if you paste that label of "Christian" onto a book, you have to remember the possible readers and consider what they will take away from that novel about what Christianity is. And the second is that, generally speaking, not every story that comes to mind is going to deal with the Gospel itself, and it is not necessary to try to wedge it in where it doesn't fit. I do believe that no story a Christian writes ought to be written for shock value, defy the truths of Scripture, or go against the principles of our faith in any way, and I think that this cleanliness of our literature ought to stand as a light amid the general darkness of secular books. This is our witness: not our stuffing the Gospel where it really doesn't fit and showing ourselves awkward through the awkwardness of our writing, but keeping our works pure, letting the themes come as they will, and boldly allowing our faith to show itself in the pages when and where it fits.

September 28, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

We're still a little over a month away from November and NaNoWriMo - or what non-NaNoers call "insanity." The basics of National Novel Writing Month aren't difficult to explain, even to the uninitiated; you commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. You may not start writing before 1:00 am November 1, though you may do outlines, character sketches, and such before hand.

50,000 words. It is, surprisingly, not as hard as it sounds, since that number comes out to about 1,667 words per day when divided by 30 days. Still, I failed my first attempt in 2008, mainly due to the fact that I rushed into the fray at the last minute because it seemed like a good idea at the time. They say you can do NaNo without a plot and without a purpose, but I fail to see the logistics of that; I'm sure it works for some, but I have to go in with a storyline to sail through the month on. I believe I ended 2008 with about 17,000 words, which is extremely pitiful when compared to that 50,000 I was striving for.

2009 was much better. I did not, as several of my friends were crazy enough to do, reach 100k in two weeks, but I did manage to finish out the month with 62,000 words of my novel The Soldier's Cross; I completed it in the following months and it is, of course, being published by the Christian publishing house Ambassador-Emerald this October. So this year I'm returning to NaNo with The White Sail's Shaking, a sea-novel set in the United States' First Barbary War. My sister, Jenny, and my sister-in-law, Deb, are both doing NaNo as well this year, so we're spending most of our spare time getting ready for November 1. For Deb that means doing an outline and ironing out plot problems; for Jenny it means putting together a list of chapters and collecting massive amounts of books; for me it's a combination of all of those and completing my work in progress, Wordcrafter. I should be finishing the last chapter of that a few days before November. No rest for the weary.

September 23, 2010

Sneak Peak and Updates

Here is the map I have drawn up (or GIMP'd up) for the front pages of my book The Soldier's Cross, to give readers a feeling of where the locations - historical and fictional - are in the novel.

In other news, the layout for the insides of both my book and Jenny's have been mostly completed and the project is moving along wonderfully. The cover design should be complete soon and there will be an option on the sidebar of Scribbles and Ink Stains to pre-order however many copies you would like, which will be shipped out upon publication of the book (late October to early- or mid-November).

September 4, 2010

Fantasy: Creating Worlds

I received a couple of questions on my last post and on my Inspiration for Wordcrafter about how to create a solid fantasy world and how to do the research for it. I was really at a loss how to respond, at first, seeing as the parallel world in Wordcrafter was one of those things that came into my head and needed little help; but as I thought about it, a few ideas occurred to me.

For starters, you have to be willing to take the time to make your world like one of those that I mentioned in my last post; because if yours isn't one that was fully formed already (most aren't), it will most likely need research and brain-storming. Just like a historical fiction, fantasies take planning. What happens when a person jumps out of a plane without a parachute? He goes splat. And what happens when a writer jumps into a story without any forethought? Chances are, the story goes splat. So you have to be dedicated enough to the story to not skimp on the hard parts.

Now on to the actual suggestions. Chances are, your fantasy realm is tied to something in our world - probably English history and culture. Only God can create ex nihilo; we build off of things we know. And for Americans, what we know is largely our own history: that is, the history of the United States and the history of our mother country, England. It's no wonder, then, that most fantasy worlds in modern novels have some basic themes in common, such as the existence of a ruling king and queen. I mentioned in my last post that Tolkien fashioned Middle-Earth largely on the old legends of Britain and the myths of the Norse, and a few writers have followed his lead (such as Christopher Paolini). Considering how fascinating English history is, it's not a bad or strange thing that writers utilize it in crafting their own worlds; but that leads to my first thought -

Think outside the box. The realm you're making is your own and so is the story itself, so you know best what kind of a world will fit with your plot and the feel of the novel. But if you're going to have a fantasy set in a Medieval sort of world, then do your homework; read books on life in the Middle Ages, because knowing your material will give you what you need to manipulate and bend those facts to spice up your story. You might try delving into cultures more foreign to American readers, such as ancient Asian empires or the Aztecs. Don't limit yourself to the culture of the Western world just because most authors do.

Surface research. This is what I suggested to a friend of mine when she asked me about ideas for world-crafting. It's basically just skimming books on a wide range of subjects to see if anything catches your eye. Children's books are great for this, juvenile as they may seem, because they give the reader a cursory look at different cultures and don't take an age to look over; plus, they usually have pictures, which are great helps to some. So if you're seeking inspiration, you could try getting one small book on each culture that even remotely interests you - Mayans, Japanese, Chinese, Greeks, Phoenicians, etc. - and looking over them. You may either find a variety of things from each that would all work together to inspire a fantasy world, or you may find one culture specifically that interests you. And then...

Read. This is probably where most who call themselves writers lose interest, but it's imperative. If you don't read, you won't know how or what to write. Once you find a culture that catches your attention, look into it more deeply and pick out those features that you think you would like to weave into your fantasy. Read books and look up internet articles on it, and then brainstorm.

Brainstorm. Brainstorming is especially important to the writer, because here is where you make sure that those tidbits from history that you fell in love with will actually work in the story. It's no good to have fascinating points that don't work or that stand out garishly from the context. Brainstorming is one of the parts of writing that polishes ideas, as well as creating them, so don't leave it out of the process.

September 1, 2010

Why Write Fantasy?

Fantasy is very popular in the writing world right now, and has been since Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was published - and especially since it was made into a movie by Peter Jackson. There is a whole slue of fantasy trilogies, sequences, cycles, and sagas out there now, from Paolini's Eragon to Rowling's Harry Potter, crowding the shelves of Barnes & Noble. There are few people who don't love the epic qualities of Frodo Baggins' journey to Mount Doom and the fight to save Middle Earth from the evil of Sauron, and if you're a writer of fantasy, chances are you've been inspired by Tolkien's books in one way or another. But what is the attraction of fantasy? Why write it?

Well, one big reason is that the concept of "another world" holds a great deal of charm to writers and readers alike. We like the feeling of power we get when we create this other world and populate it with fantastical creatures and evil overlords, and many readers like the newness of a Middle-Earth or a Narnia. Sure, Earth is all well and good, but it gets kinda boring after awhile, you know?

That's great, but writers can go overboard. Easily. That feeling of power and freedom that you get in the creation of a new world can lead to mindsets that damage the story in the end, such as the assumption that, because your novel is of the fantasy genre, readers will suspend their disbelief more readily - because it's your world and you can do what you want in it. This is true, but only to a degree. You obviously have to be more careful writing an historical fiction to get all the facts and figures correct than you do with a fantasy; but all the same, readers aren't necessarily going to accept with awe a character's special powers just because it's fantasy. Your writing has to be believable, no matter what genre it's in.

So how come Tolkien got away with it? He had balrogs and orcs and little round people who live in holes, not to mention a Lidless Eye and immortal Elves, but readers willingly accept all his impossible creations. So why not ours? The problem with that question is that we should never take it upon ourselves to say that if a great and famous author could get away with it, so can we. That's the height of arrogance. But the actual answer to the question comes in a look at how Tolkien crafted the world of Middle-Earth. Most people are aware of the amount of research and behind-the-scenes construction Tolkien went through in The Lord of the Rings, and our initial response is to exclaim, "Good heavens, was he MAD?" But all that crazy work was what made his world believable. He drew from the myths of the Norse and the history of Britain and used those as foundations for the world, the peoples, the backstory, and the legends of Middle-Earth, so in the end, he wasn't dumping readers onto something ungrounded and strange. Middle-Earth makes sense, because it has all the facets of the world we live in.

Most writers nowadays aren't going to go into the depth that Tolkien did, but some amount of research and incorporation of ancient (and, if possible, nearly forgotten) history will add to the depth of any fantasy. Sure, there are readers who will obligingly go along with wild tales and impossibilities, but intricate worlds will pack much more of a punch.

August 25, 2010

The Joy of Writing

I read a post on a blog yesterday about whether or not writing was fun. The premise was that a person (whose name was changed to protect the innocent) enjoyed making up stories and imagining different worlds, but hated writing. They felt that all the joy went out of the story-making when they sat down to write. The author of the post was replying to this person, and said that this is a common ailment among those who call themselves writers; they even quoted Nicholas Sparks, a best-selling author, who said that he does not enjoy writing and it isn't fun when he's doing it. Of course, he likes the finished product, but he looks at writing as "going to work." The writer of the blog concluded that writers-who-are-not-fond-of-writing is perfectly normal and reasonable.

Now, at this point I'll interject to say that I have not read much of the aforementioned blog, and if anyone recognizes the post I'm talking about, please don't think I'm ridiculing the writer. These are just my thoughts on the subject.

My question is, can one be a writer without enjoying writing?

The idea seems to be incongruous. While I will concede wholeheartedly that writing is not always fun, and we all know about those times where we just slog through, waiting for the plot to get easier, this is not the normal situation of a writer. After all, what is a writer? Easy: it's someone who writes. A writer is not someone who makes up stories and then transfers them to paper, but is someone who creates stories with words. Making a straight separation between imagination and work is incorrect. They overlap and intertwine. You don't abandon imagination when you sit down at the computer, nor do you leave off work when you lie in bed thinking about your epic plot; they both make up the art of writing.

So, a writer writes, and a writer should write because there is enjoyment in the writing. There is simply too much uncertainty about the business for one to write for any other reason; there is no assurance that you will be able to get published and make money, and there isn't any fame to be had unless you can do that. Granted, the ability to pay one's bills is certainly incentive to write; granted, for those dependent on their writing to bring income, writing is work; granted, sometimes the joy is lacking from scribbling. These are all true, but at the heart of the matter, writers write because they love creating and capturing things with words - the same way painters love capturing beauty with paint, or musicians love capturing beauty in music.

Any thoughts?

August 23, 2010

The Ten Levels of Inspiration

K.M. Weiland on her wonderful blog Wordplay wrote a post on the fifteen levels of inspiration that led to her current work in progress, called The Deepest Breath. I couldn't pull out fifteen from the dumps of my memory, but I thought it would be fun to do the same for my work in progress, Wordcrafter.

1. It started with either a nasty headache or a cold, I forget which. Not a promising start, but when one is in pain, it is very easy to be inspired to write about someone else who is in pain; so I tottered upstairs to my computer (which really helped my headache...) and wrote a section about a man who had been attacked by a wolf during a hunt.

2. Which then led to some inspiration arising from this magnificent bit of artwork, done for a book that I have never heard of before.

3. Then there was some inspiration from Lawhead's Song of Albion trilogy.

4. Add to that some of the features of the Middle Eastern cultures, including the Arabian horses...

5. Then the rampant illiteracy of the Middle Ages...

6. Then the historical struggle between humans over the color of skin, specifically the antipathy toward Gypsies...

7. Andrew Peterson's song 'Nothing to Say.'

8. The movie Amazing Grace, about abolitionist William Wilberforce, inspired me with some themes...

9. Ceylon tea.

10. Then the friendship of David and Jonathan, which only occurred to me after I had several things in the story that tied into the Biblical account. This is probably the strongest inspiration, as it helped me flesh out the story a good deal.

August 20, 2010

He Said, She Said

"...for I have just had it from Mrs. Long!"

A lot of writing guidebooks will advise you never to append any verb other than "said" to a section of dialogue, probably to avoid a stilted feel. In addition, they discourage the use of any adverbs to describe how the character is speaking. But the problem with these hard-and-fast rules is pretty easy to find - it's boring. Not just boring for the writer (quite a few things seem boring to the writer that truly are necessary), but boring for the reader, too. Constant "he said, she said, said Tom, said Jane's" in literature rarely convey the feeling behind the words, and tend to weigh down the dialogue.

Granted, it is unwise to throw out "said's" altogether, or even to major in other verbs. It's a good, old-fashioned, frank word, and it carries a lot of meeting when properly used. But sometimes it's not suited to how the character is speaking, and there is a better word to use that carries more weight and gets the point across. Of course, many times no verb is needed at all, especially when the reader knows who is speaking; then there is little call to tack on an idle "he said."

The same is true for adverbs. While it is true that being told in every scrap of dialogue that John intoned every word smartly and Isabel warbled gleefully is annoying, this is no call for throwing out all verbs and adverbs. It merely means that writers have to be careful that they do not abuse these things, but use them to the best advantage in their prose. It's very difficult, and even a little silly, to make any set, immovable laws about writing technique, because there are always exceptions and variations to every rule.

August 17, 2010

Stereotypes, Big and Small

There are no end of stereotypes for and within every nationality, some more glaring than others, that surface often in fiction. An Irishman idly chewing on a raw potato, when there are other vittles to hand; an American Indian giving that celebrated war whoop; a meek, quiet Quaker. Now, there is no denying that the Irish ate potatoes, that some Indians had war cries, and that the Quakers, as a group, strove to be a mild people. But when these accepted facts begin to weigh down a book, it makes the subject matter grating.

In Martin Chuzzlewit, one of Dickens most celebrated novels, his characters Mark Tapley and Martin Chuzzlewit spend a great deal of time in America. They have come to seek their fortune in the relatively new nation of the United States, and they are hardly on shore before the stereotypes that made the book so controversial, begin. All but a handful of people wear straw hats, bear titles from the army (Colonel, Captain, Major, and so on), and, most glaring of all, talk a great deal about Liberty and Freedom and are absolute hypocrites. The irony comes in when these very same American characters stereotype the British people. Now, this portrayal of the United States is amusing for the first two or three pages, but stretched out over chapters upon chapters, it becomes galling.

The third book of Louisa May Alcott's series, Jo's Boys, provides some more such stereotypes. Emil is the sailor, and having fulfilled his dream of "sailing the ocean blue," he plays his role to the utmost. Everything is "jolly," everyone is a "land lubber," he walks with a swagger, he sings sailor songs, and uses terms like "weighing anchor" and "heave off." Alcott leaves out the harsher facts of navy life, like the floggings, the casualties, and the largely harsh and demanding captains. The result? Your stereotypical sailor.

Dan, the "firebrand" of Little Men, is a wanderer. On returning home from the West after nearly two years away, he is full of stories about Indians named Black Hawk and horses named Lightning and hunting buffalo; he brings back feathers and beads, tomahawks and moccasins and wampum (which were, incidentally, only used by the tribes of Eastern North America); and he teaches his companions to do the war whoop. For me, this went far to ruin Dan's character by giving him such time-worn stories to tell.

These sorts of stereotypes often slip into writing, and they may be large or they may be small. Some stereotypes are absolutely true and almost impossible to avoid - but I believe it weighs down the story when the author unconsciously makes major or minor characters "typical." Original characters are part of what gives spice to books, so it's good to think outside the box when developing them. If your story calls for a character who fits his nationality's stereotype, make sure you can pull it off without jarring the reader. Add a few interesting aspects to his or her background or personality. Ben-Hur's Messala, the Roman and the antagonist, is your typical Roman - proud, arrogant, and a Jew-hater. But not only is that acceptable because that character makes an excellent villain, but he has an original past: he grew up among the Jews. So add some spice to your characters and don't annoy your readers by feeding them stereotypes.

August 13, 2010

Sentence Lengths

I am currently reading Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and recently finished Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Juxtaposed to their trailing sentences, I have recently read several authors and teachers of today who advise making sure that sentences do not exceed so many words or so many lines on a Microsoft Word page. Now, I think it's pretty obvious that the days of Austen's mile-long sentences, speckled with an ellipses here, a semicolon there, and several dashes all over, are long gone; readers do not like having to stop and catch their breath all the time. But dictating the "proper" length of all sentences and cutting one's structure to fit that is not the answer, either.

Strunk and White's Elements of Style advises against these sorts of cookie-cutter sentences and call them 'singsong' and 'mechanical' in their symmetry. A full paragraph of simple sentences is monotonous for the reader and tends to lead their mind (my mind, at least!) to the poor quality of the writing, rather than the point the author was attempting to make. Thus, Strunk and White advise this:

"If the writer finds that he has written a series of loose sentences, he should recast enough of them to remove the monotony, replacing them with simple sentences, by sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon, by periodic sentences of two clauses, by sentences (loose or periodic) of three clauses - whichever best represent the real relations of the thought." (The Elements of Style, Principles of Composition #18)

In other words, vary the length and structure of your sentences.

Now, there is a place for several brief sentences, especially in expressing sarcasm, the tenseness of a moment, or something of the kind. But we have to make sure that our brevity counts for something in the scene, so we should not go wild with chopping all of our sentences into "bite sized chunks." Keep it reasonable - there is no need to go Jane Austen and run a single sentence out for half a page - but not repetitive.

August 5, 2010

TSC Sample Chapter

Here is a sample chapter of The Soldier's Cross, which I hope you will enjoy.

The wind ran along the muddy-grey banks of the river, kicking up those bits of snow that had not fully melted and flinging them into Fiona’s mouth. She paused to spit them out and squinted up at the black sky to catch the first scent of rain, and a slight mizzle began as she struggled onward again. It was not enough to be hampering and just enough to be vexing; she slapped her arms and rubbed them and blew into her palms as she walked, but still the colour sapped from her hands and left them a ghostly white, thinly veined in blue, and she could barely feel the presence of her chapped lips. Were those her own feet going up, down, up, and down on the turf in front of her? The only thing that she knew to be her own was her head, seated like a boulder upon her shoulders, and that she thought soon to fall off.

Night was coming on and the wind was picking up, though after having soaked through Fiona’s clothes to her skin, the rain stopped. There were no stars and no moon: only clouds. Soon the Marne River disappeared into the blackness on her right; she got down on her hands and knees and ventured toward where it ought to have been, reaching out blindly to feel the slippery embankment or the water itself, but somehow she had lost it. She sat for a little while in the snow, clutching her small, metal cross for fear the wind would take it, until she began to feel drowsy.

Getting back to her feet, she shuffled along—in circles, for all she knew—for minutes or hours, and her hands began to come into contact with hard, rough things in her way. It was some time before her cold-slowed mind and numb fingers realized that she was walking among trees and her heart, already in her belly, gave a despairing thump. She must have wandered far from the Marne; she was lost in a wood, and even with the morning light she was not likely to find her way back again.

Fiona stood still and gazed about her; overhead, above the branching, witch-like trees, there was a stretch of dark blue several shades lighter than the darkness around her and a pale quarter moon now floated in and out of the clouds. It did not illumine her surroundings, but only created a halo about itself and left the world below in gloom. The wind whistled around her, howling as it rushed between the oaks and yews and old, old elms; branches creaked and groaned like sailing ships. Now that she was not concentrating on the next step and keeping herself on the path, the night became frightening and full of evils that she would rather not face on her own. She kept on, her footsteps jarring her head and her already-aching shoulder.

The next moment—or perhaps it was the next hour, or the next but one—her body contacted cold stone. She had walked into a wall much taller than her head and which stretched out on either side of her, and when she began tremulously to feel her way down the length of it, her fingers digging into the cracks and the moss and taking comfort in the presence of something manmade, she found something iron. Upon further investigation she discovered it to be a gate, but beyond it, inside the stone walled enclosure, she could see nothing. On the right side of the gateway her hands encountered what felt like a short rope dangling from an outcropping of stone, just about at the level of her nose, and she tugged on it experimentally.

A loud clanging immediately began above her head and she released the rope, but to no purpose. It continued to swing and the bell sounded over and over; she shrank back against the wall, but did not run. She watched as candles flared within the courtyard and light seeped out from under the door that she saw in the big, stone building inside, and soon three women were crossing the enclosure and coming to greet her through the gate. “Good evening, traveler,” one smiled, as though it was nothing out of the ordinary to be called out of bed in the middle of the night to welcome a stranger. “Do you seek lodging here?”

“I—I—I—” stuttered Fiona through her blue lips, bewildered by the firelight in her face. “If it would not be too much trouble.”

“It is no trouble,” the nun assured her, swinging open the iron gate and reaching out to take Fiona’s arm. Fiona sucked in a breath as the grip broke the numbness and sent pain all up and down her right side in spider-webbed patterns; the nun drew her fingers back and looked at them, finding them sticky with blood. “Saints,” she murmured. “Come inside directly, my dear—what has happened to you? Come into the dining hall. Call Sister Marguerite, Annette, and quickly!”

Fiona was hurried into the convent and through a foyer and corridor to the narrow room that she took to be their dining hall. She had time to observe it as the nuns talked among themselves; it was decorated after the fashion of chapels, and Fiona felt the hundred pairs of eyes watching her from their lofty positions on the high walls as she came in. There was a great, black fireplace at the opposite end of the room as well, however, so she supposed this was not the sanctuary—or, if it was, it had not always been one.

Her guide seated her at a place close to the fire and called for another one of the sisters to light it. How warm it felt! Fiona thought she had never experienced such comfort, but the nun would not let her enjoy it in peace. She came and unfastened the pin that held Fiona’s wet cloak to her shoulders and took it off, showing the red zigzag on the girl’s right shoulder as well as her short, lopsided haircut. The nun gave another exclamation at that, and touched Fiona’s shorn head as if it were the most extraordinary phenomenon she had ever seen in her entire life, as well it might have been. “Well!” she said; it seemed the only thing she could think of to say.

After a moment she cleared her throat and returned to her brisk ordering of things, beginning to peel the cloth back from Fiona’s right shoulder as she spoke. “What happened here? Were you attacked?”

“Only that I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Fiona replied ruefully, wincing at the woman’s touch. “I was caught in a kind of brawl. I do not think it is very bad.”

“No, the wound does not seem deep, but we will wait for Sister Marguerite before we decide. Here now, here comes Sister Catherine with some hot broth for you; you must be very hungry. How long have you been walking?”

Fiona could not clearly remember, but it seemed to her that this was the end of her first day. Time was not very important when one was concentrating on putting one foot after the other and thinking about how cold it was. She said so and the nun chuckled, setting the bowl of soup into Fiona’s frozen paws.

“What is your name, girl? I am Sister Elisabeth, but there are so many nuns here that it will be of no consequence if you forget about me. If you stay here for any length of time, you may come to know us all. But now, your name?”

“Fiona, ma’am. It’s very kind of you to take me in.”

Sister Elisabeth waved her off. “As I said, it is no trouble whatsoever. Drink up your broth before Marguerite returns. Ah, does your shoulder pain you?” She watched as Fiona flinched in raising the bowl to her lips, the girl’s hands shaking with exhaustion and a torrent of other sensations.

Fiona thrust her chin up and shook her head. “No, ma’am, I’m quite well. It’s nothing very much.”

“Well, here is Sister Marguerite now. Our guest has a wound in the shoulder, Marguerite; can you clean it?”

Marguerite was a thin, old woman, though still upright and with the appearance of a great deal of strength in her body. She did not touch Fiona’s wound at first, but only looked; presently she nodded. “Easily,” she said, clearly and shortly. “I will go and bring my things while you finish your supper.”

All the nuns but Elisabeth, Marguerite, and the young Annette, who seemed only necessary in that she fetched and carried what the older women wanted, left the room and returned to their beds. The other three worked at boiling herbs and binding them against the cut to prevent more bleeding, and though it stung, Fiona found that she could bear it without too much trial if she thought about the heat of the fire or the cold outside. They had just finished passing the bandage over her right shoulder and under her left arm for the last time and tying it off when another woman entered the room from a door half concealed on one side of the hearth; the nuns curtsied to her, and Fiona looked at her curiously. She was about Marguerite’s age, but neither as wrinkled nor as obviously strong; she was small, though not hunched, and only her eyes and the straight line of her mouth had any power in them.

“Who is this?” she asked, nodding to Fiona. Sister Elisabeth explained the situation as clearly as she knew it herself, and the Reverend Mother—for such Fiona took her to be—nodded. “Has her wound been treated, then? Good. You and Sister Marguerite may go back to bed now, but you should stay, Annette.”

The two older nuns obediently left, and Annette retired to a place farther down the table where she could listen but not be in the way. All became quiet for a long, long time and Fiona thought she would doze off before the woman spoke. At last the Reverend Mother looked straight at Fiona and asked mildly, “What is your purpose, my daughter, in walking through the night in the cold, and alone? You seem too young to be a woman of the world.”

Fiona felt a flicker of indignation, though her mind, which was working again after having been thawed, told her that it was a reasonable question. She looked into the fire and presently said, “I am not a woman of the world. But I would rather not tell anyone—just now—about my life. Please, let me stay and do not question me.”

The woman continued to look at her. Her mouth continued in its stern, immovable line for a minute, but at last it softened slightly and she nodded. “You may stay, my dear. I will not turn you out in the middle of winter. Perhaps in time you will be more willing.”

Fiona did not contradict; she was too tired. “May I go to bed now?” she asked.

“Yes, you may go to bed now. Annette, show her to a guest room.”

Annette stood and Fiona, stiff in every limb, did the same. She did not remember to thank the Reverend Mother, but the nun did not comment; she was watching the silver cross that swung from Fiona’s fist as she walked, thinking.

Fiona followed the nun, who she thought was about her own age underneath the starkly black and white dress, through several corridors to where the guest rooms were. She looked about her as Annette led her into one, commenting under her breath, “It seems more like a room at Gallandon than a convent bedchamber.”

“What was that?” Annette asked. “Did you say something?”

Fiona shook her head, dropping her gaze from the high ceiling again. “No. I was only thinking out loud.”

“Ah. Well, here is your room; I will leave you to yourself for now and you can think aloud all you like. Do you need anything? Good-night, then. I will wake you in the morning.” She went out and shut the door carefully, leaving Fiona warm, full, and alone. Crawling up into the high bed, which, she later noticed, was harder than it looked, the girl put her head down and was asleep in minutes—the cross still in her hand.

She awoke not much later, when it was still very dark and without the slightest appearance of lightening soon. She was very much alert, though, and from the quick pounding of her heart she knew it had been a bad dream that had awakened her; sitting up, she looked about at the block-shaped shadows in the room and wondered for a half second where she was and what had occurred to get her there. The necklace and cross reminded her and she sat back, somewhat more at ease, but still not ready to sleep again.

Presently she put her legs out of bed and stretched her feet to reach the floor, dropping onto it. The convent was still; she crossed to the door and opened it like a sneaking child, looking first one way and then the other down the hallway. Which way had she and Annette come? She forgot now, but turned hopefully to the left and walked along the corridor and past a dozen or more doors, all shut, on either side. After a great many twists and turns through the convent, too many to keep track of, she stumbled into a large, rectangular room that could be nothing but the sanctuary. The ceiling was rounded and smooth high overhead and there were archways to the right and left, separated by pillars with unlit candles mounted on each; there were windows up near the roof and one at the end of the room, letting in a little silvery light.

Hesitant lest someone catch her, Fiona took a few more steps down the middle of the room and paused. Nothing happened and no one appeared, for her footsteps were muffled by the carpet rolled down the aisle. She continued to one of the benches and sat down on it to rest and think, staring sightlessly before her and thinking, not about the chapel or the convent, but about the world outside and the little ornament she held. Then she stretched out on the wooden surface, cradled her head in her arm, and closed her eyes.

August 3, 2010

The Soldier's Cross Publication

I announced on my blog 'As Sure as the Dawn' that my first novel is going to be published by Ambassador-Emerald International, a publishing house that has been in business since 1980 and has offices in both Northern Ireland and the United States. I wrote most of "The Soldier's Cross" for National Novel Writing Month last year (I'm happy to say that I reached the 50,000 word quota) and it will hopefully be released almost a full year later, by Christmas 2010. We are now in the design process, and when the cover has been completed I will post it and the option to pre-order copies.

The Soldier's Cross Plot Summary:

Fiona is not so bad. She attends Mass and services and goes to confession regularly, and considers her eternal welfare secure. She does not see the need to be as religiously fervent as her older brother, Giovanni, believing that if she is good enough for the Church, she is good enough for God.

Her ideas of seclusion, safety, and happiness are shattered when Giovanni is killed at the Battle of Agincourt and his body brought back home to England; his armor is intact, but missing is the silver cross that he always wore around his neck and that has been in the family for generations. Devastated by the loss of her brother, Fiona believes that she has received a sign from God that she is to avenge his death and recover the cross. She discovers, however, that she is not so much seeking the cross as she is its meaning, and in her journey she struggles to find peace in the harsh world of the Middle Ages.
meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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