Saturday, October 18, 2014

The box liked it

My historical novel A Thing Done, set in Florence in 1216, is now on sale.  For the next month, more or less, we've dropped the price drastically for ebook versions on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes, and lowered the price on the paperback as well.  It's now going for $3.50 for Kindle, $2.50 for Nook, and $2.99 for iTunes ebook version.  (I have no idea why those prices are different.  I just work here.) 

If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it.

"Of course she recommends it," I hear you saying.  "She wrote it."

Once, when my husband brought home a DVD, I asked him why he had chosen that particular film.  His answer?  "Well, the box liked it."

The box always likes it.  But I don't always love things I've created, after the fact.  Some of them actually make me cringe.  It's like when my husband and I record music:  when we play it back, I hate it.  I hear everything that could have been better, everything that isn't quite good enough, everything that could have been played more elegantly.

But this book I still like.  I'm not saying it's perfect, but I liked writing it, I liked having written it, and - most amazing of all - I even liked reading it.  And I think you might, too. liked it (read their review here):  "I've read a lot of historical novels over the last few years but I have to say that hands down, this one is at the top of my list," wrote Sandra Alvarez.  It makes me happy to know that people who are familiar with the underlying history enjoy my book.

The Sharp Writ Book Awards liked it.  It shared the top prize in the fiction category with another book, so now it gets to wear a little gold ribbon, and I have a plaque sitting on my bookcase:

Lots of kind people have told me they enjoyed it, so I don't hesitate to recommend it now.  And doing so reminds me of some of the more memorable ups and downs in the saga of trying to sell copies of this book since it was published in October 2012.

Here's the blurb, as it appears on the book cover:

In 1216 the noble families of Florence hold great power, but they do not share it easily.  Tensions simmer just below the surface.  When a jester's prank-for-hire sets off a brawl, those tensions erupt violently, dividing Florence into hostile factions.  A marriage is brokered to make peace, but that fragile alliance crumbles under the pressure of a woman's interference, a scorned bride, and an outraged cry for revenge.

At the center of the conflict is Corrado, the Jester, whose prank began it and who is now pressed into unwilling service by both sides.  It will take all his wit and ingenuity to keep himself alive, to protect those dear to him, and to prevent the unbridled ambitions of the nobles from destroying the city in a brutal civil war.

Many different versions of this blurb exist, because one must try many different things to sell books.  There was the one where I tried it in question form:
Will Buondelmonte's reckless act set off a full-scale vendetta?  And if it does, will even the Jester's famous wit and ingenuity be enough to keep himself alive and protect those dear to him?
 (Answers:  Yep.  And no, not exactly.)

Pleeeeease buy this book!

Sometimes I added more description:
Sworn to secrecy, he [Corrado] watches in horror as the headstrong knight Buondelmonte violates every code of honor to possess the woman he wants, while another woman, rejected and enraged, schemes to destroy him.
I'll do anything to get you to buy this book

I did want to stress the importance of the role of women in this book, since the Jester is male.  So I added this paragraph:
This is Corrado's story, but it is also the story of three fiercely determined women in a society that allows them little initiative:  Selvaggia, the spurned bride; Gualdrada, the noblewoman who both tempts Buondelmonte and goads him; and Ghisola, Corrado's great-hearted friend.  From behind the scenes they will do what they must to achieve their goals - to avenge, to prevail, to survive.
Buy this book or the peacock gets it.

But these days you can't make your spiel longer.  You have to make it ever shorter and more succinct.  I learned that when I discovered Twitter.

You don't get a lot of room to work with on Twitter, and you have to save room for links and hashtags and so on.  If I want to call the book "prize-winning" it will cost me 13 characters.  If I write #buythisbookdammit, it will cost me 18.  And I absolutely refuse to write things like "U r gr8!"  I. Just. Won't.  It's all I can do to stop myself from leaving two spaces between sentences.  Left to my own devices, I'd probably tweet with footnotes.

When my son was very small, he was bouncing up and down in his crib when the bottom gave way, and he tumbled to the floor in a pile of mattress, blankets, and stuffed toys.  He was unhurt, but the whole thing was terribly exciting and he wanted to tell me about it.  Only problem was, he hadn't exactly figured out speaking in full sentences yet.  So he ran up to me and yelled, "Mommy!  Bed!  Down!  Uh-oh!  Wow!"

That kid would have been a natural, had Twitter existed back then.

No so his mom, however.  But I did manage a few I liked.  There was the Shakespeare pair:
"where civil blood makes civil hands unclean": Will could have been talking about A Thing Done.

"from ancient grudge break to new mutiny": The Bard could have said it about A Thing Done.
The book takes place over Easter in 1216, so I did some seasonal tweets on the appropriate days:
The history: Good Friday 1216, Florence - the calm before the storm.

The history: Holy Saturday 1216, Florence - a knight is running out of time.

The history: Easter 798 years ago, Florence - Vendetta. Ambush. Civil war.
I used the first line of the book:
It was a fool that began it, but it took a woman to turn it murderous. Florence, 798 years ago.
And my favorites:
A tale of vendetta, betrayal, a spurned woman, civil war, and juggling.

What happens when a knight can't take a joke?
I'm still considering this one:
Price slashed (Also some of the characters, come to think of it.)
After a while, one gets a bit burned out with this sort of thing, and one might even start to get a little silly around the edges.  (Ya think?)  Then you find yourself thinking up marketing ploys like the pictures above, and these:

Drumming up some support for this book

Ta-da!  Historical novel on sale, cheap!

You try dressing up like your main character:

You dress up your musical instrument like your main character:

Then things really went downhill, and I came up with these:

 If you've stayed with me this long, you'll realize that no matter what you think of my book, I'm a better writer than I am a saleswoman.  I'd pretty much have to be.  You should also, despite all the silliness, have a pretty good idea by now what the book is about.  I hope I've piqued your interest, and that you'll acquire the book, read it, and enjoy it. 

And if you'd like to read a bit more about it in a more serious vein before deciding, you could always take a look at my website, or at my author page on the website of my publisher, Fireship Press. 

Images of the gallery and of Putin and his colleagues come from a fun site called PhotoFunia.  Pulp covers are from Pulp-o-Mizer.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

When a one-star review is in verse...

 When a one-star review is in verse,
It somehow makes everything worse.
In their zeal to convince,
Critics make authors wince,
And whine, carp, bemoan, bitch, and curse.

The limericks have arrived!  My talented readers have sent in their contributions, as requested in my last post (find it here):  Give us your rude, your snarky, your obnoxious book reviews in limerick form.  They arrived in the Comments section, in email, by Facebook, and even by phone.  Some used the first line I provided ("There once was a one-star reviewer..."), while others started from scratch.

For your reading pleasure, here they are, with authors identified as they identified themselves to me.

There once was a one-star reviewer
Who cast titles into the sewer.
Authors cried foul!
With many a howl
But the one-stars came faster not fewer.     --Seri Good

I have the name of an edit-or,
that just might help this book sell more.
Till then it's a mess,
and I must confess,
I use it to hold open the door...     --Prue Batten

There once was a one-star reviewer
Who hungered each novel to skewer
And his only regret—
He could never beget
A rating of any stars fewer.     --Deb Atwood

This next one is not a limerick, but I felt that it nonetheless contained the very essence of limerick-ness, so it's included.

Your Novel's One-Star Review

The writing was awful, the characters worse--
I wanted to send them all off in a hearse.
The plotline was boring, the action scenes tame,
And far worse than that, all the romance was lame.
The spelling was quirky, the grammar awry,
Punctuation changed wildly with no reason why.
Perhaps it gets better, when all's said and done,
But I couldn't force myself past chapter one.     --Julia West

There once was a one-star reviewer
Who loved to drag books through the sewer,
Whose great joy in life
Was to generate strife,
And proclaim there was no one as truer!     --Kathryn Louise Wood

Your book was a waste of my time.
Why make the poor hero a mime?
Write a strong female lead,
With a magical steed,
Add some teenage angst – now that's sublime!     --Linda Wendt

And just to round things off, I've included a couple more by my alter ego, Sven Leonardo MacGeneric:

There's way too much grammar-abusing,
And the plot is absurdly confusing.
If you've got to sell dreck,
At least employ Spellcheck -
And besides, it's not even amusing.

It desperately needs a good edit
(Or maybe we ought to just shred it).
The writing's outrageous,
There's too many pages,
And if there's a sequel, I dread it.

And that's it.  Many thanks to my talented contributors (especially for getting me off the hook for coming up with a new post this week), and here's hoping that none of us will be the recipients of any such scurrilous reviews anytime soon.

Images are in the public domain by virtue of being reallyreallyreally old.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

There once was a one-star reviewer...

Okay, faithful readers, it's time for a little audience participation.  I'd like for you to contemplate the idea I'm about to suggest, and then send me your own versions, either here on the blog or by email or on Facebook.  I will then compile whatever comes in and feature your masterpieces in a future post.

Here's what I want you to think about:  What would the world be like if people who wanted to put up one- or two-star reviews on Amazon were required to do it in the form of poetry? 

Intrigued by this idea, I did a little experimenting.  I played around with rondeaus, sonnets (Italian and otherwise), and even a bit of terza rima, which works a whole lot better in Italian than it does in English.  

But I have a sneaking suspicion that most Amazon reviewers wouldn't want to bother with the more complex forms.  Perhaps some of them would even prefer not to have to rhyme.  For those who can count to seventeen, they could always attempt haiku instead.  For example:

Book beckons. Great cover, good blurbs.
Too bad - it costs more than two dollars.

 But really, I think our form of choice for this exercise can only be the limerick.  What else, after all,  lends itself so perfectly to the art form of writing negative reviews?

With that in mind, here are a few to start you off.  First, we'll continue the "I want it cheap" theme suggested by the haiku above:

The worst of this publisher's vices
Is the way it insists on high prices.
But I know how to reach 'em -
This one-star will teach 'em!
Now that ought to trigger a crisis!

 And another one for the folks I think of as Dumpster-Divers-of-the-Mind:

I'm returning this e-book for credit.
(Never mind that I've already read it.)
I get bad heebie-jeebies
When novels aren't freebies.
So there. Now I've come out and said it.

Here's one that uses that kiss-of-death phrase that is the reviewer's equivalent of "I'm telling you this as a friend":

If you value your immortal soul,
Don't touch this with a fifteen-foot pole.
Though the author can shove it,
I wanted to love it,
So that proves I can't be a troll.

And there's always the "I'm an expert" review:

This book claims to be a historical,
But the research is quite sophomorical.
I'm a pro on this topic
(I watched the biopic!);
My opinion is thus categorical.

 Then, too, there's the "This isn't sexy enough" review:

Some have said that this novel is gripping,
But I'd rather have hot bodice-ripping.
Though it's surely complex,
There's just not enough sex,
And it needs quite a bit more unzipping.

And its companion, the "This is too sexy" review:

The language is way too explicit,
There are couplings both hot and illicit.
Decent folks are refusing
To keep on perusing
Such garbage. So we'll just dismiss it.

I come by this sort of silliness naturally.  Years ago, when I was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism, I created a poetic alter ego named Sven Leonardo MacGeneric, who expressed himself in doggerel  (and was, in fact, once named Doggerel Laureate for the local barony).  Here are a couple of examples from Sven's notorious output:

From a long narrative poem about Tristan and Isolde:

Now heroes are bold, and they're brave, and they're noble, 
But "bright" isn't always a prominent trait.
Though his lady wife lied,
Tristan still up and died.
When his love stepped ashore, he was lying in state.

Or this snippet from a poem entitled "On Watching the Children at a Tourney":

In a hamlet called Hamlin, a long time ago,
A piper appeared one fine day.
He tootled a tune, played it high, played it low,
And the kiddies, they all danced away.
Oh, who was that sinister, dangerous man?
And why did the wee ones heed him?
And why has he never come back again?
And where is he now, when we need him?

Anyway, send me your limericks - you can tackle the reviewers who complain about the packaging, the ones who couldn't be bothered to read the book, the ones who completely missed the point, or whatever you like.  Extra credit, too, for finishing the limerick started in the title to this post.  Bring 'em on!  I can't wait to read them.

Picture at the top of this post is licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license to Mazeface, found in Wikimedia Commons Images.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In praise of older writers

Last night my husband and I attempted to watch a movie.  Within the first few minutes it became obvious that it was a young people's movie.  Within the first ten minutes it became obvious that it was only a young people's movie.  And within another five minutes, we had turned it off.

Did we turn it off because it was too edgy for us?  Because we couldn't keep up with its breakneck pace?  Because we were bewildered by its ever-so-clever, modern, cutting-edge repartee?

No.  We turned it off because we were bored.  Because all the characters were so full of “attitude” that they were utterly, yawningly predictable and shallow. 

And that got me thinking about age, and how it plays into this writing game.  There seems to be an assumption out there that you need to be writing by your early twenties, published by thirty, at the peak of your career by forty.  If you haven't done these things, it's never going to happen.

You know what?  It's a lot of codwollop. 

It's certainly true that we live in a youth-obsessed culture, where people are reading Young Adult books well into their 30s and 40s.  I have a friend in her late 60s, smart, multi-lingual, with a graduate degree, who reads almost exclusively YA and children's literature.  She finds excellent books in those categories, and they give her the kind of reading experience she's looking for.  I'm not trying to second-guess her preferences, but I do think they tell us something about our society.

Perhaps the message is that of a perennial starting over, the constant reinvention of self, in the form of one coming-of-age story after another.  But shouldn't there also be something out there for the person who wants to start from where she is?  From the place where she's already arrived?  And how can such a story be written by someone who hasn't yet lived her own life to that point?

The other day I saw a spate of articles around the web asserting that one must never, ever leave two spaces after a period, because that would make it obvious:  the author's over 40.  And nothing could be worse than that, right? 

It reminds me of a parody I once saw of Cosmopolitan, that breathless women's magazine, with articles like “Girls Obviously from Ohio.”

"Tell me again, boy - why can't I leave two spaces after a period?"

Who makes up these rules, anyway?  Who set in motion the thought form that says older people just starting on their writing careers are pitiable, pathetic, not to be taken seriously?  Or perhaps, if you're kinder, a little bit sweet and quaint? 

But we all know the cliché of the kid who peaked in high school, right?  The one who can't stop reliving the senior prom, or that one amazing football game? 

You want to talk about pitiable and pathetic? 

What, exactly, is wrong with waiting until you actually have something to say?

Let me hasten to say that I do know several young writers who are very talented.  Among them are indie, small press, mainstream-published, and not-yet-published authors.  They have a lot of promise, and I predict that someday some of them will be very, very good indeed.  But most of them have not peaked yet.  No, not even the ones who are published by a big publishing house and selling well.  They may be pretty good now, but they have it in them to be better – in the fullness of time. 

And that's one reason it's so painful to watch some of them listen to their own hype.  They start to think they're as good as their social media pals tell them they are, and then they start going back and pubbing early works that would be best left forgotten.  They start to believe they are already as good as it gets.

That's the kind of mindset that makes the 16-year-old down the street get as many tattoos as she can afford, because she just knows she's going to love them forever, whereas I have been around long enough to know that if I were to do something like that, I'd change enough to hate it in six months.

I recently read an interesting interview on the Huffington Post with Sonya Chung, one of the founders of the website Bloom, which features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.  You can find the interview here.  One of the things she said that I thought made a lot of sense was this:
“But the truth of it is that the majority of writers take a lot of time to write their best work, that detours happen, and sometimes those detours can be very fruitful (whether they happen willingly or not).”
Not long ago I followed a string of comments on Facebook in which some young writer sneered about “sex scenes written by people over fifty.”

Oh, sweetie... if you only knew.  Do the math, luv.  When do you think the baby boomers grew up?  Could it possibly have been in the 60's and the early 70's?  Perhaps you think those times were the equivalent of the Victorian era (which, come to think of it, had a pretty racy underside of its own), since it's all so long ago you can't tell the difference, but let me assure you, that's not quite how it was.  We did know a thing or two about sex.  Some of us, believe it or not, are still at it. 

Sure, it feels odd to see a book set in my growing-up years classified as a “historical.”  But everything becomes historical if you wait long enough.  Even today's twenty-somethings. 

I have one writer friend who industriously talked to older people to get a sense of how they felt about things, as a part of her research.  I give her full marks for that, but believe me, if you think it's weird to see your childhood written up as “historical,” just try finding that you've become somebody's research.  Of course, while a young person may have to research what my experience is like, I can remember perfectly well when I was her age, so that does rather give me the advantage.

My own personal allegory for older writers is based on the oatmeal story.  For those of you who don't know it, it goes something like this:

A little boy grew up normal and healthy in every way, except that he did not speak.  His parents were bewildered; they knew his hearing was normal, he was intelligent, and they could find no explanation for his silence.  Yet, year after year, he did not speak.  Finally, one morning when when he was nine years old, his parents were amazed to hear him say with crystalline clarity, “This oatmeal's lumpy.” 

His parents wept with joy.  They hugged him and danced around the kitchen, overwhelmed at this new development.  Finally his father stopped celebrating long enough to say, “But son, why haven't you said anything before this?”

And the boy said, quite reasonably, “Everything was okay until now.”

That would be me.  Me, and most of the genuinely interesting authors whose work I've read recently.  We've spent a lot of years living as hard as we could, and now we've got something to say and we're going to say it.  Some of us, quite possibly, with two spaces between sentences.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the "Arts & Crafts" picture of the two aging hippies, which is licensed under the Creative Common Attribution 3.0 Unported license to Idran.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Researcher's Rant (or: Why won't all those dates hold still?!?)

In my home I currently have 28 books about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (including four library books and four on my Kindle).  Oh, wait - there's another one in today's mail.  Make that 29.  Many, many more, from the public library as well as the university library, have already been here, stayed a while, and then gone back home, leaving behind copious notes and photocopies.

Most are in English, some in Italian.  In addition, I have lots of books on the history of Assisi, and of Rome, and of the papacy, and of the church in the middle ages.  And there are literally thousands more books out there that deal specifically with Francis's life - page after page after page of them listed in the university's online catalogue, for example. 

Some of the current batch

So you'd think I'd be able to zero in on a few useful dates for my work in progress, wouldn't you?  Especially since Francis is not even my main character?

Nah... no such luck.  I'm pretty sure no two scholars would produce exactly the same timeline for Francis.  I tell you, it's enough to drive a researcher stark raving bonkers.

In the marvelously funny little book 1066 and All That, by W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, the authors take on the task of composing "a memorable history of England," meaning only the bits people (mis)remember.  Or, as the blurb says:
Comprising all the parts you can remember, including one hundred and three good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates.
Two genuine dates is about what I've got to work with.  Sellar & Yeatman had 55 B.C., "in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet" and 1066, "the other memorable date in English History," when "William I (1066) conquered England at the Battle of Senlac (Ten Sixty-six)."  That last one must have been very memorable.

13th century depiction of Fourth Lateran Council

And me?  I've got the date of the Fourth Lateran Council (it began in November 1215) and the date of Francis's death (in October 1226).  Pretty much everything else is contested.   

Giotto di Bondone, Death of Francis

What if I want to know when the famous Chapter of Mats, that great gathering of Franciscans, was held?  Was it in 1217, 1219, 1220, 1221?  Was it actually a compendium of several of the above?

According to my sources, yes.  Thanks, guys.

And what if I need to know how long Peter of Cattania was minister general of the order?  Good luck with that.  We know when he died, but not when he took over.  He either did or didn't hold the position long enough to run a chapter meeting.  I can find you people who will swear to both positions.

What about Elias?  When, exactly, did he go to the Middle East?  1216?  1217?  Earlier?  Later?  On a need-to-know basis, I need to know this.

And my own main character, Giacoma dei Settesoli:  when did she meet Francis?  When was she widowed?  Did she move to Assisi immediately after Francis died in 1226, or years later, just prior to her own death in 1239 (unless of course that actually happened in 1273...)?  Was she present at Francis's death, or had she gone home by then? 

Either she's there ...

or she's not there...

Well, that sort of thing may well be important, you may say, but surely you can fudge a few dates.   You don't have to mention an exact date when you're writing fiction.  Just tell the story.  

Okay, but when you can't even get agreement on the sequence in which things happened, it's difficult to keep your causal relationships straight.  If Event A preceded Event B, it is possible to hypothesize that something in Event A may have caused, exacerbated, or paved the way for Event B.  But if it turns out they happened in the opposite order, all bets are off.  And that's a simple one, with only two components.  Usually there are more.  

And of course it's not only the date discrepancies that matter.  I've got about a dozen different lists of Francis's earliest followers, the ones who accompanied him to Rome (in whichever year that was...) to meet with Pope Innocent III.  And did Francis actually meet Dominic, that other great leader of a newly-hatched mendicant order?  Some say yes, some say no.  And if they did meet, was it during the Fourth Lateran, or some other time and place?  I've got plenty of people advocating every possible position on this, including that they never met at all, and that neither one was actually present at the Fourth Lateran.  At least we can find them together in certain works of art:

So what's a fiction writer to do?  

Well, first you can make some distinctions among sources.  Some writers are more reliable than others, based on any number of factors:  what materials they had available at the time they were writing, whether they are specialists or generalists, and (in the case of Francis) whether they are writing under church auspices or not.  (That last one can be a two-edged sword.)  Some may just have a more readable style than others, and may appeal to you more.  

However you do it, it's usually possible to narrow the field down to a handful of sources you feel you can trust to some degree.  My experience is that they will still disagree, but you'll feel somewhat better about any choices you eventually make if one or more of these high-quality sources supports you.

Secondly, you've got to keep your story uppermost in your mind.  If you have to make strategic choices in order to get the story you want, then that's what you're going to do.  Ideally, you'll be able to keep your choices within the realm of plausibility, however.  If you can't, you're not really writing historical fiction any more, and I for one would find it less satisfying.  I wanted Francis present for the Fourth Lateran, so in my book, that's where you'll find him. But if any of my sources had managed to convince me that his presence then and there was not possible, I would not have used it.  

Thirdly, the choices you make will be influenced by your feelings about the characters.  You will not be neutral.  If you are neutral, I submit that this is not your story to write.  In my case, I needed to know not only Francis's history insofar as I could, but I had to evolve my own responses to him and to his message.  I had to know whether I thought Elias was the devil incarnate, as so many have implied, or a well-meaning scapegoat whose talents actually helped keep the Franciscan order alive.  Or, perhaps most likely, something much more complex, more involved, more thoroughly human than either of the extremes.  And whatever choice I made, it influenced how I saw his personal timeline - what he did, what happened to him, what made him who he was, or at least who I think he was:  if this happened, it would have affected him in a particular way, whereas if it hadn't happened yet, perhaps that would be more likely.  Dates are pervasive; they affect everything.

I've made my choices.  It was not an easy process, and nothing in it was a foregone conclusion, but I believe I have honored the demands of plausibility while telling a story that holds meaning for me.  

Maybe next time I'll pick a period where things are better documented.  Maybe there'll be newspapers.  Or detailed public records.  Or something.  But probably not, since I'm inordinately fond of medieval Italy. 

Do you suppose the akashic records have a decent search engine?

Illustrations in this post are all in the public domain.

Monday, August 18, 2014

St. Julian: TripAdvisor of the middle ages, or Lizzie Borden meets the Bates Motel?

St. Julian the Hospitaller (Piero della Francesca)

A medieval traveler with many miles ahead of him needed to give some thought to his lodgings.  Would he find an inn when he needed one, or a religious house that would offer hospitality, or even some kindly person whose home could serve as a sort of Air B&B? 

He knows he'll need something, some space that will keep him safe and dry till morning.  The road holds many dangers even during the day; the thought of spending a night in the open, vulnerable to wolves and bandits and things supernatural, would have been terrifying.

But how to ensure he'll find what he needs?  One very common tactic:  offer a prayer to Saint Julian the Hospitaller.

St. Julian, Domenico Ghirlandaio

We find an example of this practice in Boccaccio's Decameron (second story, second day), in which Rinaldo says this:
I know very few prayers; nevertheless, it is my usual practice when traveling never to leave an inn in the morning without saying one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the souls of St. Julian's mother and father, after which I pray to God and to St. Julian to grant me a suitable lodging for the coming night.  And in my journeys I have often found myself in grave danger, from which I have nonetheless managed to escape and find myself in a safe place with good lodgings that same evening; so I firmly believe that St. Julian, in whose honor I say my prayers, has obtained this favor for me through his intercession with God, and if I had not recited my prayer that morning I don't think I could manage to travel safely during the day or arrive safely by nightfall.  (Translated by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella)
So who was Saint Julian?  Did he actually exist?  And did he really murder his parents messily as the result of a misunderstanding?

(The answer to that second question is probably "No."  The Bollandists, a tenacious bunch of religious scholars who were followers of the Jesuit Jean Bolland in the 17th century, existed to study and publish the lives of saints, and they doggedly tried to separate truth from legend in the hagiographies, but even they were never able to verify any aspect of this saint's life.  As one scholar said, Saint Julian "has no date, no country, no tomb.")

St. Julian, tavern sign

But many people believed the story, which has a number of sensationalistic elements.  Multiple versions of the tale exist, going back at least as far as the 13th century, but they mostly agree on the following points:

Julian, a wealthy young man, learns that he is fated to kill his parents.  This information variously comes to him through a talkative stag while he is out hunting, or via his mother as she spills the beans about a prophecy made before his birth, or by a vision that comes to him while he is hunting.  However he learns of his fate, he decides to avoid it by leaving his parents' home and going far away.  Eventually he marries and settles down, possibly in Galicia.
One day, years later, his parents come seeking him.  They reveal their identities to Julian's wife, who welcomes them graciously (Julian is off hunting again...) and gives them the best bed in the house, the bed in Julian's own chamber, where they fall asleep, no doubt dreaming about being reunited with their son the next day.  When Julian returns, he mistakenly believes that the two figures he sees in his bed are his wife and her lover.  (In some versions "the enemy" - the devil, perhaps? - has told him his wife was being unfaithful.)  So Julian, who is not what we would call a reflective sort of person, hacks the two sleeping figures to death in his rage.
St. Julian, Agnolo Gaddi
And then he sees his wife.  In some versions she is chatting with other women outside the church, and as he stands there with his mouth agape she happily tells him that his parents have arrived for a visit, and she has given them their bed.  In other accounts, she is standing by, horrified, watching as he does the deed.  (See my favorite depiction of her, below.)

Julian is, of course, immediately filled with remorse.  In most versions he makes a pilgrimage to Rome (or some other distant place), after which he founds a hospital (or a hospice or an inn), where he and his wife dedicate themselves to providing charitable hospitality, including ferrying travelers safely across a nearby river.
St. Julian, Agnolo Gaddi
 There are also suggestions that a leper to whom Julian granted hospitality turned out to be an angel (or, in some accounts, Christ himself), who then informs Julian that God has forgiven his sin.
Let's think for a moment about Julian's wife.  (You knew I'd get to that, didn't you?)  She's usually said to have shared his pilgrimage and his penance, yet she'd just seen that (1) her husband didn't trust her, and (2) he was willing to murder her without first verifying what was going on.

At least in Gustave Flaubert's 1877 telling of the story Julian goes off alone, having first given all of his possessions to his wife.  Really, it's the least he could have done, under the circumstances.

Julian is the patron saint of a diverse assortment of people, including ferrymen, circus performers, fiddlers, innkeepers, jugglers, travelers, pilgrims, shepherds, wandering musicians, and - logically enough - murderers.  Who knew that murderers even had a patron saint?!


Circus performers






There's one picture of Julian's dastardly deed that I wish I could show you, but I can't.  It's in the Pinacoteca Comunale (city art gallery) in Assisi, where photographs aren't allowed, and I always respect such rules.  I've not been able to find an image of it, there or anywhere else.  It's quite extraordinary - a massive anonymous 14th century painting showing the poor couple after the murder, with slit throats, gaping wounds, lolling tongues, and lots of blood everywhere.  If that artist were alive today, he'd be making slasher films.

Lizzie Borden
Sign, Madame Tussuad's, London

I'll leave you with one more Julian story, this one from the 13th century Golden Legend of the Genoan Giacomo da Varazze (de Voragine):

The enemy (remember "the enemy"?) came to Julian's hospice disguised as a pilgrim.  At midnight he woke and completely trashed the place, rock-band style, after which Julian swore never to let anyone into his home again.  But that night Jesus went to him disguised as a humble pilgrim.

Julian told his visitor he could not enter, because the last pilgrim had vandalized his home.  Jesus asked Julian to hold his walking-stick, and the stick stuck to Julian's hand.  Julian finally recognized his guest and repented, promising to give shelter to anyone who had need of it, whereupon Jesus forgave him.

St. Julian, Taddeo Gaddi

Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions:  The two photos of paintings by Agnolo Gaddi are licensed to Sailko, the photo of the jugglers is licensed to DerGrosse, and the photo of the Bates Motel sign is licensed to Nevit Dilmen.  All are using the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike-3.0 Unported license, and are found on Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On Seizing Serendipity (Guest post by Debra Atwood)

 Today I'd like to introduce a guest post by Deb Atwood, author of Moonlight Dancer, a timeslip novel rich in Korean history and the paranormal.  Here's the blurb:

A doll... a ghost... a love that transcends time.

Kendra JinJu MacGregor can resist neither the antique Korean doll in the dusty warehouse nor the handsome Hiro Peretti who sells it to her.

Once she brings the doll home, Kendra pays little attention to misplaced objects or her beloved dog's fear.  That is, until one terrifying night forces her to question her very sanity.  Soon, the ethereal, brooding NanJu manifests herself, and Kendra begins her travels through time to 16th century Korea into a history of conflict and intrigue.  For Kendra is about to discover the dark past of her ghostly visitor.

Now it's up to Kendra, with Hiro by her side, to interpret the past and prevent murder.  Everything depends upon Kendra's success, even -- she discovers to her horror -- her own life.

Deb Atwood has some fascinating research experiences to share with us.  Here's Deb, and her bio:

Deb Atwood

Deb loves Korean history and time-slip novels and feels a ghost is the perfect medium to bring history to life. She holds an MFA and resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and former shelter dog Nala. Deb’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies. Her time-slip novel Moonlight Dancer was selected as a front page Featured Review by Book Ideas.

Please visit Deb on Twitter here or at her blog.   She’d love to see you there!

To buy a copy of this wonderful book, click here.

On Seizing Serendipity

Serendipity with Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack.

You know the movie, right?

If the planets align or the fates allow (you choose), John C. and Kate B. aka Jonathan and Sara will find each other via a recycled $5 bill or an inscribed copy of Love in the Time of Cholera.

Silly you think? Kate is content (at least initially) to bow to destiny, a sort of que sera, sera on steroids approach. Not John. He hunts down every used bookstore in town, riffles through each Garcia Marquez tome in search of the novel bearing his love’s phone number.

In other words, he gives serendipity a nudge.

Those of us who write often take a page out of John’s book. (Sorry.) That is, we seize serendipity. In my own case, a desire to portray a strong woman in a neo-Confucian culture led unexpectedly to a dance, a battle, a bridge, and a myth.

The historical backdrop for my time-slip novel is 16th century Korea when Japan cast its covetous eye on Korea. The ensuing war pitted trained, merciless samurai against scrappy, inventive peasants. My favorite story involves a sea invasion in which Japanese invaders scaled a cliff wall to stage an attack. The Korean militia was vastly outnumbered, so following the direction of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, women donned soldiers’ uniforms. Under the moonlight at the edge of the cliff these brave women brandished torches and performed the traditional gang gang sullae dance. This display so frightened the Japanese that they rappelled back down the cliff wall, jumped in their boat, and sailed away. As my dad would say, “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”

Traditional gang gang sullae dance

Of course I had to use this story in my novel, but my first task was to locate that cliff. I read Admiral Yi’s diary Nanjung Ilgi. Alas, he made no mention of this event, so with a little authorial license, I chose a likely spot—the island of Jindo—in the southernmost province Jeallanamdo near Yi’s famous Crane formation battle. Ready to explore, my husband, daughter Hillary, and I traveled by train, then car to this remote locale. Interestingly, no Korean of my acquaintance has ever been to Jindo, and no Westerner I know had ever heard of this place.

That all changed on April 16th of this year when the ferry Sewol capsized, killing 304 people. One hundred seventy-two survived and were transported to Jindo for first aid and shelter. The waterways of Jeollanamdo are indeed treacherous, which the ingenuous Admiral Yi was able to exploit in his famous turtle boat battle against the Japanese.

No one would have predicted the Sewol disaster on that hot afternoon when husband, daughter, and I first rumbled along country roads in Jindo, nauseous from some questionable sushi in Myung Dong the day before. (Note to self: Never eat raw fish in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a hot and humid afternoon.) Rumbling along that road, surrounded by high grasses tossing in the wind, I had no idea what I’d find.

Turns out, a remarkable natural phenomenon occurs in Jindo’s archipelago, a parting of the sea. Yes, it really happens. For one hour in the fourth lunar month, roughly May and again around July, the waters recede so that you can walk across a land bridge to a little island called Modo.

Archipelago off the island of Jindo

As is the case with many natural phenomena, this one comes with its own creation myth. I was delighted to discover the myth involves a streak of tigers, a family fleeing to safety on Modo, and a grandmother stranded and left to the mercy of the tigers. (Ditching Grandma is a pretty bad thing in a culture that venerates elders.) At any rate, Grandmother prays, and the Sea King conjures a rainbow path and parts the sea so she can run across the land bridge to her family. Here you can see a monument dedicated to the faithful grandmother.

Grandmother monument

What an unexpected gift was this find, so welcome after all the research that brought me to this point! I didn’t know it at the time, but this myth of the grandmother and the tigers, coupled with a true story of the war heroine NonGae, would figure into my novel Moonlight Dancer, would, in fact, provide the setting for the crisis that changed the life of my ghost NanJu.

So, a historic dance in a famous battle led me to a cliff, which overlooked a land bridge, which led to the discovery of a myth. Writers, particularly those invoking history, spend hours in research. Sometimes in the course of that research, if we’re lucky, a little serendipity comes our way. We’d be fools not to seize it.         


Thanks so much to Deb for this great post, which is true to the original (and often deviated from) purpose of this blog.  

The picture of the traditional Korean dance "Korean.Dance-03" originally by photoren - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -