Saturday, September 29, 2012

Big Up the History!

Renaissance Fair

The school year is now in full swing and as many parents heave a sigh of relief now that they have a few hours to themselves or enjoy a real, hot cup of coffee, millions of children find themselves back in orderly classroom rows. The troops are in training and elementary and secondary school centurions are urging them on. The homework has begun, as well as the early morning battles for what to wear and how much to eat. Legions can’t go far on empty stomachs!

I am still traumatized by early September, the memories of the end of Summer still all too vivid in my mind. I remember detesting school. Yes, it’s true. Sadly, most of my teachers were just bitter and had been at it far too long to get any joy out of it. I used to feel chained to my desk during the day. The ultimate terror, of course, was the threat of being called to the front of the class to answer some math problem that was more confusing to my primary school mind than deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. And sadly, when it came to history lessons, everybody groaned.

History does not have to be boring!

I’m always trying to find ways to entertain and teach my own kids about history and, in truth, it is not very difficult because they love it. Of course, travelling to ancient or medieval sites and telling stories about those sites is one of the best and most fun ways to learn – turn it into an adventure! But, unless you live in the UK and Europe, this won’t exactly work as a weekend outing.

However, there are many fun things you can do. How about dressing up the kids (and yourself if you dare) and hitting the local Renaissance Fair where you can roam the marketplace looking for historical replicas, plush swords and of course the standard smoked turkey leg. Or you could head out to your local museum where, especially at the biggies, you can see suits of armour, swords and lots of gold. If your kids like to draw, bring along some paper and markers and have them sketch.

Kids love stories too and there are so many tales from mythology, ancient and medieval traditions, that you can tell a different one every day. Some are bloodier than others so you may have to tone it down for the wee ones but for older kids, that may just be the thing to grab their interest.

And that’s what it is all about, grabbing their interest.

Many people don’t like the idea of using films to teach history but I have always been a big fan of this. Kids are very visual and need visual aid. Movies, whether Robin Hood, Braveheart or Ben Hur, can ignite interest and spur a whole load of questions which can be encouraged thereafter. It doesn’t have to be academic, just interesting. Once they are into it they will read all on their own. Just be sure to highlight what things are real and what are made up at times. Listen to some period music (or ‘Castle Music’ as my kids call it) and look at a reference book with coloured pictures. Have a medieval meal at home with clay cups and all or, if you can handle it, take everyone down to Medieval Times to eat chicken with your hands and watch the staged combat. The kids will love it and, if you let loose and yell along with the crowd, so will you.

If you need some ideas there are many resources on-line that offer some great suggestions. The BBC History  has a lot of great information and even some colouring pages for different periods from Stonehenge to the Vikings and more.

The National Geographic Archive on-line also has some great teacher aids that could also be adapted to guide you at home. If you want something ancient, they even have lessons on practical topics such as Greek and Roman Land Use, handy if your kids are learning about history and the environment at school.

If ancient Rome is your thing, Kidipede has several links to info on the ancient world that you can check out. These are just a few examples of what you can find on-line. There are thousands more!

Basically, the idea is to be creative when approaching history and it will be fun for everyone. It does not have to be boring. In fact, it can, and should be, infinitely more exciting than most subjects. Then again, I am biased. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Indie Writer Overload...and what to do about it.

As an independent writer, the last couple of years have been extremely exciting. If you do a Google search or visit any one of the multitude of blogs out there you will find a plethora of enthusiastic articles about how great it is for indie writers these days, the many options, avenues and tools that are at their disposal.

And it’s true! This is indeed an exciting time for writers whose work is out of the ordinary or transcends genres. With the global economic crisis, many mainstream publishers have shored up the defences, preferring to exercise restraint rather than risk. Unless you were the next Dan Brown, chances are you would have a long wait ahead of you.

I myself have not been at this for a very long time, indie publishing that is. I’ve been writing for many years, creating, improving. I’m still at the beginning of my indie campaign to recruit legions of readers. With this post, I just wanted to share some of the thoughts I have to this point, some little insights. You will find articles like this all over the place, virtual pages where writers have outlined their thoughts. Well, these are mine. I’m still learning of course, but it is always a good idea to take stock with my mental quartermaster.

When I set about doing this, I thought Well, what do I have to lose? The publishing is free (depending on who you go with). No sense being armed with a novel or two and not marching out!

Little did I know how much work it would turn into. More options and avenues means more choices which means more work. And that’s fine since anything having to do with my writing doesn’t really feel like work in the usual sense. But there are times when my mind is spinning and no amount of list making or spreadsheet creation will help me get things in order. A bottle of Chianti is more likely to help.

There is no end to the tools at an indie writer’s disposal. You’ve got a host of self-publishing sites, blogs and do-it-yourself websites, reader-writer interactive websites like Goodreads and of course, the social media fortresses of Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and many more. Storming each of these can spread you pretty thinly. But that is not all.

Just because the book is written doesn’t mean you are finished. Some say that is the hardest part but I’m not sure I agree anymore. Being an ‘indie’ writer means that you are just that, ‘independent’; which means that unless you have some extra cash flow or a small money tree in your backyard, you will be going it alone.

So, on to formatting and cover creation, ISBN assignments and book trailer creation, book launches, guest blogs (here is mine), deadlines and endless revisions of critical paths. And then there is the marketing which involves all of the above avenues, online, offline, in person, on walls and well, in your sleep, because you rarely stop thinking about all of it. I never really knew about marketing before my indie campaign and I am still learning but it is a whole new world that every indie author needs to become familiar with. One site I have found particularly helpful is . Check it out.

Most writers are solitary people, inward, but if you want to achieve success you must have a Caesar-like PRESENCE! and maintain that presence or else be forgotten.

Add to all this the ever-important family life, day job (which I have), exercise and general activity of living then, well, you are surrounded. The indie writer life is like trying to plan Rome’s invasion of Germania: it’s big, there are many variables, it is an uphill battle and if you leave your flank exposed, you’re dead.

There will be times when you think you have signed on to the Project Management School of “I’m insane and like to torture myself!”

Hold it! I forgot one detail, one activity on which the success of the campaign all hangs – THE WRITING! Is that not why we are doing this in the first place, because that’s what we are, writers who love to write? When does that happen?

For me the writing happens at every opportunity, every day, whenever I can get at it with my notepad or laptop. I love to get into the past, to write about it, to bring my own characters to life in a world long gone but certainly not forgotten.

These stolen moments of creativity are what keep me going.

But when the indie writer life does get to be too much, as it inevitably does, here are some random tips that might help.

  •         Stop. Take some deep breaths.
  •         Make a list – Prioritize
  •         Pick 1-3 social media and focus on those. This is an important one as there are so many out there. All you need are a couple to be effective. Social media and marketing can easily suck up your time.
  •         Create a weekly agenda for activities and stick to it. I’ve noticed that far fewer people are on social media from Tuesday to Thursday. Why not use those days for writing, editing or formatting?
  •         Meet with other writers to exchange ideas, enthusiasm and understanding. Therapy for the independently-minded!
  •         Build up your cava. (I threw that one in for fun!)
  •         Be patient! It all takes time and very few see overnight success. Stick to it, keep marching and you will see success eventually.
  •         Have fun! There is so much to learn, so many people to meet. The indie community is helpful and friendly.
  •         Keep Writing! This last because, of course, that’s the best art of it all. As long as the creativity and ideas are flowing, get the stories down on paper and Word.doc.

Be sure to give into your creative flow as often as possible. The more material you have, the better armed you will be.

That’s it for me. I’m tapped and there are other things to do. In the last two years I’ve learned so much and at the same time I have grown as a writer. My legions are marching forward and I’m taking on new recruits along the way. I’m battered and exhausted but, at the end of the day, I do so love it!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Beauty in the Land of the Dead

Aenaeas in Elysium

One of the many things that I truly love about writing historical fantasy is that the genre allows you stretch your imaginative wings, to envision and describe places that are not the usual destination. You can go beyond the castle wall or the villa peristyle to places that are often relegated to remote locales reached only by the soul.

Heaven and Hell, the idea of a land where the dead go on to an afterlife of eternal bliss or torment is something that is common to most world religions. There are, of course, many names for these places and they all differ a little. For the ancients, when it came to Paradise, that place where those who lived with virtue in life go to, it may have been called Aaru, the Egyptian Field of Reeds or for the ancient Welsh Britons, Annwyn, the land of eternal youth and plenty. The Greeks and Romans believed in the Elysian Fields and the Norse in Valhalla. They are places of peace, prosperity, happiness and honour.

Anubis weighs a human heart
Likewise, most traditions have a place to oppose Paradise – Hell. There is often an in-between realm as well, such as Purgatory or the Norse Hel. On their way to the afterlife, Egyptians’ hearts were weighed in the scales against a feather with Anubis looking on. For ancient Greeks and Romans, Hades was the land of the dead where souls could linger forever and Tartarus was the tortuous hell, the opposite of Elysium. To get to these places, the dead would have to cross the river Styx, ferried by Acheron who demanded his gold piece.

I am but mentioning a few traditions. There are so many and every culture has its own idea as to what is good and what is unbearable in the afterlife. They are not often described in detail because, well, most of the time those who go don’t come back to sketch it out.

Acheron, the Ferryman
This is where writing historical fantasy can really be a thrill to read and write. The beauty of it is that you can indeed explore Hades, or Valhalla or wherever you wish to go. The Land of the Dead can be whatever you envision it to be. As a literary device, it can allow you to visit the innermost hopes and fears of your characters, to have them interact with the dead, famous people, departed loved ones or enemies whom it would otherwise be impossible for them to meet with.

Some authors have used the afterlife or underworld to great effect in their storytelling and one that stands out in particular to me is Alice Borchardt, author of the Legend of the Wolf series. In The Silver Wolf, the first book of the series, Ms. Borchardt’s heroine, Regeane, journey’s through the temple of Cumae to the Land of the Dead. The descriptions of what the characters sees and experiences are fantastic examples of how an author can unfurl the sails of creativity and imagination in these other realms. Few descriptions have had me so rapt by the images they portrayed. 

She started down the aisle of the temple past the tall pylons that seemed like deadly trees spouting leaves of flames, on into the distant waste… A cry of sorrow so profound, so bitter, that it seemed beyond hope or even love. A desolate, lonely sound, the weeping of one condemned to wander forever without either consolation or rest.

Odysseus meets Teiresias
in Hades
Here one is introduced to the great sadness and horror upon entering the Land of the Dead. You read of souls who scramble about mutilated yet still fawning over their previous state of beauty or strength, of wraiths whose exposed bones will bleed for all eternity. The waste of the Land of the Dead is that in between place, neither Tartarus nor Paradise but a place for passing through or staying in infinite limbo. After passing through the burning wasteland, Regean meets with her dead father who carries her across the river of fire, a sort of Styx boundary before she is able to reach paradise and seek the soul she needs, Daedalus. The scene between her and her father who was murdered when she was a child is very poignant. When she reaches Daedalus’ Garden, the place is full of beauty.

She found herself on a flagged path walking toward a distant fountain. The path was bounded by flowers. They bloomed everywhere, riotously indifferent to the season… Rank upon rank of velvety purple lavender, thick clary sage, clover white, yellow, and purplish red, hugged the path as a border… Other taller ones [lilies] behind them lifted crisp petals twisted back, orange and scarlet as though they waited breathlessly for the sun. Behind them, twinning among the tall cypresses were the roses. Single, double, red, pink and white, and on their petals scattered as stars are across the night sky, lenses of dew catching the light of the rising sun and turning it into a thousand tiny rainbows.

Alice Borchadt's
The Silver Wolf
Ms. Borchardt certainly has a beautiful view of paradise, a welcome reward after dragging the reader through the sad wastes on the other side of the river. One last beautiful moment occurs when Regeane meets Daedalus who is able to heal the person she has come to seek healing for. Meeting someone of past importance or fame has been used by others. Homer has Odysseus journey to Hades to see Teiresias and Virgil writes about Aenaeas heading into the underworld to see his father Anchises. To hear the dead talk can be a beautiful or terrible thing, a sad remembrance of better times long past, of an age before the horrors of humanity. Daedalus remembers:

…many years ago, in my youth, I was born on Crete, that fair island set in a lapis sea. Ah, it was the earth’s morning then, and we were the first to taste her bountiful fruits. We tamed the wild grapes grown on the mountainsides. Soft tiny, purple globes, fair and round as a woman’s lips. Our fields were golden with wheat, bowing before the sea’s breeze. Long dead as I am, I can still taste the soft, white loaf that wheat made. Still scent the bouquet of the wine we drank with it.

This wistful soliloquy of Daedalus’ is beautiful and sad (and much longer than the excerpt above) and challenges the character, indeed the reader, to think on the deeds of the present, reflect on the outcomes of our actions and the actions of those around us. The dead have the benefit of great hindsight and living mortals would do well to take note. By granting characters a glimpse of the land beyond, the horror and the beauty, they can benefit from a perspective that can give them an advantage, a Deus ex machina to aid them in their hour of need.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

For The Love Of It

They say write about things that you love or are passionate about. They say write a story that moves you, a story that you would like to read. Pick a research topic that you want to jump into etcetera, etcetera.

I think most writers know this. It only makes sense. You won’t find me writing about the internal workings of a frog or the process of assembling a microchip. I was never that good at science and I totally flunked computer programming. Those subjects were just not interesting to me; not to say they wouldn’t be riveting for someone else.

However (yes, here’s the ‘but’), what happens when you get sick of something you enjoy so much that you just have to walk away? It happens to all of us. Whether it is a research paper, work of non-fiction or a novel, there comes a point when you can have too much of a good thing. We don’t want to admit it, perhaps because it feels like failure or that it ignites the self-doubt that has been held at bay? Much of the time it is due to outside influences, roadblocks to our success, negativity or lack of support.

This happened to me several years ago with my own Master’s thesis which was a look at the archaeological, historical and toponymic evidence for the site of the base of operations of the historical Arthur – ie. ‘Camelot’.  Arthurian studies has always been my specialization. I have always been fascinated by anything related to the period in Britain from when Rome quit her shores to the time of the Battle of Catraeth when the Britons made a valiant last stand against the Saxon invaders. The period is a maelstrom of both the ancient and medieval periods, a time of mystery, heroism, romance and of course controversy.

South Cadbury Castle, Somerset
When I decided on my thesis of course there were sniggers from the academics about me, even though a huge amount of academic work had been done over the years on the period and my subject. Still, I persisted because I loved the subject. I travelled to sites around Britain, camera and sketchbook in hand. I wrote a book outlining the various theories and my own thesis. I had peer reviews done, made changes, all the usual editing. My subject had been accepted by my professors and supervisor and so, having completed all the work, I handed it in. It felt good, I had really accomplished something. At least I felt so until it was handed back to me for rewrites, big ones. The academics who had approved the subject and outline and had read drafts throughout the writing process decided to change their minds.

This was not good. All the months of work that were rejected birthed a giant ball of academic rage. I may have strode out to the West Sands of St. Andrews to yell at the North Sea. I can’t remember but I don’t think distraught graduate students were an unusual sight. Anyhow, long story short, after a few pints of Guinness I hunkered down and gave them what they wanted, got my degree and pressed on with life.

But there were wounds to lick and because of that experience I became fed up with Arthurian studies. Yes, blasphemy indeed. I couldn’t go near anything remotely Arthurian for several months and so plunged headlong into the ancient world which, as it turns out, opened new doors. The point is that even though I loved the subject, I couldn’t take any more for a long time. I just couldn’t enjoy it. It was like the lingering taste of blood in my mouth after a fight.

After months of ignoring my beloved Arthuriana however, I decided that enough was enough and began to go back to the roots of what I loved about it: the mystery, the romance of the legends. My wife and I moved to Somerset (where I have my own roots) to live just outside Glastonbury. We took weekly walks in Insula Avalonia, climbing the Tor, drinking from the Chalice Well and once more climbing the ramparts of the hill fort at South Cadbury Castle. We even took our long-awaited trip to Cornwall to see Tintagel, Slaughterbridge, Dozmary Pool and Arthur’s Hunting Lodge on Bodmin Moor. The magic had returned and so had my love of the subject but it would not have happened if I had not done anything about it.

Arthur receiving Excalibur
Stepping back was good, I think. I needed to take a break to let the academic grease leach away. There is a lot to be said for the philosophy of being like grass in the wind or water in a brook. We all face challenges to our work or art, opposition to the things that we believe in with force and passion. Of course we can’t all agree, we’re human after all. History teaches us that much!

So what can we do to throw a lifeline to the things we are passionate about when our love of them is drowning? For history-related subjects (after all, that is what this blog is about), I always like watching inspiring movies or listening to my favourite soundtracks (see the Eagles and Dragons playlist on Facebook - May 17 post). Emulate the habits of past people (obviously, not all would be a good idea!) such as lighting some incense or swinging a sword around – go on, have fun! Or, throw a feast for friends on an ancient or medieval (pick your period) theme using recipes from your chosen period cookbook. Grilled meat, thick candles and lots of wine in clay goblets is always a good time. Or put on that toga and recline to a meal of olive-stuffed chicken, fruit and burgers invented by Apicius himself. There is something for everyone. If sheep’s head and stuffed sparrows are your thing, go for it. You can top it all of with music - there are some great recordings of period music out there too if flute girls or lute players are not readily available. Have an actor friend? Get them to recite some Catullus!

I've gone on a bit, I know. Basically, as we create the art we love and try to make it work, fit it in, enjoy it, we need to ensure that we do not lose sight of why we started it in the first place. Every once in a while, when frustration begins to creep in, step back, take a few yoga breaths and remember what it was like way back when you looked at that painting or opened that book for the first time. Enjoy the feeling of standing on that windswept rampart watching crows wheel above grassy slopes where poppies bow about you as they did long ago for the people about whom you are writing.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

New Short Story Series - Into the Darkness with Gaius Justus Vitalis

Mithras and the
For a writer, working on a full length novel can be quite a long, burdensome experience. Doing it well can take years and, unless you are Stephen King, typing that last word or getting through that final draft can seem like the far-away end of a long drawn-out campaign. You are in a new world, going to places you have not necessarily been to before, dealing with people whom you may not know, whose actions may come as a surprise. It is a solitary journey as well, getting from the alpha to the omega of your novel.

That is one reason I like to write short stories. It helps to mix things up by writing something in a different period or voice, stretching your literary muscles. For me, short stories are definitely a writing workout. They also allow me to try out new ideas, experiment a little with the craft of writing. If you repeat the same exercise over and over again without changing your weight, you will ‘plateau’ as they say. It is the same with writing. Without changing things up, you will not grow. The short stories I have posted on the right side of this blog are some of my literary exercises written over short periods of time. Of course, they all possess an element of the historical or fantastical – that is what I love to write. But, they were each born of a different image, idea or concept that popped into my head and that I thought would be fun to explore. 

Artist Recreation of Roman fortress at Troesmis
I’ve just begun writing a new series of short stories set during the reign of Augustus, specifically, the year A.D. 8, just prior to the Varus disaster. I won’t give too much away as this will be coming out some time toward the end of October, but it promises to be something quite different, dark and exciting. Here is what I can tell you:

The protagonist is Gaius Justus Vitalis, an optio in the V Macedonica Legion stationed at Troesmis in Moesia Inferior (modern Romania) near where the Danube flows into the Black Sea. At the time, Troesmis was on the frontier and Augustus’ legions, commanded by Tiberius, had been busy putting down a revolt to the east in Pannonia and Dalmatia. Gaius is a long way from his home and family in Rome. He is decorated for his deeds and is a devotee of Mithras, having attained the level of Heliodromus or, Sun-runner.
Carpathian Mountains, Romania

Of course, I am still in the middle of writing this first instalment of the tales of Gaius Justus Vitalis but I hope that this will be very entertaining for everyone. It certainly is fun to research and write about a different period of the Roman Empire, to explore new regions. I’ll be sharing more about the research, setting and characters when the story is out. Suffice it to say that when Samhain comes around (or Halloween as most people refer to it) this story should be an ideal read on a dark, crisp autumn night.