I haven’t talked much about this book because it will be of interest to a very niche group of readers, but the book I wrote for the St. Louis Metro League of Women Voters is out! We’re celebrating its release this coming Sunday. So if you live in St. Louis, I’d love to see you!
“Raising Our Voices: League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis 1960-2022” demonstrates how League members advocated for change during six decades of tremendous upheaval. As a sequel to Avis Carlson’s history “The First 40 Years,” this book covers the next 62 years of League work. It includes member advocacy on controversial issues such as busing and school discrimination, the Equal Rights Amendment, election and campaign finance reform, voter suppression, and the National Popular Vote.
In addition to these headline-makers, the book chronicles the everyday work of the League to improve the St. Louis community and protect the rights of its citizens. Each decade includes information on League efforts focused on:
Key issues such as education and the environment
In addition, the book profiles more than 20 key League members in honor of their contributions that made a difference in those decades. Not just an essential read for League members, “Raising Our Voices” is an important resource for the entire St. Louis area and will inspire women’s history buffs from coast to coast. Part local history, part collective memoir, it captures the valuable and ongoing work of this organization to educate and empower voters and improve the status of women in the St. Louis area, the state of Missouri, and nationwide.
Buy the book
Please note that all proceeds go to the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis.
This is my monthly column for the Women in Leadership Newsletter for my day job.
Did you know that Feb. 3 is National Women Physicians Day? That’s because it is also the birthday (1821) of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school and become a doctor in the United States.
Elizabeth was born in Bristol, England, into a Quaker family known for being reformers. Her parents were anti-slavery activists, her sister Antoinette would become the first ordained female Protestant minister, and her brother Henry would go on to marry American suffragist Lucy Stone, founder of the American Woman’s Suffrage Association.
For financial reasons and because her father wanted to help abolish slavery in the United States, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832 when Elizabeth was only 11. Six years later, her father died, leaving the family destitute during a national financial crisis. To make ends meet, her mother, two older sisters and Elizabeth worked as teachers at The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, a school they founded.
One day, as one of Elizabeth’s female friends lay dying, the woman said she believed her suffering would have been less if she had had a female physician. At that moment, Elizabeth knew that was what she was meant to do, despite having a natural aversion to “everything connected with the body…the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.” But there was one big problem: none of the medical schools in the U.S. would admit women. Her only option was to find a physician who would allow her to apprentice under him for informal training. She found not one, but two doctors in Philadelphia who were willing to help her. Elizabeth worked as a teacher while living with the physicians’ families.
While she was training, Elizabeth applied to all the major medical schools and was universally rejected; even when she applied to the small schools, she only received one acceptance letter, from Geneva Medical College in New York. What she didn’t know was that the faculty had opposed her admission but since she was qualified in all ways but gender, they felt they couldn’t reject her outright. So, they referred the decision to the students, who thought the whole thing was a practical joke, and voted unanimously
to admit her.
Elizabeth arrived in Geneva on Nov. 6, 1847, well after the beginning of the term. Not only did she have to catch up on her classwork, but she faced very strong discrimination. Her professors forced her to sit separately from the male students during lectures and often excluded her from labs, fearing that her delicate female sensibilities couldn’t handle subject matter like the male reproductive system. At the same time, the citizens of Geneva shunned her as an improper woman for defying her God-given roles of wife and mother. She wrote of this time:
“I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.”
After graduating on Jan. 23, 1849, with the highest grades in her class, Elizabeth—now Dr. Blackwell—continued her training in London and Paris, though the doctors in those hospitals only allowed her to work in midwifery and nursing. During that time, she realized that doctors often caused epidemics by failing to wash their hands between patients, so she emphasized preventive care and personal hygiene in her departments.
In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City, where she encountered even more discrimination against female physicians, who were thought to all be abortionists, though that procedure was illegal and most female physicians did not practice it. This attitude meant she had few patients and was not welcomed at many hospitals and clinics. Like so many women before her, she took matters into her own hands and opened her own small clinic to treat poor women. She is quoted as saying, “If society will not admit of a woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.”
By 1857, her sister, Emily, had followed in her footsteps to become a doctor, earning her medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Together, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. This medical establishment welcomed aspiring female physicians and nurses and gave them what men sought to deny them: training in practical medical skills.
During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained nurses for Union hospitals and Elizabeth founded the Woman’s Central Relief Association because the male physicians in the United States Sanitary Commission refused to help her.
After the war, in 1867 or 1868 (sources conflict on the date), Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college for women in New York City. A year later, she placed Emily in charge and moved permanently to London, where one of her first acts was to found the National Health Society.
Despite failing health, Dr. Blackwell established the London School of Medicine for Women with Sophia Jex-Blake, one of her students in New York, in 1874. The following year, Dr. Blackwell became a professor of gynecology at the school, a position she held for three years before retiring from medicine.
Dr. Blackwell never married, choosing instead to spend her retirement time advocating for social and moral reform. She also published more than 15 books, including Medicine as a Profession For Women in 1860, Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864 and an 1895 autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. She died in 1910 at the age of 89.
Today, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is recognized for her influence on the medical profession in the United States and the United Kingdom. Biographer Janice Nimura has just released a new book on Elizabeth and her sister Emily titled The Doctors Blackwell. Check it out or read this interview with the author on NPR to learn more about these pioneering women in medicine.
Fun fact: The first female physician in western history that we know of is Metrodora, a Greek doctor who lived sometime between 200-400 AD/CE. She wrote the oldest known medical book by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women.
(While I’m busy working on two books I’m finding it difficult to find time to blog, so I’m going to repost some of my favorite posts from Spellbound Scribes, the group blog I contribute to once a month. Warning: I am SUPER opinionated. This one was written less than a week ago.)
For years now, nay decades, historians and historical fiction authors have had a tenuous relationship. Well, from my perspective, it’s the historians who have their noses out of joint; most historical fiction authors, myself included, just want to write our books.
You see, some (not all, mind you) historians see us fiction writers as encroaching on their territory and doing it a disservice. I think with the word “fiction” in our genre and “a novel” written on most of our book covers, that is just silliness. I also think the reader has to take some responsibility for understanding the difference, but perhaps I am giving people too much credit. Tudor historian John Guy found that after Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series was published many of his current and prospective students took what they read as fact. His complaint? “The writing was so good that some people think it is true.”*
Because we are writing a (hopefully entertaining) story in addition to providing historical facts, historical novelists sometimes have to or choose to bend those facts or go outside of the historical record. One thing many of us do to make up for this is include an Author’s Note at the end of our books. In this section, which for some is only a few paragraphs, but for others can be quite lengthy and detailed, *cough*me*cough,* we explain what is true and what is not and why we changed things when we did. Other authors provide additional historical information on their websites or in their blogs. Some even include a bibliography or a brief list of sources at the back.
Ironically, it is Hilary Mantel herself, a historical fiction author who is NOT a historian, who rails loudest against this practice. She’s fine with including an Author’s Note (which she does in her own books), but draws the line at a bibliography. At the Oxford Literary Festival in 2017 she accused historical novelists of “try[ing] to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography.”**
[cue eye roll]
No, Dame Mantel, that is not what we are trying to do. We are trying to show that we’ve done our due diligence in making our books as historically accurate as we can. We’re trying to raise the respectability of our genre, which, not that long ago was conflated with period costume bodice-rippers that were rightfully called mere escapism. (Remind me to write a post on the history of historical fiction sometime.) But since that time, the genre has come a long way in building credibility with readers and critics and today’s authors are much more concerned with portraying time periods and places correctly, as our source lists show.
In addition, we’re providing a list of sources for those who wish to learn more or want to fact-check the book. As a reader, I LOVE the Author’s Note and am sorely disappointed if there isn’t one or little effort was put into it. As a writer, I have looked at the bibliographies of other historical fiction writers in my time period to get a sense if I am going in the right direction in my own research. These pages at the end of books serve very important purposes that cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand.
We are in no way pretending to be what we are not. Most historical novelists will freely admit to not having a PhD if that is the case. And there are a few who do have one (such as Alison Weir and Anne Fortier), so does that give them the right to include a bibliography in their books while the rest of us can’t? If that is the case, that is elitism, pure and simple. Many of us are self-taught researchers or may have been trained through courses of study besides history (English or law, perhaps) but that doesn’t mean our research is automatically of lower quality and undeserving of being documented.
It would be far worse if historical novelists a) didn’t bother to do proper research and/or b) left readers to their own devices to figure out what is true. Then you really would have historical confusion.
I could be completely wrong, but it feels like opinions like this stem from two things: an old-world us vs. them snobbery in which we novelists are seen as on a far lower plane than professors of history, and a feeling of being threatened because the average reader is more likely to read a historical fiction novel than an academic work of history.
As an author who has written both and plans to eventually get her PhD in history, I will say there is no reason for historians to feel threatened. They do what they do and we do what we do. Each has our own audience and when there is crossover, it benefits us both. But we cannot shoulder the responsibility for how our readers interpret our work alone. If they want to believe it is true all we can do is warn them it’s not and direct them to books by historians to find out what really happened–that is exactly what the bibliographies found in our books do!
I think the idea that historians somehow sit on a loftier pedestal than historical authors is a function of the insular nature of academia and will hopefully (eventually) burn itself out. It is this misguided attitude that makes it somehow okay for someone who started out as a historian to later go into historical fiction, but not for a historical novelist who lacks a PhD to ask to be taken seriously. Unless historical novelists start claiming that their books are the truth–rather than influenced by the truth–(as best that historians can interpret it; it can be argued that all of history is fiction as it is written by the victors and is often revised by memory, time and author prejudice) there is no need for us vs. them. We are both working toward the same purpose: educating a public that increasingly doesn’t give a fig about history. We just go about it in different ways.
And as for me, you can pry my bibliography (fiction or non-fiction) out of my cold, dead hands.
The Once and Future Queen will be out in November (exact date TBD). I’m thrilled to share the cover and back page copy with you! Depending on when I know the publication date, I may or may not do pre-orders. I’ll let you know at that time.
I hope you are as excited for this book as I am!
Guinevere’s journey from literary sinner to feminist icon
took over one thousand years…and it’s not over yet.
Literature tells us painfully little about Guinevere, mostly focusing on her sin and betrayal of Arthur and Camelot. As a result, she is often seen as a one-dimensional character. But there is more to her story. By examining popular works of more than 20 authors over the last one thousand years, The Once and Future Queen shows how Guinevere reflects attitudes toward women during the time in which her story was written, changing to suit the expectations of her audience. Beginning in Celtic times and continuing through the present day, this book synthesizes academic criticism and popular opinion into a highly readable, approachable work that fills a gap in Arthurian material available to the general public.
Nicole Evelina has spent more than 15 years studying Arthurian legend. She is also a feminist known for her fictional portrayals of strong historical and legendary women, including Guinevere. Now, she combines these two passions to examine the effect of changing times and attitudes on the character of Guinevere in a must-read book for Arthurian enthusiasts of every knowledge level.
I think Rudyard Kipling had it right: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” When I came across this pin on Pinterest I realized it was something I wanted to explore more in-depth, because I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve learned more from the historical fiction I’ve read than I did in all my years of studying history in school.
For those prone to argue, yes, I know historical fiction is part fiction. I’m not saying we should base all of our knowledge on it, but that it can spark interest in a certain time period or person much easier than a dry history book can. For example, I just finished Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Its backdrop of the Cathar Inquisition in thirteenth century France made me want to learn more about this little-known sect of medieval Christianity. I can promise you that if we covered that in school, I don’t remember a word of it.
Why does historical fiction stay with us? Well, for one, stories are the way the human brain processes information. We tell each other stories every day in the form of conversation without even noticing we’re doing it. Chances are good that when you’re telling your friend about that awesome party you went to, you’re going to tell her stories about the evening, not a chronological recounting of events (unless you are Sheldon Cooper, in which case you wouldn’t have gone to a party anyway). I think this is the fundamental flaw in many history textbooks; they focus on cramming as many dates and facts in as possible, and thus, lose the true story.
As author Heather Web recently said in a recent Huffington Post article, “What’s not to love about history? I think it gets a bad rap from our grade school and high school days where many teachers force-fed us timelines and names to memorize, as opposed to teaching us to explore movements and larger concepts–never mind all of those juicy stories. This is what history, and historical fiction, really is: juicy stories.”
That brings me to my second point about historical fiction. It breathes life into history in a way traditional textbooks don’t. This happens through the story and the characters, no matter if they are fictional paupers begging at the cathedral gates or real-life kings and queens. They represent the plight (or fortune) of people in a given time period, they show us history in action through a personal lens with all of its love, triumph, grief and pain. Whether we leave a historical fiction work thinking, “Oh my God am I glad I didn’t live in that time period,” or “Dude, where’s the time machine? It would have been so cool to live in that time,” we’ve personalized the story. History now matters to us.
And matter it should. Beyond the oft-repeated proverb “if we don’t remember history, we’re bound to repeat it,” history shows us what is right and wrong with humanity, emphasizes the good that we should seek to amplify and horrors that should never be permitted again. By living these things through the fictionalized lives of real or made up people, we become more compassionate and empathetic. I just finished a book called The Hammer of Witches by Begoña Echeverria, whose graphic portrayal of the Basque witch hunts made me realize what danger we place our entire community in when we fail to see the humanity of those around us and instead choose the bandwagon of bigoted hatred and fear.
Personally, I would love if history classes in high school (or at least college) incorporated historical fiction into their curriculum, especially as way of whetting the appetite for certain time periods or topics. (Come to think of it, that’s kind of what my high school Western Civ teacher did when she had us read 1984 before studying totalitarian societies. I’ve been hooked on dystopia ever since.) For example, I personally think Susanna Kearsely’s forthcoming A Desperate Fortune has the clearest explanation of the reason for the Jacobite rebellion/exile I’ve ever read. Historical fiction can even take you places the history books rarely do. Jo Baker’s Longbourn gives a glimpse into the lives of servants and soldiers in Regency England, while most history books stick to the sterile facts of monarchy and war.
And you wouldn’t even have to use books, or at least not books alone. There are so many period films and TV shows that they could be incorporated as well. Even if they are of questionable historical accuracy (*cough* Tudors *cough*) that can be used to spark discussion. “Spot the inaccuracy” could be part of a test. It could be employed interdepartmentally as well. The Paris Wife could be an intro to Hemingway or The Secret of All Things a prelude to biology. The possibilities are endless. (Man, now I wish I had my PhD. or even a master’s in history so I could create this class.)
I just hate the idea of history meaning less and less to future generations. But if mine is any starting place (I’m at the tail end of Gen X), things aren’t looking good. A recent report by the American Historical Association (I’m a member), showed that schools issuing history degrees are showing a downward trend, which isn’t too surprising given the recent economy. The more we can use historical fiction to spark interest, the better off we will all be. The day history becomes only dead guys and boring facts is the day we lose a valuable record of our humanity.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? What historical fiction has made you care about history? What do you wish young people had to read in school? Do you think there is danger in mixing fiction in with our history?
I am so excited to have as my guest today historical fiction author Sarah Kennedy, whose recent book, City of Ladies (second in the Cross and Crown series), was one of my favorites of 2014. (Here’s my review; still waiting for Historical Honey to post it. And here’s the related article I wrote for the Historical Novel Society.)
Today Sarah talks about her book, as well as the real-life inspiration for its title and main themes. Thank you for being here, Sarah!
Cities of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy
When I began my second novel, City of Ladies, I didn’t have a title in mind. I wanted to move my main character, Catherine Havens, forward in time: get her married, put her in charge of a large household. Catherine, however, is not the sort of person who would simply forget the convent that she grew up in, which was a community of women (despite the presence of a priest and the male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church). She would, of course, keep women around her. She is comfortable with women. She respects their ability to reason and work.
As the novel evolved, Catherine’s newly-formed household seemed to draw to it former nuns, and Catherine wanted to protect them. The women have nowhere else to go—and yet they still have skills and knowledge that can help the girls and village women nearby. What else would Catherine do besides take them in and shelter them? This is part of her calling, as she sees it, even in a secular world, and it also becomes part of the problem of the plot, as the women begin to turn up dead.
At some point in the drafting, the original City of Ladies began to tug at my mind, both as a book that Catherine would have owned and as a metaphor for the world Catherine is trying to build under Henry VIII. The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) was written about a hundred and fifty years before my book’s time period, by a woman named Christine de Pizan. Christine was Italian by birth but spent much of her life in Paris. She was unusually well-educated for her time (like my Catherine), primarily because her father (like Catherine’s father) insisted upon it.
Christine was happily—and conventionally—married in her teens and bore three children. Her husband, however, died, leaving Christine to raise her family alone. This she did by writing, becoming the first woman in European history to earn her living as an author. Other women did write—and some of them were widely known—but they were nuns, who had the leisure and the status to circulate their work. Nuns didn’t have to make money, but Christine did. And she succeeded.
The authorial tradition was heavily against her, and The Book of the City of Ladies takes on the cultural and theological arguments against women in general. Christine writes in defense of women’s moral and intellectual worth, against the backdrop of “all manner of philosophers, poets and orators too numerous to mention, who all seem to speak with one voice and are unanimous in their view that female nature is wholly given up to vice” (6). As she becomes more and more despondent about being a member of such a flawed sex, she is visited by three ladies, who reveal themselves as Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. These three ladies encourage and assist Christine in building her “City of Ladies.”
This city is metaphorical. The book itself is the structure, and within it are the “lives” of many women, historical, biblical, and mythological, who have been exemplary or have done extraordinary things. They are mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives—and they show that women are resourceful, caring, intelligent, and moral. The entire book becomes, as Rosalind Brown-Grant notes, an example of the “biographical catalogue,” and it seems designed more for visiting than for a beginning-to-end tour. The three-part structure and multiple sub-headings and “arguments” within the text make for fruitful lucky-dipping. Christine’s City of Ladies may be old-fashioned in its emphasis on moral virtue in women, but her goal is not to provide a defense of what women should do but rather a defense of what women are.
My own City of Ladies is a metaphor, as well, but it’s also the physical house where Catherine Havens lives. She dreams of a world where women can read, write, think, and work. My Catherine does want to go out into the world and use her knowledge. She wants to hear her calling for herself—and then act to make the most of her gifts, which she believes are given to her by God.
And so Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies became the only choice when I sought out a title. My Catherine began life in a convent, and the historical Christine went to live in one as an older woman. In hindsight, it seems natural that Catherine claimed that book as one of her most prized possessions. It gave her something that Christine herself didn’t have—a foremother who showed her in writing what a woman, even under a harsh king, could accomplish.
Brown-Grant, Rosalind, editor. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan. London: Penguin, 1999.
Do you have any questions or comments for Sarah? Please leave them below. She will be popping in and answering comments/questions as she can. And again, go read her books if you haven’t already!
This is the second in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here’s part 1 in case you missed it.
Having learned our fill on character, our lesson for day 2 was on plot and history. A lot of people find plotting overwhelming, but as Deb said, “all we’re doing [with plot] is taking a person from point A to point B.”
How History and Plot Work Together
The elements of a historical narrative are the same as the story historians construct about the evidence they have found. We tend to think of history as what really happened, but a lot of times we just can’t know, even with a lot of evidence. Many times the evidence, even eyewitness testimony, is contradictory.
That’s why historians look at evidence and then go back later and construct a narrative to tell a particular story. Like historical fiction writers, they end up leaving 99% of what they’ve learned off the page. It may sound like they aren’t being true if that’s the case, but if they included it all the book would be overwhelmingly lengthy and boring. They, like fiction writers, have to stick to a central point or purpose and only radiate out so far from that, and only when doing so enriches the overall point they are trying to make.
Genre and Plot There are tons of traditional plot models out there, but Deb told us none of her books follow any of them. She believes that is a perfectly valid choice for an author to make. (Honestly, my books don’t either.) We explored the traditional three act structure, the hero’s journey (often used in fantasy) and a basic plot structure and talked about how they are alike and how they differ. (By the way, the images I’m linking to here are the exact ones Deb gave us as handouts, so you can pretend like you were there with us.) It’s a good idea to at least familiarize yourself with the elements of these and other models so that you know the basics of what’s expected from a story, even if yours doesn’t fit neatly into one of them.
Deb doesn’t define herself as a genre author. This means she writes broader fiction that doesn’t fit into a category like mystery, paranormal, romance, etc. However, many writers, myself included, do choose to write within a given genre. It’s important to note that different genres have different expectations. As an author you have three choices:
Work within your genre – All genres have expected conventions, word limits/page expectations. (For example, romance has very particular word counts and expectations of what has to happen by a certain page. Thrillers are also known for having strong pacing expectations.)
Work outside of genre – This is what Deb does. It tends to give you more freedom in length and what you can and can’t do, but it can also be difficult for agents and publishers to classify when it comes time to sell it.
Work against genre – In order to do this, you need to know the rules of the genre well. After all, you can’t break rules (well) you don’t know or understand. And if you break them badly, you won’t have a story people want to read.
History defines the outer limits of where you can go in historical fiction. Within in historical fiction, your sub-genre (fantasy, romance, mystery, thriller, etc.) constrains the genre. In other words, if you’re writing historical fantasy (as I do), you’re still subject to the general rules of fantasy writing; you just happen to be setting your fantasy in another time period.
Bringing History into Your Plot
Deb made the very interesting point that very few people are participants in historical events, but history still affects each one of us. There are three main ways we interact with history:
History that is going on around you that shapes what you eat, wear, etc. – This affects everyone. For example, if I was setting a book in pre-Roman Britain, my Celts would likely not eat onions or celery because the Romans brought those to Britain. However, because my Arthur and Guinevere live after the Roman invasion, it’s logical they could eat those things.
History you are a direct participant in – Fewer people will be part of a battle or other significant event. This could be due to their station in life, or they might just happen to live where something of import takes place and get caught up in it. For example, because they are rulers, both Arthur and Guinevere are active participants in the historical battle of Mount Badon.
Doing historical things – Deb gave the examples of being a blacksmith, riding side saddle or teaching in a one room schoolhouse. These are things that you wouldn’t really know are historic while you are doing them. It’s only by looking back through history that we can define them as historic. For example, Guinevere is a Druid priestess. To her, that is a natural part of her religion. Only to us, 1,500 years later, is this considered historical.
This is a continuum. Characters can move on it and different characters can be in different categories at the same time as one another. So your main characters might be doing historic things or being directly involved in historic events, while your secondary characters are only doing historic things. Or your main character may always be doing historic things, but those historic things might change in the course of the book as the history that is going on around him or her affects his/her life.
We all know this, but it bears repeating, especially in the context of historical fiction: history for history’s sake is boring. You may be impressed by what you know, but you will lose the story and your readers if you include all of it. (This is why I started this blog, so that I had something to do with all that extra knowledge and didn’t feel like it was going to waste if it didn’t end up on the page.) Pick the historical things that allow your character to work within your plot. History is a pot of resources you can dip into to find something that makes your characters work i.e. show something about a relationship, help in character development. It shouldn’t be there just because you learned it.
Story Openings and Other Various Tips
As any writer will tell you, knowing where is the best place to begin your story is very difficult. As writers, we often have to “write our way” into the novel and so where we started writing isn’t necessarily the best place to actually begin the book. Deb’s suggestion for finding the elusive “inciting incident” is to find the moment where everything changes for your character and start there. As she said, “It’s like sinking an anchor for yourself and the reader.”
Deb’s tip: Look at your WIP and start reading at page 151. What before that is truly necessary and what is you writing to get to where you need to be? Delete anything that isn’t absolutely essential.
Trivia: Deb told us that A Discovery of Witches originally had a lot more of Diana at the library at the beginning, but she cut it because nothing was happening.
Create a file or a book for yourself that is your “bible” with all the information about your characters, plot, and references so you can easily refer back while writing and editing.
If you’re going to use something extraordinary like time travel, magic or reincarnation in your story it has to have a reason beyond you wanting to do it. It has to add something to the story.
Letting information out slowly over time is always better than a dream, flashback or other contrived tool.
Next week: What Deb taught us about setting.
What do you think about Deb’s advice on plot and history? Writers, what tips do you have? What’s worked for you? Readers, what do you like the best in the plots of the books you read? What annoys you?
A model of what Glastonbury Abbey looked like in the Middle Ages
Last week we talked about Geoffrey’s Ashe’s thoughts on Glastonbury as it relates to King Arthur. This week we’ll continue with Glastonbury Abbey, as described by him and his wife, Pat, who was our tour guide around the grounds.
I have to say that I wasn’t expecting much from the Abbey, but it is truly a magnificent place. It’s hard to try to describe the sheer size of the walls. Even standing there, it was a stretch to imagine the size the Abbey must have been its heyday. Photos and even the model in the museum can’t do it justice.
There has been some kind of settlement on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey since the early Christian era. The foundations of an early Roman building have recently been discovered under a local supermarket (the area used to be part of the Abbey grounds). There was once a church, known only as The Old Church, on the grounds that was so old, no one knew who put it there. Tradition places it early in the Christian era. It was made from wattle and was said to be built by Christ’s disciples (Joseph of Arimathea group) in the first century. It may have existed where the Lady Chapel is now, and was considered the holiest place in England.
The remains of the Lady Chapel today.
So is the tradition of Joseph (and possibly the young Jesus) coming to the area possible? Mr. Ashe admits this theory is what first drew him to the area. While he believes the part about Jesus coming along to be “modern fantasy,” he believes it’s possible Joseph came because there were very strong trade routes between the two areas, especially in tin.
During the Middle Ages, the Abbey was at the height of its power. It was the largest cathedral in England other than old St. Paul’s in London. This means nearby Wells Cathedral was smaller, and that is of mind-boggling proportions. It had a grand scriptorium which purportedly housed the largest collection of books in Europe. (Today, only about 40 of these books remain.)
The Abbot’s Kitchen
The Abbot was more than the religious leader; he was also chief justice for the area. He had his own kitchen, a separate building on the grounds which survives in tact today. It contains four ovens, one in each corner of the room, each with their own chimney that vented into one hole in the roof. These air vents served to bring in cool air, while pushing hot air and smoke out. They were so effective, they became models for others in buildings all over Europe. It would have had a huge hall next to it, in which the Abbot would have entertained kings and other nobility when they visited.
And the monks did more than pray. They carried out important medical works for the sick, helped the poor (including at an almshouse on the grounds that was dedicated to poor widows) as well as public works, such as draining the water that still made the surrounding area marshy.
Have you ever heard the nursery rhyme of Little Jack Horner? (“Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said ‘oh, what a good boy am I.'”) It turns out that Jack (John) Horner was a real person, but he was far from the little boy portrayed by artists. He lived in the area of Glastonbury during the time of the dissolution and was extremely helpful to King Henry VIII. He had a book of titles to the divisions of land that made up Glastonbury. As the story goes, he took one out of the book for himself before presenting the book to the king (hence, the title was the plum in the rhyme).
This photo gives you some idea of just how huge the Abbey would have been.
The Abbey was one of the last to be dissolved by King Henry VIII. It lasted until 1539. It is said that Henry stayed at what was then called the Pilgrim’s Inn (today the George and Pilgrim’s Hotel) across the street from the Abbey to personally watch it burn. When that happened, it wasn’t just the monks who were turned out. The Abbey was also a center of learning, so teachers, librarians and musicians lost their livelihoods and homes as well. After the dissolution, the property passed into private hands as the king gave favors and paid debts. In the 1970s, the Church of England bought it and it is now an international tourist destination, in addition to an important piece of history.
What do you think about Glastonbury Abbey? What questions do you have about it?
This 5th century ring, recently discovered in Britian, will important in book 2. (Photo credit: Mail Online)
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed I spent almost my entire 3-day weekend making edits to the rough draft of Book 2 (working title: Camelot’s Queen). This means I didn’t have time for a proper blog post. So instead, here are a handful of news items and blog posts that have made my author’s heart sing over the last few weeks. I hope you enjoy them as well.
Why I Love Novels in First Person– HF author Nancy Bilyeau (whose first book, The Crown, I am currently loving!) wrote a fantastic post over at Historical Tapestry on the merits of writing in first person. This POV has its limitations, but I have to admit I love it. I’m not sure I’ll switch third in the future.
Let Your Characters Live and Breathe – James Scott Bell wrote a lovely post on what to do when your characters won’t do what you want them to do. My favorite tip: go with them; they’re usually right. The surprises in writing are actually my favorite part. They are what tell me this particular story has taken on a life of it’s own – and when it does that, it’ll be successful.
Think You Ought be in Pictures? – In case you’ve ever wondered about how books get turned into movies, here’s a great post from agent Rachelle Gardener that spells it all out. (I don’t know about you, but I’m still crossing my fingers!)
And for my fellow history lovers, don’t worry, I’ll get back to the Celtic history and Arthurian legend posts soon. I still owe you posts on divorce and children in the Celtic world and I have two DVD series from the Great Courses to load me up with new material as soon as I get a chance to watch them.
What about you? What articles/blog posts have you enjoyed lately? Please share them in the comments so we can all read them.