Monday, December 27, 2010

Yule Logs

It being the Christmas season, I thought I’d do a little research on Yule logs. In The Black Crown, the yule log is being dragged into Camelot’s main hall just after Arthur is forced to pass judgment on Guenevere:

Medraut shivered as he and Arthur strode towards the king’s work room. There was a draft in the Great Hall. They had opened the doors to bring in the Yule log.

“I want you to take charge of the execution,” Arthur said as they paused to let pass a group of giggling pages carrying garlands of holly. Absently he mussed the hair of the smallest lad, who looked up at the High King with adoration in his eyes.

Arthur had never mussed his hair like that. For a second, jealousy overshadowed the task to which Medraut had been set. Then he realized what his father had just commanded. “Sire?”

Arthur’s eyes swept the hall, taking in the Christmas preparations, his brow raised in surprise. Shrugging, he hurried on past the dais where maids spread fresh, white linens across the board. “It’s to be in two days. I want the wood good and green. Plenty of smoke. Less painful that way.”
That got me thinking about the Yule log tradition. My Camelot is still set in an alternative 12th century, although, yes, as you know, I am playing with changing it to the 6th. I wondered how the Yule log would play out in each of those scenarios.

Most web sites claim that the Yule log is a very old tradition, going back to the pre-Roman Germanic peoples of northern Europe, or to the Celts. Other sources say it may have been Egyptian in origin, or part of the incorporation of the Persian sun-god Mithras into the Roman saturnalia. (Mithrasism spread into Britain with the Roman invasion in 54BC.)

On the other hand, other web sites say that this is all speculation, that the Yule log did not appear in Britain until the 17th century, when first mention of it was recorded by a British clergyman.

Well, the first mention of the Yule log was not the 1620s or 30’s. As early as 336 AD Pope Julius I, when he declared that Christmas should replace Saturnalia as a festival, stated that the burning of the log would symbolize the light of Christ. As the a fire, light the first night of the Saturnalia, was a Roman custom, it would, of course, have made its way into Roman Britian.

In addition, it appears that the Normans, pre-conquest, burned a log at Christmas, a custom they continued from their ancestors, the “Northmen” who invaded what is today Normandy.

Not matter what its source, the yule log as a tradition, appears to have been established in Britian by the 12th century. An English poem dated 1182 refers to it. The same custom appears in other parts of Europe. In 1184, a German parish priest recorded bringing in a tree to kindle the Christmas festival fire. By 1340 Queen’s College, Oxford, included a yule log in its festivities. The celebration included a song and readings.

So how did the log work?

Over that there seems to be quite a bit of debate. Some people say it would have had to be big enough to burn over the full twelve days of Christmas. Interestingly, I could find no historical reference to the twelve days of Christmas being celebrated in the Middle Ages, though certainly by Shakespeare’s time it was an established fact. In fact, in the Middle Ages, the last day of the period, the Epiphany appears to be more associated with religious practices than misrule – and twelve days of celebration do not seem to be a recorded fact. Gift-giving, by the way, happened on the Epiphany, not Christmas, which makes sense as that was the day the wise men were supposed to have arrived with gifts for the Christ child.

A log big enough to burn over 12 days would have had to be huge, indeed. And the big question is, in practical terms, would it have burned down the hall? Some references I’ve seen say that the big end was poked into the fireplace and it was slowly “fed” to the fire in time. Well, if the wood was dry or pitchy, what’s to stop the fire from creeping along the bark, out into the hall? Fireplaces with chimneys themselves (as opposed to an open hearth in the centre of the floor) did not appear until the 12th century. Another reference says the log was cut into sections and fed into the fire a section a day. This makes more sense.

So what if you had the old kind of hearth, where the fire is made in the centre of the hall and the smoke drifts up through hole(s) in the roof? If a big log got burning, it would create an uncomfortably hot room. In fact, the heat from a big fire like that would possible drive people from the hall. But if you tried to slow the burn by possibly using a green log or throwing water on the log, you would create so much smoke, you’d drive everyone from the hall.

If you live in a 6th or 7th century Saxon-style hall, you’ve still got the danger from fire. These halls were built from wood, with an A-shaped roof. There were one or more raised, earthen banks along the centre line where the fires burned. But these structures also contained a dug-out cellar below the main floor (this is where Sioneh and Medraut are imprisoned in The Deadly Peace) – and the flooring above was wood. Unless managed carefully, a Yule log rolling off the hearth could burn down the whole hall.

I think we can safely guess that the log would have had to fit in the hearth (whether the chimney type or the open fire). And that it would have had to be chosen carefully so that it provided a good blaze without burning down the place or creating so much smoke everyone was miserable. It would probably have been a hardwood, cut earlier in the year and seasoned so it would burn without producing too much smoke.

The perfect wood for this, by the way, is oak. Oak burns very slowly and without much smoke. In fact, a couple of oak doors saved my life many years ago when the oil furnace in the hundred-year-old house I was living in caught fire. There just happened to be a couple of old oak doors propped near the furnace and they contained the blaze. The oily smoke pouring from the cellar alarmed a passer-by, who got everyone out of the house.

Anyway, getting back to the Yule log, considering the careful planning it would have taken, its procurement was probably the job of one man – possibly the manor’s forester. He would have had the necessary skill and experience to judge the correct tree and when to cut it.

But I wonder how many halls burnt down at Christmas time?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Urien of Rheged vs Urien of Rhyged – A Peek into My Creative Process

For those of you who missed my last post on Urien, he’s one of the candidates for the “historical” King Arthur, primarily because there are so many parallels between his own history and that of the King Arthur legend. He won a series of battles, which were cataloged by the same Nennius who listed Arthur’s battles. He’s even credited with having defeated the Angles at Lindesfarne. In later versions of Urien’s history (by this time highly fictionalized), he’s a strong supporter of Arthur. So, in terms of the legend, he was definitely one of the “good guys”.

I found all this out after I’d selected Urien to be my villain. That caused a dilemma, at first, as in my trilogy, Urien plots with Morguase to overthrow Arthur. But then I realized it could actually make him into a more interesting character. What kind of man would turn against the king he once supported? And what would drive him to do that?

My original vision of Urien was that of burning ambition. He wanted my heroine’s throne for himself and his sons. But then one of those serendipitous things happened. I wrote the first scene in which we see Sioneh, my heroine, together with her father. And I decided to set it in Urien’s point of view, just to see what would happen, as I thought setting it in Sioneh’s point of view would create a pretty predictable scene.
Wow! What I discovered, as I let the scene unfold through Urien’s eyes, was a man in conflict. One who wanted the throne, but who also admired and was frustrated by his daughter, who was, in reality, a far better candidate for the ruler of Rhyged than any of his sons. Something Urien knew deep in his heart but wouldn’t admit even to himself.

He’s like a hawk watching his prey. Everything Urien does is tinted with hoping Sioneh won’t succeed, and hoping she will. Here’s a bit of that scene:
     Urien of Rhyged held the hoof of one of their new stallions between his knees as he pared off the excess wall. A trickle of sweat dripped onto the shavings gathering at his feet. In the heat of the glowing forge he was stripped to his braes despite the chill of the early spring air. Glancing up, he paused to wipe his brow and was not at all surprised to see his daughter, still in armor, back from her three-day patrol of Rhyged’s coast.

     “My luck, you’re in the hottest place in Carduel.” It was like Sioneh to complain over everything he did. She wiped her brow with her sleeve. Road dust smudged her cheek. “Why don’t you get a new farrier instead of insisting on shoeing the war horses yourself? Anyone could do as well.”

     As he lowered the hoof to the ground, a scowl pulled at the scar above his eye, reminding him of the battle where he got it. “I’ve had the balance of too many hooves ruined by idiots who think they can shoe a horse.”

     Pursing her lips, Sioneh dipped a ladle of water out of a nearby bucket. Her eyes sized up the stallion he was shoeing, their flare telling him she approved. She wasn’t going to be happy when she found out he’d given it to Domnall.

    Anticipating the fight to come, he wiped his hands on his leather apron, tonged a red-hot shoe out of the forge and began hammering it into shape.

     His youngest, still in the quilted gambeson Rhyged knights wore to protect their skin, lazily pulled on the bellows. Domnall turned to Sioneh. “How do you like my new horse?”

     “What?” Water spilt on his daughter’s hauberk.

     Trust Domnall to provoke her. The boy scratched at a flea bite. “Da says I’m to have him, now that I’m knighted.”

     Sioneh puffed up like an angry hawk. “I thought I was getting him.”

     Urien’s own voice was calm. “Domnall needs a war horse. Bonniblack’s a bit to handle. Narron suits you fine.”

     “I can handle any horse.” She flicked the rest of the water at Domnall, who dodged with a mocking bow. Urien wondered why she let him get away with that kind of insubordination. He’d have a strap to his son by now. But she was going to have to learn herself to command, if she intended to lead Rhyged. And there were times when he wondered if she ever would.

The same ambivalence accompanies Urien’s treason. He’s angry at Arthur for what he thinks is Arthur’s betraying him, but there’s a corner of his heart that regrets his anger and would gladly forsake his plots.
They say that fact is more interesting than fiction. After all the research I’ve done, I’m convinced that anything pre-eleventh century is probably as much fiction as fact. But fact can help discover new depths in fiction.

Monday, November 29, 2010


OK, time to confess.  I missed two scheduled posts.  Life has gotten too complicated.  November, which is supposed to be shoulder season for the B&B, has turned into a mirror image of high season -- without Phil here to help me (he's still teaching.)  On top of that, the contract job I took writing some documentation for the school where I used to teach has turned into one of those massive never-ending projects that demands what little spare time I have left. And now Qualmark says they're coming next month to assess our property (Qualmark are the guys in NZ who award the stars.)  I'm lucky if I get one hour a week of creative writing in.

OK, I admit, two weekends ago I actually took three days off.  Phil and I went to the Bay of Islands, took an overnight cruise weaving in and out of the islands, breakfasted with dolphins, shopped and relaxed.  I did absolutely NO WORK at all.  On anything.  Quite an accomplishment in itsefl as I'm a workaholic. But I finally managed to get the message into my head that sometimes a rest is good and its OK not to work.

Even for a writer.

Call it a writer's date.  That's what Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way) would call it. 

It worked.  I came back recharged with new ideas.  Including a neat one for a novel set here in Thames.

Now if I only had the time to put them on paper.


Do you take artist's dates with yourself?  What do you do?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Urien of Rheged

In the search for the historical Arthur, there are at least twenty candidates various scholars have put forward. My own favorite doesn’t even have Arthur’s name. It’s Urien of Rheged.

For those of you who have read bits of my Arthurian trilogy, the name should sound familiar. Urien of Rhyged is the father of my heroine, and the antagonist in The Black Crown. His plotting leads to Arthur’s final battle.

You’ll notice I changed his name slightly – the historical Rheged became Rhyged. Mostly that was to give myself a bit more poetic license.

So who was the historic Urien and why did I pick him as a possible Arthur candidate?

Well, my first clue came from Gildas. Yes, that Gildas. In De Excidio Britanniae (On the Fall/Ruin of Britain), the source of invasions is the north. In other words, the invaders during that period are the Picts and the Scoti (Irish).

All right, I’ll acknowledge he does mention foreign “dogs” being brought into Britain in the east and rebelling against their British hosts.) But the big military threat comes across Hadrian’s Wall.

This is bolstered by the archaelogical evidence. During the fifth and sixth centuries, the abandoned Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall were restored and reinforced. People were obviously trying to stop something from coming down from the north.

According to legend, Urien was the king of Rheged, one of the numerous late Celtic kingdoms that sprung up after the Roman armies withdrew from Britain. Rheged stretched down the eastern side of England from Hadrian’s Wall (and possibly further north) to Chester. That made it one of the largest kingdoms in the land.

Dating puts Urien in the 6th century – post Battle of Badon (and post-Gildas, as well.) But the parallels with Arthur are striking.
  • Urien is credited with fighting off the invaders from the North in a series of battles. He is supposed to have defeated the Angles, as well.
  • He united several kingdoms and possibly became “High King”.
  • He was married to a Morgan, who in later legends becomes Morgan La Fey.  
  • The famous poet Taliesin was his bard (later, Arthurian legend made Taliesin Arthur’s bard).
  • His capital was at present-day Carlisle, which has gone through at least four name changes. One of its names was Carduel, which the twelfth century poet Chrétian de Troyes, in his early works, called Arthur’s “seat”, until he later invented Camelot.
  • Depending on which version of Urien’s story you consult, he was either killed by his own son or by a retainer named “Morcant”.
A lot of the pieces fit. “Aha!” I thought. “Maybe I’ve found the inspiration for Arthur.”

Then I started picking the facts apart. To be continued…


Monday, November 1, 2010

A (somewhat) Brief History of Jousting

About a month ago, when I was researching sword fighting, I noticed something interesting while looking at photos of the Bayeux Tapestry. The charging Norman knights aren’t carrying lances in the traditional way we think of Medieval knights. No. Instead they were throwing them – more as if they were spears than lances.



This got me thinking about spears and lances and research I did centuries ago while I was still a graduate student doing a PhD in Medieval Studies. In my first or second year, I wrote a paper about spears and lances in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.
When Parzival gets to the Grail Castle, he witnesses a procession that culminates with his seeing the Grail. Most scholars, of course, focus on the Grail, which in Parzival is quite different from the standard chalice that most people picture for the Grail. What I was interested in was the other items carried in the procession, in particular “der bloutec sper” – the bloody spear.
Notice, I said “spear”, not lance. This is a different weapon.
In fact, at least one Mittel Hoch Deutsch scholar – probably the great Joachim Bumke, but it’s been so long ago that I can’t remember for sure – pointed out that young Parzival’s sin wasn’t just killing his cousin, i.e., killing kin. But also that the weapon he used – his spear – was a common hunting weapon, not a knightly weapon, so it was a sin against knighthood as well.
OK, Parzival was written over the last decade of the twelth century and the first of the thirteenth. Something had definitely changed between the Bayeux Tapestry and the writing of Parzival.
I started to wonder how jousting evolved.
First, let’s get a little terminology straight. 
  • Spear – a long pole with a sharp point at the end, possibly even a separate point, such as a spearhead. Can be thrown or thrust.
  • Javelin – smaller lighter version of the above. Usually meant to be thrown.
  • Lance – a heavy, long pole meant to be held and thrust.
If we go back to Roman times, we find they used cavalry in their armies as support for the main unit of infantry. Until the latter part of empire, the period which would have been King Arthur’s, they were used for scouting and light skirmishing. In battle, two “wings” (alea) of cavalry were positioned one on each flank, to prevent the infantry from being outflanked. They relied on bows and arrows and spears that could be thrown.

The issue is one of equipment. Because of their lack of stirrups, Roman cavalry were not very effective when it came to directly engaging with the enemy through sword fighting or lance. Stirrups are an essential ingredient in keeping you in the saddle, as your feet in the stirrups provided leverage. Roman saddles had four horns to help stabilize a rider, but you could still be toppled off your horse.

Roman Saddle -- 4 horns but no stirrups

Interestingly, the foe the classical Romans feared the most was the cataphract – the heavy horse cavalry that originated in Parthia (modern Iran). This force featured huge warhorses specially bred for the purpose (the first historical record of a breeding program). Both rider and horse were covered from head to foot with scale armor.


Cataphract.  This one is from the 5th century -- roughly "King Arthur's" time.
Cataphracts carried spears that were unusually long and heavy. These are still spears, not the heavy jousting lances we know from tournaments.

According to one source I researched, cataphracts used them to pierce their enemy. Without stirrups, though, a spear would have minimal impact. If you were galloping at full tilt at someone and ran him through, assuming you didn’t get knocked off your horse with the impact of the blow, you’d certainly get your spear tangled in the person you just ran through and have to, at best, abandon the weapon.

The power of a cataphract charge came from the mass of heavy horses themselves frontally assaulting a line, and supported by a barrage of arrows fired by archers stationed at the rear. The archers kept the enemy busy while the cataphracts charged.

Ironically, by the late Roman period, cataphracts have been absorbed into the Roman army and form the basis of its heavy cavalry. They’re also a key ingredient in Byzantine military strategy. And the source of the medieval knight and his equipment, as we know it.

(As another interesting aside, cataphracts were also a feature of Chinese armies during the San Guo – Three Kingdoms – period that followed the Han Dynasty.)

OK, fast forward to 1066 and the Bayeux Tapestry.

Stirrups appeared in northern Europe in the 9th century, so our Norman knights would have had them. But they haven’t changed their tactics yet from spear thrower to lance thruster.

By the mid twelfth century, things had changed. Tournaments as competitions to provide practice opportunities for knights had become so popular that Henry II of England forbade them. Interestingly, these tournaments usually began with melee, a mock battle. It featured a “lance charge”, in which the two sides charged each other and attempted to unhorse with their blunted lances as many of the opposition as possible. In other words, stirrups have changed the way knights fight.

As a result of Henry II’s forbidding tournaments in England, many English knights resorted to tourneying in France – including Henry’s own sons.

Success in a tournament didn’t just win a reputation; it also was worth a lot of money in prizes and ransoms. You could also win -- or lose -- your armor or your horse. This could be the making of a poor knight. (Yes, the movie "A Knight's Tale" does have some historical veracity.)  In fact, it's how William Marshall, who started as the younger son of an insignificant lord, earn both wealth and the attention and trust of the Plantagenant kings.

While Henry may not have approved of the sport, his heir did. Richard I (the Lionhearted), when he ascended to the throne, granted licenses for five areas where tournaments could be held in England. The tournaments included jousting.

Early jousts appear to have started with the tilt – running at each other with lances – and then progressed on to battling it out with swords.  The use of a piece of cloth down the middle to separate the combatants is a late development, arising out of the 15th century.

Jousting also resulted in some modifications to the chest piece (or cuirasse) of the set of armor.  To help shield the chest from a powerful blow, armorers started shaping the piece so there was a hallow between the metal and the wearer's chest.  Hence the reason why the armor worn during the Rennaissance and later has a pot-bellied look.


Jousting continued right on to the period of Henry VIII, who held some of England’s last tournaments. In fact, it’s postulated that a head injury sustained at a joust may have caused a personality change in Henry that turned him from a charming prince loved by all to a tyrant.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Prayer Beads

At one point in The Black Crown I have Lancelot using prayer beads. Actually, in the original draft, I said “rosary”, but one of my alert critique partners challenged me on it. So I decided to do some research.

It turns out that although saying the rosary did not come into practice until about the mid-twelfth century, prayer beads go back to at least the seventh century. One of the practices of medieval monks was to say 150 Paternosters (“Our Father” -- the Lord’s Prayer). This was considered the equivalent of saying all 150 of the Psalms of David. By the tenth century it was commonplace to use a set of beads to help keep track of the number said. In fact, the English word “bead” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “bid”, meaning to pray.

Prayer beads weren’t necessarily fancy things. They could be anything from knots in a string or beans laced together to bits of wood to fine stone or gems, depending on the wealth of the owner. Coral seems to have been extremely popular, which is interesting, for the material would have been rare.

Their length could be any multiple of 5 or 10 that fit into 150, although 10, 50 and 150 seem to have been the most popular counts. More often than not early prayer beads had no dividing marker between groups of beads, unlike today’s rosary where there is a “space” between groupings.

The modern rosary also has a dangly bit with 5 beads and a crucifix. Medieval prayer beads usually had only the roundel of beads. Sometimes a marker might be added to denote the end of the sequence, but the form the marker took varied widely. It might be a larger bead or a tassel or a gem or a cross or a piece of jewelry such as a broach.

Patrenostre beads from 14th century Brabant.  These might have been placed at the end of the string.  Henry VIII was supposed to have had a string with these.

By the mid-twelfth century, as the cult of the Virgin Mary spread across Europe, the practice of substituting an Ave – the prayer “Hail Mary full of grace” – spread with it. By the thirteenth century, Ave’s had replaced the “Paternosters” and the sequence of prayers had changed to 10 Hail Mary’s followed by one “Our Father”. An extra bead was inserted at the end of each group of 10 to represent the “Paternoster.”

The paternoster beads were also known as “gauds”, but I haven’t found an explanation for the source of this expression. I assume it refers to “Gaudeamus”, which means, “Let us rejoice”, but the expression doesn’t appear in the Lord’s Prayer itself. If anyone knows, I’d appreciate clarification.

Interesting prayer beads from a 14th century tryptic used on an altar.  The beads here are not strung in a loop.
They also appear to have been used jewelry. One explanation for this was that there was a tax on jewelry, but not on religious items. Anyway, by the 14th century their use as jewelry had become common and they’re often seen in the paintings and sculpture of the period.

Prayer beads, of course, aren’t unique to Western Christianity. Moslems also used them and so did the Buddhists. Today, Baha’is do, as well, to help count out the 95 repetitions of “God is Most Glorious” they’re required to say daily.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Writing Rituals

A lot of the articles I read on “finding your Muse” and “overcoming writer’s block” tout the benefits of having a writing ritual. I started to think about mine, and realized I do have a couple.

For one, I love the corner of the guest lounge where my computer is set up. It’s on a small mezzanine and there’s something infinitely cozy about it that inspires me to want to be there.
My writing niche in the B&B guest lounge (complete with guests).  That's the computer where it all happens.  Imagine me there right now typing this.  When we've got guests in I've got a micro computer I take down to the dining table or out on the back deck. 

Then there’s the cup of cappuccino I make before I start: fresh ground, locally roasted organic beans, topped by a mile of foam and my own home-ground cinnamon. If you’ve never ground your own cinnamon from sticks, you have a treat in store. Home-ground cinnamon is fragrant and sweet, totally unlike that dried-out stuff you find in stores.

I also used to play a game of solitaire before starting, but that became addictive. Today it’s a no-no.

Music? Well, I’ve tried it in the background, but honestly it doesn’t do anything for me. Once I’m into my world, I’m so totally there a steam train could chug through my living room and I wouldn’t notice. This annoys my cats infinitely, as they often think that my lap would be a nice place to curl up in and get a good rubbing. After all, I’m just sitting there staring at that white screen. Surely I could move my fingers from those black buttons and into their fur. They can’t understand why I don’t notice them, either.

Saturday mornings. I go to the local outdoor market – Thames has a great one – and after I’ve picked up my flowers, preserves and veggies for the B&B and caught up with my friends – Saturday market is where everyone meets – I’m off to Coco’s for (what else?) another cappuccino. And a half hour to an hour of writing in the corner of Sheree’s cute little café nested along one half of a 19th century villa. Dear Sheree. She probably imagines she’s fostering the next JK Rowling. I’d love to think so…

What are your writing rituals?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Confessions of a Contest Judge

It’s that time of year when contest fever hits and everyone’s trying to decide whether to commit to entering the big one – the Golden Heart (or the Rita for published authors.) Here in NZ I’ve just missed the deadline for RWNZ’s big single title contest. Actually, I’m saving my pennies for the Clendon (if they run it again, fingers crossed) because of all the contests I’ve entered, it’s given me the most useful feedback.

I also pitch in and judge, and after a couple of years of doing this, I’ve noticed the same patterns cropping up again and again. First, no matter how many manuscripts get sent to me, only one or two out of every batch are worth passing on. The rest aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just simply mediocre.

So what makes mediocre?

Here are the things that, if they don’t throw me, at least slow me down:

1) Too big a cast in chapter one. I’m not against novels with lots of characters, but they need to be introduced gradually so I can get to know them. And they need to be different enough from each other so that I can keep them straight in my head. While there isn’t anything wrong with having a few supporting characters, such as the maid and the groom, unless they’re important to driving the action in the first couple of scenes, you don’t need to name them yet.

2) Same old situation, no new twist. The year I judged contemporaries, three out of the twelve manuscripts I was sent had something to do with a celebrity wanting privacy, and two had to do with an obnoxious alpha male wanting to score on a bet. Ho hum.

3) Mr. Rochester. While Charlotte Bronte may have made literary history with her rude-mannered recluse, quite frankly I could never see what Jane saw in him. By now I’ve seen so many “Mr. Rochesters” that I think his type has become a cliché. If a man’s got a problem that makes him reluctant to form a relationship, at least give him enough charm that the reader wishes he would form one.

4) Back-story dump. Nothing slows a beginning (or a middle, or an end) down faster than heaps of back-story that isn’t absolutely CRUCIAL to understanding what is going on at that moment in the plot. Please, don’t take me back to the protagonist’s childhood (or other memories for that matter.) Just give me a hint of what happened, as little as possible in fact, because that will leave me hungry for more, and it’s hungry for more that keeps a reader turning pages late into the night.

5) Ditto historical detail. This especially goes for battles and politics. Pare it down to the bare essentials.

6) Dialog that repeats what the characters already know. (i.e., “As you know, John, our father’s will stipulates that blah, blah, blah”.) If they already know it, why would they be talking about it?

7) Motivation isn’t strong enough. It’s not enough to say a character wants something. You’ve got to show her wanting it so badly she can taste it.

8) Over-explaining. This is akin to telling us she didn’t touch the hot stove because she didn’t want to burn her hand. Readers are intelligent. They can figure it out.

9) Over-writing. Going into minute detail describing an action that’s not crucial to the plot slows the pace as effectively as a back-story dump. Editor Jennifer Enderlin of St. Martins Press says this is a sign of a first draft. Readers don’t need to know that she picked up the rope, uncoiled it and threw it. Cut to the chase and use a strong verb instead. “He heaved the line to the drowning man.”

10) Stories that start in the wrong place. Having started The Deadly Peace in seven different places before I finally settled on an opening scene, I know it’s really a challenge to find the right place to begin. The right place is the inciting incident that throws the protagonist into the middle of a problem he/she has to solve. Too many stories start too far back, with a lot of stuff that should just be back-story. I’ve heard one editor say, “Cur the first three chapters and start there.”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Maybe Camelot Wasn't off the Mark?

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot!
 Lerner & Lowe

Before I started my reports on the RWNZ conference, I was blogging searching for the “historical” King Arthur and discovered that the Ango-Saxon invasions, on which Arthur’s existence is predicated, may never have happened. If Britain wasn’t under siege, so to speak, by invaders, what was happening?

Archaeologist Francis Pryor and the various academic specialists he interviewed in the BBC TV Series Britain AD and Pryor’s book by the same name, paint a picture that is bright, indeed.

According to Pryor, Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries, the period after the Roman withdrawal, was a centre of culture that spread through Europe and whose fame and influence stretched as far as Byzantium.

One of the clues lies in the “Class 1” inscribed stones. (Class 1 refers to the dating, approximately 5th through 7th centuries.)  The Class 1 stones found in Scotland and the north of England have gained a lot of attention as it's speculated they're evidence of Pictish culture.  But those found mainly in Wales but also in southern Britain, tell a different, equally interesting story. 

These are memorial stones, erected to commemorate the dead. Originally the Latin on these inscriptions was thought to be the ramblings of semi-literate individuals. Then scholars had the idea of reading them out loud and discovered that they were poetry that employed the rhyme and scansion of sophisticated Latin verse. Furthermore, some of these inscriptions could be read both forward to end and backward to front and reveal completely different meanings. According to scholars David Howlett and Charles Thomas, this is the work of people who are literate and well-educated. They are evidence of highly sophisticated centers of learning, not ignorant hidey-holes of a collapsing civilization.

By the fifth century, Britain was fully Christianized. Contrary to popular belief, paganism was long gone. But the church of Britain was the Celtic church, not the Roman church. It was a well-organized church based on a monastic model, as opposed to the ecclesiastical model with bishops and priests centered in Rome. Its practices were slightly different, and, as such, it was a threat to Rome, which gradually over the next two centuries gained the ascendency. More on this in another blog, because it’s another piece to the picture. What is significant to note now is that there are monastic centers of learning all over Britain. This is not a country fallen into a Dark Age. Not only that, but the Celtic church is spreading its influence all over Europe, not the other way around.

Tintagel.  The "bumps" in the hillside are post-Roman homes.

Another piece to the picture is the evidence of trade with centers of civilization as far away as Byzantium. I’ve already talked about the “forts” along the Saxon Shore actually being trade depots, rather than defensive structures. But the Saxon Shore ports were probably oriented towards trade with northern Europe. Tintagel Castle, long been associated with the King Arthur myth, appears to have been a main entry port for even more distant market. Archeologists have excavated “bumps” all over the peninsula that have turned out to be early Christian houses from the fifth and sixth centuries. The buildings are full of luxury goods from remote ports. Pryor lists “glassware from southern Spain, wine amphorae from Byzantium, oil jars and fine tableware from the North African coast”. Tintagel was a centre of wealth. But even more amazing, if you look at the map on p. 182 of Pryor’s book Britain AD, you discover that similar findings are distributed across Britain, mostly in the southwest, but as far away as substantial finds in Dumbarton and Whithorn in Scotland and Hull on the east coast.

This is a moneyed civilization. A site at the mouth of the Avon River shows trade going on in a grand scale with amphora of Byzantine wine being consumed, huge numbers of animals roast over open pits, and piles of broken but expansive Byzantine tableware. Shipwrecks from the period off the southern coast of England contain rich trade goods from the Mediterrranean. I’ve mentioned that the period after the Roman withdrawal seems to have been a period of reconstruction and renewal, with old Roman civitas and villas being enlarged and given face lifts. Historian Michael Jones has suggested that when the Britains no longer had to pay taxes to Rome, they started spending the money on themselves.

Dark Ages? Hardly. Instead, the “Arthurian period” of British history appears to be a golden age worthy of the Camelot legend itself!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Stephanie Laurens on the Historical Romance

Later in the day at the RWNZ conference, Stephanie Laurens gave a workshop on writing historical romances.

First, the good news is that the bad news isn’t so bad. When you ask a publisher how historicals are doing, he will say, “Sales are flat.” That DOESN’T mean historicals aren’t selling. In fact, they are. What he means is that the percentage of historicals being sold, compared to the whole spectrum of romance subgenres is the same as it has been. But, the whole romance market is getting bigger. In other words, if this year the publisher sells 100 romances and 30 of them are historicals, and next year he sells 200 romances, 60 of them will be historicals. The market is actually growing.

One of the big changes over the past five years, though, there’s been developing a bigger gap between the authors at the top and the rest of the crowd. This has to do with mass market distributors like Wal-Mart, etc.) They have a limited number of slots for romances, and only one goes for historicals. Naturally, that one slot is going to go to a top author “guaranteed” to sell. Now, Stephanie said that the other authors are doing well – because there are still lots of other outlets with more slots (in other words, book stores). But it’s the mass market distributors that push an author’s numbers over the top and determine whether or not a book is going to be a best seller.

On the other hand, it’s not harder to break in for a new author. In fact, with the advent of e-printing, it’s getting easier. Furthermore, (and surprising to me) the most voracious e-book readers aren’t the young kids, but the older reader. The average e-book reader’s age is 56.

OK, what is selling in historical romance? Stephanie said that medievals are not selling (Alex Logan of Grand Central Publishing, who also spoke at the conference confirmed this), unless you can put a kilt on it. What is selling right now is Regency – though that can be expanded to Georgian and Victorian as well. The boundaries are blurred. Editors are looking for story elements that stand out. Right now that’s families and groups (in other words, series), because readers love to return to familiar worlds. Stephanie suggests that you read widely; read bestsellers whose work is closest to yours. Read the best-selling lines.

One of the trends is historical romances are getting hotter.  Audiences today are looking for a higher level of sensuality.

Stephanie also shared with us some information on structuring a book around word count that I’d never heard before. Mass market and commercial fiction plots are structured around blocks of 40,000 words with a block of 5000 at the beginning and end. This is why publishers come up with the word counts you see printed in their submission guidelines.

For example a novella of 50,000 words looks like this:
5000 word intro (includes inciting incident )
40k development to climax
5k denouement

An 85,000 to 90,000 mass market looks like this:
5 k intro (with inciting incident)
40k development to central turning point/black moment
40k development to climax
5k denouement

At the end of every block, you have a major turning point. Stephanie said that in terms of structure, 100,000 words is a bad length. You have either a short book written too long, or a long book written too short.

What settings are selling? Right now, because of the economy, it’s almost impossible to get book publishers to take a risk. Stephanie says everyone loves Scotland and England, but editors are shy of exotic settings right now. She said if you want to use an exotic setting, ground your story in England, then move it offshore.

Stephanie was quick to point out, though, that historical fiction and historical romance are two different beasties. Historical romance, the romance is first and foremost and history is just the backdrop. In historical fiction, history is an essential part of the story. What this means is that historical accuracy for a romance isn’t particularly important. You can bend it a bit. A popular device is to put what you changed into an author’s note at the end. But for historical fiction historical accuracy is crucial.

The question about historical accuracy led to one about the "not nice" parts of the time period.  Tacky things like what women did when they had their menses.  Stephanie said that with a historical romance, you're creating an escape.  So leave those ugly things out.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stephanie Laurens and How to Be Successful as a Writer

When I stepped out of the elevator and turned the corner to the Friday evening cocktail party at the RWNZ conference, I didn’t need to be told the party’s theme – “Romantic in Red”. For a second, I thought I’d entered the dark room to a photo lab (for those of you who remember pre-digital technology.) Red upon red.

With a “This is Stephanie,” of my friends introduced me to a tiny, vivacious, dark-haired woman and left us on our own. As we chatted, my new acquaintance finally said, “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”

“Oh, my god,” I said. “You’re THAT Stephanie.” Stephanie Laurens. The best selling author and our keynote speaker. My mind flashed back to a rodeo in Florida where Phil and I had spent the first half talking with a friendly older couple who seemed to enjoy rodeo as much as we did. Until they realized we didn’t have the foggiest idea they were the stars of a very popular country/western TV show, and then turned us off entirely.

Well, Stephanie wasn’t at all like that. She just ignored my embarrassment and went on chatting about romances and writing – the stuff we both loved. Naturally, I had to pick her brain with the one question that’s been on the top of my mind lately, “How do you stay so productive?”

She has a routine, writes daily, but the thing that stuck with me most is that all her books are planned. She knows where’s she’s going before she starts. She said it takes time to plan out the work, but the efficiency is worth it in the end. In fact, she told me she can’t afford not to plan.

End of my days of sitting down at a blank sheet of paper with an idea… At least I was headed in that direction anyway.

Stephanie’s keynote speech the next day was one of those “aha!” moments for me. Actually a bunch of aha’s. She talked about the publishing industry and the place of romance writers in it. She said that “fiction is a vehicle for the confirmation of the fundamental verities that underpin our society”. All stories, no matter what genre, are about a major theme that is important to humanity: love, justice, revenge, good against evil, etc. Underneath it all, whether “commercial” or “literary”, we’re all writing the same kind of story.

Popular fiction takes these themes and gives us affirmations that make us feel good. It moves readers at a visceral level, working under the audience’s radar.

Stephanie then gave us the history of publishing in a nutshell. What was interesting is that what we consider “mass market” publications go way back to the 18th century, with the production of cheap editions of books aimed at the general public. Charles Dickens wrote for a mass market audience. He wrote to entertain his contemporaries, not to be taught as literature in high school English classes a hundred years later.

And here’s where the light went on for me. We write books to entertain. Stephanie said, “If you want to succeed in genre fiction, engrave the word ‘entertain’ on your mind.”

“Most outsiders”, said Stephanie, “don’t get it.” They don’t understand that there are different types of fiction. The purpose defines how the author writes.

So where’s the difference?

Literary fiction is concerned with the arrangement of letters on the page and words in a sentence.

Genre fiction is about the subject. The author controls the story to best and most effectively convey what she wants to say about her subject.

Mass market (commercial) fiction is about the story. The story drives what the author writes and how she writes it. Language is important because language is the vehicle, but it's not the goal.

What’s good writing? Stephanie says there is a simple test: “Does the work achieve what it was intended to achieve?” If your goal is to entertain, you write for the mass market and you must NEVER forget that. If you keep your mind on entertaining, you are less likely to torpedo your own work.

Audiences of commercial fiction want a satisfying ending. That’s the author’s contract with them. They also have other expectations – a heroine they can identify with (one of the reasons very close third person POV works so well), a hero they can fall in love with, etc. Entertainment is all about experience. You want to express and heighten your audience’s experience. Stephanie said if you want to know what works, study the best sellers. “We are entertainers and the rules that govern entertainment are the only rules that apply.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sword Fighting throught the Ages - Part 3

Avast, me hearties! It’s finally time for those of you who write pirate stories to take the fore (deck). Today I’m blogging on Nic Harrison’s demonstration on sword fighting with a buckler. In other words, swashbuckling.

We’re up to the 16th century now.

1305 MS with Knight carrying a buckler on his hip

A buckle is a small shield, maybe about twice the diameter of man’s fist. It was normally carried strapped to your hip with your scabbard. It was used to deflect blows – the swash. The buckle part of the term comes from the response to a swash – you “buckle”. So the rhythm of a fight went swash, buckle, swash, buckle. The style of fighting goes back to the 13th century and continue right until the 18th.

Fighting with bucklers -- MS dates 1325

Swashbuckling descended from longsword technique. The sword was still a cutting weapon. But it was lighter, even though fighters were still using the sword itself to block opponents blows. The movement of the fight was still circular. As Nic put it, you followed the movement (the arc) of the sword. On the other hand, the pace of the fight had picked up. Blows fell a lot faster (which is probably why we enjoy watching those swashbuckler films so much.)

16th century swashbucklers -- with codpieces

Oh, about now I ought to mention cod pieces. They were not there to enhance a man’s sex appeal. Nic pointed out that all through the ages, men wore some sort of padding to protect their private parts. (Now you know what was REALLY under that kilt.) In a real fight, it was no holds barred. A blow to those parts, by sword or otherwise, could immobilize you and put your totally at the mercy of your opponent.

Viking Sword 9th century
At about this point in his sword fighting techniques demonstration for the Romance Wrtiers of New Zealand, Nic had his fighters through the ages come forward with their swords and let us compare them. The trend was obvious. Swords were getting longer and thinner. They were changing from cutting weapons to piercing ones. (Well, not entirely, but more on this in a bit.)
Norman Sword 11th century

Longsword 15th century

Part of this had to do with the fact that in the late 13th century, treatises began to appear on the art of sword fighting. By the 16th century, there were schools of sword fighting with masters running them. P lus income was affecting the type of sword a person used.

All right, previously, even back in the so called “Dark Ages” income influenced the weapon you chose. Everyone had a knife, but you had to have money to have a sword. They were expensive (probably the reason why they got passed from father to son and why they were part of ceremonial burials like Sutton Hoo.) The style of sword changed little through the early part of the medieval period, but by the 15th century the speed of change accelerated. Styles of swords had changed so quickly that your father’s sword no longer was suitable for you.

About 1670, the first treatise on civilian sword fighting appeared. Fencing became “the noble art of self-defense”. (The word “fence” comes from “defense”.)

And the rapier appeared – the “Queen of Swords”. The rapier was long and elegant. It gave a skilled fighter the ability to place his thrust exactly where he wanted. But – and here’s the big “but” – learning to fight this way took time. It takes three years to train a person to “fence”.

Swashbuckling, on the other hand, can be learned in three days.

We now have two classes of sword fighters – the common soldier and the gentleman.

Sword from Rennaissance period with finger ring(s)

With the rapier, the style of fighting changed. One of the changes had to do with putting your finger over the “guard” of the hilt. This allowed you to have better control of the point of the sword, so you could direct your thrust. But you needed some sort of protection, or your finger would be cut off. The most basic was the finger loop. As time passed, wire finger guards become more and more elaborate.

Rapier (16th century) with wire hilt

Another change was the direction of the footwork. Up to this point in time, the action of a fight had been circular. Now it was back and forth – following the forward, piercing thrust of the blade.

How a fight looked was different, too. The fight starts with the two opponents’ blades circling each other – looking for a weakness. The movement is subtle, of the wrist, rather than the whole arm, in contrast to earlier fighting with the medieval cutting-type sword, where the posing at the beginning involved moving your whole arm into different positions as you probed your opponent’s defenses.

When the two opponents finally engage it is in close. The two blades press against each other, as each fighter seeks to “command” his enemy’s weapon and trust it aside. Since the stronger part of any blade is near its hilt, you want to get the lower part of your blade engaged with the enemy’s blade for maximum strength. That means your whole body needs to be closer to his. While skill is important, at this stage of the encounter, strength counts, as well. The stronger arm is more likely to take command.

This part, the pressing, can go on for several seconds, until one or the other weakens or figures out a way to break the engagement (often with a thrust). The press is usually broken with a swift movement or two (and possibly a defense or counter-thrust), a hit and a withdrawal.

The swordsman using a rapier might enhance his defense with a second weapon. From 1580 to about 1620 rapier and dagger fighting was common. (When you went out, you inevitably strapped on your sword. It was part of a gentleman’s dress. A personal knife had been a part of everyone’s dress even in the early medieval period.) Another variation was using a short sword alongside the rapier.

Swashbuckling, by the way, continued in popularity in the military right up to the eighteenth century. By the 1800’s, though, the saber had become a common military weapon in Europe. The weapon actually came to western Europe through contact with the Hungarian Hussars, and probably goes back to the curved blades of the Turks. It is the only sword that can be used for both slashing and thrusting, though according to Nic, it’s predominantly a cutting weapon.

The saber was adopted for use by the cavalry, but early in its introduction, it was scorned by gentlemen, who still preferred the rapier or foil It wasn’t until the mid to late 19th century, when firearms had long replaced swords, that the saber became popular among gentlemen.

Nic ended his demonstration showing us the corrosion on the blade of the Crimean War saber that began my discussion of sword fighting techniques through the ages.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sword Fighting Techniques Through the Ages -- Part 2

Last week I blogged on the demo on sword fighting I saw at the RWNZ conference. There was a heap of info, so I focused on what I learned about watching fighters using techniques from the Saxon and Viking periods (700-1100 AD.) Today’s topic is the next hunk of sword fighting history – the age of plate armor.

Plate armor appeared in the late 13th century. Nic Harrison, who’s one of NZ’s guru’s on authentic sword fighting (among other things he was the technical advisor for Lord of the Rings), said that plate armor was developed as a response to guns. I’ve heard elsewhere it was developed to protect knights from crossbows.  Nic showed us the tiny dent in a breastplate and explained it was the armorer's "proof of quality".  To test the strength of a piece of armor, the armorer would set it up and fire a bullet at it.  If the bullet went through, the armor got melted down and the metal reused.

I’m wondering, though, considering the power of the swords at the time, whether the move to plate armor might just be a better way to protect yourself from your opponent’s sword. Remember I said in my last blog that the blade of a sword of that period was designed to cut. It couldn’t do that through chain mail, but the power of the blow could crush and create internal injuries. Well, as Nic showed us, a powerful blow to plate armor generally just bounces off. There’s no bruising, as the plate spreads the force of the blow. At this point, knights stopped using shields, as the plate was the shield.

There area a few vulnerable places, though. One of them is the plate of armor designed to protect the knee. A sideways whack to that could create a dent that would immobilize the knee mechanism, so your opponent’s knee wouldn’t bend. There were also various “cracks” in the armor – places where one plate joined another. These remained vulnerable.

King Ludwig III wearing prominent poleyns -- knee armor.  A
blow to the side of the knee would lock the knee.
With two knights plated up like that, the encounter could last longer. But plate armor is a lot heavier than chain mail, so its weight would have tired you out.

To damage a person, you had to get in close and “command his sword”. You could do this by hooking it with your sword, your arm or your elbow. The idea was to immobilize it while you got in with your sword.

Using a sword to block a blow.

Blows got more sophisticated, too. One of the things that surprised me was how a knight would actually place his hands on his own blade to direct it. For example, one of the vulnerable spots is at the base of the neck, at the top of the chest plate. A knight might get in close to his opponent, hold his sword by one or two hands on the blade, (rather than both hands on the hilt), and use the lower hand to direct the tip of his blade into the crack between the top of the chest plate and his opponents neck. The upper hand would add strength to the blow, driving the sword down into the enemy’s lungs.

Another effective blow was what the Germans called the “murder stroke”. In this the knight held the sword by the blade. The left hand held the tip, the right was positioned half way up the blade. The hilt was in the air, with no hands on it at all. This effectively turned the half of the blade near the hilt into a club, and that’s exactly how it was used. The fighter would push the hilt forward in an arc towards his opponent’s head and bring it down through the middle of his skull or use it to hook him.

The knight on the right is moving in for a murder stroke.

Here his opponent uses the middle of his longsword to block the blow.

Italians were known for a type of stroke that used the pommel (end of the hilt) of the sword. The knight held his sword with both hands – one on the hilt, the other towards the tip. As his opponent slashed at him, his blocked his opponent’s blow by catching it with the middle of his sword. He then heaved his opponent’s sword aside and at the same time stepped to the left, “inside” his opponent’s reach. As he stepped to the left, he brought the pommel of his sword up into the fragile area under the opponent’s chin.

A smaller opponent would try to go for his opponent’s legs, especially the knee. Tall fighters learned to “defend low”.

I’ve been talking a lot about fighters holding their blades in their hands. Yes, they still didn’t wear gloves. And, yes, the things could cut your fingers off. Nic said the trick was how you held your sword. You never gripped it hard. Instead, according to the treatises on sword fighting from that period, you “hold your sword as if it were a bird.” Blows are “thrown”, not chopped.

Also, when you held your sword, you never wrapped your hand around it the way you would an ice cream cone. If you did, a yank from your opponent would cut your fingers off. Instead, you held it with your fingers curled over one edge of the blade, and your thumb stretched along the side of the other edge. With this kind of grip, an opponent cannot pull the sword from you hand.

When it came to the actual encounter, there was still a lot of posturing and moving around to get into position. Eighty percent of the fight is footwork. The two knights were trying to get each other to expose a vulnerable spot. Once one of those was exposed, they moved fast, attempting to take command of the enemy’s weapon, thrust it out of the way and thrust their own blade into a “keyhole” in the opponent’s armor.

By the fifteen century the long sword appeared. The long sword was the first weapon that could both defend and attack. The concept of “garde” was everything. It meant the potential to attack and defend, and basically was built around footwork and balance. You wanted to keep your weight centered. A lot of the blows were aimed at the face.

Thanks to the laws of physics, long swords had a lot of power behind them. So you didn’t try to block a blow from a long sword. But the power came from the arc of the blow and the distance the sword covered through air, which would build its force. Not it’s weight.

People talk about long swords being heavy. Except for ceremonial swords that were never used in battle, they were not. According to Nic, a good weight for a long sword was under 3.5 pounds (about a kilo and a half.) To use the long sword, you had to be fairly acrobatic and needed to be fit.

So what did you watch when you were in a fight and wanted to anticipate your opponent’s move? Nic said, never look at the sword. A good place to look is your opponent’s eyes, as they often give away where their next blow will be aimed. Feet and hands can also signal what an opponent is going to do next.

Next week: Swashbucklers, rapiers and maybe the saber. (Depending on how chatty I get.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bonus Post -- Sword Fighting References

A couple of the sword fighters from the RWNZ demonstration sat next to me at the lunch that followed their demo, and I picked their brains a bit.  Here are some internet sites they said had good, authentic information on sword fighting.

ARMA Association for Rennaissance Martial Arts.  Covers both the Middle Ages and the Rennaissance.  Focuses on serious study of the fighting techniques of that period.  I've checked out this and it's got a wealth of information, including demo videos of fighting from various time periods.

Stoccata School of Defense. Focuses on the Renaissance and beyond, with a small amount on the late Middle Ages.

Sword Forum International.  Focuses mostly in the weapons themselves.


The last morning of the RWNZ conference, sword expert Nic Harrison, assisted by eight or so sword fighters from three New Zealand historic sword fighting clubs, demonstrated a thousand years of sword fighting history to an enthusiastic audience of historical novelists.

Nic teaches historic sword fighting techniques. He’s been the technical consultant for a number of movies. The swords these fighters used were real weapons – not the blunted wooden swords used by the SCA. Most were replicas of ancient swords, but a couple were actual weapons from their time period, all beautifully maintained. Well, as well as possible. Nic show us black marks on one blade and commented that there’s only one thing that can corrode a sword like that. You guessed it. Nic commented there’s an irony in the fact that the only thing that can damage a sword is the one thing it’s designed to seek.

The first group to fight represented the Viking period, from about 800 to 1100 AD (later in the North.) Saxons, he said, would have used similar weapons and techniques. Most of our information on how Vikings fought comes from the Norse and Icelandic sagas.

Fighters of that period were well armed. They usually carried a round shield, a two-edged sword, a saex (a foot-long knife with a long triangular blade —the word “Saxon” comes from it), and often a fighting axe. They would wear a helmet and either armor constructed of leather or, if they could afford it, chain mail running to their knees. Altogether, their equipment could weigh has much as 35 kilos, about 80 pounds.

There’s no evidence that swordsmen of that period wore gloves, by the way. Even the fighters in the Bayeaux Tapestry, which depicts William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion of English, had no gloves.

This picture from the Bayeaux Tapastry, by the way,
alos shows the knight carrying a heater as his shield.

The style of helmet changed through the period.

What our fighters were wearing wasn't much different from the famous
helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial pictured above.

Those from about 700 AD, which were what our demonstrators were wearing, were rounded on top and straight at the sides. They came half way down the face in the front, with eye-shaped holes cut for the eyes. Cheeks were exposed but a metal plate or nasal covered the nose. Often extra metal was added over the eyes to create an eyebrow effect. Nic commented that the intention of the helmet designer would have been to provoke fear in those looking at the wearer.

In fact, as they started to fight, fear was a good deal of the swordsmen’s strategy. There was a lot of posturing, posing and making of noise. Nic said that often the winner of a battle was determined by who stepped back first.

The shield was not only an important part of the fighter’s defense. It was part of the offense, as well. It could be used to push an opponent or to thrust his weapon aside.

Ideally, the shield should cover the fighter from his nipple to his knees, but the bigger a shield gets, the more it is vulnerable to being pulled by the wind. Shields were made of lightweight linden wood or a laminate of linden and oak, which combined lightness with strength. Some had steel bands on the face. They had straps on the back that the fighter slid his arm through. Most shields from that period were round, but heaters were also used.

Anyone who’s read Bernard Cornwell’s King Alfred series knows of the formidability of a shield wall. Nic had the fighters demonstrate a shield wall for us and it was easy to see why opposing one would have been such a challenge. As the fighters stood shoulder to shoulder, their overlapping shields were locked to each other by tucking the shield’s right edge between the next soldier’s shield and his left arm. This created a virtually impenetrable wall across the army’s front. Further, two or more fighters so locked together could maneuver as a unit, providing a strong, wide front that would protect the weaker fighter.

Saxon defenders making a shield wall, from the Bayeaux Tapestry.
The shield wall is on the right.

Shield walls are not entirely impenetrable. Though an attacker couldn’t get through the shields themselves, he could go over the top, with a blow to the eyes or, more commonly, underneath, with a blow to the legs. Nic commented that battlefield burials are full of men with missing legs.

Here’s where a further Saxon/Viking weapon came in handy: the long axe. This is nothing more than an axe mounted on a handle as tall as a man. It gave its carrier the advantage of distance. It could be used to snake a shield away from a swordsman, making him vulnerable to the axe blow that followed.

Generally, though, Saxon/Viking combat was very close range. And individual encounters, contrary to what we read about in novels, didn’t last long. The demo fights we saw moved fast. One or two blows, that was it.

Nic said the average encounter – if one of the fighters didn’t back off immediately – usually lasted no more than 20 seconds, unless the combatants were evenly matched and extremely good. (Think of a battle as a series of encounters.) So when the sagas talk about a fight such as a holmgang – a ritualized fight settling a dispute between two men -- lasting for hours, they are playing up the skill of the two men.

How did a person get killed? Well, weapons from that period were designed to cut, rather than pierce. But unless, you succumbed to a blow in the face (King Harold Godwinson died at Hastings from an arrow in the eye) or losing a leg, you were not likely to die from a cut. Chain mail was good defense against the sharp edge of a sword. The power behind the blow, however, would crush the mail into you, cracking bones and creating internal injuries. That’s a lot harder for primitive medicine to treat than an open wound.

Next blog post: sword fighting in the age of plate armor.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey, at the RWNZ conference

It’s 9 o’clock on Friday night. The Harlequin/Mills & Boon “Romance in Red” cocktail party at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference has just ended. Despite the theme, I was ill prepared for the brilliant blast of scarlet that assailed my eyes as I stepped off the elevator. One hundred women in red make quite a statement, even if, like me, you don’t drink. I grabbed my signature Coke Zero and schmoozed.

We’d all just spent the whole day at a workshop with Christopher Vogler, the author of The Writer’s Journey, so everyone had something to talk about. Thinking, hah, this could be material for at least one blog, I took copious notes.

The neat thing about Vogler was that in addition to being a delightful speaker --piercingly honest, often self-deprecating and always humorous – he also presented lots of material that wasn’t in his book. He grew up on a farm, but ended up one of the top story gurus in Hollywood – a job known as a Story Analyst, the person studio relies on to tell them whether a movie script will fly.

I’ll talk a little in later blogs about how Vogler adapted Joseph Campbell’s analysis of mythical structure to constructing fiction. For now I’ll share some of the ideas and principles of storytelling that Vogler is passionate about.

Vogler strongly believes in the power of stories. “Stories have healing properties,” he said. He emphasized that he thinks stories take on a life of their own. What happens in a story needs to follow “what the story needs”.

“It’s better to be clear than pretty.” Vogler said that in this applies to the tendency to be so poetic the audience can’t really figure out what’s going on. For me, this brought back memories of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Sure it’s a movie landmark, but I could never make heads nor tails of it.

He talked about reading as an altered state of consciousness and used the example (with slides) of how molecules of unmagnetized iron fresh out of the forge look (randomly distributed) and how they look after they’ve been magnetized (all lined up in neat lines positive charge to negative charge.) He said the unmagnetized condition is like the reader’s mind when they open a book. The magnetized condition is what the writer wants to happen after the reader’s mind is exposed to the results of the writer’s craft.

Later, as Vogler talked, it became clear to me why we want to “magnetize” the reader. First, successful stories resonate with the reader. One of the ways they do that is by touching on universal truths we all share, no matter what our culture. Another is through the emotions the story evokes. As writers, we magnetize our readers through the themes we choose (those universal truths) and through making our readers experience the same emotions our characters feel.

Another way is how we orient our readers to the story. Readers have an instinctive feel for story patterns. They know, at the very least, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end, as Aristotle put it. Today we use more sophisticated words, such as introduction or set-up, development, crisis, climax, turning points, black moments. Vogler’s Writer’s Journey introduces a parallel way to structure your work based on the stages of a quest. But no matter which structure you use to label the parts or stages of your story, readers have an instinctive feel for “this is where we are”. A story that lacks or hides that structure throws the reader, one of the reason, I guess, why films like Pulp Fiction are so disorienting until you take the time to figure them out. Structure guides our readers through the story, giving them clues as to what to expect next. The successful story teller takes what they expect and turns it on its head in a way that the reader says, “Oh, wow, I should have seen that coming.” (One of the reasons why in a really successful work, readers go back and read it again.)

Chris Vogler also gave some advice about the successful pitch: “Make the person you’re pitching to think it’s about them.” He gave the example of pitching to a top level Hollywood woman producer: “It’s a story about a woman who’s the most powerful person in the world.” The story sold.

His advice makes me realize how important it is with a query to know as much as you can about the person you’re querying and really tailor your query to them.

OK. I’m up at 6:00 am tomorrow for a special session in which you submit the first page of your manuscript in an open session, someone reads it out loud, and the editor/agent critiques it before the whole group (a little scarey, but it’s a good way to learn). So that’s it for tonight.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Saxon Non-Invasion – More Evidence

I’ve been blogging about the evidence against a Saxon invasion of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. I’ve mentioned that the type of vessels the Germanic peoples had during that time period were not likely to be able to carry over troops in the scale an invasion would require, and that the forts along the “Saxon Shore” – the southeastern coast of England – were more likely supply or trade depots than provision for defense.

There’s other evidence I’ve unearthed as well.

First, there’s the myth that when the Romans pulled out, everything fell to pieces. The population dropped. Farmers abandoned their lands and it went back to forest.

Well, Michael Jones in The End of Roman Britain notes that Britain did not turn into a wasteland. In fact, it supported a healthy population of 4 million or more. He also points out that, rather than returning to forest, the era shows evidence of more forest being cleared.

Jones’s assertion is supported by the pollen studies described in Episode 2 of the BBC TV series, Britain AD, hosted by Francis Pryor. You can view this episode on U-Tube.
It makes fascinating watching because it piles up the evidence against a large-scale invasion. Pryor’s book Britain AD, which I’ve quoted in this post and elsewhere in my blogs is an expansion of the ideas in the TV series.

Anyway, pollen studies are based on the premise that the pollen of plants growing in an area get deposited into the soil, where it remains for thousands of years. By taking a soil core, you can see what was growing in the area during a particular period of time. Core samples taken all over Britain show that the land did not revert to forest, as has been traditionally suggested. Instead, the same land continued to be farmed. There were no vast wildernesses.

Second, when there is an invasion, you expect archaeological evidence in the form of towns and villages destroyed, buildings burned, and religious shrines (especially) sacked and destroyed. With a few exceptions, there is almost no evidence of this throughout Britain for that time period. Instead there appears to be a period of building and expansion (this is the period in which Wroxeter grew from a small fort to a major center) throughout the land.

Francis Pryor, in his book Britain AD lists dig after archaeological dig in which continuity, not destruction, is evident, and in which “Celtic” and “Saxon” families appear to live side by side. He states, “Whenever archaeologists have taken a close look at the development of a particular piece of British landscape, it is difficult to find evidence for the scale of discontinuity one would expect had there been a mass migration from the Continent.” (Britain AD, p. 15)

Third, there is the issue of DNA testing. The BBC show provides some interesting evidence that might support an invasion. A researcher testing the males on the eastern side of the UK, found a preponderance of genes that are supposed to link to Anglo-Saxon traits. The problem is another team of DNA experts at the same university found totally conflicting results.

Today historians and archaelogists are split between two camps. Traditionalists still maintain that the theory of a large-scale Anglo-Saxon invasion explains the changes in culture and language which Britian experienced. But at least half the historians and archaelogists working at the coal face of research today maintain that these changes can easily be explained by forces and processes that don’t require an invasion.

And if there was no invasion, then there was no need for an Arthur to save Britain. Or was there?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Left-Handed Sword Fighting

Medraut, the hero in my Arthurian trilogy, is left-handed. I’ve often heard that left-handed fighters have the advantage (hence the term “sinister”, which is Latin for “left”). I decided to investigate how Medraut could use this to his benefit.

First stop, Stephan’s Florilegium ( For those of you who aren’t familiar with this website, it’s a compendium of various on-line discussions between members of the Society of Creative Anachronism. Some of the material is extremely well-researched, though you have to be careful to ensure that the information you’re accessing is appropriate to your historical period, as the SCA covers everything from late Roman times to the Renaissance. There are also a lot of articles describing how to recreate historical technologies with modern materials, so you do have to keep on your toes. Probably the largest benefit to the articles, though, is the sheer volume of material on the practical details of how something feels or works. It’s articles like this, I find, that help me get into the heads of the people living with and using those technologies.

Click under “Combat” and you’ll find archived several articles on left-hand fighting (LH-fighting-msg).

OK, this is what I learned. There is something different when you’re right-handed facing a left-hand opponent. Blows fall differently. If you’re not used to fighting a lefty, it indeed does give the lefty an advantage. But only if the righty is inexperienced fighting a lefty. An experienced rightly like Lancelot, for example, could knock the sword out of Medraut’s left hand every time.

Unfortunately, SF didn’t give me the details of technique I wanted. And, darn, I know I’ve seen some good stuff somewhere! On to Google and “Left Handed Sword Fighting”. Hah! Just found “Heinrich’s Guide to Sinister Sword Fighting” Another member of SCA.

Now we’re into the nitty-gritty.

First, protecting yourself. Heinrich says, “As a left handed fighter, you will also get pounded along the left side of your body much more than a righty would his right. This is because you are mirrored to your opponent. Your sword side is directly across from his sword side. Your shoulders are going to be hit and well as your legs and rear end. Wear enough armor to cover these areas without sacrificing mobility.”

Shots: Believe it or not, the various thrusts a sword-fighter makes are called shots (at least in SCA.) And there are a lot of them. Heinrich comments, “You may want to avoid putting a thrusting tip on your sword especially at first as it will inhibit some of your key shots. By this I mean the quick snap shot to the face. This is a bread and butter shot that all lefties need to be able to throw quickly and accurately. You can end a fight before it even starts by throwing this quick flat to the face of your opponent as they come in on you or as you engage. This works well for righties as well so be aware.”

What makes fighting a lefty-so dangerous? There’s a lot of info about fighting techniques on a webpage by another SCA member, titled "Sword and Shield Fighting" ( In addition to a lot of practical advice about weapons, armor, fitness and shots (and the link for a good video on U-tube where he demonstrates all this), he’s also got a whole section on fighting left-handed.

What makes fighting a lefty different from fighting a righty (if you’re right handed) is that the shots and defense all come from a different side? If you’ve had some practice sword-fighting, you automatically know where to move your sword and shield to counter the blows coming in. With a lefty, the same blows are coming from the opposite side. And your sword/shield may not be there in time to stop them. It’s easier for a lefty, for example, to hamstring a righty because their blows come in to the back of the righty’s leg.

The reason for the difference in direction of shots is how the two swordsmen’s equipment match up in a fight. In a right on right or left on left, your shield is opposite the opponent’s sword. So you’re in a position to deflect most of your opponent’s sword blows with your shield. With left-on-right, the configuration is shield to shield and sword to sword. In other words, as a righty, your sword arm is vulnerable to your opponent’s sword.

Somewhere I read – and I’m really frustrated because it was a long time ago I sourced this material and can’t find it now – that the smartest strategy for a lefty was to keep moving forward and around towards his/her left, which forces the righty to step back in order to protect his/her sword arm. This puts the opponent’s balance at risk, and balance is crucial for a good sword fight. It also forces the righty to shift his shield further over the front of his/her body, which limits his/her visibility.

Of course, a righty experienced at fighting a lefty can use exactly the same strategy on the lefty.

Finally, from My Armory dot com ( a little bit on how a good righty could defend him/herself against a lefty: “IMHO as a right-handed fighter I would be inclined to move in very fast right sloping steps (i.e. counter-clockwise) around the left-hander's outside to 1) keep away from their shield, 2) close in and bind up their sword arm with my shield, 3) attack from behind with my short edge to their head, neck ,shoulder, back, torso, hip, back of thigh, or back of knee, or long edge to the calf, lower leg or ankle, maintaining pressure with the shield the whole time. Should they disengage I would continue circling right so that any strike they could manage would be back-handed and easily deflected with my shield while presenting me with a number of open long-edge targets along their outside. I think such maneuvering would negate most blade contact while employing the shield in exactly the way it is intended to be, as a dynamic defensive barrier. I think the trick is to maintain superior speed and not be thrown off by the idea of fighting a left-hander, just get in quick, tie them up, and cut them down. Again this is strictly IMHO.”

OK, Medraut, you have a lot to learn.

BTW, the realities of life have struck and I’m going to have to limit my blogging to once a week, if I’m going to do a good job of it. I’ll be posting my blogs on Mondays New Zealand time from now on (that’s Sundays for you in the Western hemisphere.)

Friday, August 6, 2010


Time for a change in pace. I was listening to an RWA tape lately and heard editor Jennifer Enderlin from St. Martins Press talking about two of the signs that a writer is writing for herself, rather than for the reader.

The first of those signs is inserting every bit of research you’ve done into the manuscript. The research grinds the story to a halt while details not necessary to understand the action are revealed.

I’ve seen examples of this myself recently while critiquing historicals. Usually, I’ve noticed, it’s accompanied by a change in voice. The author switches out of whatever character’s POV that section of the book is in and into what I call “professor mode”. All of a sudden, I feel like I’m reading a text book, rather than a novel.

Jennifer Enderlin suggests that authors only put in as much research is necessary to understand that moment of action – no more. She says to use research sparingly, and in small drips.

The most effective use of research I’ve seen is where it’s incorporated into the action. In a work I just critiqued, for example, a character is shown making soap. The steps blend with the other action going on around her, with the other action often interrupting her job. By the time I had finished reading that passage, I knew how they made soap in the middle ages, but I didn’t feel the soap-making had intruded on the story. Very effective.

There are, of course, authors who can pull off big sections of research-exposition and entertain the reader with it. James Mitchner was a master at this. His Space left me breathless at how he could entertain me with highly technical stuff. But Mitchner knew how to turn the background into a character in his book – in fact, it was the essence of his voice. Plus it was a skill he developed over time.

The other sign of a writer writing for himself, according to Enderlin, is over-writing. This is when every detail of a simple action is drawn out in minutia.

Her example went something like, “She got up. She went to the window. She pulled aside the curtains. She pushed open the sash. She looked down. In the garden below she saw a small black dog.”

Her advice was to cut to the chase, which I interpret to be something like, “She pushed open the window and saw a small black dog in the garden below.” (Assuming the dog is important).

Jen’s remark has made me extremely conscious of two-verb sentences in which the first verb is the beginning of an action and the second verbs finishes it . For example, “He reached over and touched her.” Why not just “He touched her?”

Usually the beginning of the action isn’t necessary and slows the pace. You can cut dozens of words from a chapter just by doing a find on “and” and checking the usefulness of the verb that came before it. A real blessing when word count is important, yes, but even more of a blessing in creating that tight prose we all want.