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 cafĂ© 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 clichĂ©. 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!