Monday, August 29, 2011

RWNZ Conference Report

I just got back from the Romance Writers of New Zealand Conference in Auckland. The line-up this year was impressive, with best-selling authors Tess Gerritson, Bob Mayer, and Maria V. Snyder as keynote speakers, and four editors and a US literary agent there to both speak and take pitches. Here are highlights of some of the things I learned:
The prologue isn’t dead. Both Sue Grimshaw, editor for Ballentine Bantam Dell’s new e-book imprint line and Bob Mayer confirmed it’s ok to use a prologue to set up your story.

It’s ok to multiple-query publishers. Bob Mayer recommended this in his workshop and said they expect it these days. Once you’ve been asked for a full, though, you need to go exclusive with your pitch.

Tess Gerritson in talking about how she comes up with her gripping plot twists suggests scanning the media and paying attention to your emotions. What gives you a “punch in the gut” when you read or hear about it?

Tess’s stories are known for their horrific crimes, but Tess said it’s not necessary to show the victim being tortured. What readers are looking for is tension, not gore. That can often be captured by showing the scene after the torture, where someone walks in on the results of the crime. When I talked to her afterwards a bit more about this, Tess indicated that there are times when it’s appropriate to show the “torture” scene. You may want to show, for example, how determined your character is not to reveal information. You need to think out your purpose for the scene.

Lucy Gilmore from Harlequin Mills & Boon talked about writing with originality within the confines of category romance. She said the trick is being unpredictable with those parts of the story readers have come to expect. Unpredictabilty isn’t:
  • Far-fetched plot twists
  • The “cute meet” that has nothing to do with the core conflict
  • Characters acting out-of-character
  • Meshing genres for the sake of it
  • An excuse to replace conflict with plot devices.

In developing character, she said make sure your hero and heroine have emotional barriers to overcome before they fall in love. Overcome the barriers is what enables them to get together and have the happily ever after ending readers expect.

Bob Mayer gave a full-day workshop on planning and writing your book. According to Bob Mayer, you have only 4 hours a day of creativity. Use it! He also said, don’t keep your ideas in your head; write them down. He gave us some amazing worksheets that simplify plotting a book.

When you’re developing the plot for your book, include the antagonist’s complete plan. This doesn’t mean you have to reveal it all in your manuscript, but you must know it thoroughly.

Characters have layers of motives. There’s what they say they want, what they really want, and what they need. You need to know and show them all.

In developing your characters, don’t forget to include their blind spot. The blind spot is the part of their character they’re in denial about. It’s the part of their character that needs to change.

Every character (including your antagonist) needs what Bob calls a “spark of redemption” – some tiny indication at the beginning of the story of the better person that person could be if she/he changed.

Bob also had something interesting to say about the point of view you use and info dumping. Generally, info dumping is a no-no, as it slows the pace and takes you out of the POV character’s head. It turns out this is true only for third person limited POV. You can info dump in first person, where the narrator would be sharing a bit of info he/she thought you as reader/listener should know. (Even so, you want to be cautious about your use of info dumping, as it still takes you out of the scene and can slow the pace.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Anatomy of a Carriage Accident -- What Went Wrong

Carriages play a big part in historicals, and, no surprise, so do carriage accidents. The trouble is, over and over again it’s the same old, predictable disaster scene. The horses bolt; the hero, at great risk to his own life, stops them, and the heroine is eternally grateful. After a dozen of these, what was supposed to be a thrill for the reader is just a ho-hum. And if you know anything about carriage driving, they don’t ring true.

In this blogpost, I'll guide you through some real carriage accidents (fortunately, U-tube is full of them), analyze what went wrong, and show you how you can make your driving accidents look more authentic.

Where do I get the qualifications to do this? Well, I spent 20 years working with horses, 10 of them competing in combined driving, a highly skilled and challenging form of carriage driving. I’ve trained my own horses and competed and won in competitions around the US, been the course designer for the Arizona Combined Driving Event, judged combined driving in the US and New Zealand, put together weekend workshops on driving, and been the president of a regional carriage driving association.

So let’s start with a typical accident. This is a young, inexperience pair being driven through Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, Maine. The park is criss-crossed with lovely driving roads and is the venue for the American Driving Association’s weekend drive, which is what I think these drivers are.

As you can see, the horses saw something at the side of the road that frightened them and jumped sideways. The driver easily regained control over this well-mannered pair.

Spooks are the most common kind of driving mishap. Basically there are three kinds of accidents: bolts, spooks and crashes. The kinds can be combined. Horses have two instinctive reactions to a fright: flight or fight. The preferred mode is flight. A spook is a sudden action (usually sideways) in reaction to a fright.

In this accident, the consequences were minor. The horses went off the road, but fortunately, there was a level clearing that they were able to go into. No one fell out of the carriage. Imagine what would happen if there was a fence or ditch there. As a writer, this is how you can complicate your accident.

Let’s look at another incident with the same pair. At this point they are just starting their drive.

This is a typical bolt. The pair spooked first, then ran. The driver lost control of his/her horses, who ran, but then the driver was able to get control back again in a very short distance. Driving horses generally are bred for their calm, docile disposition and are extremely well-trained. They’re reliable animals, so most bolts – if they happen at all -- are very short. When the horses continue to gallop out-of-control for a long distance, then things get scary. Very scary.

I’ll show that later. Right now, let’s talk about what went wrong.

This is a young, inexperienced pair, though they have been trained well. Young horses are more likely to spook or do stupid things than older, more experienced ones, who learn to take a lot in stride. This situation, where both horses in a pair are inexperienced, is something you’ll find in the twenty-first century, but was unlikely in the age of carriage driving. Usually then, an inexperienced horse would have been paired with a steady, experienced one, who would have transmitted his confidence to the youngster.

This is how Black Beauty was trained. When I was in the foothills of the Himalayans in Yunnan province, China, where carriage transport is still used, I had a chance to drive with an old man whose “pair” consisted of the mother, who was pulling the carriage, and her yearling foal, who was tied loosely beside her. The youngster wasn’t in draft, but he learned the ways of the road and would have become a calm, steady horse by the time he was actually put to the carriage. (“Put to” is the technical term for hitching a horse to the cart.)

So… since he was driving inexperienced horses, the driver in this clip should have been the alert for trouble. I get the feeling this driver is inexperienced, too, not a good combination with an inexperienced horse. Or he may have just been distracted by all the people around him. Which is common at a carriage driving event, where your friends are driving, too. Certainly the camera person isn’t paying attention to what’s going on.

With horses, distraction can lead to disaster.

Rerun the clip and watch the horses’ heads and ears. Notice how they’re turning their heads to look at something on the side of the road. Horses will signal a spook this way. (Look at the first clip and you’ll see they’re signaling loud and clear.) At this point the driver should have done something to get their attention. Just pulling on the right rein and asking them to turn their heads to the right would have probably done it. Horses cannot hold more than one thing at a time in their minds.

Another element of the accident-waiting-to-happen is the camera person, whom I suspect was supposed to groom for this driver. The job of the groom is to help control the horses and stabilize the carriage (if necessary.) With an expensive piece of video equipment in his/her hands, my guess is the groom would have been more concerned with saving the camera than dealing with horses. Of course, there could have been others in that vehicle, which looks like a wagonette. A wagonette is a cross between a carriage and a wagon. There are seats for the driver and a passenger or groom up front, and then two seats in the back, facing each other, for additional passengers or grooms. It’s a vehicle often used in combined driving today, and can be pulled by either a pair (2 horses) or a team (4 horses, also called a 4-in-hand).

The next two clips are serious bolts, where the horses have an extended run. Look at the way the driver is bounced around in this first clip. I really have to admire this guy. Here’s a hero for your book. (Something like this happened to me once, and it was not fun, especially since I got jammed in the boot – the area where the driver puts his/her feet – and then my horse stopped and began kicking the carriage apart.)

Notice how the driver here regains control of his team, by circling them tightly. A horse cannot run flat-out in a tight circle. This works for this wagonette because it is designed for combined driving, where you have to make sharp turns. If you try to do this with a two-wheeled cart or with a traditional carriage or coach, you risk flipping the vehicle.

The driver WOULD NOT try to walk up the pole (the piece of wood between the horses), as you sometimes see in Westerns. That pole is tied very loosely to both horse and carriage. Even if it was able to support a man, his weight would twist the harness in a way that would, at the very least, add to the horses’ frights, or tangle in the horse, injuring it. Plus, as you can see from the way the driver is being bounced around IN the carriage, do you think anyone could actually stay balanced on a pole that’s not even the width of his boot?

In this next clip, the team – a four-in-hand of gorgeous Friesians -- have somehow broken loose before the driver was able to mount the box seat (get up in the carriage.) Look at the chaos they create in the carriage yard. Here people on the ground are able to detach the leaders (the front pair). Modern turnouts (the term for the complete ensemble of horse, carriage, driver, grooms, livery and equipment) usually feature safety devices such as “quick-release” clips that allow grooms to quickly unfasten the horse from the carriage.

Trying to grab a running horse from the ground is dangerous in itself. Basically an 80 kilo (170 lb) man is trying to stop a frightened 500 kilo (1100 lb.) animal that can easily pull its own weight. The next clip, another display of great courage, shows what can happen. And this is only a 225 kilo (500 lb.) pony.

What happens if the horses bolt and the driver isn’t able to regain control? The last of my clips is the ultimate horse show nightmare, but it could just as easily have happened in an 1815 London street.

The other drivers in this scene have followed what is standard horse show procedure for a run-away. They’ve come to the centre of the arena, leaving the outside track clear for the running horse. The trouble is horses are herd animals. The run-away wants the safety of his kind. And he’s dragging a carriage.

The smart drivers and grooms have un-hitched. You’ll notice the ones that get into trouble are those who stay in their carts.

What went wrong here? Driver error, again. Replay this clip and you’ll see the horse even as he enters the arena is very nervous. He is an accident waiting to happen. This kind of driving class – known as a pleasure driving class -- features hot, spirited horses, but they should be well-mannered and well trained. They should be eager to go forward, but not nervous and scared. In this case, the horse is tense. He signals his fear mostly through his head – up in the air – and the way his neck is bowed, not arched (look at the other horses and compare.) He should never have been brought into the arena. The driver probably hoped he would settle down, or had the erroneous idea that fear would heighten the horses “action” (his high-stepping stride) and catch the judge’s eye. What happens here is entirely due to the driver’s bad judgment.

At the end of the clip, when they force the horse to stay on the ground, this is not cruelty but about the smartest thing they can do. First, it keeps the horse under control. Secondly, a downed horse will usually stop struggling and start to calm. Third, it gives them a chance to remove tangled equipment and also to do any necessary emergency vet work. Once the horse is calmed, they would release it and allow it to regain its feet.

In the clips I’ve analyzed, you’ve seen many crashes. There is another kind of crash known as a hang-up. Driver error usually causes that, too. The turnout is going too fast and not able to make a turn, or the driver misjudges the clearance between carriage and obstacle. This kind of crash is common in combined driving events, where part of the competition involves going through tight-tricky obstacles (know as “hazards”) as fast as you can. Usually the driver and groom are able to get the carriage un-hung-up and they continue on with the competition, merely losing time, as in this clip.

As I mentioned, driving horses are generally very calm. When there’s a hang-up like this, usually they will just stand still and wait for their driver and groom to rescue them. Occasionally they panic and start kicking and rearing. They injure themselves and also make it very difficult to free them. They can damage equipment and hurt their handlers.

U-tube is full of carriage driving accidents. If you’ve got one in your story, watch a few clips first and your writing will be richer and more authentic. You can find more clips by doing a search for “carriage driving accidents”.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Saissac and the Mysterious Treasure Hoard


The first of the Cathar strongholds Phil and I visited was Bram, a town along the Canal de Midi. Built in concentric rings around a late medieval church, there is no sign of the castle that once stood there, so we didn’t stay longer than it took to find batteries for my camera.

Bram is the sight of one of the most gruesome incidents of the Albigensian Crusade. After capturing Bram, Simon de Montfort sent the hundred survivors to the castle of Cahours. Sounds like an act of mercy? Not for de Montfort. The defenders of Cahours looked out their gates to a horrific sight: a staggering line of soldiers, minus noses, lips and eyes, guided by one survivor to whom de Montfort had left the use of one eye.

As for Bram itself, de Montfort’s army levelled the place. The charming town there today grew up after the Cathar crusade.

From Bram we drove the 30 kilometres into the Montaignes Noire (Black Mountains) to the next Cathar castle we planned to visit. During the drive I filled Phil in about Simon de Montfort.

After Pope Innocent III called the Albigensian Crusade, Simon de Montfort was given charge of the crusading army. He was the father of the Simon de Montfort who gave the King Henry III of England so much trouble a generation later.

De Montfort started in the north and worked south across Languedoc with a ruthlessness that earned him a reputation for butchery. He took the city of Beziers and slaughtered the entire city’s population. To be fair, the massacre was not entirely de Montfort’s decision. He asked the papal legate what to do with the prisoners and was told, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”

From there he moved on to Carcassonne, the seat of the Trencaval family, who held the Languedoc as vassals of Count Raymond of Toulouse. Carcassonne quickly fell under the pressures of starvation, thirst and the August heat. By the time the crusading army reached Saissac, de Montfort’s fearsome reputation had become a weapon in itself.

The village of Saissac
Coming up from the plains, you can see Saissac long before you get there. When you get close it’s a different story. Perched on a v-shaped outcrop projecting a vertical escarpment in the Montaignes Noires (Black Mountains), you actually have to go downhill, through the village of Saissac to get to the castle itself.

Entrance to the castle from the village
Even so, with only one, narrow wall accessible to anyone approaching the castle, and that protected by a deep moat, Saissac should have been impregnable.

But its lord, Bertrand de Saissac, abandoned the castle rather than give his fealty to de Montfort, who by that time had been given all the lands held by the Trencavals. Bertrand then became one of the faydit – Languedoc lords who were condemned by the Church and technically considered heretics and outlaws. He would have been a man on the run. Eventually he joined Raymond Trencaval in his unsuccessful attempt to recapture Carcassonne and the Languedoc. Interestingly, a part of the fief of Saissac was eventually restored to Bertrand and his heirs by King Louis IX.

The other part Saissac – which included the castle -- remained in the hands of the crusaders, who took control of the fortress for the King of France. And this is where the next interesting bit of its history appears.
In 1979 a treasure trove was found by construction workers helping to stabilize the castle walls. Hidden in a clay pot buried in the ground, it consisted of 1954 deniers and 3 obules, dating between 1180 and 1270, with the bulk from the mints of Kings Louis VIII and IX).

The money represents a turning point in the history of European currency. Towards the end of the Carolingian era (9th century) the king lost the exclusive power to mint coins. By the 11th century, local lords were minting their own – and by the 12th century, there were a multiplicity of local mints, all on a small, artisan level. On a political level, this independent state of coinage reflected the independent local sovereignty that was the reality throughout southern France. The King of France might call himself “king”, but the fact was, he had little power beyond central France. And this was particularly true in southern France, where Count Raymond of Toulouse was almost a king in his own right.

For the King of France, the Albigensian Crusade was an opportunity to consolidate his power over southern France, all legitimized by a religious cause.

Once Louis VIII gained control of Languedoc, he forbade the minting of local coinage and made his own coinage the sole legal tender of the realm. The Saissac treasure trove must have been accumulated during that period in history. The majority of the coins are from Louis VIII’s and his successor’s mints, but the handful of locally minted coins shows that a few of them were still in circulation.

How the hoard got there is the subject for much speculation. A denier is the medieval French equivalent of a penny. (In fact, the British system of pennies, shillings and pounds came to England through the Norman conquerors.) Two thousand deniers would have not been a lot of money – enough to buy a cow, or two or three sheep, or a nice set of clothes for a common man’s wedding, or food to keep a family through a winter. So this is obviously the savings of a villager, not the treasure of the Lord of Saissac. 1270 marks a period in which the faydit Languedoc lords made one final attempt to regain their lands. Possibly the villager hid his savings in hopes of keeping it out of the hands of marauding armies. Then something happened to prevent him or her from returning to reclaim the coins.

View out over the plain toward Carcassonne
Today, with the exception of the one building restored as a museum for the treasure trove, most of Saissac is in ruin. It covers three terraces, running downhill to a narrow point looking out on the plain. As a fief of France, the castle was expanded and held against the Protestants during the Wars of Religion during the 16th century, but it eventually fell into ruins after the French Revolution and was the subject of major looting during the middle of the nineteenth century.

Figuring out what was where has challenged modern archaeologists, who are still at work. Structures aren’t always what they seem. Ovens look like dungeons, storerooms like castle halls.  What appear to be defensive structures for pouring out boiling oil along the castle’s edge, for example, are actually medieval latrines. I found myself fascinated by some multi-coloured stones at what would have been floor level -- but have no idea what they once were.

Vicky's mystery stones


Monday, August 8, 2011

The Cathars

The Medieval Market Square in LaGrasse

Phil and I sit on the terrace of a cafĂ© in the medieval town of Lagrasse in the Languedoc region of France and warm our hands around cappuccinos. It’s July. The temperature should be in the 30’s (90’s F) but the Sens, a cold wind from the north, has sent the temperatures plummeting to 20 degrees (68 F). We’ve been in France three days and I’ve already concluded cappuccino is not something France does well. The four I’ve had so far – all at different restaurants – have all been disasters. The latest, at least, with its cap of whipped cream is a decent imitation of Viennese coffee.

Lagrasse is in the heart of what, during the 12th and 13th century, was the homeland of the Cathar heresy. Half the sightseeing brochures we’ve picked up indicate that this castle, or that abbey or that village is somehow linked to the biggest bloodbath the south of France experienced. I’ve just found a history of it written in French by a local author, and am reading bits to Phil. As a Medievalist, I knew a little about the so-called heresy, which the church of Rome saw as such a threat that it called a crusade, but I’m amazed at how much of what I thought I knew is wrong. Like my search of the “real” King Arthur, it’s another indication of the vast extent of new information Medievalists have uncovered in the 30 years since I studied for my PhD (and then dropped the whole thing to go into advertising.)


In 1208 Pope Innocent III called the king and nobles of France upon a Crusade to eliminate the Cathar heresy that had spread through southern France. In the thirty years that followed, more than 40,000 Cathars, their supporters and innocent bystanders fell under swords of the crusaders. The principle cities and fortresses of the Languedoc were captured and destroyed. Northern France, at last, gained political and economic dominance over the vast, rich territory it had coveted (and which technically but never in political reality was a fief of France.) A civilization – the one that had spawned troubadours, chivalry and courtly love -- had been destroyed. And the Catholic Church initiated the Inquisition.

Catharism itself was a grass-roots movement of itinerant preachers calling for religious reform at a time when the Catholic Church was growing increasingly corrupt.

Most of what has entered popular knowledge about the Cathars was actually disseminated by the Catholic Church, the Cathars’ worst enemies. Even the name was a Catholic invention, having been given to the group by Benedictine Abbot Eckbert of Schonau in 1163. Cathars themselves had no name for their movement. They called themselves “Bonne homes” – “Good men”. Eckbert himself, in one of his sermons, admits that the members of this group were called different things in different locations. In fact, the movement, which is probably the best term for what the Church considered a heresy, was widespread throughout Europe. There were large pockets in the Rhineland, where Eckbert wrote, Burgundy, Bulgaria, Languedoc, northern Spain and Tuscany and Lombardy in Italy. Depending on the location, the Church referred to them as Bogomils, Bulgarians, Buggers, Publicans, Piphels, Lucifarians, Arians, and Cathars. The many names may have been the Church’s attempt to play down the wide-spread nature of the movement. Or to cause confusion regarding its nature. The church also spread much misinformation about Cather beliefs and practices. It’s only during the past fifty years that historians have unearthed original Cathar documents and been able to sort truth from propaganda.

So who were these Cathars? And what made them such a threat that Church and State united to destroy them?

Join me over the next couple of weeks while I share what Phil and I learned.