Category Archives: art and craft

Thoughts on “Medieval Imaginings”: Medieval History and Historical Fiction at Northwestern University

The books have been signed, the taxis boarded for O’Hare, but before we all move on to the next adventure, I wanted to write about few of the things I learned and lessons I valued from yesterday’s conference, “Medieval Imaginings: A Celebration of Historical Fiction.” Organized by Barbara Newman as one of the last events sponsored by a Mellon grant that has brought so many exciting ways to think of the Middle Ages, not only to Northwestern University, but to all of us in the Chicago area, the day gathered together students and teachers, historians and literary scholars and writers, as well as a few people who were all of the above.

Cecelia Holland, last but not least, was my favourite part of the day. She read a few passages to us from her 1997 novel about the Templars, Jerusalem, and every time she stopped, I wanted to shout, “No! Keep reading! I have to know what happens next.” But even more than that, she talked about how, when you write about the past, the past must connect to the present. The past is gone; we are here, and it is for us that we are writing. Before she started reading, she spoke about the place she was in when she began the book, about teaching prisoners how to write, about how she loved them and how they were desperate and hardened, hopeless and full of longing, and how writing gave them the chance to be themselves again. We could see those prisoners in the Templars she described, Rannulf and Mouse the rest.

I learned other things too. From a thoughtful discussion of sources and the uses we make of them between Paul Strohm and Bruce Holsinger (whose Invention of Fire we eagerly await), I discovered that I am more fearful of the claims made by historical biography than historical fiction. I know this comes from reading Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone as an impressionable youth. Its twin story lines of biographer and subject force us to recognize all that the biographer can never know. I learned that my own initial stirrings of an idea to write a novel about the medieval pilgrimage to Compostela must have begun very close to my reading of Sharan Newman’s novel with the same theme, Strong as Death.

We spent a little too much time talking about Dan Brown. We don’t get upset when someone writes something wrong about the Middle Ages that sinks like a stone; we get upset when it sells a lot of copies and makes a lot of money. My own explanation, not voiced at the conference, for the popularity of The DaVinci Code (and 50 Shades, and Harry Potter) is that they are easy to read, their themes and claims are big, and they satisfy a longing we have for a shared text, now that the Bible no longer fills that space. One question that came up over and over again was whether we are doing the right thing, drawing on the past for the needs of the present, slicing it up and making stories out of it with beginnings, middles, and ends; with character arcs and conflict resolved. What if people read what we write and…believe us? And what if we’re wrong? As we are, as we all are because, remember what Cecelia Holland said: the past is gone. My serious answer to this question is that I would not put my name on any piece of writing I was not prepared to stand behind, with all of its longing, and failure, to hear and convey a voice that is not my own. This is as true of my historical as my fictional writing. My flippant answer (But felt no less strongly. Maybe felt more strongly.) is that, who cares if it is wrong and they believe it? The only problem would be if, “and they believe it,” meant, “and so they stopped telling stories of their own.” Of course it is wrong. I read a history and I tell a history, then you read it and out of that your own history emerges, and together a great chain of stories continues to grow, connecting us and allowing us to share in each other while becoming more thoroughly our selves. Long live stories, and the people with the courage to tell them, and believe them.

I think the writer at the conference may have been the best historian in the room.

Best Provisional Cast On

This post is a bit of a departure for me. Yes, it is about knitting. You cast on when you put stitches on your needle to begin a piece of knitting. A provisional cast on is a method of leaving stitches “live” so that after knitting “up” from them in the normal way, you can start again at the bottom and knit “down” from the stitches you cast on. There are some good reasons for needing a provisional cast on: adding a collar or a hem, grafting a border or building out from the middle on a lace project. There are also some bad reasons (in my mind) like using them everywhere because you have a pathological fear of seaming. Anyway, I am working on one such seamless pattern now and have had a little, shall we say, provisional cast on drama, so I am writing this post more as a memory aid to myself, because there are a numbers of methods out there and some are better than others.
There is this one, from Knitty and the Yarn Harlot. Like all provisional cast ons it involves waste yarn. The waste and actual yarn are twisted around each other and then the actual yarn gets twisted around the needle. It isn’t bad, and I have used it on a lace project that I am working on now. All that twisting can be cumbersome, and the stitches can be loose and even, which is why I think it is better for lace. Interestingly enough, it does not look like it is the provisional cast on the Yarn Harlot has used herself here:
provisional cast on

That looks like it might be a crochet cast on, which is my favourite. There are a couple of ways of doing it. Techknitter suggests that you crochet a chain and then pick up stitches in the bumps. It works but it is a little bit cumbersome — it is telling that techknitter’s preferred way of doing a provisional cast on is by simply knitting for a few rows in waste yarn, beginning with the actual yarn and then, when you need the live stitches, just snipping the wast yarn and unravelling it (That actually may be what the Yarn Harlot has done in the photo above). I think the easiest crochet provisional cast on is the method described by Woolly Wormhead (yes, the names are great, aren’t they?). Instead of making a chain and then picking up stitches from the back bumps, you turn the back bumps into stitches by cricheting the chain right onto your needle. It means you can used a crochet hook that is closer in size to your needle and waste yarn that is closer to your actual yarn, meaning that the provisional stitches will be less noticeable once you come to use them. You can quickly and easily unzip the crochet chain once you are read for the live stitches.

Which brings me to the last provisional cast on, one I do not recommend, from Wendy Bernard. It begins with a long tail cast on done with actual yarn (forming the loops of the stitches) and waste yarn as the second yarn. It has the benefit that the set up is really easy while all of the other options have a set up that is more time consuming and cumbersome. The problems emerge when you are ready to use the provisional stitches. After I unpicked the waste yarn from the bottom and began knitting, I found my whole row of 2×2 ribbing was askew. I am not sure what I could have done to fix it — when I pulled out the needle, I found that none of the stitches were truly “live.” It may be that I do my long tail cast on in a different way than others do. BUT even if the long tail cast on worked as promised, I would still not recommend this method because of the tiresome unpicking of each bit of waste yarn that is necessary. Each stitch must be picked out one by one with a needle, and you have to keep snipping off the end of the waste yarn or it gets to difficult to pull it through. All this wok to avoid seaming two inches of shoulder straps. So not worth it.

Sheramy Bundrick, Sunflowers

Sunflowers I am breaking my long blog silence (permanently — there will be many more posts in the next few days and weeks) for a very good cause, to celebrate the release today of Sheramy Bundrick’s debut novel, Sunflowers, published by Avon, about the story of Vincent van Gogh. I met Sheramy at the Historical Novel Society conference in June, and have been eagerly awaiting for this release.

You can go here to enter a contest to win a copy of Sheramy’s book. Julianne has a review of the novel up there on her site today as well.