Category Archives: historical fiction

PILGRIMAGE — Some news and a description

As I wrote last October, my first novel, Pilgrimage, is going to be published by Cuidono Press, a new small press based in Brooklyn (I think those of you who enjoy the Middle Ages might be interested in its first released book, A Place of Light, on the origins of the Abbey of Fontevraud.) I am delighted to let you all know that my novel will be released this June.

And I think it is finally time for me to let you know what it is about. People who write talk about “conference pitches,” “elevator pitches,” etc. This is my current “dust-jacket pitch”:

For the rest of twelfth-century Europe, Spain was a far-off and exotic place, rich in silks, ivory, and gold, full of Muslims and Jews, and raging with battles between rival kings and kingdoms. It was also home to the mystical Christian holy site of Compostela at the western edge of the known world, shrine of Saint James. The saint’s tomb drew a perpetual wave of pilgrims, coming for adventure, seeking a miracle from the saint, or performing penance to expiate an old sin.

PILGRIMAGE is the story of one of those pilgrims. Gebirga of Flanders, the blind, dispossessed daughter of martyred Saint Godleva. She flees her callous family with a pack of pilgrims that includes a count’s daughter, bound for marriage, and a mysterious messenger with an unknown agenda, all bound for Compostela. The journey takes Gebirga from her home on the edge of the North Sea across the kingdoms of France and into the Iberian Peninsula, where she is caught up the swirling winds of political change, from restless, power-hungry kings and queens, to the Roman Pope. Beneath all the birthing of nations, churches, and ideas, PILGRIMAGE is a story of a young woman struggling with her station in life and trying to find her place in the world.

And speaking of dust-jackets, we are still working on the cover, but in the meantime, I want to point you in two directions. The first is to look up at the image in the header of this blog, shot by me in Spain at a place where one of the major scenes in the novel takes place. I discussed this place in my very first blog post, The Image in my Header. Next, look down. This is a painting I bought at the Hyde Park Art Fair several years ago because it reminded me of Gebirga’s journey from Flanders to Spain. I like to think those are the Pyrenees in the distance.
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Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn

LadyandtheUnicorn

I am that strange person who did not like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but loves the rest of Tracy Chevalier’s work. This goes true for her The Lady and the Unicorn, which I just finished tonight. To be honest, I started it tonight too. A story of the creation of the famous Unicorn tapestries, now housed at the Musee de Cluny, in Paris, it is that good.

If you read other reviews of this book, you will find that their authors can’t resist the chance to use “tapestry” metaphors when describing Chevalier’s skill. “A deftly woven tapestry,” “not a stitch is missing,” they write. However, this attention to the book as the fully-realized production of a single person, an “author,” seems to miss the exact point Chevalier is trying to make about artistic creation. Nicholas des Innocents, the painter who designed the tapestries, is at the heart of her book, and it is he whom a modern audience would credit with being their “author.” But the story is designed to show us how these wonderful examples of the fifteenth-century art of weaving are in fact the product of many, many hands and brains and sources of inspiration. Chevalier reveals to us, not only the contribution of the designer and the members of Brussels atelier that weaves the tapestries, but the the role of the patrons who debate over the design; the merchant who acts as go-between, hiring the designer and arranging for his work to be made a reality; the women who serve as muses; the servants who care for the house so the work can be done; the English wool workers who ship their cloth to Ostend; and even the unappealing Jacques Le Boeuf, smelly because of the urine used to fix the woad that gives the beautiful blues to the tapestries.

It is easy to suppose that Chevalier sees her own creation as an author in the same light. The fantasy is of an author who toils alone and creates a book as a pure, solitary act, the work of her brain transmitted through her hands onto the page. The reality is that Chevalier’s book had as many hands in it as the tapestries themselves: an agent and an editor and maybe other readers who suggested revisions and made comments at an early stage (Chevalier thanks a long list of people in her acknowledgements), and closer to publication, there was a copyeditor and proofreader. Someone designed the cover (actually, his name is Richard Hasselberger — it is on the back flap of the dust jacket — and it is a very nice cover indeed) and took the author photo (Jerry Brauer) and created the layout and chose the type face and given that this novel followed the huge success of Girl with the Pearl Earring there was probably a substantial group in charge of publicity and promotion. And we can add to this list the booksellers who hand-sold it, the librarians who recommended it, and all the people who reviewed it. All of these were needed to make The Lady and the Unicorn what it is. And none of this takes away from Chevalier’s work.

Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Curse in the Colophon

UnknownSo many friends greeted my acquisition of this book with so much excitement that I thought a review was in order now I have finished reading it. For those that you don’t know, Edgar Goodspeed was a Theologian and New Testament scholar at my very own Divinity School at the University of Chicago, getting his degree from there in 1898 and teaching there between 1900 and 1937.   Goodspeed was responsible for building up the manuscript collection that now bears his name at the university, a collection of New Testament manuscripts and papyri. How could I resist a book by another novel-writing colleague?

Especially a book devoted to the hunt for medieval manuscripts, a hunt that bears striking similarities to his own real-life acquisitions. For while he was a New Testament scholars, the materia for the study of the Greek New Testament is manuscripts copied in the Middle Ages. In his story, the first-person hero and narrator of the tale is assisted by the as-intelligent-as-she-is-beautiful Letitia (“Tish”) in a hunt for a cache of manuscripts hidden, after the fall of Constantinople, revealed by a curse found in the colophon of a manuscript being studied at the University of Chicago. It is a a sea-borne quest in which the scholars are assisted by wealthy American patrons to reach the monastery of Selime where they find the treasure they seek behind a trapdoor in a tomb: Byzantine regalia, and relics, and, best of all, illustrated manuscripts.

Shades of Indiana Jones. Only, not really. For while Goodspeed knows he has to add a few dastardly ruffians and menacing Greeks to his tale, he isn’t as comfortable with tales of high adventure as he is writing about the mundane frustrations and excitements of ordinary manuscript study. And that is the best thing about this book, from the perspective of this medievalist. We learn the virtues of using ultra-violet light over reagents to uncover text written in palimpsest, that is to say, text that has been over-written by another text. It is under the original cursed colophon that they find their clue to the location of the manuscripts they seek. They are thwarted by the demons that plague all of us: libraries with inconvenient opening times and backward equipment, jealous librarians who refuse to understand the crucial importance of our own personal quests, languages that need to be learned, transportation that must be acquired, and the religious agendas of those who are the custodians of the treasures the scholars seek to reveal. The final crisis comes, not at the hands of the enemies who have been dogging their every step (book dealers who *gasp* cut up manuscripts in order to sell their miniatures one by one), but at the hands of the customs officials who threaten not to let them remove their prizes from the country.

If you ever have had to sweet-talk someone in a language you don’t know very well to look at a manuscript you are sure will be crucial for your work, this is the novel for you.

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was tagged by Julianne Douglas over on Facebook to quickly write down ten books that have meant something to me, and then pass along the request to ten more people. I can’t do anything the easy way, so I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about it, and to explain why these books are important to me. Since it is the time of year when many people are looking for gift ideas, maybe even some of what I say will provide some inspiration. I am going to stick close to historical fiction for my list, since I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes good historical fiction in general, and medieval historical fiction in particular.

  1. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdattir. It is maybe cheating to begin with this because I have about fifty more pages to go, but it was reading this book that got me thinking about medieval historical fiction in the first place. Somehow Undset managed to write here a novel that continues to speak immediately to contemporary themes and problems, while at the same time maintaining a perfect period voice. I have not discovered one jarring note (though specialists in medieval Scandinavia might feel differently). I am thinking of how I could work it into a course.
  2. Cecelia Holland, Great Maria. This novel is another of the first that comes to mind when I think of other books I have loved that, for me, capture the Middle Ages and its values perfectly. Its heroine is awkward and difficult, and unsympathetic at times. This is because she thinks and feels and acts differently than we would do. This is because she lives in a very different world, and Holland does not allow us to forget it.
  3. Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road. This one will be less well known even to my book-reading and medievalist friends. It is the eleventh-century tale of Gudrid, as told to a cleric and scribe in Rome, of her role in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and her own journey to North America. Gudrid’s world is pagan and Christian, civilized and wild and once again, Elphinstone gets her voice perfectly. I should also say that everything Elphinstone writes is an instant hard-cover buy for me.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t historical fiction, most would argue, but rather fantasy. I am going to argue that it belongs on this list of books that made me think about how to write historical fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not some fantasy realm in some imaginary world, however it may appear to a casual reader. He binds it to the geography and language of the word that we know, the world that is ours, by creating stories told about stories told about stories, layering the past upon the past.
  5. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind. I saw that Julianne had The Angel’s Game on her list which I unaccountably still have not read, though I went to an author reading when it first came out, and got a signed copy. This one is a book about books by a man who loves books. More than that, Ruiz Zafon casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. We are in post-civil war Barcelona with all its beauty, menace, and danger until the last page when he lets us go again.
  6. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is the perfect book for someone raised on Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Like Heyer, she captures that Regency voice without anachronism, and at the same time manages to work in the magic in a way that seems seamless and plausible.
  7. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel in her best historical fiction, here and in A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution not only writes a historical novel, but constructs a historical argument. Here, her argument is a revisionist portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Usually he is depicted as the most hated of Henry VIIIs servants, but Mantel gives us a view of him from the inside to present him as a more sympathetic character. Her depiction of Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More were equally daring.
  8. Sarah Dunant, Sacred Hearts. Most people would think that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a tightly enclosed sixtenth-century Ferarrese convent would not be interesting. Those people would be wrong. I read this shortly after teaching a class on Terese of Avila’s autobiography and felt it gave flesh to some of the bones of what Teresa describes.
  9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. I have already discussed this book on my blog, so I won’t say too much here except that this is another book about books (I am detecting a theme here…), and it made me have sympathy for characters I thought I could not feel sympathy for.
  10. Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. The story of the twentieth-century told through a modernist house built in what was once Czechoslovakia, this one hits close to home. Not only does it depict the world of my ancestors, the world into which my father was born, and the pain of going into exile from that world, the characters themselves reflect elements of members of my family. This may, then, seem less strictly “historical” than the other works on my list. But whether a book takes us to Tang China or Renaissance Italy, surely we love it because we see parts of ourself in it?

Book Contract

I am feeling a little bit stunned.

Today, I received a book contract. Cuidono Press is going to be publishing my historical novel, Pilgrimage in 2014. No, it wasn’t unexpected — these things take a lot of lead-up time, I have discovered. A Lot. I finished this novel in 2007, just to give you a bit of an idea. I am so grateful to Martha Hoffman, who read it way back then and remembered it, and asked me if I would publish it with her new small press, and I am also so grateful to Stephanie Cabot, my agent, who has been with me through all those long years and never gave up.

Since it has been a long journey, and since I have a hunch that maybe everyone (or is it only every academic historian?) would secretly like to write a novel and get it published, and wants to know how such a thing can happen, I think over the next few days and weeks, I’ll tell the story of the path that I took to get here. Watch this space.

Telling Books by their Covers

I really enjoyed this blog post from Kris Waldherr on a subject near and dear to my heart, book covers, so I thought I would post a link here. She is specifically focussing on historical fiction, including the infamous and ubiquitous “headless woman” cover:

http://kriswaldherr.net/main/2013/07/publishing-monday-the-semiotics-of-book-covers

Another Year, Another Used Book Sale

There’s a sameness to this season, always — the turn of the leaves, the chill of the air, the encroaching dark. Even the beginning of the university year feels like an ending. And this year, like last, I also marked the end of a relationship whose time had passed.

But there are compensatons, like the extra week of summer that appeared out of no where last week. And the annual used book sale. As always, I present a photo of my haul. I am most excited by the five Rowan magazines I got for 10 cents each, and Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow, which I have been seeking for a while. The books are all used and have been read before by people who came to their end and discarded them. But they offer a new beginning to me.

Book Sale 2011

NaNoWriMo Recap

Well, I didn’t “win,” in the sense that I didn’t write 50,000 words. I was doing very well, getting about 2,000 words a day, and was ahead of schedule but then, as I knew I would be, I was derailed by a visit from my mother, Thanksgiving, and, above all, a deadline on an article that was due on November 30th. But I did get 35,677 words, and I am thrilled with that.

So what did I learn? I learned that I can write academic prose and fiction in the same month, though not at the same time. It doesn’t matter if I have “free time” to write the other in while I am writing the first. If my headspace is occupied with one project, it can’t divide itself in two for another.

I have a good seven chapters begun on the new novel, and I feel like it is solid stuff. Many of the things I learned were things relearned from previous NaNos. Writing 2 000 words per day does not mean you have to sacrifice quality. It does mean your story will live in your head 24-7 and will generate connections and developments seemingly without your involvement. That is always fun. Characters will grow before your eyes.

I think I do my best writing under this regime. I think 2,000/day is too much for me to sustain for longer than a month, every day with no break. But I know that when i get in a rhythm of writing, say 1,000 a day, the work stays fresh.

I already can’t wait for next year.

NaNoWriMo

Or National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated. And yes, it should be International Novel Writing Month, but InaNoWriMo sounds a little — inane. Anyway, with November 1st upon us, it is that time of year again. Time to put aside knitting, novels, and house cleaning in favour of writing 50,000 words of a novel in one month. That’s 1667 words a day, for those who are counting. I’ve got 500 words so far, thanks to a meeting I didn’t realize was scheduled for next week, rather than for today, but I thought I’d take a brief break (blog word counts not included in total, alas) to share the madness with all of you.

I’ve been doing this since 2005, with more, or mostly less, success. The first year I cracked 50,000, and the second year I finished a novel. Since then, other deadlines have got in the way and though the discipline of the month got me moving, I wasn’t able to go full out. That’s not the case this month. I’m beginning a new project one I am really excited about — medieval historical fiction as usual, but with a great fantasy twist — and the discipline of daily writing will be perfect for starting me on my way.
Good luck to all fellow WriMos!

Book Sale, 2010

Book Sale 2010

Another year, another Hyde Park Used Book Sale. This was my haul (click the photo to see titles). I’m pretty excited abut it. Two Mary Stewarts that I have never read before? Is that possible? A bunch of Alice Hoffmans. A few for my son. And many others that I have been curious about, and have wanted to check out for a while. All to benefit the local Neighbourhood* Club, which does so much good work. Combined with lovely out of town guests and a turkey for (Canadian) Thanksgiving, it made for a wonderful weekend.

*I guess they’d call it a Neighborhood Club here.