Category Archives: books
A Good Book
(Eleanor here. Heidi’s posting for me again, because the dog ate my computer.)
“A good book makes you want to live in the story. A great book gives you no choice.”
I don’t know who said that. Heidi sent it to me this week with a bunch of other quotes that had to do with writing and gorgeous pictures of libraries that you would give your eye teeth to live in, at night, when everyone has gone home and left you ALL ALONE with great books that suck you into them. Of course my eye teeth are nothing to write home about, as my dentist would say, but that’s not quite the point. You get the point.
We’ve read good books, and we’ve read great books. That’s the reason we keep reading. The great ones you cannot put down. The good ones you put down to eat, sleep and other things, but you are niggled in the back of your mind every minute you are away that you have to get back to see what’s happening. I would like to write a good book, but I would love to write a great one. I have favorite authors who write good books and the occasional great one. What a glorious day it is when you can get your hands on one of those.
So, today was almost an ‘O frabjous day.’* Almost, because I don’t actually have my hands on the book yet, but I found out about it and my library’s trusty librarian has ordered it for me.
The author is Jasper Fforde, and it’s been far too long since I’ve read one of his books. This one is a standalone, not part of his Thursday Next series which I love. The title is ‘Early Riser’.
“Author Jasper Fforde is best known for his parallel universe books starring Thursday Next. But now he’s written a new standalone novel, set in another alternate world.
In Early Riser, the entire human population hibernates for four months every year… well, almost the entire population. Charlie Worthing is one of the Winter Consuls, the misfits tasked with ensuring the safe passage of the sleeping masses. When there’s an outbreak of viral dreams, he investigates. It gets serious when the dreams start to kill people. Then Charlie starts getting the dreams too – and they start to come true…”
I don’t think I’ll have it for next week’s Nor’Easter, but I’ll have it soon and then I’ll pretend that there’s a Nor’Easter outside and I’ll have to be inside for the duration. Or else.
What books are you waiting to get your hands on?
A nonce word in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky meaning “fabulous and joyous”.
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
Great, wonderful, fabulous.
Origin: Originally a nonce word in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky;
I don’t think I’ve been living under a rock as far as reading suspense novels goes, yet somehow I’ve missed the books of Clare Mackintosh, my newest favorite author. In the past few weeks I’ve read “I Let You Go,” “I See You,” and “Let It Lie.” I’m still amazed at how many times in “I Let You Go” I was wrong. Wrong about which POV character I was reading, wrong about who did it, wrong about motive. Wrong in an absolutely great way.
In the process of looking for an interview I recently read with Clare Mackintosh and another writer, whose name unfortunately escapes me, I found an interview with Mackintosh and Ruth Ware, an English writer I’d never heard of. Now I’m reading Ware’s “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” and I’ve added “The Woman in Cabin Ten” to my list.
In the interview, Mackintosh states that she’s a detailed plotter. Yet she works out what the story is as she writes the first draft then discards 70% of it and basically starts over from scratch. Sounds somewhat organic to me. Ware plots a bit in her head and then writes the story in the order that the reader will read it, from beginning to end. Definitely organic.
I won’t regurgitate the entire interview–you should watch it.
I’m also reading Steven James’ “Story Trumps Structure.” He’s an organic writer, aka a pantser, and his advice about writing that way is inspiring. I’m underlining and starring information I want to come back to, which is approximately the entire book.
Before starting James’ book, I thought I had made a momentous decision. After rereading my most recent writings for “Anne,” I decided that all it had been was a very long, drawn out writing exercise. It was too much of a romance gone bad story with a murder thrown in to resuscitate. However, James has inspired me with some ideas on how I can make the novel work by keeping some of my old themes and just trashing everything else.
One area that I struggle with is how much information to reveal to the reader and when to reveal it. James says: suspense requires that we reveal, not conceal, information. I’m going to take that approach with this current “Anne” rewrite and see where it leads me.
Now I’m bursting with ideas and constantly turning to my phone or yellow pad or laptop to make notes about “Anne.” I’ve even produced a satisfactory opening paragraph. That alone is a major accomplishment!
Is all of this renewed energy and enthusiasm the influence of the wise words of Steven James? Or is it the mind-blowing twists of Clare Mackintosh? Probably.
Margaret Atwood Teaches Me to Write
After a month of life chaos, I just opened the best Christmas present ever. I was finally able to start an online master class in writing taught by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is one of the very few authors whose books I do not keep on my fiction bookshelves in alphabetical order. She lives on the special shelves where I keep the books I would like to be buried with.
Each lesson is a video of Atwood, introduced by screen shots of what I take to be her working journals. They don’t show text. Primitive doodles express her wonderfully strange mind. The bottom half of a large bird dangles a small child from its talons. A woman, shaped like a Moomin without the nose, hugs an armless man. Three figures are shown from the waist down: left: a skirt with stick legs; right, trousered legs; center, a naked female. A scrap of writing reads, “the day her mother said to her – etc.”
Atwood lectures from her own working space. “Space” may be the wrong word. There is hardly an open inch. Bookshelves line the walls, of course, with bags and boxes of books piled in front of them. The desk is a rolltop with full pigeonholes and clutter all over its surface, including several journals. The walls are solid with pictures. Best of all, every flat space is covered with objects. There are dolls, some of which seem to cry out for a voodoo hat pin. A large silver crab is in mid-scuttle across a table. The lamp is skirted in long crystal beads. Little boxes, toys, sculpture abound.
Atwood grew up deep in the Canadian wilderness in a cabin without electricity or running water, but with plenty of books. She saw town only in the winter when the family retreated there to wait for spring. “Other children might be afraid of being lost in the woods,” she says. “I was afraid of flush toilets. What was going on there? Why did things just – vanish?”
In high school, she set up a business doing puppet shows at birthday parties for five-year-olds. The plots were taken from fairy tales: The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel. Atwood’s take on her business success: the stories were “about those things that are dear to the hearts of five-year-olds, namely, cannibalism.”
Atwood’s method is to write by hand, then transcribe while she continues writing. She calls herself a “downhill skier,” trying to write quickly and then go back and “re-vision.” She complains that literature classes imply “a container, the work of art, and inside it are these ‘ideas,’ like prizes in a Cracker Jack box.” This is not, she says, how writers write. Some of her books have begun not even from an imagined character or scene, but simply from an object.
I’ve viewed only three of the 23 lessons so far, but I knew Atwood and I were on the same page when she advised reading all the myths, folktales and fairy tales you can lay hands on – then subvert them all. She cites the Disney movie Maleficent, where Sleeping Beauty’s prince proves a “dud,” and the villain is redeemed, and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, where Chekov’s gun meets existential frustration.
The course workbook is chock full of exercises, web sites and sources of writing prompts. I’ve barely started on them, but the exercise that Atwood explains in the first video is worth the price of admission. If you are having trouble getting started, she says, you are afraid of something. Pick up a pen and write down your fears. Her examples of possible fears and their solutions:
You’re afraid your work will be lousy? The wastepaper basket is your friend. Write till it’s better.
You’re afraid your mother will find out? That’s what pen names are for.
You’re afraid people will laugh at you? You don’t have to show anyone anything until you want to.
To fight one’s fears, Atwood suggests coming up with an imaginary mentor, 100% on your side, to stand by you with help and encouragement. A writer you admire, perhaps. Who would you like for your imaginary mentor?
Duh! How about Margaret Atwood?
ONE BOOK IN TWO, TWO STORIES IN ONE, THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Eleanor here — Heidi’s posting for me through a computer crisis.
I’m pleasantly halfway through two books read as simultaneously as possible and enjoyed together, separately, equally and with relish. One of them, just published in 2018, is Christopher Fowler’s joyous new Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London. It’s entitled Hall of Mirrors. The other was published in 1949. A cozy in the Mordecai Tremaine series by Francis Duncan, Murder for Christmas.
How similar are they? Very. And very different. I knew nothing about either and was happy to find that both are what I would call Locked Room mysteries in the Agatha Christie genre. Maybe Mr. Fowler would howl at that, but genre is in the eye of the reader who can find similarities with other books in common with their likes and dislikes. This I like.
Both books take place post WW2, the Duncan is set closer, the Fowler later, in 1962. How can Bryant and May be set in ’62 ask fans of the Peculiar Crime Unit? Because Bryant and May were young policemen at one point in time, not the old fogeys Fowler makes them out to be now. The author, in a brilliant move, recounts one of their very early cases that takes place in their misspent youth, in a misspent time.
Both stories are set in Manor Houses in the country. The old piles are depicted as either falling down or just older than dirt. Both at a distance from the nearest town, both limited in contact with help from the outside world. Here’s how our individual authors describe their character’s first glimpses and reactions to the sight of their weekend pleasure domes.
Duncan: ‘As he (Mordecai Tremaine) drew nearer to the louring old house with its high mullioned windows, he was conscious of the vague but insistent and disturbing feeling that fate was on his side, and that in the great building just ahead, darkness and terror were waiting.’
Fowler: ‘The taxi drew up between a dribbling fountain and a set of sweeping limestone steps. This first impression was calculated to inspire awe, but on closer inspection, many of the marble facades were cracked and uncared-for, and weeds were pushing their way through the damaged steps. Bryant noted that the grass had only been trimmed near the house; the owners were saving money on gardeners’.
Then comes the fun of meeting the weird and suspicious cast of characters; guests and staff. One must never forget the staff. They can be more bizarre than the guests. And those guardians of sweet young things? They are always suspect. Until they’re killed.
A la (desole, sans marques accent) Agatha, we have to wait a while before anything dire happens, but we’re kept amused along the way with interesting and enfoibled suspects of the inevitable future crime, and of daily life in an era we know nothing about. The snowstorms help, or the army maneuvers in the fields around the house, to keep all guests and servants within ready reach. But, inevitably, Something, with a capital, happens. In one story we have a sculpted gryphon fall from a balustrade onto a guest below, and simultaneously in the other book a guest, dressed as Santa, is shot in front of the Christmas tree. One survives. I’m not giving anything away here.
In one story we have an amateur detective. In the other, we have two bona fide policemen who dance to their own drummers. And we have pages and pages of official and unofficial inquiries.
As you can probably tell, I haven’t finished. I’m hovering in the early 200’s in each book, following procedurals that may come somewhere around the same page but are handled entirely differently. E.g., “Knowing that Bryant’s investigative technique involved plastering his prints everywhere and throwing everything to the floor, he could hardly bear to carry on watching.” There was a suitable comparison in the other book, but I couldn’t locate it for this post.
I’m savoring these two reads, alternating between the two, getting characters and clues mixed and matched, manors switched, and sundry guests, staff and police jumbled. I haven’t had such a good time since trying to get everyone in The Lord of the Rings straight in my mind.
The Christmas Book Haul
So, what do a bunch of writers want for Christmas? Books, of course. But a survey of the Thursday Night Writers suggests that Santa’s gift-giving expertise is decidedly wobbly. Either that, or certain persons indulged in some lump-of-coal-type behavior in 2018.
I made out pretty well myself, but not because Santa (or his elves who happen to be related to me) got it right on their own. Brazen beggar that I am, I keep a public wish list on the Amazon web site. During the year, I use it to store the long, long list of books I’ve seen reviewed that I really, really want to read, if only I manage to live to be 175. Come the first snowflakes, I nip in and start moving titles around, shoving to the top the ones I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.
So my haul this year included Wish List #1, Tana French’s The Witch Elm. French is one of the only authors I buy in hard cover. (I’ve been mind-boggled by a recent thread on the DorothyL listserv, in which mystery fans explain why they can’t read her books. Their explanations convince me that they are reading the books of some other Tana French. A sobering thought for us writers who think that our readers read exactly what we hear in our heads when we write.)
Wish List #2 turned up, too: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes. The subtitle is An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. Maybe it’s because I turned 70 last year, but I find myself getting crankier and crankier about Upbeatness on the subject of old age. It stinks. End of discussion.
Two of my granddaughters gave me Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. I am holding it in reserve until a current flurry of life demands calms down. Cats must be contemplated in calm and with dignity. And judging from my Japanese acquaintances, a Japanese cat will be Cat Squared.
Santa clearly approves of another TNWer, a fantasy/mystery author who received Agents and Spies, Thrilling Tales, a Gothic Fantasy anthology from Flame Tree Press. Flame Tree is a new publisher specializing in “excellent writing in horror and the supernatural, crime and mystery thrillers, and science fiction and fantasy.” The anthology combines classic stories with original ones from new authors. Imagine being paired in an anthology with Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle or Rudyard Kipling!
Another TNWer, one-half of a pair of love birds married, lo, these many decades, received from his spouse a book of essays on the meaning of it all by one of their favorite columnists. He, in turn, had bought her a compilation of articles on the life of their favorite evangelist. No prior consultations. It’s like O. Henry’s “The Gifts of the Magi”, without the bitter overtone.
Alas, two of us received no books. One, our most prolific writer, is the duck in the hen house: the reading passion is the thing she doesn’t have in common with her family. The other non-recipient is a lesson to us all. Our most voracious reader, she roars through piles of books weekly – on her Kindle. Knowing that her first, second, third, etc. choices are already streaming to her at the speed of light, her family rebel at the thought of offering #17, and give her sweaters. When Amazon offers all the books there are by One-Click, and Google digitizes the world library and Project Gutenberg actually gives books away free… can we possibly have lost something?
Here’s hoping you all found just what you wanted under the tree, books or no books.
Rx for Plot-Blindness
Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale.
Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.
Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”
Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?
The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:
INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.
VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.
VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.
HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.
COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN
VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.
VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.
HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.
Now, about those details….
Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.
The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.
Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.
So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?
I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”
I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.
Breaking the Mystery Rules
I was whining away on a Facebook page the other day (Golden Age Detection) about how the current “rules” for mystery novels are turning them boring. So today, a positive note: a review of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries that breaks many of those rules, Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh.
The book begins, as Marsh’s always do, with a list of the “dramatis personae.” Marsh worked in the theatre, and some of her best mysteries take place during theatre productions. (Her very best book, in my view, is Light Thickens, in which she violates the most sacred commandment of the Detection Club by…
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read Light Thickens yet, scroll past the single line in italics immediately below this one.
…ending the story with the entirely satisfactory discovery of a homicidal maniac.
I love to make my way through the dramatis personae list, imagining likely interactions, spotting promising eccentrics and provokers of conflict. In Dead Water, the obvious candidate is “Miss Emily Pride, Suzerain of [Portcarrow] Island.”
Dead Water comprises only nine chapters, and the first of them is that major no-no, a prologue. Its title is actually “Prelude.” It recounts the alleged appearance of a fairy in a modern-day (that’s 1963) UK fishing village, and village’s resulting transformation into a folklore-y spa. Conflict is confined to minimal levels of discomfort as the whole cast of characters is introduced. Far from leaving anyone hanging from a cliff, the final sentence of the Prelude informs the reader that the story is about to leap over the following two years. This prologue takes up its full 1/9 of the text.
(“Prelude” also sets up one rule-blessed plot thread of which Marsh was fond: a romantic young couple, who will – the reader always knows – live happily ever after once the inevitable murder is cleared up.)
The first quarter of Chapter Two is very heavy to backstory, another no-no. The vivid characterization makes it perfectly smooth and perfectly fascinating. One of Marsh’s best creations, Miss Emily Pride, born ca. 1880, was formerly French coach to rising members of His Majesty’s diplomatic service. The rest of the chapter sets the scene for future confrontations, but the participants in the main conflict of the story remain hundreds of miles apart.
In Chapter 3 the enemies meet and conflict escalates, but nothing worse than threats and minor assaults occur. Not until the end of the chapter does the detective/protagonist appear on this scene of not-quite-crimes. In this reader’s opinion, the threatened victim beats out our hero for character and interest. (I’ve never been hugely enamored of Marsh’s detective Roderick Alleyn. He and the mysteries he unravels serve, it seems to me, largely as an axis for the galaxy of her dramatis personae.)
We are now 1/3 of the way through the book. The first quarter of Chapter 4 is a comic and entirely believable account of a disastrous village festival, ending in nothing worse than a thunderstorm. Not until the end of the chapter, at the 40% mark, does the first and only corpse in the story appear, and it is not a cliffhanger but an elegant switcheroo.
From that point, detection takes over, with no diminution of character interest or involvement with the setting. Marsh’s brilliant plotting picks up from the early chapters clues and red herrings –– including the fairy and the thunderstorm – so subtle as to have been invisible even to experienced mystery readers as they passed by. When the usual climactic scene of derring-do is complete (another rule that Marsh generally followed), Chapter 9 continues with an extended explanation by the detective, a happy ending for the lovers and charitable provision made for innocent sufferers. This denouement covers two days.
Marsh’s editors seem to have had no problem with passages inserted for sheer fun. Here’s one of my favorites. A now-deceased character, whose sole function is to have made a plot-generating bequest to Miss Emily, is described:
My sister, Fanny Winterbottom,” Miss Emily announced, “was not free from this fault. I recall an informal entertainment at our Embassy in which she was invited to take part. It was a burlesque. Fanny was grotesquely attired and carried a vegetable bouquet. She was not without talent of a farouche sort and made something of a hit. Verb. Sap.: as you shall hear. Inflamed by success she improvised a short equivocal speech at the end which she flung her bouquet at H.E. It struck him in the diaphragm and might well have led to an incident.
So there’s an instance of brilliant, rule-breaking mystery writing. A small prize (a blog shout-out) is offered to all who can name a recently published equal.
Why Book Hoarding is Different
The To Be Read pile is an ambiguous object.
On the one hand, there’s a genuine guilt factor: “I really shouldn’t spend any more on books till I’ve read these. Or at least till the pile is smaller.”
On the other hand, there’s the built-in humblebrag: “You should see my TBR pile! The floor joists are starting to creak!” (“Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be!“)
Neither argument is relevant for a book hoarder deciding to buy a new book. Books aren’t substitutable. This is something that non-bibliophiles find hard to understand. Raise your hand if anyone has ever said to you, “Don’t you have enough books already?”
The fact that David Mitchell’s sixfold fantasy Cloud Atlas, acquired a month ago at the Five Colleges Book Sale, is waiting on my TBR pile does not mean that I can pass up The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy, a novel based on Ireland’s Celtic Tiger property boom.
But is it fair to call this book accumulation hoarding? The book hoarder – or let’s just say ‘owner’ – fully intends to read the books. True, all those people living between stacks of decades-old newspapers also defend their possessions fiercely, claiming that they will, or may, or might read them someday. The social worker brought in by the family claims to know better.
Let us try for objective truth here. The Literary Hub website provides a scientific calculation of the number of books you can read before you die. Plug in your age and your own estimate of your reading speed (“average,” “voracious” or “super”) and they will tell you how many books you’ve got to go.
Getting the number is like hearing the first Bong! of the church bell for your own funeral. My number is 875. Only three digits. On the bright side, my TBR pile is much smaller than that. Even if I count all the TBRs that have moved over the years from the Pile to my shelves, unread, because a higher pile threatened an industrial accident, I can probably buy a few hundred books and still die absolved. Only a few hundred.
Suppose your number is smaller than your TBR pile, honestly counted. Is it hoarding then? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, the criteria for hoarding concern an inability to discard hoarded items. Nothing about how much you acquire. (Note that the APA is vaguely aware of a definitional difficulty here: they are currently debating whether to say “regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions” or “regardless of their actual value.”)
No problem there. I just donated seven cartons of books to the above-mentioned book sale. I now have exactly enough room for my TBR books on my shelves. The only remaining problem is where to put the next 875.
However, the DSM also stipulates that “the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).”
Again, we have a definitional problem. Distress or impairment to whom? I don’t mind the occasional spilled coffee when I miss the one remaining mug-shaped space on the table with my current reads because my eyes are fixed on the text. Is the pained expression on my husband’s face “clinically significant”? If so, he must need a psychiatrist.
You know how the writing mavens warn you against letting yourself get carried away by your research? Against noodling around in depth upon depth of interesting stuff instead of turning out text? Today we consider how much fun you can have if you ignore them.
At present, I’m plotting a mystery that will involve a rare books library and its collection of illuminated manuscripts. My first and most valuable co-conspirator is that deeply respectable institution, the British Library. Their daily Medieval Manuscripts blog greets my every morning with some new twist on their very old theme. The BL is digitizing its collection, so you can burrow down to find what interests you or browse just for fun.
This phoenix was on display at the BL’s recent exhibition “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” which brought together texts and museum objects that Harry himself might have used to pursue a wizardly education. It comes from a bestiary that might have been the text for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class. (The exhibition sold out long in advance for every single day, a first for the Library.)
For facts and figures, and above all to avoid howlers, I’m studying Christopher de Hamel’s 2017 blockbuster, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. (Okay, it may not have been on the bestseller lists. But it’s 632 pages long and weighs three pounds.) De Hamel is the former librarian of the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, a treasure house of manuscripts.
De Hamel travelled the world to research this book, visiting twelve of the most important and most beautiful manuscripts in existence. The earliest dates to the late 500s, the latest to about 1515. Each essay combines his travels, accounts of each rare book library and its denizens, his musings on the manuscripts – including some new observations and deductions on the making and history of each – with multiple images of the illuminations, of their present homes and of the men and women who bought, sold and preserved them.
Chapter One concerns the Gospels of St. Augustine, owned by Corpus Christi itself. It is the oldest surviving Latin gospel book anywhere in the world. The saint in question is not the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo but the missionary who brought Roman Catholicism to England. The book’s readings of the text and its imagery served as exemplars for later and more elaborate gospel books down the centuries.
Its predecessors may be even more interesting: scholars suggest links between the style of its art and Ethiopia, a home of early Christian monasticism. That style of Ethiopian religious painting persists today.
De Hamel’s anecdotes are even more enticing than his scholarship. Here we see him in his librarian persona, dressed in full academic regalia, presenting the Gospels of St. Augustine for Pope Benedict’s veneration when he visited England. That’s Rowan Williams, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, on the left.
The Gospels of St. Augustine are also used during the enthronements of Archbishops of Canterbury, and at the last two such ceremonies, de Hamel again presented the book. He reports that in 2003, at the enthronement of Rowan Williams, at the first vibrating notes of the opening hymn, the parchment pages of the book rose and fluttered. He adds that the same did not occur for the current incumbent.
In the succeeding chapters, we meet, among others, the Book of Kells, the Copenhagen Psalter and the Visconti Semideus. Here are a few tidbits that may find their way, suitably transmuted, into my mystery:
De Hamel says he is often asked if the Book of Kells is like a Book of Hours. And if so, his questioners want to know, what is a kell? Such innocent ignorance pales beside the vandalism of one George Mullen, who “restored” the Book of Kells in the 1820s and saw fit to touch up the decorations with white paint, to “improve the definition.”
The Copenhagen Psalter, we learn, was probably created as a first reading book for a young prince. This purpose is demonstrated by a large, carefully drawn alphabet and a table of punctuation and abbreviations. Its illuminations are certainly royal. If manuscripts, de Hamel says, were accompanied by music, the Copenhagen Psalter would require trumpets and a church organ.
More endearing, though, are the marginalia, calculated to appeal to a child. One of them shows a cat playing a rebec, a sort of early fiddle. This image occurs in many illuminated manuscripts and harks back, de Hamel believes, to whatever tale or folk belief gave us “Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle.” He adds that when a dinner guest of his own, a master of medieval music, arrived with a rebec, an experiment became possible. The musician played, and de Hamel’s cat “rushed in as if drawn by a magnet, rolling on the floor in ecstasy, as punch drunk as a dervish.”
The Semideus is a manual on warfare, presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, in 1438. The violent subject matter was appropriate to the recipient, a warlord whose emblem was a blue viper devouring a child. Yet the pictures of tactical devastation are charming, washed with soft pastel colors and full of tiny, perfect detail. This battle scene is viewed from the opposing page by the Madonna and Child, beaming down on the carnage from the center of a sunburst (another Visconti emblem.)
The St. Petersburg National Library is the current home of the Semideus. When de Hamel arrived, he went through a near-Soviet experience of rigid and inexplicable bureaucracy interspersed with casual Russian friendliness. At last he settled down to inspect the precious manuscript. He was so immersed in his work that it was well past lunch time when he looked up. The Russian invigilator keeping watch over the reading room realized he had missed the meal – so she brought him a handful of whiskey-flavored chocolates to eat while he continued to handle the manuscript.
Could I put together my mystery plot with less information than this? Logic says yes. I say no. These winding little back alleys of fact are putting flesh on the bones of my story and slowly filling the memories (and the unconscious) of several of my characters. At any rate, the mavens can’t prove that I don’t need to do this. Until they can, I plan to enjoy myself.
Portrait of a Villain
Heidi here, reporting progress for once.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.
After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.
Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.
I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.
As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.
From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.
Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.
This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.
And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.
Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)
The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.
So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.
P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.