Category Archives: research
I took a busman’s holiday today. I’m starting to plot my second book and, needing to get a blog post out, I gave myself permission to noodle around online, seeking useful info for my plot and a blog at the same time. My next set of murders involves forging medieval manuscripts. So it’s perfectly legit for me to find out how to do that, right? Just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean I’m not working.
I had great hopes of a news story on NPR yesterday. Seems the French police arrested the CEO of Aristophil, a Paris dealer in manuscripts, who has collected billions of Euros from investors for “shares” in his portfolio of assets. But alas! for my murders. These manuscripts seem to be perfectly real. The police claim it was the investment management that was shady — a giant Ponzi scheme. In any case, the court is having the collection sold at auction, so if you’d like to bid on the manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, you’ll soon have the chance. [Breaking news! The French government has stepped in to declare the Sade manuscript a national treasure. It’s out of the auction. Sorry.]
It turns out that the University of Delaware’s Library possesses a special collection devoted entirely to forged manuscripts. It was the gift of Frank Tober, a chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project. His interest in the subject began with the chemical methods of detecting fraud, but twisty subjects lead to twisty trains of thought. Before he was done, Tober had branched out into counterfeiting, the forgery of artwork and furniture, hoaxes, and imaginary books and libraries.
At first I thought the pickings were slim for me in the Tober collection: it has only one forged illuminated manuscript. It always pays to keep digging, though. The Tober manuscript is one of hundreds produced about a century ago by the “Spanish Forger,” whose work still lurks in museum collections today, although many have been identified. And the art market always adapts. The Spanish Forger’s work is now eminently collectible. And probably easier to forge than the original manuscripts. (Plot idea here?)
Of course, when you are surfing the web, diversions and byways are legion. Searching for forgeries naturally brought me to hoaxes. I was thrilled to find a “Museum of Hoaxes,” right in San Diego, where I will be visiting in another week or so. Well, almost there. Only a hundred miles away. I could visit! And the web site kindly gave directions:
We’re based in San Diego, California. If you’re in the downtown area, get on i-5 north and keep driving until you see a giant floating jackalope off to your right. You can’t miss it! If you reach LA, you’ve gone too far.
Oh, boy! I’ll just… Wait a minute. Just drive north? Till you see a floating jackalope?
Maybe I’m not really competent to write about forgeries, far less spot them.
The “museum” is, of course, just a web site. I would have tumbled to that eventually, when I scrolled down to the “Staff” section:
Curator Pretending to be in Charge of a Museum
Deputy Curator in Charge of Fire, Electricity, Dead Pigeons, Insane Hamsters, Frog Skeletons, Poltergeists, and Medical Curiosities of All Kinds
I seem to have wandered far from my serious and entirely justified research project. And it’s lunch time. I’ll leave the rest for another day.
Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”
Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.
And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.
Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.
Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.
We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?
I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.
So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.
I’ve been berating myself all week for not being Neil Gaiman.
I’m not bothered that I haven’t written multiple blockbuster fantasies – that’s past praying for. I’m just fed up with my inability to spot all the glorious weirdness I know is out there, just beyond my peripheral vision.
When Gaiman was writing American Gods, he traveled the U.S. by the back roads, stopping in the small towns, eating in the diners, and above all, visiting the “roadside attractions.” Genius that he is, Gaiman realized that in America, the loci of magical forces would not be intersecting ley lines, ruined temples or mysterious Templar manuscripts. They would be found in places like the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Now, I had a house in Ithaca, Wisconsin, for 9 years. I was less than 20 miles from Spring Green. For counties around, the sides of barns and old factories were plastered with ads for the House on the Rock. And I never went there.
I never rode the centaur on the “world’s largest indoor carousel.” (None of the mounts on the House on the Rock’s carousel is a horse.)
I never saw the doll collection, thousands of them, arranged on tiered platforms like a wedding cake (if you had a wedding where the guests ate the bride. Brides.) I never walked into the infinity room, suspended without support over the sheer drop below the Rock itself, a 60-foot column of stone atop which no sane person would ever, ever build a House.
Thoughtful people have reflected negatively on the House on the Rock. It contains a dusty collection without rhyme or reason, accumulated, it would seem, for the same reason that Hillary climbed Mt. Everest: it could be done. There was stuff in the world, so one Alex Jordan, Jr. built the House, bought the stuff, hauled it there and… that’s it. That was the point. If there was a point.
Gaiman is not a thoughtful, reflective person, he is a lunatic genius, so he knew what to do with the House on the Rock. In American Gods, the old gods of America’s immigrant peoples gather at the House on the Rock to debate the means of making a comeback. They ride the carousel. They quarrel. They split into factions. And then they are overwhelmed by other gods, who… but I won’t spoil your fun. Buy the book.
It happens that I spent the past week driving across America. Dope that I am, I did it the sensible way. I took the interstates. I ate at the same McDonald’s every day – it followed me around like a jackal. I read the same billboards over and over. The same jerk in the same Minicooper cut across the same three lanes of traffic every seven exits. Every mile of the northeast and the Midwest had exactly the same things on offer.
I tried, I really did. But when I reached my goal in the Rocky Mountains and toted up my score of weird-and-wonderful, it was pitiful. Three. That was my score: three.
Number One: Somewhere in Nebraska, above what looked like a warehouse, a billboard modestly touted its owner and his wares:
MAX I. (SOME-NAME-OR-OTHER).
CAREER APPAREL. FLOOR MATS. TOWELS.
Question: which careers?
Number Two: A woman sitting at a bar, her back to my table. Her heels – the real ones, not the ones on her sandals – are hooked around the legs of her bar stool. They are huge, perfectly spherical and smooth as cue balls. Her Achilles tendons could play a major part in a suspension bridge. If Achilles had built his up to the same proportions, he would have lived to sack Troy.
Number Three: A headline in the local paper. (This shouldn’t count, because when I read it I had already reached my destination. But I’m desperate here, people.)
Locals Become Leading Trout Semen Freezers
“John Riger and Barry Stout said that as far as they knew, they were the only ones preserving fish semen on their scale anywhere in the world.”
This was apparently good news for the Tasmanian rainbow trout.
On the other hand, Riger’s and Stout’s teenage daughters ran away to join a convent the day after the story was printed. And I really shouldn’t claim a point for this find: the accomplishment recorded took place in 1987. The Aspen Times has a regular archival feature. Around here, history is measured in decades, not centuries.
So, readers, help me out here. You aren’t Neil Gaiman, either. What weird-and-wonderful thing has crossed your path lately? And above all, where did you find it?
Nowadays, even the Pope takes selfies. If you’re a committed writer and/or reader, though, you can get a better likeness than that. Share your shelfies, picture of your books. Give yourself a little leeway, and you can include your desk, your writing space and your reading corner. Why post a picture of your ugly mug? Show us your frontal cortex!
Here’s the most public of my shelfies, the bookcase beside my fireplace. It displays the books most worth looking at as objects. Almost all of those on the top two shelves were my mother’s or my grandmother’s. They’re bound in leather, tooled in gold. (The books, not my progenitors, though they were pretty hidebound, too.) The stretch of identical bindings is a set of officially worthy books, some of which are indispensable, like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, though I’d already read those in paperback before it occurred to me to look through the family holdings. On the other hand, Lord Charnwood’s biography of Abraham Lincoln will probably be up there, unmoved and undusted, when I die.
The tall books on the bottom shelves are mostly art and coffee table books. I have no memory at all of their provenance. I think people break in at night and drop them off to free up their own shelf space.
Below, in extreme contrast, is The Holy of Holies. Books have to be canonized to get here, and for this purpose, I am the Pope. Most are fiction; a few belong on the history or science shelves. Atwood and Byatt are there, as are Pogo, the best of Diana Wynne Jones, and Perfection Salad, a study on the sociology of home cooking around 1900 that transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen. The woman in the picture is my best friend. A librarian, naturally.
Next, my Purgatory. These, combined, constitute the To Be Read pile. I’ll spare you images of the Lowest Circle (books that have been sitting around so long I can’t remember what they’re about, let alone why I bought them) and the Middle Circle (books I still firmly intend to get to, only not just now, because the purchasing impulse did not convert quickly enough into the buckling down impulse. There’s a lot of nonfiction here.)
Finally, the TBR Upper Circle. These are probably going to make it into my brain within a year or so. I hardly had to rearrange the piles at all to display all my major interests (widdershins from top left): writing, the Israel/Palestine conflict, mysteries and Buddhism. The mix stays the same all the way down. There are also a few specialized books picked up for research, for instance, a detailed description of a classic Yankee-clipper-era mansion and an endless account of everything known about the Abenaki people of New England. But I guess those come in under “writing.”
How about you, readers? What do your bookshelves look like? Are your shelfies a better likeness of the real you than what you see in the mirror?
Later addendum: Actually, it’s not your frontal cortex (which should have been “frontal lobe” anyway.) You read with your posterior parietal lobe. But somehow, “show us your posterior!” even with “parietal lobe” added, seems to change the tone.
My road down the path to becoming a genealogy junkie started innocently enough, as I imagine it does for many addicts. (See my blog post of September 13, 2016, A Pilgrim in the Family.) My husband’s family is my drug of choice.
When my research revealed that Bailey Clough, my husband’s fourth great-grandfather, of Lyman, NH, fathered Helen Luella Clough at the age of sixty-nine, I knew I had some digging to do. I located Historical Sketches of Lyman New Hampshire, written by E. B. Hoskins and published by Charles P. Hibbard in Lisbon, NH, in 1903.
If these sketches are brief and contain little of deep interest, it is because Lyman is a small farming town, and its history has been quiet and peaceful, with no events of a remarkable character.
I smiled when I read this. It is how I envision Woodbury, NH, home to Gabby, Anne, Olivia, Em, Lexi Rae, Claire, Louise. Nothing has happened here of a remarkable nature. Until now.
Finally, on page sixty, I found the Clough family: William Clough served in the French and Indian war three years, was captured by the foe and carried to France, where he was kept a year or more. He entered the Revolution without enlistment, and was at the battle of Bunker Hill. His children were, namely: Zacheus, Enoch, Bailey, Cyrus, Abner, Jeremiah, Elizabeth, and Dorcas.
Turn the page and there’s virile Bailey: Bailey Clough, son of William, married Susannah Smith, sister of Reuben Smith, Nov. 28, 1799. Their children were, namely: James, born in 1801; David, born in 1803; Darius, born in 1809; Benoni, born in 1812; Chester Hutchins, born in 1822; Susan; and Bailey.
Aha. Bailey had a son with the same name. And Helen isn’t listed among the offspring of Bailey Senior. The son must be the father. If the children are listed in order of birth date, which the author generally did, then Bailey would have been born after 1822. As Helen was born in 1838 or 1839 or even 1841 (I think she lied about her age so that she wouldn’t appear to be ten years older than her second husband), it’s hard to believe that her father was the younger Bailey.
I scanned all of the biographies in the history hoping to find something to link Bailey Clough, senior or junior, and the daughter, Helen, and the wife, Lydia. Nothing there, nothing in Ancestry.com, nothing in Find A Grave, nothing in Wikitree. I can’t believe I’ve reached a dead end in the nineteenth century.
I’m mentally exhausted. And ready for a trip to another cemetery!!
PS After writing this post I was itching to resolve the Bailey Senior/Junior mystery. I returned to Ancestry.com and looked at some other family histories (the least reliable source of information) that I had ignored earlier. Some more research and I am closer to saying that Junior was married to Lydia Stevens and was the father of not just Helen Luella but also Martha Ella. (And I get complaints about the names of my characters!) Bailey Junior was born in 1817, making him old enough to be Helen’s father. He died around the time that Martha was born so it is conceivable that Helen went to live with relatives, as the 1850 census shows her living with an eighty-year old Bailey Clough and possibly her aunt and uncle.
Mystery almost solved…now to get to work on my own mystery.
I think I’m addicted to genealogy, specifically that of my family and now my husband’s family. I started researching my father’s family history in order to join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). I already knew I had a Revolutionary War Minuteman for a fourth great-grandfather from a family history, which made completing the application for DAR membership less daunting than I anticipated. That done, I wanted to learn about his parents beyond their names and dates of death–were they born in Maine (which is where they lived when two of their sons ventured to Groton, VT)?; where are they buried?; where did their parents come from?;–the usual sort of questions you want answers to. But there isn’t much information on Ancestry.com, my main research site.
Not making much progress there, I moved on to the German side of my family. When I realized that I would need my German-speaking mother’s undivided attention for about six weeks to make any headway in that arena, I decided that my husband’s family might be easier to research. We already knew about the Civil War soldier who died at Andersonville Prison but we weren’t aware of the two Revolutionary War soldiers I unearthed.
Then–JACKPOT!! I am 99% certain that my husband is a lineal descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony who arrived in New England on the Mayflower. With a Pilgrim in the family, Thanksgiving will never be the same.
My own research brought me to this conclusion and when I ventured out to Wiki Tree, a free genealogy website, there it was, printed boldly on the bottom of my mother-in-law’s record: “Mayflower Descendant (Gov. William Bradford). I immediately sent a text to my three daughters: “SOMEBODY CALL ME! I am hyperventilating.” Soon I was talking to one daughter on my cell phone (left ear) with another daughter on the home phone (right ear). I’d say they were excited as well–but not as much as their mother was. And it’s not even my own family.
One of my granddaughters was not impressed by the Mayflower connection. Her comment: “I don’t care. I just want to know if I’m a princess.” Hmmm…I think we would know if that were the case but just for fun I went looking for a royal connection. I’m certain I violated all rules of genealogy research when I just clicked away on every link to every father of the next male in the line until I reached a dead end. It just happened to be on Sir Edward Rogers, born in 1498, who served as a courtier to Henry VIII. Yes, that Henry VIII. Sir Edward may not have been a prince but he did hang out with a king! What remains to be determined is if he is a relative.
Real genealogists take their research seriously. Which is what I should be doing with my writing. Is this new hobby of mine just another means of avoiding writing? (That’s a rhetorical and, by now, annoying question. So don’t answer it.) I’m stuck in the saggy middle of my murder mystery–the saggy middle of my outline of the novel, not the actual writing of it. My latest goal is to generate the same enthusiasm for writing this mystery that I have for researching dead ancestors. Wish me luck!
On the advice of Umberto Eco (in Reflections on The Name of the Rose), I’ve just decided to give more weight in my novel to its setting. Thinking it over, I realized that one way to do this is to include a new, non-human character: the plucky little newspaper that serves my fictional town of Oxbow, New Hampshire. I dredged from my files the clippings I’ve accumulated from our real local paper, the illustrious Valley News of Lebanon, NH, mainstay of the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River. The News is living proof that rural life provides all the opportunity you need to spread yourself out in life, to let anything happen. Up here, it eventually will.
Exhibit A, from the Valley News “Local Briefs” section:
NAKED PEDESTRIAN STROLLS THROUGH BURLINGTON [VERMONT]
A naked pedestrian strolling through Burlington this week has caused quite a stir.
The man was first spotted Tuesday walking through the city’s Church Street Marketplace completely nude, with exception of sneakers and a bandana on his head.
Bystanders say they were amazed to see him walk around the busy shopping and dining district.
Burlington Police Lt. Paul Glynn said that while the man’s nakedness is “inappropriate,” it’s not necessarily illegal as long as he left home naked and isn’t disrobing the public [sic] or harassing people.
The man turned down a request by WCAX-TV for an interview.
I love the first sentence. It could only have been written by an experienced small-town reporter. You can’t imagine it appearing in the New York Times. I like to picture the interviews of the bystanders: “How did you feel when you saw the man?” “Well, amazed, I guess. I was just amazed.” Reporter writes down, “Witness amazed.”
The typo is nice, too. And the sun protection of the bandana directs one’s thoughts to all the possibilities of sunburn.
Best of all are the scrupulous liberties of the People’s Republic of Vermont. (We Granite-staters don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Vermonters just across the river.) Vermont law says that you may not take your clothes off in public. But that’s all the law says. So…. What would constitute harassment in this case? Touching is out, obviously, but what about, “Look at this”? If you only said it once? Only once to each person? Panhandling in a non-harassing manner is allowed. If you didn’t even ask for cash, just for one moment of human attention before you moved on, who could object to that? He didn’t want to appear on TV, so it’s clear he isn’t an exhibitionist. Not in Vermont, anyway.
Local TV covered the story, too, if you’re feeling voyeur-ish.
Last February 5, “Local Briefs” reported a near-tragedy. Here are the essentials. (Unhappily, the Valley News website doesn’t include the paper’s archives, so I can’t send you to the original articles.)
Fire officials say a heat lamp used for chickens caused a fire that gutted a small barn. All of the chickens escaped unharmed.
These would not be generic chickens. Here in the Upper Valley, we like to buy our eggs from our neighbors, and we know the chickens almost as well as we do the neighbors’ dogs. Miss Bossy, for instance, is a Rhode Island Red who lives out in Orfordville. I heard about her from
the lady at the feed store, who is her owner (though Miss B. might not agree about that.) Miss Bossy is the smallest of her tiny flock, which she rules with an iron claw. Her fellow Rhode Island Red is named Thelma. The two Buff Orpingtons don’t have names – I guess compared to Miss Bossy and Thelma, they’re such wimps they’re hardly there at all. You can see why, when fire threatens a barn up here, the Valley News knows what’s important. All the chickens got out.
The paper does a good job of selecting and condensing national and world news stories for its “World and Nation” page (two pages, max.) We get several serious items a day from the top news bureaus plus a small feature summing up lesser stories in a few sentences. Sometimes, on a slow news day, the editor favors us with oddities that just struck his fancy. E.g.:
Meerkat Expert Cleared of Assault in Zoo Love Triangle
London, AP. A former meerkat expert at London Zoo was cleared Tuesday of assaulting a monkey handler in a love spat over a llama-keeper….
Or, if your favorite sin is anger rather than lust:
West Palm Beach, FL. Joshua James, 24, is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon …after throwing an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window.
The point to notice about these stories is their datelines. London, West Palm Beach, what can you expect? If they weren’t already crazy, they’d live here. The news(wo)man’s inverse-square law states, “The farther from home, the weirder.” James got off with nothing worse than probation.
Local papers set the tone, but all our media report scrupulously on what matters to, or reliably annoys, people like us. War and pestilence were raging around the globe, as always, when the public radio station gave us this bulletin:
A tractor-trailer full of cheese caught fire on the interstate. The driver escaped, and was able to detach the truck from the trailer, but the trailer and its contents were destroyed.
Use all the senses, the writing mavens tell us. Think how grounded, how riveted, your reader would be if you could convey to her the sight and smell of 17 tons of smashed and smoking cheese! Consider the plight of the cars immediately following. The report didn’t say, but if it was Velveeta, it would qualify for HazMat treatment. And if, like me, you write mysteries, who set that fire?
How do I even dare to refer to myself as a writer when I am still figuring out what genre is calling my name? Six years ago I started in my writing group assuming that I’d write contemporary fiction, or chick lit as the worst case scenario, and when I got really good I’d advance to literary fiction. I needed a writing project so I took the easiest route and continued where I had started over twenty years earlier with my novel, “Anne” (genre to be determined). I was able to produce about 140 pages of a draft so rough you could rip the skin off your fingers just turning the pages.
After reading and critiquing the murder mysteries/cozies created by fellow group members, I decided to write murder mysteries, of which I have accumulated a number of first drafts, partial drafts, and rough outlines. I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t just fallen under the influence of those members who love to write murder mysteries/cozies and are pretty darn good at it. They get excited over how much of a drug it will take to kill a character and whether his weight and how much he just ate should be manipulated to make it work within the allotted time frame.
Am I that same writer? It’s not looking that way.
What my characters are thinking about is more to my liking. My approach in real life (there is such a thing and it’s always getting in the way of my writing time) is to analyze why people around me do what they do. Or don’t do. Psychological thrillers, maybe?
This week at the first writing group meeting I attended in weeks I floated the idea of writing historical fiction. It’s the genre I currently gravitate to for reading pleasure, particularly World War II and the Revolutionary War novels. (I did mention in an earlier post that I was Betsy Ross in a previous life, right?) I already have a setting for my first attempt at this genre!
Historical fiction requires research and getting the details correct while you’re making up some of the characters, dialogue, and events. Epiphany: that’s control. And I like being in control. Duh. That’s what writing fiction is all about: creating and manipulating characters and action any way your heart desires. And any fiction genre lets you do that. Except with historical fiction you take control of events that have actually taken place. That’s power.
Meanwhile, I’ve committed to submitting an outline of the murder mystery I’ve started recently, “Patsy’s Posse”. Why? To prove I can complete an outline. To give a murder mystery one more try before I move on. (To what?) Also, I’m attending the New England Crime Bake 2016 in November so I might as well hang in there with murder mysteries until then. I signed up for the Agent & Editor roundtable and I need to produce a decent first page of a manuscript. Let’s hope I can get that far in three months.
The sun pours down on my life today. Actually, a thunderstorm is approaching, but to me, all is light and life. I gave a talk yesterday to a foreign affairs discussion group I belong to. Today, therefore, I no longer have to give a talk to the foreign affairs discussion group!
Speaking in public is not a problem for me. It’s the fear of making a mistake that wrecks my life. The search for correctness on every last tiny point ate up last week like the Tazmanian Devil pouncing on its prey. I had a good grasp on my material. But what if that date (2005) should actually be 2004? Google it. It was 2005. What if…? Google it. I spent more time in Google than in Word.
Because I spent the week obsessing, I printed my handouts at the last minute. My printer broke down. I switched to my husband’s printer, got one file completed, and the printer suddenly began taking its orders from Mars. Half a ream of paper was wasted before I finished the task. My office looked as if Dirty Harry had ransacked it.
No time for a shower before leaving. I plastered my hair down with a comb so severely that no one could doubt I intended it to look that way, for some unfathomable reason. Since I know where all the local speed traps are, I walked into the meeting room right on time, wearing an easy expression of ‘no sweat!’ Which made me think of the missed shower again.
And it all went fine. It almost always does. And so what if I had made a mistake or two? The world would not have ended. I would not have been damned for all eternity.
You wouldn’t think that writing fiction would be as susceptible to the search for perfect truth as reportage. You’re supposed to make fiction up. The writer is responsible for all the truth in the fiction. Unhappily, s/he gets none of the feedback offered by the real world when truths collide. In life, a brook simply will not run uphill. In your book, it can run one way in Chapter 3 and the other in Chapter 11. Until some kind or not-so-kind reader points that out.
The perfection trap doesn’t confine itself to fictional facts. When every flaw catches your eye equally, whether it’s a poor word choice or a gaping plot hole, progress can be agonizingly slow. I’ve managed to bring forth a first draft. I’ve rewritten, rewritten the rewrites and … you finish the sentence, assuming it ever ends. A draft that really needs only a clean-up is still miles over the horizon.
Perhaps it’s a trick of focal distance. The present plan is to focus on plot, plot, plot and never mind the rest. And we all know how to find out whether that’s a good idea. 1) Apply rear end to chair. 2) Write.
Between bouts of work on my mystery novel, I tinker with a literary work. It’s so serious I can hardly shift it most of the time, but it does have lighter moments. Since it takes place in Ireland, those moments often involve saints.
Ireland favors saints who are hard to pin down, some of dubious origin. They tend to be knowledgeable about human wants and needs, and indulgent of them. I’m far from the final cut on which sanctities will be included. This makes a perfect excuse for “research” that takes me away from the grunt work. Today, I offer you a sampling of my favorites.
The Irish are all good Catholics, even the bad ones. This is possible because, after they had submitted to the church, they went higher up and cut their own deal. St. Patrick, having driven out all the snakes and converted or incinerated
all the pagans, asked and received a boon from Christ: on Judgment Day, Christ will judge the living and the dead – except for the Irish. They will be judged by Patrick. In life, Patrick was not a forgiving sort, but for his own people….
St. Brigid is sometimes called the “second most important Irish saint.” Patrick, being male and alleged founder of the faith in Ireland, is number one. Officially, the church doesn’t care for women in the top job. But Brigid is “the Mary of the Irish.” According to her legend, when she went to take the veil from Bishop Mel, the Holy Spirit caused him to read the form for ordaining a bishop over her.
In fact, Brigid predates Patrick. She began her career of divinity as Brigantia, “the high one”, a Celtic goddess (seen in a Roman-era relief at the top of this post.) She is the saintly patron of blacksmiths, doctors and poets – metallurgy, medicine and poetry were the three magical arts of the pre-Christian Celts.
Her feast day, Feb. 1, is on the pagan festival of Imbolc. (Imbolc has since slipped by a day and been reduced to the yearly appearance of Punxatawny Phil the groundhog to foretell the spring.)
Brigid’s symbol, the cow, was the store of wealth and unit of account among the pagan tribes of Ireland, and her miracles include the sudden appearance of milk, butter and cheese in vast quantities, as well as beer, beer, beer. Irish priorities are clear: first the beer, and only then the loaves and fishes. On one occasion of drought, she converted her bathwater into beer, a very Irish conversion. She could also hang her cloak on a sunbeam.
St. Brendan the Navigator was an Irishman, and his tales are tall. He set sail in a curragh — a boat not much more than a cockleshell made of hides and waterproofed with fat. In it, he traveled west across the Atlantic for seven years to the “Promised Land of the Saints,” the “Land of Promise” or perhaps the Garden of Eden. Mind you, he only went because St. Barrid told him that he, Barrid, had already been there.
On the way, Brendan landed on a whale, saw floating crystals as high as the sky and was pelted by burning rocks from an island, so clearly he got as far as Iceland.
Brendan also encountered Judas, sitting drenched and miserable on a rock in the midst of the sea. Judas explained that this was his Sunday holiday; the rest of the week, he spent in Hell. The church insists that Brendan’s journeys were for the purpose of converting the heathen and founding abbeys. He is the patron of Clonfert Abbey, so that just shows.
I don’t plan to confine myself to Irish saints. The Irish venerate whatever saint can best deliver what is needed (for a certain value of ‘need,’ which includes beer.) My heroine will have recourse to St. Walter of Pontoise, a sad fellow from a place near Paris.
Walter wanted only to be left alone in a monk’s cell to fast and pray, but the King of France appointed him abbot of the monastery. The poor man ran for it but was caught and brought back. This happened several times. Finally, the pope put his foot down and told Walter to stop complaining and do his job. Now, he is the patron saint of people whose jobs are getting to be too much for them.
Another favorite of mine: St. Ubald of Gubbio can be invoked against headaches, which I take to mean anything that makes a nuisance of itself without justifying immediate flight. If things get even worse, St. Ubald is said to have miraculously defeated an invading army and talked Frederick Barbarossa himself out of sacking the city of Gubbio. More: he is invoked contra omnes diabolicas nequitias – “against all diabolical depravity.” I presume I can involve my heroine in absolutely anything and get her out of trouble in the end.
To speed you on your way, here is a prayer attributed to St. Brigid, as translated (perhaps loosely) and performed by the Irish singer Noirin Ni Riain on a recording with the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick:
I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the Heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
White cups of love I’d give them,
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot,
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around,
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.
I’d sit with the men, the women of God
There by the lake of beer
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.