Blog Archives

Remarkable Manuscripts

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.

A phoenix immolating itself, from a medieval bestiary
British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

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.

Scenes from the Passion of Christ
Gospels of St. Augustine


Modern Ethiopian religious woodcut











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.

Christopher de Hamel, the Gospels of St. Augustine, and others

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:

Decorative emblems of St. Mark and St. Luke
The Book of Kells

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.

Cat playing a rebec
British Library Harley 6563 f 40

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.)

Battle scene of Crusaders attacking a Muslim city
Visconti Semideus

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.

Vicarious Eviltude

‘Eviltude’ is our family’s term for a certain kind of transgression: those delightful delicts that are entirely voluntary, pleasurable and unregretted. Taking the last piece of chocolate cake without apology or second thought is eviltude, as is buying that adorable, vulgar sequined vest that you will never have the guts to wear in public. Eviltude can be identified by a certain YAHOO! feeling, lamentably scarce in my day-to-day life.

There are days, though, when it just isn’t enough. Respectability weighs heavy, and the odds of becoming a pirate seem vanishingly small. That is one of the times when writing murder mysteries comes to the rescue. (Yes, I know we call it crime fiction now. Mine are murder mysteries.)

Kate Flora blogged the other day, on Maine Crime Writers, that “writing things out of our systems is why we crime writers usually are pretty cheerful.” And this is true. Giving an unpleasant character some of the traits of your venomous neighbor can really ease your mind. It probably counts as eviltude. But it seems to me that Kate left out a lot of the upside. When I am plotting crime, I’m not just relieved of care, I’m gleeful. There is nothing I couldn’t do! And nobody I don’t want to get caught, will get caught!

I just finished reading The Map Thief, a nonfiction account of Edward Forbes Smiley III, who stole hundreds of rare maps from libraries, sold them to collectors and lived the jet set life among the ultra-rich. I learned the details of library security systems, the twist of the wrist used to run a razor blade down a book binding, and the little alterations that can be made to disguise a stolen parchment. It just so happens that my mystery #2 concerns the theft of an ancient manuscript, complete with gorgeous illuminations, glittering and bizarre.

Monkey sawing books (Courtesy British Library, Add. 49622, f.146)

Monkey-lion centaur sawing books (much worse than eviltude)
(Courtesy British Library, Add. 49622, f.146)

As I read about Smiley, I kept thinking, “I could use that! I could use that, too!” It was almost as if I were stealing the books myself. Onward to piracy!

With only two plots (and no completed manuscript) to my credit, I’m amazed at the amount of mayhem I have already enjoyed. Young and old have fallen at my hand, by poison, violence and an intricate plot involving a clown at a children’s party.

Clostridium botulinum bacteria. (Science Photo Library)

As a bonus, every murder needs alternate explanations that the detective must investigate and discard. It’s as much fun as killing your venomous neighbor two or three times. In mystery #1, the first victim is found to be full of botulism toxin. Of course, it is found in the canned tomatoes. But the victim’s house is also full of Botox (as is the victim’s fiance.) How to choose? Shall I have a single murderer kill several people off, one per source of botulism? Or shall I invent more murderers? Now sounds the evil pirate laugh, BWAH-HAH-HA-HA!

I’ve begun to see opportunities for murder in every chance-met object. Here in rural New Hampshire, we have myriad neglected houses dating back a century or two, just crying out for renovation. What if, while the carpenters are rebuilding the sash windows, having found lovely antique sash weights for the purpose, a murderer finds his victim alone in the house?

6-lb Antique Sash Weights (Planning a murder? Get them on Ebay!)

6-lb Antique Sash Weights
(Need a blunt instrument? Get these on Ebay!)

In my saner moments, I fear no good can come of this. Vicarious eviltude could take me to new and dangerous places. I might just wear that vest. To a bar. Where I would get into a fight. With a cop…. Or maybe I should just keep my eviltudes vicarious.

Free Names

Listen Up! says his Beatitude Gregorius III

Listen Up!

For some time, I have been keeping a small notebook in my purse in which to capture fugitive ideas, oddities, vignettes, and joyful or horrid happenings for use in future writing. From this exercise has come, among much else, a long list of weird names encountered in the press and occasionally in life. I long to use them in fiction, but since they belong to real people, the best I can hope for is to mix and match. Today, I want to share some of this raw material with you, my fellow writers, who may well come up with better matches and better mixes than I. Feel free.

Some of the names are simply too appropriate to be believed. There are:

  • Sir Jock Stirrup, once head of the British armed forces (and now Baron Stirrup.)
  • John Stalker, an ex-Deputy Chief of Police.
  • James Naughtie, the BBC Today interviewer of a heterosexual man who, after a stroke, “woke up gay.” Naughtie was described by Britain’s Daily Mail as “the formidable BBC pinko who turned the airwaves blue.”
  • UK Member of Parliament, Mark Reckless, who bolted the Conservative Party to join the Independence Party.

(The English outnumber the Americans in my list. Does this Mean Something?)

Here at home, the items in my collection seem to come with brief stories attached. I itch to fill them out:

From my cookbook shelf, Crescent Dragonwagon beckons. According to my sister-in-law, who claims acquaintance with her (and that is not the kind of source one questions), Ms. Dragonwagon married an enlightened man who did not insist that she take his surname. Neither of them wanted a hyphenated name, however, so they made one up. The marriage ended, but Ms. Dragonwagon’s 61I1YmyYe5L._SX432_BO1,204,203,200_vegetarian cookbooks were already well known, so, publicly at least, she will be Dragonwagon to the end of her days. The stuff of tragedy.

I found another name near the end of a news tidbit about the theft of a Stradivarius violin. We were several paragraphs down into an account of the Strad before the perpetrator appeared: “The violin, which police said appeared to be in good condition, was stolen late last month from a concert violinist who was shocked with a stun gun…. Police traced the stun gun to Universal Knowledge Allah, a 36-year-old barber….”

A cousin of Michelle Obama made the papers very recently. Rabbi Capers Funnye of Chicago was nominated to become what an international organization is calling the first “black chief rabbi” of the 21st century. A statement from the International Israelite Board of Rabbis declared that Funnye would serve as the “titular head of a worldwide community of Black Jews.” And why not?

Internationally, my best name source so far came from an account of Ted Cruz being booed off the stage at a gathering of Middle Eastern Christian ecclesiastics. It was also my best source of impressive titles. In the audience were:

  • Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Raï, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East;
  • Gregorios III Laham, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria, and Jerusalem [pictured at the top of this post];
  • Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East;
  • Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church;
  • Metropolitan Joseph Al-Zehlawi, Archbishop of New York and All North America for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America;
  • Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria;
  • Ibrahim Ibrahim, Bishop Emeritus of Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

I don’t know where to start the character list for my fantasy novel, with the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia or the Bishop of the Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle. George R. R. Martin, look out! (Alas, the first result of a Google search on the Eparchy was a parish listing — in Southfield, Michigan. The glamor is gone.)

Okay, writers, start your pens. Pick a name and give me a scenario.

The Joys of Research

Martha, a ferret with attitude

Martha, a ferret with attitude

I mean, of course, the early research for your writing, when you don’t know what you need except bright new ideas, and everything is fair game. We’re not talking last-minute research, when you suddenly find out that every ambulance now carries a perfect antidote for the poison that killed your murder victim.

For some reason known only to my unconscious, the protagonist of my mystery novel emerged carrying two ferrets, George and Martha. (If you can think of any reason why this would happen, please do not tell me.) That’s Martha, above. My ferrets cannot talk; readers are not privy to their thoughts, if any; they do not solve the mystery. They just make messes, reveal human character and generally provide uproar when uproar is needed by the author.

My first source of ferret information was a friend. She owns seven ferrets. They live on the upper level of her house, separated from the kitchen and her other pets downstairs. I held her ferrets: furry and squirmy. I smelled them. Not close up, there’s no need for that. Ferrets broadcast an aroma that ferret lovers do not find offensive. I played with them: irresistible. They bounce, pounce and slither nonstop. They run with their hind half elevated in a kind of Spy-vs.-Spy hunch. The ferret philosophy of life is WHEE-EE-EE-EEEEEE!

FullSizeRender (1)


Like mink, ferrets are water creatures. This is Narnia, who runs for the shower whenever she hears it running. Another of my friend’s fuzzies would park herself under the nozzle and stare at it until someone turned it on for her.

After the cute-ferret session, my friend sat me down for a serious talk about potty habits. Theirs, not mine. If you are squeamish, ferrets are not for you. If you want to know more, you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Next stop: books, books, books. If nothing else, research is a license to buy books. Ask Amazon about ferrets, and it first produces what you’d expect: The Ferret Handbook, Ferrets for Dummies and the alarming How to Stop Ferret Biting in 3 Days. But wait! There’s more! Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull has written a series of fables about two ferrets, both of whom are writers. I sampled one volume, but my insulin level rose so alarmingly that I had to stop. There is also a 30-page mystery for children, featuring Fiona and Farley Ferret. Here we see one of the reverse benefits of research. Warning: you are entering the Sentimentality Zone. Watch your feet or you will step in something squishy.


Red Ferret Hoodie

From Amazon, you can buy tiny red ferret hoodies, a high-sided plastic litter pan in a delicate shade of mauve, “The Ultimate Crunchy Advanced Nutrition Diet for Ferrets,” and a ferret decal for your car window. You can also give your ferret a “leopard-design” hammock. Surely this is like offering a shark-design hammock to a herring? Another repressed-hostility product: a wholly edible image of a ferret for the top of a sheet cake. It’s Kosher! Gluten Free! Soy Free! Trans-Fat Free! Buy yours now from Amazon!

Next, the wonderful web. You could spend the rest of your life watching cute ferret videos. Fun fact: ferrets are one of very few pets that have a smooth reverse gear. Just try to get your dog to back up. A ferret will do it so easily that he looks as if someone pressed the ‘rewind’ button. Check out the YouTube video, around minute 4:00.

Ferret owners are not necessarily mad. But they are very … specific. They are very focused on ferrets. Case in point: a YouTube performance by a proud ferret mommy of the song she composed, “Ferret, Oh, Ferret.” The tune’s her own invention, but it’s kind of like “O, Canada,” sung at a cricket match by a real non-professional.

Once you’ve done your research, you come to the hard part. You have to decide what belongs in the book. Ferrets are a lot messier than I want to deal with, in life or in fiction. I can leave the messy parts out of the story. But even when ferrets are misbehaving, they are every bit as adorable as ferret fanciers think they are. I don’t want readers rushing out to buy pets they’re going to get rid of at best and neglect at worst. So I’m planning a disclaimer, with web links, at the end of the book. I will not buy my own ferrets. I won’t. Really.

%d bloggers like this: