Posts for : November 2009

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Medieval Days of the week 1100-1500 AD 2

I just discoverd a web page (http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/cal/medcal.shtml) where some hearty soul has calculated the dates/days of the week from 1100-1500 AD. Thus, for the book I’m writing now, I discovered that 11 December 1282 was a Friday. It was also the 3rd day before the Ides, which was a Roman way of figuring the days.

The Roman calendar was originally based on the first three phases of the moon, with days counted backwards from lunar phases. The new moon was the day of the Kalends, the moon’s first quarter was the day of the Nones, and the Ides fell on the day of the full moon.  (Thus, Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, or March 15)

December 11th was the Feast day St. Damasus, who commissioned the translation of the Bible from Greek to Latin in 366 AD. It is also the Feast Day of St. Cian, a Welsh hermit from the 6th century, and ten other saints.  Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was purportedly very devout, and attended mass, despite the fact that he was excommunicate, the night before he died.

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National Novel Writing Month 0

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Yay!  NaNoWriMo is one of the most insane-yet-exhilerating things I’ve done, certainly as a writer.  Maybe as a person.  Writing 50,000 words in a month is a lot.  This year, I did it the smart way and paced myself.   Last year, I wrote 15,000 words in four days, gave up on the book as a lost cause and abandoned it for 2 1/2 weeks, and then picked it up again with only 6 days to go. 

Fortunately, those 6 days occurred over Thanksgiving, which we spent at my sister-in-law’s house.  You know the part about how you wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, and then bolt your food to go hide in the corner and be anti-social so you can write?  That was my tactic last year.  

This year, I didn’t sign up the day before the contest started, I actually had an outline, and it went better and faster.  I think I actually have a rough draft of something I can use.  50,000 words is only 1/2 a novel, so we’ll see in a couple of months if that turns out to be true!

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Writing Historical Fantasy: A Magical Balance 4

Today, Anna Elliott, the author of the wonderful Twilight of Avalon (Touchstone:  May 2009) is here to talk about blending history and fantasy when writing historical fiction.  Welcome, Anna!

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Ever since I wrote Twilight of Avalon, based on the Trystan and Isolde legend in the larger cycle of Arthurian tales, I’ve often been asked for thoughts on the enduring appeal of the King Arthur story. Why should that legend, perhaps more than any other in Western culture, have captured our imaginations for more than a millennium, have engendered countless retellings and reworkings of the old tale?

The answers are legion, of course. But for me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past. Many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historic Arthur–who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid fifth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.

And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic, as well. It’s a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and Otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need.

That combination of historical truth with the wonderful potential for magic was what most of all drew me to the Arthur stories when I first studied them in college.  And it was what delighted me about living in my own version of the Arthurian world while writing Twilight of Avalon and the next two books in the trilogy.

The fifth century, when scholars agree a historic Arthur might have lived, was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome’s legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged. And it is against this backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led–or at least may have led–a victorious campaign against the invaders, driving them back for perhaps the space of a man’s lifetime and so inspiring the roots of a legend that still captures our imaginations today.

I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur, and fascinated by the world in which he might have lived. So I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. And yet I wanted, too, to honor the original stories and their magical, legendary world–a world that after centuries of telling and re-telling, is as real in its own way as historical fact.

It was a bit of a balancing act, I discovered.

My Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories; a healer and enchantress of great renown). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld. All of which fitted in with what I’d read of both the legends and historical accounts of Celtic spirituality, pre-Christian Celtic belief, with its emphasis on the powers of herbs, on trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils.

And yet, too, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. There were those cases where I could take a more symbolic approach to the legends—as with the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love.

I decided that a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of passionate romantic love. So in the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde do journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth-century Britain. And they don’t need a literal draft of a magical potion to fall in love–only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond.

But then there were other cases when honoring the legends seemed to me to demand a factor that simply did not exist in 6th century Britain. For example, the fortress at Tintagel, where Twilight of Avalon is largely set. The Tintagel of my novel is pretty much purely anachronistic. Recent archaeology suggests that there was some sort of important fortification there during the 5th century–one belonging to a powerful Dark Age chieftan, to judge from the remnants of expensive imported wine jugs that have been found. But that the site ever had the remotest connection to Arthur is unlikely in the extreme. And certainly that Dark Age chieftan’s fortress would not have resembled anything in the nature a castle as we think of such places today.  But one of the elements of the Arthurian stories I found I simply couldn’t do without was a brooding, majestic castle perched on the crumbling edge of Cornwall where the land meets the sea–and where Arthur, son of Uther the Pendragon, was conceived and born. An authentic Dark Age wattle and daub and thatch dwelling just didn’t feel the same to me, and so I allowed the anachronism to creep in.

Again, it’s a balance. I try to be honest about the historical liberties I take in my author’s notes at the backs of the books and on the FAQ’s on my webpage. And I try to do my utmost to limit those historical liberties to cases like the above when it’s a matter of being true to the legendary basis of my story. I hope it’s a blend that works, one that echoes, a bit, the mixture of history and fantasy that first made me fall in love with the legends and the Arthurian world.

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Writing when it’s hard . . . 0

kb tiny“Here’s what it starts to be like for me somewhere in the midsection of a novel:

(1) I’ve written the beginning, but I’m pretty sure it’s a pile of crap.

(2) The end, when I even dare to contemplate it, feels as far away as Uranus.

(3) The prose I’m writing right now, here in the middle, sounds like a stiff little busybody who’s sat down too hard on a nettle.

(4) I’ve discovered that my plot, even if it’s an engaging plot, has sections that are not engaging to write, and I’m bogged down in those doldrums sections, when all I want is to move on to the exciting parts that are just ahead but I can’t, not until I’ve written the parts that will get me there. Boring!

(5) The house is strewn with post-it notes on which are written about a gazillion important reminders of things I must somehow remember to find a way to weave into the novel at some point, although, where, I can’t imagine. Some of the post-it notes are written hastily in a code I have since forgotten. (“He is temperamentally sweet, but dangerous, like Jake.” That would be very helpful, if I had the slightest idea to whom “he” refers, or if I knew anyone named Jake.)

(6) Worst of all, whenever I take a step back and try to examine objectively this unstructured mess that is half created and half still living in my head and heart and hope (and on a gazillion post-it notes)… I get this horrible, sinking feeling that my novel isn’t actually about anything.”

Other authors can be so helpful!  I would be surprised if any author didn’t feel this way, at least occasionally, and from what I understand, most feel this way often.  It gives me hope that it’s not just me out there in the wilderness :)

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Dark Age and Medieval Armor

The Arthurian knight in plate mail, jousting on his horse, is the classic image of a medieval knight, but is totally inaccurate.  Armor has evolved over time and that plate mailed knight was a relatively late development in the evolution of warfare.

Dark Age warriors wore a range of leather and chain mail armor, properly referred to as simply ‘mail’.  This was standard for the next five hundred years, until the gradual shift to plate mail during the fourteenth century, particularly for high status warriors.

From: http://historymedren.about.com/library/weekly/aa041500a.htm

“The construction of mail was begun by hammering a sheet of metal very thin and flat. The sheet would then be cut into narrow strips, and open ringeach strip would be wound around an iron mandrel or rod. (Later, when the technique of drawing wire was developed, soft iron wire would be used instead.) The wound wire or strips would be sliced along the rod, possibly through the simple use of a cold chisel or saw. The result of each cutting would be a handful of open rings.

To make mail, the armorer would join one ring to four or six others, and join each of these to a total of four or six links, and so on, until he had “woven” his metal fabric to the desired size. The number of rings used in each linking would vary depending on how the armorer wished to shape his garment. As you might guess, mail that linked each ring to six others was much denser than mail that used only four. For particularly effective armor, two links were used for every link in ordinary mail; the result was called “double mail” and, of course, weighed twice as much.

Even single mail required thousands of links in order to create a basic coat of armor.  To keep the joined rings together, the armorer would rivet each link closed. This was done by first flattening the open ends of the ring, punching a hole in each flattened end, and inserting a rivet through both holes. Although some mail had welded rings, the majority of the mail armor that survives from medieval Europe is riveted. Mail could be strengthened by including in the design a series of rings that had been punched from a sheet of metal instead of having been wound, cut and closed. Punched links had no “weak spot,” and the use of them in the mail made the armor less likely to be breached.”

Mail is very flexible (which meant that while it was effective against slashes and thrusts from swords, was far less so against forceful blows), and relatively light, with a hauberk weighing roughly twenty pounds.  Plate is heavier, more like 45 pounds for a full suit, but with more evenly distributed weight.  When properly fitted, a knight could move easily and fully in either mail or plate.

My son has a book which states that the weight of their armor was so great, medieval knights needed help climbing on their horses.  This is patently untrue, at least in warfare, the possible exception being tournament armor which was specifically designed to withstand the force of a jousting lance.