Flight of the Hawk: The River by W. Michael Gear. Five Star, 2018. 271 pages. ISBN 9781432840679.
The fur trade in 1812 Missouri takes center stage in this tale about hardscrabble business, ruthless politics, and the untrammeled majesty of nature. Mysterious John Tylor signs aboard a trading expedition helmed by Manuel Lisa, a well-known figure of the era. Andrew Jackson, William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, and John Jacob Astor are other important figures who make appearances as Tylor flees from his past to battle nature, a mentally unstable pursuer, and destiny itself.
From the first page, author Gear’s prose reflects confidence, skill, and solid research, making it easy to imagine and enjoy the difficult, desperate setting. The protagonist, Tylor, is revealed in dribs and drabs. A veritable baker’s dozen of other major characters—French, Spanish, Scottish, and Native American—are introduced in bewildering succession. Because many of these characters come with little background, readers without at least a passing knowledge of the time period may find themselves struggling to get their bearings. Once they settle into the story’s rhythm, though, they will enjoy a plot-centric, high-stakes tale that moves as quickly as the swift-rushing Missouri River.
Discovering reader preferences, habits and attitudes
Readers and writers – a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought to interpret those stories, deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both reader and writer.
What then do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? How do readers share their book experiences?
ANNOUNCING A 2018 READER SURVEYdesigned to solicit input on these topics and others.
Please share the link https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/68HL6F2 with friends and family via email or your favourite social media. Robust participation across age groups, genders, and countries will make this year’s survey – the 4th– even more significant.
I recently had the opportunity to make use of my master’s degree in history when I gave a talk to a local writers group on how to use history to spice up your fiction writing. The idea is that history is filled with stories–millions and millions of them. Down through the ages cultures have developed, flourished, and fallen, each of them expressing a path uniquely its own. There’s little need to do extensive world-building in your story when you realize the manifold variations of government systems, religions, wars, art forms, costumes, literature, philosophy and so on that have arisen in the past. But how do you find out about such things?
Does it sound boring? Fie up on you if it does! It’s not, once you get the hang of it, and then you will find yourself lost down endless tunnels of delight, rarely to emerge, like a gopher whose treasure lie underground. Wait. Did I just compare you to a gopher? Er … a quite splendid gopher, I assure you.
Let’s get at it. You are after two things in research: primary sources and secondary sources. Both have their places and both work off one another and provide you with juicy, delectable details.
Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, photographs, artifacts, tools, and other objects. In the more modern age, primary sources can be found in interviews, surveys, fieldwork, email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups. They are firsthand experiences such as a letter about a battle from a Civil War soldier; a diary entry from the Queen of England about her coronation; photograph of a woman, arms raised in horror, after a student is shot at Kent State University in the 1970s. They can also be artifacts like ancient Greek urns with painted figures on it (beware though – some of these are downright pornographic. Naughty Greeks.). Basically, primary sources are the closest you get to what happened in the past. Consider this primary source from the beginning of Popol Vuh from 16th century Guatemala:
Secondary sources depend upon primary sources; they are the study of them and the interpretation of them. They describe, discuss, analyze, evaluate, summarize, contextualize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials are articles in newspapers or magazines, book or movie reviews, articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research, and most frequently, books and web collections. Here is an example of a secondary source that discusses the Popol Vuh:
Pretty big difference, right? Both are necessary for research. Secondary sources so you can get your head around the culture/event/person from the past in an objective, intellectual way. Primary sources are present, impactful, vivid, in your face – and studying them will inform your fiction by helping your tone, voice, setting, and more.
Okay, so now that we have terms down, here is how you are going to go about finding them. With the ….
Isn’t it beautiful? And by beautiful I mean barely acceptable, appearance wise. But the info! Oh, the info! Let’s dig in.
On the left you see those nifty arrows. You’ll start at the BOTTOM of the triangle, which are sources that are okay, and you will proceed up the triangle to sources that are better and better and more wonderful until finally you will reach the apex of amazing primary sources! *cue dramatic music*
Start with Children’s Books and/or Encyclopedias/Wikipedia
Once you have a general idea of your topic, such as Ancient Rome, I recommend that you start your research with children’s books. Say … what? Heck yeah! And not just because I’ve written a gozillion of them. Children’s books – usually middle grade, not picture books or alphabet books! – are great at distilling information down to a level that will quickly and clearly orient you to place, time, and the people/institutions associated with it.
An encyclopedia is also good for this. I often go to the juvenile section of encyclopedias to get the simplest information, and work my way up. Respected encyclopedias are the best, such as Britannica. My local library has a subscription to the online version that I access from home. Yours might as well.
I also recommend Wikipedia with a caveat. It’s good to get a general overview of a topic and to give you ideas about how and where to start more intensive research. Beware, though, because anyone can change the content and while problems are usually corrected promptly for popular subjects, this may not be the case for more obscure ones. Wikipedia is best for sources which you will find at the bottom of the page – the footnotes and underneath them, the external links. These will give you respected sites to work from.
2. General Interest Books and General Interest Books with Bibliographies
You can find these books at your local public library, or online if you prefer – Amazon, Abebooks.com or Thriftbooks.com. These books are for the general reader, not the specialist, and usually for adults. They will generally be well-written and an overall pleasure to read. In addition to the content and whatever interesting details/important figures/events you discover, you will also want to flip to the end of the book to the bibliography, which most general interest books have, though not all. Sometimes the bibliography is separated by primary sources and secondary sources. These will provide you with many more resources to follow up on.
I recommend that you use a number of different books, since each author has their own biases that color what they choose to focus on and how they present the information. For example, let’s say you are writing about Alexander the Great. You will find no shortage of books by authors who think he was a magnificent bastard who triumphantly conquered in the name of Western Civilization. And then there are those books whose authors find him to be a despicable, murderous megalomaniac. Both kinds of books are helpful but as you can imagine, they provide different evidence to support their theses.
3. Specialized Books and Journal Articles with Footnotes and Bibliographies
These books are authored by academics and can generally be found in research libraries on university campuses. They are usually not written very well and can be dry as the dust, but they can provide you with laser sharp focus into the subject at hand. I find that they can be a bit much, though, since you have to take high level scholarship and translate it to something on the page. Maybe that appeals to you, but sometimes for me it can be difficult to wrap my head around and translate into fiction.
The footnotes and bibliographies will lead you to even more resources. And thus you are deep into the gopher hole. You will begin to find the same names of authors and academics pop up again and again. These will likely be the recognized experts in the field. They will provide you with the highest quality information.
Each of these categories will also list primary sources, which makes up the next tier.
4. Primary Sources in English and Primary Sources in Native Language
As demonstrated above, your primary sources are going to give you fantastic subjective details and commentary on whatever you are studying. Those sources in English can vary (think about how many translations of the Odyssey there are) depending on the translator, so you may want to get several versions depending on what is available. The absolute best primary sources are in the native language but they are not always accessible if you don’t read Old English, ancient Persian, German, or whatever.
If you’re lucky, you will be able to find lots of information online – including primary sources. A couple of good ones are the Internet Sourcebook at Fordham University (every time period you can imagine) and StoryCorps (oral history interviews numbering in the thousands). Universities (.edu) will provide you with high quality information, as well as government agencies (.gov). Institutes and organizations can also be a good source (.org) though you may want to figure out their bias, if they have one, by reading their “About” page.
So that’s a quick and dirty look at how to do quality historical research without getting too overwhelmed by the subject and avoiding, you know, actually writing your work in progress. Like I may or may not be doing by authoring this blog post.
What are the finest works of Anglo-Saxon literature? We’ve restricted our choices to works of literature written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English, so that rules out Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which, as the title suggests, was written in Latin. But there’s a wealth of great literature written in Old English, as the following pick of ten of the best testifies (we hope).
Anonymous, The Exeter Book riddles. Here’s a riddle for you: what hangs down by the thigh of a man, under his cloak, yet is stiff and hard? When the man pulls up his robe, he puts the head of this hanging thing into that familiar hole of matching length which he has filled many times before. Got it? A key, of course! This is one of a number of riddles found in the Exeter Book, one of the…
A little more than three years ago, I posted about how I planned to spend my quiet time on the Camino de Santiago–in prayer. Walking is a meditation in itself, I’ve found. The steady gait of feet and earth, the land quiet all around, the sky above wide and open. It’s the perfect time for reflection, and when that’s not productive, repetition of prayers. Repetition can be soothing–just strike up a steady drumbeat if you doubt that. There’s something in our blood that responds to rhythm.
Some of the prayers I thought would be appropriate on my last Camino didn’t resonate with me, but others were like the lyrics of a beautiful song. My husband and I will be walking from Tui, Spain, 117 kilometers northward to Santiago de Compostela. We’ve allotted seven days for the trip, which is hopefully just the right amount of time.
Below are the prayers I’ve chosen for this pilgrimage. Do you have a mantra or favorite prayer? Please share it in the comments if you do.
God be with thee in every pass, Jesus be with thee on every hill
Spirit be with thee on every stream, headland and ridge and lawn;
Each sea and land, each moor and meadow,
Each lying down, each rising up,
In the trough of the waves, on the crest of the billows,
Each step of the journey thou goest. Carmina Gadelica
Be thou a bright flame before me,
Be thou a guiding star above me,
Be thou a smooth path below me,
Be thou a kindly shepherd behind me,
Today, tonight and forever. St Columba
Psalm 23 King James Version
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate
I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me.
God’s might to uphold me. God’s wisdom to guide me. God’s eye to see before me.
God’s ear to hear me. God’s word to speak for me. God’s hand to guard me.
God’s way to lie before me. God’s shield to protect me.
God’s host to secure me against the snares of devils —
against temptations and vices, against inclinations of nature,
against everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd …
Christ, be with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me.
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.
Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit.
Christ where I arise, Christ in the heart of very man who thinks of me.
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me.
Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
be there at our sleeping and give us we pray,
your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.
Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2017. Children/Young Adult, Western, 19th century. 384 pages. ISBN 9780544918887.
Teenager Reece Murphy is compelled to join a ruthless outlaw gang, the Rose Riders, during a robbery, when the outlaws discover a mysterious gold coin in his possession. Reece doesn’t know much about the man who gave him the coin, but the boss figures he does, and keeps a close eye on him. In the meantime, Reece is guilty by association and finds himself dubbed the Rose Kid due to the train robberies, murders, and general mayhem caused by the gang.
Spunky 15-year-old Charlotte Vaughn means to follow in the journalistic footsteps of her idol, Nellie Bly, and in doing so lands in the middle of a train robbery committed by the Rose Riders and starring Reece Murphy. This sets up the frequently changing fortunes of the two main characters, which continues until the end of the book with breathtaking regularity.
Written in crisp, vibrant prose, the short chapters and shifting points of view of Reece and Charlotte suck the reader into the dangerous world of Arizona Territory in 1887, and play up the desolate surroundings, scrubby inhabitants, and the ever-widening grasp of the railroad in an effective combination. High stakes put Charlotte and Reece at odds and then in reluctant cooperation as feelings blossom between them.
Don’t be surprised if you hear the far-off echo of train whistles and cowboys’ yee-haws in this fast-paced, emotionally satisfying read that hits all the right notes of a western adventure.
Ah, February. You are the month where spring flowers start budding and love is in the air. Most of us think of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday, but what about all the other kinds of love – for our friends, children, pets, nature, the flawed, but beautiful world around us? That’s love, too.
Still, romance is pretty dang nice. And usually includes smoochies.
Which is why you will be interested to find out that there’s a romance ebook promotion going on right now at Art of the Arcane and through February 15th. Lots of fantabulous reads are FREE when you sign up at Instafreebie, including my Antarctic romance Whiter Pastures:
The Sorceress and the Skull by Donald Michael Platt. Penmore, 2016. ISBN 9781942756569; $15.00, Paperback.
The 16th-century French seer and predictor of frightening futures, Nostradamus, died many years ago. His family line lives on in The Sorceress and the Skull, however. Michele is born in 1932, and prophecies point toward her wielding great power. That is, if she manages to reach puberty when such powers will be manifested. Allies like the Skull, a man disfigured by the horrors of war, join with a gargoyle to protect the young sorceress.
In this solid thriller, the action is slick and fast-paced. The atmosphere is thick and charged with intrigue. Historical details are meticulously researched but perhaps relayed a bit too faithfully. An example sentence reads: “Michele and her aunt, who went by the name of Mrs. Desaix, sat in Principal LeRoy Stephens’ office at Lowell High School, situated on Hayes between Ashbury and Masonic.” This level of detail can make the sentences unwieldy, but it does lend an air of authenticity to the prose, and after a while the reader accepts it as a stylistic quirk. The quatrains scattered throughout the book lend authenticity and an air of mystery to the tale.
I found the characters difficult to sympathize with, mainly because they were hard to get to know. Their portrayal is heavy on action but light on inner thoughts and feelings, another stylistic trait that may trip up some, while others may not notice its absence. Overall, this book leads the reader through dark pathways to a satisfying conclusion by using detailed prose and intense research.
In six short weeks I will be returning to Spain, a country I have visited the most in my European travels (just three times, but hopefully more in future years). What better time could there be for reflection and daydreaming?
Think of it … Spain. The very name brings to mind exotic ancient lands and the far-away echo of guitar music. And more, following on the warm, orange-scented breezes.
Whirling flamenco dancers. Sunsets over the ocean. Tapas in picturesque cafes. Baby-jumping in the plaza.
Yes, it is so. Jumping over babies is apparently a thing in a certain part of Spain. Which brings it squarely into Hiccups in History territory. This series of blog posts celebrates weirdness throughout history. Because my spirit animal is some sort of weird turkey/horse/panther hybrid. Or something.
By Celestebombin (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Anyhow. This bizarre–dare I say infantile–event takes place in mid-June each year, just after the Feast of Corpus Christi (the blood of Christ). In the north, near Burgos, lies the village of Castrillo de Murcia. The festival of El Colacho dates back to the early 17th century, when good and evil come alive in what may have its roots in the fusion of Christianity and earlier pagan traditions.
Men dressed in red, with yellow masks, dash through the streets impersonating the devil. They insult villagers and whip them with horsehair. All is fun and games terror and hysteria until the sounds of drums herald the arrival of black-clad good guys–atabalero–who drive out the evil.
By Jtspotau (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
But first babies born the previous year are laid out on mattresses in the street. As the “devils” leap over them they are thought to absorb the infants’ sins, an act which protects them from future misfortune. The villagers hurl invectives at the devils, thus securing for themselves a reprieve from bad luck.
By Jtspotau (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
After a quick spritzer with rose water, the babies are rescued from the mattresses and all is right with the world again. The Catholic Church frowns on the festival, but it continues nevertheless, drawing a growing number of curiosity seekers.
Alas, I will not be around for any baby-jumping festivals when I next travel to Spain. But unusual places appear on the Camino de Santiago as well. During my 2015 trip I came across a village that honors sacred chickens.