Acceptance, Book One of the Acceptance Series

For more than two thousand years, a small community of humans has lived in harmony with vampires, giving their blood and obedience in exchange for protection. And for all that time, it’s been a peaceful occupation.

When Kalyn Reid comes of age and pledges herself to the vampires, she has no reason to worry. She’s paired with Anselm for her training, and she couldn’t ask for a kinder, more patient mentor. She also couldn’t ask for anyone better-looking.

But before she has a chance to learn her new responsibilities–or get a date–her idyllic life goes up in flames. Without warning, the humans and vampires in her group are murdered by a strange new type of vampire and the few survivors are forced to flee.

Anselm and his brother, Micah, vow to hunt down the murderer, and they take Kalyn with them–thinking they can keep her safe. But when the killer finds them first, it’s they who must rely on her if any of them are to survive.

It reminded me of Game of Thrones, except with less incest and more vampires. Author Michelle Proulx

You can purchase this book on:

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My 1370’s Blue Cotehardie

Wow, I do still remember my blog password.

Despite the fact that I haven’t been busy here, I’ve actually been quite busy in real life. My husband and I have been doing a lot of re-enactments lately and are very active in our local group. I’ve also been writing a monthly newsletter for two years, which has been really good, but something of a time and creative ideas suck. Stuff I used to do for Medieval Monday and other random medieval blog posts have ended up going into the newsletter instead.

But next month is my last newsletter, so maybe I’ll direct some of my writing back here (if I can get back in the habit of blogging; it’s kind of like exercise in that, if you stop doing it, you get out of shape and it’s really hard to start back up again). At the very least, I can share some of my newsletter articles here.

In addition to that, I’ve been editing The Flames of Prague. I think I have it where I want it and I have a proofreader lined up. I just need to get it sent off to her and let my husband have one last look through it to make sure a couple of chapters that I edited work. Once that’s done, I’m going to enter it into an Arts & Sciences competition. Depending on the comments it gets there, I may do some minor tweaking. But otherwise, I think I’ll publish it the end of January!

I’ve also been busy sewing. This is my newest costuming project.

Unfortunately, it was late in the day when we took these pictures, and we’ve misplaced our camera, so we had to use my husband’s tablet (so the picture quality isn’t as good).

The dress is a medium-weight wool, half-lined in linen. It’s from English Gascony around 1370. (Since most far-western European fashion came out of Paris at this time, my dress is a bit more fashion-forward than that of my contemporaries still living in England. Their necklines won’t drop that low for about another decade.)

JpegThis is configured as a hunting outfit. The dress is just off the ground, so I’m less likely to step on it. The skirt is full (man, is it ever! I thought I was never going to get that thing hemmed!), which makes it very easy to ride (almost all women rode astraddle at this point in time). And my [husband’s] bycocket hat–while worn by men in all sorts of situations–seems to be associated solely with hunting or traveling when worn by women.

I’m dressed for a summer hunt (summer in Europe; this was not terribly fun to wear on a 93 degree day in Mississippi), wearing only my chemise under it. However, I will be making myself a pair of detachable red sleeves that I can pin on which will convert it to winter-wear.

The entire dress is completely handsewn. All of the seams in the wool are sewn open and have a red wool yarn edging decorating (and protecting) the raw edges. (If we can ever find our camera, I’ll take some pictures of the inside.) The lining seams are all flat-felled.

JpegAt the very last minute, I entered this into an A&S competition. I didn’t make this dress to be an entry, but I was so happy with the way it fit, I entered it into the “Costume Review” category, which specifically looks at period patterning and fit. I scored really well on the fit (my documentation–aka research paper–was sorely lacking, since I hand-wrote it in the car on the way to the event without the benefit of a single book), so I’m going to take the time to do my documentation properly and enter it into another A&S competition.

I’d just like to brag that my perky bustline and cleavage is achieved without a bra or any modern undergarments; I’m held aloft by nothing but the two dresses. It’s taken me nearly 13 years of learning to sew and pattern to get to this point.

c 1380 Germany - Trier New York, Morgan Library & Musem MS G64

Some chunky German girls, circa 1380, showing the high bust and fitted dress.

St. Helena wearing a bycocket with a crown on top of it.

St. Helena wearing a bycocket with a crown on top of it.

New Flames Proof is Here!

I just got the proof copy of my book in the mail! (Ordered it on July 26, so 9 days to print and deliver.)

Initial impressions: CreateSpace warned me that part of my cover picture was less than 200 DPI and that can cause it to be a little blurry. I think it’s the painting part (the two figures). Not sure if it bothers me enough, though, to try and find a higher resolution image (if one even exists) and go through the background erasing part again.
Cover (New)
Secondly, I think I need a little more blank space around the edges of the back cover. (It looks like plenty in this image, but this image contains bleed. The cutting lines actually trim off about half the blank space around the back edges.)

Thirdly, I opted for cream-colored pages this time and I already like them much better! White is very stark–almost glaring. If you look at the vast majority of novels (and most other non-picture books), the pages are cream, not white. It’s definitely easier on the eyes and I recommend it.

One major problem I have right now is that I can’t get in contact with the guy who owns the rights to the pseudo-Hebrew script that I use on the cover and inside the book. I’ve contacted him via email twice and using a form on his website, but have gotten no response. I noticed that he hasn’t updated his website in a few years, so it’s likely that he’s given up his hobby making scripts. But I was still hoping I could buy a license from him for this one. If I don’t hear from him soon, I’ll have to switch to a different font. I’ve found a few options (although I don’t like any of them quite as well as I like the Sefer AH).



This Jerusalem font and is probably the closest thing to the one I have. The drawback is that it’s only free for personal use, so I could run into the same problem of I can’t get in contact with the owner to buy a license.


This is the next closest font. It’s blockier, though, and I think it looks more like a fun-novelty font. And this is a romance book where lots of people die in horrible ways. (What, you expected me to not kill off a bunch of people in one of my books?) I just fear this is a little too cutesy for the subject matter. But, on the plus side, it’s free for commercial use, so I don’t have to buy a license at all.

MyFonts Option


Then we have this one, Faux Hebrew. I think I like it better than the previous one. It’s $24.00 for a license, which makes it twice as expensive as the one I’ve been trying to buy.




Then there’s this one. It’s the least Hebrew-like font, but it has a certain flame-ness to it. It is also free for commercial use.

Don’t Stray from the Formula!—Part III

(This article is part of a series. Missed Part I or Part II?)

Hopefully you will choose (preferably consciously, but maybe unconsciously) what formula your story will follow before you start writing it. And hopefully, once you start writing it, it stays in its pre-selected category.

But if it changes, you need to realize that it’s changed, and then you either need to scrap it and try again (if it really matters to you that it follow a particular formula) or you need to fully and whole-heartedly embrace the change.

Summarize the Story from the POV of the Formula

As I covered last time, the formula for the Acceptance series changed on me; it’s no longer a romance. My problem has been that I haven’t recognized that. When I tried to summarize my story (or especially if I tried to distill it to a one- or two-line “elevator pitch”), I found myself going in multiple directions, because when I tried to start with the romance angle, I found other elements that were just as important (a good indication that you’re describing multiple subplots, but not the overarching formula).

I became very frustrated because I knew that my response was scattered (and I certainly couldn’t get the story down to a single line!). I felt like the story in my books worked, but for some reason I couldn’t tell anyone what the story was in less than 109,000 words.

That’s because I didn’t identify what the story was. The coming-of-age tale wasn’t a subplot, but the plot, and the romance—and everything else—are subplots.

When it comes to summarizing your book, tell the reader (or agent or publisher) what the book formula is from the get-go. Don’t mention the subplots much, if any, and they become like little surprise treats along the way because the reader isn’t expecting them and doesn’t know where they will go.

If you’re presenting a coming-of-age story, then you (and the reader) know what’s going to happen in the end: the main character is going to lose their innocence and learn to live in the real, adult world. If it’s a Dude with a Problem story, the end is inevitable: dude will solve his problem. Who wants to see a Western where the bad guy wins or the good guy dies senselessly, having accomplished nothing? That sort of thing is popular in art/indie films and some literature, where the creator wants you to feel that life makes no sense, or they just want you to feel uncomfortable and unfulfilled at the end because that’s somehow superior to walking away feeling fulfilled, but those kinds of movies and books are never terribly popular. Your average person wants you to follow the formula; they want the predictable ending to happen. Subplots are where unpredictable things happen, but the main plot should end predictably.

(I think this is why “serious” writers look down on “genre” writers. If it has a genre, it almost certainly follows a formula (although not all stories in the same genre follow the same formula). Many “serious” or “literary” writers think writing to a formula is too predictable, too déclassé; it’s writing for the unwashed masses. They want writing that’s full of symbolism, completely unpredictable, and maybe has no plot or purpose at all. But, in truth, this sort of post-modern literature, which exists only for its own sake, is a johnny-come-lately in the history of human literature. You can be sure that cavemen told stories about monsters around a campfire. They didn’t, however, ramble endlessly about characters who spend their time wrestling with the question of whether anything is really good or evil, or if anything can actually be true or untrue. There’s a reason why people continue to buy romance novels and watch action movies wherein dude has a problem that he fixes.)

Giving the Formula the Middle Finger

p167496_p_v7_aaSo here’s an example of a modern, artsy movie that just wanted to give the formula the middle finger: Atonement.

The story was about a rich English girl of good family who was in love with a common boy who was nonetheless trying to rise in the world with the hopes that he would be accepted by her family.

But the girl’s younger sister (who is telling the story) catches them doing the nasty in the library, and when her friend is raped soon after, she puts the two incidents together and decides that the boy is a rapist who not only assaulted her sister, but her friend, too. So she lies and says that she saw him raping her friend, because she thinks that she’s doing the just thing. So boy—who is really innocent—gets sent to jail and he loses his chance for a good future and marriage with his love interest.

Only later, when the narrator is older and she can look back on what she saw with adult eyes, does she realize how wrong she was to lie and ruin the boy’s life.

Meanwhile, we see sister trying to make her way in life while pining for her love, and we see him released from jail in exchange for being drafted into WWII. He gets injured in France, ends up recovering from his injuries, returns to England, and he and his love finally get their long-overdue reunion. They even get their opportunity to vent their anger on the now-grown sister who tries to apologize for ruining his life and their romance.

That’s a Buddy Love/romance story, right? Lovers are separated wrongly. Eventually wrongs get righted and the two lovers get one another in the end. Everyone walks away happy.

Then the screenwriter decided to give the formula the middle finger. Instead of stopping the story there, it cuts to the narrator, who is now an old woman and we find out that she’s a writer who just published this story as an autobiography. Only she confesses in an interview that she lied about how the story ended. It did not end happily ever after. The boy died of his injuries at Dunkirk and her sister died during the bombing of London. She wrote a happy ending to the story because that’s what she wanted to happen; she wanted to be able to make amends, make things come out right, and be free of her guilt. But the moral of the story is that some things can never be put right.

While that may be true in life, what a horribly depressing sentiment for a movie! I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to movies (or read books) to learn that other people have lives as horrible as or even worse than mine and they never get a resolution, or find a happy ending, or improve their lot in any way. Yes, people die bitter and unfulfilled all the time, but I don’t want to know about them; their stories give me nothing but depression. (My husband declared that Atonement, “made me angry. I wanted those two hours of my life back! I felt like I had been cheated.)

Personally, I want a positive message that makes me feel better about myself and my life; I want something that actually improves me or motivates me. I want to know that true love can really exist. I want to know that no matter how bad my life is, it can get better because people who were in worse shape have managed to turn themselves around. I want to know that hard work and unwavering belief in my dreams can make me successful and prosperous.

If you’ve got nothing to give me but unresolved issues or the message that life sometimes (or even often) sucks, then I’ll give you the middle finger and walk away.

And that’s true of the vast majority of other people. There’s a reason why stories that follow the formula tend to be hits, while the things that exist just to give the formula the finger aren’t popular with anyone but hipsters who live to give everyone the finger.

Think about stream-of-consciousness writing. Who wants to read that? There is no plot or formula. It doesn’t matter how poetically you may describe what you’re seeing or feeling, if there’s no larger point to the project, your average reader is not going to want to read it.

This is also the reason why Renaissance art is more popular than modern art. Renaissance paintings teach a moral or tell a story or illustrate a human condition or maybe even show us something universal and emotional in a stranger’s face. Art has its own formulas which art, since the beginning of homo sapiens up to about the Impressionists, has followed. Then modern art came along and it was all about giving the formulas the finger. Now, the purpose of art is to have no purpose. It can be splatters of paint on canvas. It can be an uncarved rock. It can be a blank canvas with no paint on it at all. You no longer need to have any talent or years of experience to be an artist; if you can make something exist, then that’s enough.

(I really like the explanation given by artist and professor Robert Florczak on “Why is Modern Art so Bad?”)


Notice the stalks of grass beside and in front of the horse; it’s running through tall grass on the plains.

There’s a reason why most people ridicule modern and post-modern art. Even people who have no art education understand, at least subconsciously, that art should be about something—should have a purpose—that it should follow a formula. You can look at the paintings in Lascaux cave and see the world of our caveman ancestors. You can almost see the horses and animals that the artist saw moving across the plain. You are looking back into time, into another world. The artist gives you that.

You do not get any of that when you look at a painting that’s just a bunch of paint splatters on canvas. Sure, you might see hints of shapes in the splatter, but you can see shapes in clouds, too; that doesn’t make clouds art. And most people understand that. They don’t want to see weird shit that means nothing; they want to see things they already know. Or, as Blake Snyder puts it, they want to see the same thing, only different. This is why there are hundreds of thousands cheap romance and Western novels in existence. You don’t reinvent the formula; you just change the characters and the setting and the subplots. There’s infinite variety in those three things while staying true to the underlying formula.

Legitimate Twists to the Formula

So, your task now is to figure out what formula each of your stories most closely follows. If you can’t tell, then you almost certainly have a plot problem (as we’ve discussed, nobody wants to read a story that meanders around, directionless, accomplishing nothing) and you can fix it by bringing your story into line with one of the formulas. (It is possible that you have followed a formula that’s not covered here, but make really, really sure that’s the case and that you’re not just wandering in and out of other formulas at random.)

If you have followed the formula right up to the end, then inserted a surprise twist that causes the story to jump into another formula or into no formula at all, then you need to seriously, seriously reconsider that. As I’ve pointed out, that’s never popular. A surprise twist needs to stay within the formula.

Look at Titanic. That’s a Buddy Love story, because it’s exclusively about Jack & Rose’s relationship. But the twist is that Jack dies at the end. Normally, buddies either survive together or die together; one living and one dying is normally against the formula. But the twist works for two reasons: one, we’re warned about it from the very beginning when we find out that Old Rose had a relationship before she married the man who would be her husband for the rest of her life—so we know she doesn’t get her happily-ever-after with Jack; and two, we see in the epilogue that Rose kept Jack alive in her heart by doing all the things they had planned to do together, so in a way, he was always with her. And when she (presumably) dies, she goes back to the ship and finally joins him again, so they’ll have a heavenly sort of existence where they will never be parted again. So she loses him, but not really. If James Cameron had cut out the epilogue part, so that we never see Rose’s pictures telling the story of her life post-Jack, and we didn’t see her reunite with him in death, then people would have been angry and the movie would have flopped. We want to know that our hearts will go on, damnit, and that you really can love one person for your whole life.

Or, if you’re doing the Monster in the House scenario and your character battles the monster and finally prevails, the twist can be showing the reader that the protagonist wasn’t battling the real monster at all; the real monster still lurks in the shadows, waiting for the next victim. (In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector escapes at the end, so one monster is defeated just as another one gets loose.) Or maybe the heroine escapes, but we see that she’s infected or has set loose the monster’s progeny, so we see that one head has been cut off the hydra, but another one will grow back in its place. The formula calls for the monster to die or the protagonist to escape (Jurassic Park is a good example of when people escape and leave the monsters to rule the house). You must follow that formula. But it’s okay to leave an opening so that the monster can come back or start over in a new place. That’s a twist, but still within the original formula.

What’s not okay is to tamper with the formula. My dad used to be a professional comedian, and he had a joke about why you never see rednecks in horror movies: because rednecks always have a gun handy.

“Oh, you’re a scary booger!”
“Call the coroner because this booger’s dead.”
End of movie.

Or, “You always see people screaming when the booger jumps on the hood of their car and they panic and jump out of the car. Me, I want Jason on the hood of my car. I’ll gun the engine and he’ll have to throw away the knife to hang onto the wiper blades with both hands. And I’m going to run through every barbed wire fence and briar patch in the county. He’ll eventually jump off and limp back home to lick his nuts like a wounded dog.”

My dad always got huge laughs with his routine.

Exposing the formula and talking about breaking it is funny. But you wouldn’t actually go see a movie where the protagonist killed the monster in the first fifteen minutes, then spent the rest of the movie lying on the couch and drinking beer. You would be constantly waiting for the monster to resurrect or for its kin to come and avenge it. And if the movie ends without any of that happening, you would feel very cheated and declare it the worst movie ever.

Don’t give the formula the middle finger. As Blake states, pretty much all of these formulas are so primal, so part of the human condition, a caveman could follow the story.

Applying Writing Formulas to Your Own Work—Part II

(This article is part of a series. If you missed the first part, here it is.)

So, now that we know what the formulas are, let’s apply it to our own work. Take a look at all the stuff you’ve done and see if it’s following one of the formulas.

What Formula Am I?

The Last Golden Dragon is a Golden Fleece quest. Aine sets out to find the last golden dragon so she can hear his story and go tell the tale around the country. You find out during this quest that she is stubbornly independent and not content with a normal woman’s life. But during her quest, she learns that love and marriage doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where all her hopes are dashed and she lives in a cage; love means both partners give so that they can be happy both as a couple and as individuals. She ends up not only fulfilling her quest, but finding much more than she was looking for.

However, the (as of yet unpublished) sequel, The Return of the Dragons, is a Buddy Love story, because it’s about the maturation of Aine and Eamonn’s relationship. I’m contemplating writing a sequel to that which would probably be a Rites of Passage, because it would about Aine having to come to terms with the fact that she can’t have everything she wants at once, and that she’s going to decide what’s more important to her and give up the other thing (at least temporarily).

(In other words, your sequels don’t necessarily have to follow the same formula as the original story. After all, how many times can one person go on a quest of introspection and self-discovery? If you’re following the life of one character over a period of time, you might want to change up the formula, because in life, we go through periods where we’re questing, but not all the time; we have problems that we need to fix, but not all the time; we have buddy love, but that typically comes and goes as friends and lovers come and go; we’re part of the institution, but usually only when we’re in school; etc.)

The Widow is an example of Bubby Love. Carol is trapped in her grief and can’t move on with her life—even though it’s past time for her to do so. Daniel acts primarily as a friend to help draw her out and get her functioning normally again. He is the person who is constant and acts as a catalyst while she is the one that does the changing.

The Flames of Prague is a Dude with a Problem story. First, Jakub’s problem is that he’s getting too old to fight and he doesn’t know what to do with himself; he’s facing his remaining years being a bored homebody. Then he meets a girl and he thinks his problem is solved; he’ll marry her, have children, and have a purpose again! Then he finds out there’s a problem with her: she’s a Jew. He has no solution to this, so he goes back to being bored—plus he’s now lovesick as well. Then he gets a new problem when he finds out that people are killing Jews and his love-interest is in danger. Does he risk his life to save her? And if he saves her, then what? He still has the problem of her being a Jew, but if he doesn’t overcome that problem, he’s left with the problem of being lonely and purposeless. The book concludes with him solving his various problems—sometimes with brute force and sometimes just by deciding that a “problem” is really just a design feature.

The sequel, The Children of Israel is the same thing, only there are 2-3 dudes with problems because I tell the story from the POV of two different characters. Samuel has to deal with the problem that his wife was raped prior to their marriage and she’s terrified for him to touch her. His sister has to deal with the fact that her parents can’t seem to arrange a marriage for her, but then she finds out her father’s man-at-arms is in love with her. And although she finds herself feeling the same way about him, they have the old problem of she’s a Jew and he’s not. And then Jakub has to deal with the problem that his family has been denounced as Jews and there are people who want to kill them. (His problem, however, gets taken up by Samuel, so Samuel is the one who has to find a solution to it.)

I’m contemplating a sequel to that which will follow another child of Jakub’s, and it will also be the same dude-with-a-problem format in that Jonatan has to deal with two sides of his family being at odds with one another and arguing over what he should or should not do, and later someone kidnaps his woman and he has to get those warring family members to unite to help him get her back.

(Unlike my dragon series, this series has a different main character(s) each time (albeit all from one family), and it’s about how each of them deals with their own unique problems. In each book, the reader is rooting for the character to win, but overall, she is rooting for the entire family to win. So, in this case, repeating the formula works.)

The Bloodsuckers is one long Dude With a Problem story. It is all about Scott and all the things he has to undergo and how he overcomes them.

Even my Zelda fanfiction follows a formula—and is, in fact, a perfect textbook example of the Golden Fleece quest. Link and Zelda have to go on a literal quest to find the necessary magical items needed to defeat all of the bosses, culminating with the defeat of the final bad guy and the saving of the world. But, along this long (long) journey, the two of them change rather significantly.

My Problem Child

So, that was easy; all of those stories are pretty clear-cut. Yes, there are some places where they sort of overlap with other formulas—quests can have romantic/buddy love subplots, etc.—but the main plot is clearly one specific format.

Then there’s Acceptance.

When I originally came up with the idea of vampires in Tennessee (this was even before I had the idea to have Jewish vampires in Tennessee), the (short) story was supposed to be a sort of supernatural mystery (Monster in the House formula). Kalyn (who is an adult) is out on a dark, snowy night and gets stuck in a ditch. While she’s sitting there, trying to figure out what to do, a guy appears and takes her out of the car. She then enters a period where she feels as if she is in a dream and isn’t really in control of herself. She gets taken to a cave that people—strange people—appear to be living in. The man with her bites her and she finds herself—perhaps of her own choice, perhaps not—giving herself to him fully. At some point, she passes out or falls asleep, and the next thing she knows, it’s morning and she’s back in her car. She looks for some evidence that she was kidnapped by a vampire, but can’t find any (but also can’t find any confirmation that she was in her car all night, either). So was it real or just a dream? She can’t be sure and neither can the reader.

But, somewhere in writing that, I decided that I wanted to know more about her and especially about the vampire with her. So the story morphed away from the monster formula to a romance/buddy love. Ciaran and the Imuechmehah were introduced and Kalyn found herself entering this strange vampire world just when they’re getting caught up in a war between two vampire races.

I wrote quite a bit of that novel, but became increasingly unhappy with it, primarily because Kalyn had no personality and I didn’t know how to give her one. (Also, she and Anselm only seemed to be in love because I said they should be; there was no natural development of their relationship.) I ended up scrapping it and I didn’t look at it again for nine years.

When I decided to resurrect my story, I started from scratch and put Kalyn in the vampire’s world from the very beginning. But instead of being an (adult) outsider being introduced to the vampire’s culture, she is a teenager getting introduced via a rite of passage.

I set out with the intention of writing a romance novel, and that’s what the story had been in its previous incarnation. Acceptance and its sequels were going to be all about Kalyn and Anselm’s relationship.

I’m not sure where I lost control of that formula… or if I ever really had control over it. But when I take a hard look at Acceptance and where its sequels are going, it is not a romance because it’s not primarily about Kalyn and Anselm’s relationship; there are too many other things going on and too many other characters winding their way in and out of the story with important stories of their own. There is no focus on just the two of them, the way there is in The Widow.

Okay, so what is it? Is it Institutionalized? After all, Kalyn is part of a group (her local group, the Yaechahre group, and the vampire/human group—all three come into play in different ways) and she has to learn how to work within all of those groups and she has to fight to save all of those groups. And yet, through all of that, she stays true to herself and her own moral compass—even when she has to go against the groups’ social customs. She becomes a reformer of sorts—a light showing a better path for other people in the group.

But is that really what the story is about, or is it another subplot? I really didn’t set out to write a story about a group of vampires and the human who teaches them a lesson. And, in fact, Kalyn’s not the only rebel in that regard; her friends in her local group share her desire for more integration between human and vampire. Even Joshua, the leader of their people, is supportive of her and is the first person to hold her up as a good example.

I think the institution is a subplot.

Is it a Whydunit? In all of the books, there is the underlying question of where the Imuechmehah came from and why they want to kill the Canichmehah. And we eventually see who is behind the murders and sort of why (as much as you can ever understand why someone is evil). But the real revelation is that all of the death and misery could have been prevented if, at a single moment in time, the Canichmehah had chosen to do what was morally right, even if it was technically illegal. When they decide that the law has supremacy over morality, they set in motion their own destruction.

While that’s a pretty dark revelation, the Whydunit isn’t really driving the plot. The characters are being taken towards it without their knowledge (unlike a detective in a mystery who actively follows the trail). So I think that’s another subplot.

Is it a Golden Fleece quest? Kalyn doesn’t know it in the beginning, but she’s destined to be the savior of her people and she will the ultimate righter of an old wrong. Her quest, in short, is to fight the Imuechmehah and save her people. And she certainly changes along the way and learns things about herself.

But she never realizes she’s on this quest and she never really has a revelation at the end of the story, like you would expect with a roadtripping story. She doesn’t undergo a life-altering change; instead, she just grows up, little by little, along the way.

Which leaves us with Rites of Passage. And I think that this is really what Acceptance and its sequels (both individually and as a collective whole) are about. Kalyn learns—usually the hard way—that there are bad people in the world. Some of them aren’t necessarily evil, but they make bad decisions that put them on the wrong side of morality. Maybe they can change, but they have to want to change. And some people are indeed evil, and you will never know why they’re evil and you will never get them to cease being evil. And being a good person is more than just not being evil or not making immoral choices; being a good person means actively fighting evil. Because if you don’t, it will grow and it will eventually come after you and after the people you love.

And other characters end up doing their own growing up alongside Kalyn. Micah has a particularly acute moment of revelation in the second book (I feel this is the best thing I have ever written) when he realizes that he became a vampire because he didn’t want to grow up and become a responsible adult; he had a Peter Pan moment where he ran off to Never Never Land with the intention of remaining young and carefree forever. But when he ends up spending a week essentially playing the role of husband and father, he realizes that not only does being responsible not suck, but it’s actually deeply rewarding and fulfilling. But, unfortunately, he can’t undo what he did to himself so long ago. He can never have biological children, and given that he looks like he’s a teenager, he’s not likely to find someone to settle down with. His revelation is bittersweet because, while it’s great he’s finally grown up mentally, he will never be able to grow up physically.

Anselm also has some personal demons he has to exorcise. For a man who doesn’t lack courage when it comes to breaking into a den of vampires and shooting all of them, he has little courage when it comes to Kalyn. He is attracted to her early on (and she’s certainly attracted to him), but he tries to deny this and keep her at arm’s length. He says that this is because Kalyn is too young, he’s her guardian, etc. but we eventually see that these are just excuses. In reality, he’s tormented by the memory of the first woman he loved and lost and he’s terrified that the same thing will happen to Kalyn. When he finally allows himself to open up to her, and then something bad happens to her, he sees it as a Divine Punishment for his actions and he retreats even further from her. He has to figure out that in trying to protect himself (and her) from loss, he’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby he loses her anyways. In short, he has to find the courage to love, even if he’s not guaranteed a happily ever after. (A basic life lesson that we all have to learn when we’re growing up.)

Which actually leads me back to the question of whether this is a Buddy Love story (but instead of it being about Anselm and Kalyn, it’s about the three of them). Or, perhaps, it’s a Rites of Passage tale that morphs into a Buddy Love story somewhere around the third book.

All the Things

I found a post I wrote in 2012 where I said this very thing: that there are a lot of “plots” in Acceptance. (Really, there are a lot of formulas.)

Or maybe I just don’t know and this is why I’m having trouble. What is my book about? You should be able to put that into a single sentence, but I really have trouble with that. It seems my book(s) are about a lot of things, and I have never been quite able to decide which thing I should emphasize.

I see now that’s because I can’t figure out which formula is driving the plot. Or maybe it’s because I’m trying to apply a single formula to four books about one main character and that’s not reasonable. After all, as I seemed to have intuitively grasped in my dragon stories, it makes sense for the formula to change in subsequent stories about the same character because different formulas rule different parts of our lives. If we aren’t following one formula constantly, why should a character?

I’m almost positive that Acceptance is a Rites of Passage formula. Kalyn has a literal rite of passage, inducting her into the world of vampires and their human counterparts. She has to deal with loss. She has to deal with being personally assaulted. She watches as people are killed. She learns that vampire justice is not the kind you see in Law & Order, and she has to come to terms with that. She also faces a bit of existential disappointment when she realizes that the image she has of Anselm in her mind isn’t who he is in reality. Probably the best piece of writing in that book is when Kalyn finds herself staring at him “across a gulf that seemed much wider than a few yards of poured concrete.” She sees that, for all his outward appearances of modernity—his cell phone, car, guns, etc.—he is, in reality, a product of the middle ages, where torture and execution justice could be executed without batting an eye. And she has to decide if she can accept a man who is, to modern standards, violent, but only for good and moral reasons (i.e. he’s a vigilante, of the Western hero variety).

If I accept that Acceptance is a Rites of Passage story, it makes it easier for me to describe the book, because I need to describe the characters and all the action from that point-of-view: it’s a coming-of-age story. Everything else is a subplot that the reader can discover on their own.

Now, as I’m piecing together the various parts of the second book, I need to decide which theme it should convey. I’m leaning towards it also being a Rites of Passage, but that might have moved to a subplot. So I need to read what I have and decide what story it’s telling. (And I may need to edit out bits that make the subplot too strong and muddy the actual plot formula.)

Part III

Next time, I’ll cover why it’s important for your novel to follow the formulas (and not just because it makes life easier on you when it comes to distilling your novel into a one- or two-line elevator pitch).

Writing Formulas — Part I

Alright, so I’m really, really, going to get back to writing. For reals. Like, today.

I want to enter Flames of Prague in an Arts & Sciences competition this year. The competition is the first weekend of December, but you have to submit written entries at least one month in advance to give the judges time to read it. So that means I need to have my edits and proofreading done no later than the first of November. So, hopefully, having a serious deadline will get me motivated to actually do the editing.

(I’ve already done the hard editing; I’m on my second draft. And, actually, I’ve done the grammatical editing, too, it’s just written in my paperback copy; I need to transfer that to my digital copy. Then begins the proofreading, and I’ve actually got a friend who said he would help me with that, so I only need to proof two or three times (plus his) instead of the six or seven times I did with Acceptance. (And that still needs some proofing; I have some changes written in a print copy and I need to run it by my friend, too. Proofing, it’s never-ending.))

Writing Formulas

Save the CatSo, speaking of writing, I got a book for Christmas called Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. I put it on my wishlist after reading positive things about it (where, I don’t remember). Even though it’s about screenwriting, it’s supposed to be good for novel writing as well.

I’m only a few chapters in, but there’s a section in here that is really useful for novels, and I want to share it. The author divides movies (or books; same thing for this exercise) into genres. But they’re not the genres that we think of: romance, comedy, thriller, horror, etc. He divides them up by what I’ve decided to call formulas (since it tells you how the story works and how it has to end). Here’s his list:

Monster in the House

This is where your horror and a lot of your suspense movies/books happen. This is any plot where there is something out to get the protagonist(s) AND the protagonist(s) is stuck someplace (maybe literally in a house, but not necessarily) which means he/they will have to confront the monster eventually. Think about Silence of the Lambs. There are really two monsters involved–Hannibal Lector and the serial killer–and you can’t be sure which one is going to get Clarice. First, she’s in the jail with Hannibal, then she’s stuck in an actual house with the serial killer.

But, Blake points out that movies like Fatal Attraction and Jurassic Park are also monster-in-the-house movies, even though you might not immediately consider them a horror movie.

JP-WhenDinosaursRuledThe thing to be careful about when writing this genre is that you confine your protagonist(s)–be it in a house or on an island or at an empty hotel deep in the mountains. It just needs to be hard/impossible for them to escape so that, eventually, they are forced to face the monster in order to get out of the trap they’re in. (The tension comes from seeing if they can get out and how many people will die before the monster is finally defeated.) It’s okay for them to escape at the last minute and leave the monster(s) behind–as in Jurassic Park–but only after there’s been a lot of monster fighting (and dying). It’s also okay for the protagonist to be “stuck” in the house by a sense of duty or a need to kill the monster; he doesn’t have to be literally locked in. (Clarice didn’t have to go into the serial killer’s house alone, but she did so because she thought she might be able to rescue his victim before he killed her, and we saw that he was indeed getting ready to kill her.)  You have to create tension by creating some sort of showdown where there is no choice but to try and fight the monster.

Golden Fleece

This is the quest movie/book. The hero has to go on an epic adventure to win/do something for some important reason, but also discovers himself along the way. Old Greek tales like Jason and the Argonauts, The Odyssey, and Clash of the Titans, are quests (literally for the Golden Fleece in the case of Jason and the Argonauts), but things like The Wizard of Oz fit into this category as well. (Dorothy goes on a quest to get back home, discovering, in the process, that the place she thought she wanted to leave was the place she really wanted to go to the most.)

WizardAlso included in this category are roadtripping adventures, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Even if the protagonist doesn’t set out to find something tangible, like a Golden Fleece, he finds himself, so it amounts to the same thing. (I.e. a spiritual or personal quest, versus the classic hero quest.) Or, as Blake Snyder says, “it’s not the mileage we’re racking up that makes a good Golden Fleece, it’s the way the hero changes as he goes.”

This is very apparent in a book (or epic poem, if you want to get technical) like The Odyssey, where Odysseus starts out as a very arrogant man and his hubris gets his men killed. Along the way, he learns that it’s not enough just to be clever and witty; you have to be smart enough to know when to shut up, too. (Although, Greek stories are sometimes just about having courage to prove yourself worthy of what you quest for, so there may not be a lot of change, but a whole lot of proving-up.) The Rock (the movie starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris set in Alcatraz, not Dwayne Johnson) is about a wimpy chemical weapons guy and a former British secret agent whose quest is to stop some rogue soldiers from dropping chemical weapons on San Francisco. But, along the way, Nicolas Cage learns courage. So we’re not just rooting for the two guys to stop the destruction of the city, but we’re really rooting for Nicolas Cage to become a man.

Blake Snyder also includes heist movies in this genre, because while the quest is obvious–steal the money/jewels/art–it usually ends up being a personal movie about the thief, who may end up changing his ways or talking a young guy out of following in his footsteps because he’s come to realize this is not right life to lead.

Of course, if you write this genre, the rule to follow is that your hero finds what he’s looking for (even if he didn’t even know he was looking for it until the very end). You can’t take your protagonist on a quest and not end up with what he was after, or leave him as confused and lost (or worse off!) as he was at the beginning.

Out of the Bottle

It's_A_Wonderful_LifeThis is where something (usually magical) happens to the protagonist, it seems like a good thing at first, but then it turns out to be a headache, and, in the end, the protagonist learns a valuable lesson. A recent movie example listed is Liar, Liar, but It’s a Wonderful Life also qualifies. George Bailey wishes he had never been born, he gets his wish, and then he sees how much worse things are without him. He realizes that hey, things aren’t so bad and neither am I, the spell is reversed, happy ending. The tale of King Midas is also an out-of-the-bottle morality tale. King Midas is greedy and wants gold, so he is granted the ability to turn everything he touches into gold. Then he touches his beloved daughter and she turned into a statue of gold and he realizes that some things are more precious than gold (literally).

The rule is that your protagonist has to learn a lesson by the end of the story and reform/redeem himself. Blake Snyder divides these into two types: underdog and comeuppance. George Bailey is an underdog type; we want him to learn to see his own worth, so we watch him undergo the trial in the hopes that he will find himself. Liar, Liar is about a man who needs to get taken down a few pegs, but at the same time, Blake emphasis that these types of protagonists must have something in them worth saving, so yes, we want to see him punished, but so that we can see him redeemed.

Dude With a Problem

These are hero movies, minus the quest. You basically have a good guy and a bad guy and the good guy has to save the day. Think Taken. Guy’s daughter gets kidnapped; he goes to rescue her. It’s not really about him learning anything about himself; it’s about a mano-y-mano showdown using smarts, weapons, or just old-fashioned fists to win.

10th or 11th century Beowulf

Not an action picture, but too cool to pass up. This is a page from a Beowulf manuscript dating to the 10th-11th century.

In literature, Beowulf is a classic example. Modern filmmakers (and writers; Grendel started it) want to turn Beowulf into some sort of introspective piece (that doesn’t follow any formula, that I can tell) where the alleged hero finds that the monster is understandable/relatable/not so bad and that maybe it is himself who is the real bad guy, or maybe it’s not clear which of them is bad–or maybe neither of them, etc. wishy-washy mush. The original Beowulf is about a hero who kills a couple of monsters, becomes a good king, then saves his kingdom by killing a dragon and dies a hero’s death. That’s it. Dude had a problem. Dude ripped its arm off and beat it over the head with it until it ran off and died. The end.

Westerns are a good example of this genre, too, because the story is straightforward: bad guys are tormenting the common people, harassing the womenfolk, poisoning the wells, etc. A hero rises up, defeats the bad guys, and then either gets the girl or rides off into the sunset to dispense justice wherever else it’s needed. The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Tombstone/Wyatt Earp, The Three MusketeersPirates of the Caribbean, and pretty much any and all other swashbuckling or western-type movies or books fit into this category.

Needless to say, your job is to make sure the hero wins in the end. Maybe he learns a little something along the way (the Antonio Banderas Zorro starts out just wanting to satisfy his own revenge, but ends up doing everything for the love of a woman and the oppressed masses), maybe he loses his good buddies along the way, maybe he falls in love–whatever happens, though, it must be a sideshow and the main attraction must be that the hero wins in the end (even if he dies, he must go out in a blaze of glory, beating all the bad guys and accomplishing all his goals). Don’t be like the bad movie version of Beowulf and have your hero walk away feeling conflicted and unsure about himself and leave the audience wondering who the good guy was: the supposed hero or the supposed bad guy. This is not the formula for moral gray areas. Everything is black and white, good versus evil.

Rites of Passage

These are coming-of-age stories, or the Golden Fleece stories minus the quest part. The entire purpose of the story is for the protagonist(s) to learn something about themselves and/or the world. Hopefully it’s good, but not necessarily. But this is not just about young people coming of age (think pretty much every Beverly Cleary book), but also people having a mid-life crisis or facing death (their own or someone else’s).

French KissFrench Kiss with Kevin Klein and Meg Ryan is probably best categorized as a Rite of Passage, because while the two characters fall in love while having some zany (mis)adventures, the story is really about Meg’s transformation. She is a somewhat paranoid and hypochondriac person who always plays it safe. Then her fiance leaves her for a French woman and she goes France to get him back. Kevin Klein (for ulterior motives) tries to help her get her man back by telling her how to act in a way that will intrigue him. The pivotal line in the movie comes after her fiance tells her, “It’s like a light’s been turned on inside you!” and she ends up asking him, “Why weren’t you the one to turn it on?” That’s when she realizes that she’s chasing someone that will never make her happy and that her happiness really needs to come from inside her–through her own confidence–not from a man.

And, while we’re watching Meg Ryan’s character change, we’re also watching Kevin Klein change. We see early on that he’s a diamond-in-the-rough, but in trying to help Meg change, he changes in the process as well and he realizes he doesn’t want to be rough anymore; he wants to wholly embrace his good side.

While a rites-of-passage story sounds like it might be serious or even glum, French Kiss is actually ranked as a romantic comedy, so it’s not required that the character brood darkly or grow up only through tragedy (e.g. The Fawn or Old Yeller).

Buddy Love

This encompasses buddy movies–Wayne’s World, Thelma & Louise–as well as many romantic movies (The King & I), and the classic boy-and-his-dog story (Lassie).

thelma-and-louise-reunionAt first, the buddies/romantic partners might be distrustful of one another or even hate one another, but they end up growing close. Then something might happen to drive them apart and it seems like it’s the end of their relationship for good, but then they overcome their own egos or the lies or the whatever was driving them apart and drive off into the sunset (or over a cliff) together.

In other cases, one buddy will be undergoing a fundamental change while the other buddy acts as a constant presence or even a catalyst for that change. The other buddy–especially in a romance–may need to learn to bend a little, too, but most of the change will come from one person.

The relationship is everything in this formula; it’s what moves the story forward. Any action taking place is just being used as a catalyst to affect the character’s relationship–to give them something to fight or bond over. With this formula, it is required that your buddies have to still be together in the end (even if that means they die together).


Rather than focusing on the “who,” this is more about the “why.” Most detective stories and some dramas and thrillers fall into this category. Blake describes it as, “the story is about seeking the innermost chamber of the human heart and discovering something unexpected, something dark and often unattractive, and the answer to the question: Why?” (Maybe this is why bad guys are always compelled to explain their evil plots before they kill the good guy: because the audience needs to know why it was done more than who was doing it.) He also points out that sometimes in trying to solve the case or catch the bad guy, the detective ends up confronting dark parts of himself–maybe he even does something immoral for the greater good, so the bad guy might get caught, but the good guy gets tarnished as a result.

JokerThe Dark Knight might actually fall into this formula (despite the fact that it appears to be a superhero movie). Let’s fact it, the movie is more about the Joker than Batman (which is good, because I hated Christian Bale as Batman–namely because of that terrible Batman voice he did). Batman is the detective and we are following along with him, constantly looking for a motive or reasoning behind the Joker’s attacks. If we can figure out why he’s doing them, then Batman (and us) will be able to figure out his next target in advance and catch him. Along the way, Batman (and others) are lured into traps by the Joker that makes it very hard to stay moral, so people are constantly being confronted by the question of how much morality would they be willing to give up in the greater good?

The Fool Triumphant

The bumbling dolt–the underdog–always manages to win. Forrest Gump is given as an example of this, but I saw someone else suggest that Life is Beautiful is also the story of a fool triumphant–while being set in the most unimaginable place possible for foolishness: the Holocaust. (While the “fool” dies in the end of the movie, his son survives, which was his real goal, so he gets to claim a victory.)

Another classic example: Rocky and Bullwinkle. Or Mr. Magoo. Or The Pink Panther. Or Dumb and Dumber. Obviously it’s a formula that lends itself well to comedies (especially slapstick), but Forrest Gump and Life is Beautiful are dramas, so it’s possible to play it seriously.

Blake points out that often the fool has a straight man as his sidekick or the person who winds up the butt of the jokes (often because he tries to interfere with the fool and stop him). The straight man often sees the fool for what he is, but can’t convince others that he’s really a dolt that’s incredibly lucky or riding on the coattails of others. (Think Inspector Gadget, who never realized that his niece and her dog were the ones solving all his cases while he got all the glory, or my husband’s suggestion, Get Smart.)

I would argue that there’s a secondary subset of this which is Dumb, but Not so Dumb. Your classic fools, like the Pink Panther, Inspector Gadget, and Mr. Magoo are 100% fools. But Forrest Gump actually falls into the Dumb, but Not so Dumb category because, despite the fact that he’s not smart–that he doesn’t get things that normal people get–he understands the things that are important, like love and friendship, and if people just take a minute to listen to him, they’ll receive really great wisdom.

Stop my momBlake Snyder was one of the writers of the screenplay for the old Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty movie, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and that’s arguably another Dumb, but Not so Dumb formula. Estelle Getty is the fool who cluelessly cleans her cop-son’s revolver in bleach (because it looked dirty) and meddles in his love life. But when she gets caught up trying to help her son solve a case, she smartly plays up her clueless old lady routine to trick the bad guys. So, like Forrest Gump, she’s at least partially aware of the fact that there are things she doesn’t understand, but she also knows what’s important, and she’s smart enough to take care of what matters.

As is obvious from the title, the requirement for this formula is that the fool must triumph. (What ends up happening to the straight man is anyone’s guess, though!)


This is the story about a group–usually told from the point of view of one member (or ex member) of the group. Oftentimes, we will begin the story with the narrator or main character entering the group for the first time, and as he learns the rules, the audience learns them as well. The “institution” can include schools, clubs, friends/cliques, families, the military, religious institutions, mental wards, etc. Blake gives examples including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, M*A*S*H, The Godfather Trilogy, The Breakfast Club, and Animal House. I daresay a lot of military movies fit into this formula, as well as movies about teenagers.

GatsbyThe Institutionalized formula is about learning to fit into the group. Or maybe it’s about wanting to fit in, then, at some point, realizing that everyone’s crazy/mean/evil, and then wrestling with the decision if you will go along with the group (i.e. succumb to peer pressure) or rebel and remain an independent person (and probably become an outcast). Lord of the Flies is also an example of the group-gone-bad situation. Or, in the case of The Great Gatsby, you have a man who desperately wants to belong to the Old Money clique, and he’s trying to buy his way in, because he’s certain if he can be rich enough and socially-acceptable enough, he will finally win the heart of his love, Daisy. But what he doesn’t realize is that he will always be on the outside looking in, and even though he intrigues Daisy (albeit mildly, I think), she is a permanent member of the Old Money clique and she never even considers bucking the group for him. And, unfortunately, he dies before he figures this out.

Perhaps more than most of the other formulas, there’s no real prescribed outcome for the Institutionalized formula. Maybe it’s a wholesome story about growing up in the Walton or Brady family and learning to work together as a team for the betterment of everyone, or maybe it’s about wanting to join a group and working really hard and getting into it, or maybe it’s about doing that and then realizing that there’s a dark side to the group and maybe you need to get out. Or maybe, like Gatsby, you die still trying to break into a group that will never accept you. Whatever light or dark turn this story takes, it is all about getting into, being in, or getting out of a group and how the group affects each other (if you’re following multiple characters fairly equally) or how it affects the main character.


This is not (necessarily) the tale of a radioactive-accident guy with supernatural powers. It’s actually the story of the misunderstood person. It is the Batman who wants to do good in the world, but is condemned as a vigilante. It is a group of people who want to save the world, but who are shunned as freakish or dangerous. It’s a genius who knows the answers to important things, but is shunned as crazy.

Blake suggests that the reason why superhero comic books are so popular with teens and “brainy geeks” (his words, not mine) is that those are two groups of people most likely to feel misunderstood and outcast.

And the superhero isn’t always an actual hero. Blake mentions Frankenstein as a superhero formula, but I would argue that only the Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein version with Kenneth Branagh follows the superhero formula. Frankenstein is himself a misunderstood genius, and he creates a monster that the audience ultimately ends up feeling sympathy for because it suffered from being misunderstood. But that’s only in that movie (and maybe other movie versions that I’m not familiar with). In the book, the monster is not sympathetic at all. It is an abomination that should have never been created. It is, perhaps, a Monster in the House, in that it’s hunting Frankenstein and he can never get away from it, but I think it’s really more a dark Out of the Bottle formula because Frankenstein wishes to create life, creates it, realizes too late that he’s done something evil, and his creation ultimately destroys everything he loved, then him. It is the unpleasant, Midas-style tale where the lesson is learned, but only at great (and irreversible) cost.

nosferatu_2He also mentions Dracula as a superhero. Again, most of the movies portray the vampire in a sympathetic light (Gary Oldman’s version, as well as the Klaus Kinski version of Nosferatu); it is not his fault that he’s a monster by nature; he could be better if only someone would understand him. However, in the original, silent version of Nosferatu–which stayed true to the formula in the book, Dracula–the vampire is just a Monster in the House and it needs to be eliminated before it can kill the protagonists and/or spread.

(So, as you can see, books and movies can tell the exact same story–have the same plot–but the way in which you present it–how you tell the story from the point-of-view of a different formula–changes the story measurably. It is the same thing… only different.)

The one thing that the superheros have in common is that they must suffer. Bruce Wayne may be mega-rich and have every toy imaginable, but he’s also permanently tormented by his parents’ deaths and the need to right every injustice in the world. Superman may seem to be invincible, but not only is there kryptonite to make a weak human out of him, but he also has to hide his true self, because he fears he would never be accepted as an alien strongman. Hercules is brought down by a goddess’ curse that causes him to go crazy and kill people–including his wife and child. No superhero can be perfect; each has to have his own version of kryptonite. Having a weakness makes him relatable; also, we’d hate anyone who had it all and lived a perfect life.

Think about fairy tales: Cinderella had to suffer her stepmother and stepsisters before she got her happy ending. Snow White, although a princess and a perfect beauty, was hunted by her stepmother and had to go into hiding. Even fairy tale princesses have to suffer being outcasts (and often suffer having awful families); even they have to face their own ruin or death before they can get the reward of a happily-ever-after. They are perfect, but their awful circumstances bring them down to our level.

Next Time…

Practice looking for the formulas in your favorite books and movies, because in Part II, we’re going to work on applying it to our own writing.

From Magna Carta to Agincourt to My 600th Post!

This is my 600th post, so I thought I ought to do something special for it. I thought about the fact that June 15 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta–a date which is almost upon us. But October 25th is the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, which obviously ties in perfectly with it being my 600th post.

Eh, why not feature both? I’m an over-achiever anyways, and you can never have too much history.

Magna Carta

(This is an article I originally wrote for my local SCA group’s newsletter.)

June 15, 2015 will be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. But, while you may have heard of it, you may not know what it did or why it’s gone down in history as one of the most important documents in Western civilization.

From the time of its formation, England was unlike the other kingdoms of Europe. The Anglo-Saxons brought to Britain an idea of kingship by election or right of arms. A king was only king so long as he had the support of his people and he was answerable—at least in some way—to them. If he failed them, then another powerful leader would emerge and challenge his right to the throne. There was no idea of divine right before the coming of Christianity.

In Anglo-Saxon times, kings made promises to their people in their coronation oaths. Later, the Normans—desperate to maintain their control over the Anglo-Saxons—began writing these oaths down as charters. They spelled out and made legally binding (theoretically, anyways) the rights of the nobles, and sometimes also addressed the rights of the Church and even freemen of the realm. Rather than rule with absolute authority—as the kings of France would later do—the kings of England had to barter with their people for their power.

In 1093, William II (the Conqueror’s son) issued a deathbed charter. It’s been lost, but it’s believed that it granted pardon, forgave debts, and promised that his heir would maintain all the currently-existing laws—in short, that he would not renege on anything his father passed which was beneficial to the people. William ended up not dying, though, and it appears that he himself reneged on the charter.

Later, in 1100, his nephew, Henry I, took the throne, even though his older brother was presumably still alive (albeit on Crusade). The previous king, his eldest brother, William Rufus, had not been popular, and the barons—the most powerful nobles in the kingdom at that time—were distrustful of Henry and his motives. So Henry created the Charter of Liberties (also known as the Coronation Charter) as a peace offering. In return for their support, he guaranteed certain protections:

  • The king would not take or sell any property from a Church upon the death of the abbot or bishop.
  • No baron or earl would have to purchase his inheritance.
  • While the barons and earls were supposed to consult with the king regarding the marriage of their kinswomen, the king was not allowed to block any “prudent” marriage. Widows were likewise to consult him regarding their remarriage, and likewise he would not block them if their choice was reasonable. The only thing he barred outright was the marrying of any of his “enemies.”
  • A baroness or countess who was widowed was not to be denied her dowry. The men appointed to oversee the inheritance of minor children were not be impeded.
  • Barons had a right to give away their possessions to charity, so long as they didn’t impoverish their heirs.
  • If barons committed a crime, they were not allowed to buy their way out of it by paying off the crown; they had to stand trial and answer for it as legally proscribed.
  • Knights who rendered military service and provided their own horses were not be required to also give grain and farm goods as a tax.

With the one exception made for the Church, all of Henry I’s guarantees were for nobles only. But it did limit the power of the king by enshrining certain rights. Rather than everything belonging to the king—to give and take at his pleasure—it allowed that at least some people (and the Church) had a legal right to their property—both real and personal; they could give it away or they could freely leave it to their heirs. They also had a right to their own bodies, as evidenced by the fact that the king could not marry the women against their will (“she [the widow] shall be allowed to remarry according to her wishes”), nor could he block a marriage unless it was beyond reasonable.

Unfortunately, the Charter of Liberties was forgotten until King John (of Robin Hood infamy) took the throne and drove a significant number of his barons to the brink of war in 1215 by excessively taxing them for a war in France which he subsequently lost. Also, like his immediate predecessors, he ruled with the idea that he was above the law and could therefore change laws arbitrarily as it suited him. This led to a lack of stability in the kingdom, since no one knew how to plan or act, since what might be legal now may be made illegal tomorrow without warning.


Runnymeade. (The monument was actually placed by the American Bar Association)

At Runnymeade, the Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded the two sides to meet and create a new charter that would avert open rebellion. However, both sides quickly reneged on their promises, the Pope (an ally of the king) revoked the charter, and a revolt happened anyways.

When King John died, his son, Henry III, was still in his minority. The regency government (under the leadership of William the Marshal) reissued the charter (minus a few of the most controversial bits) in 1216, and when peace was finally established in 1217, it officially received the name we now know: Magna Carta. In 1297, Henry’s son, Edward I (Longshanks), reissued the charter and declared it a permanent part of English statutory law.

King John

King John is forced to sign Magna Carta

After Parliament was established and began to issue laws, Magna Carta gradually lost its legal relevancy, although it gained a near-mythic status. When James I and Charles I, in the seventeenth century, tried to claim an absolute monarchy, such as the kings in France had, Magna Carta became a rallying cry for everyone who wanted to keep the power of the king in check. When Charles I refused to accept any limits on his sovereignty, he was executed. The monarchy was restored after the Commonwealth period, but all subsequent kings ruled with the knowledge that they were only there by the will of the people, and the people could withdraw their support if the king didn’t hold up his end of the social contract.

The idea of a government that was limited and that guaranteed certain rights to its citizens was the spark that began the fire of the American Revolution and subsequently generated the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. That is why a copy of one of the Edward I versions of the Magna Carta is housed in our capital alongside our other important documents. Although nowhere near the scope of our own founding documents, it certainly was the seed for all of them.

A Selection of Magna Carta Guarantees and Regulations

  • Guaranteed the freedom of the Church
  • Forbade the exploitation of a ward’s property by his guardian
  • Forbade guardians from marrying a ward to a partner of lower social standing
  • Guaranteed the rights of a widow to promptly receive her dowry and inheritance.
  • Forbade the forced remarriage of widows (also renewed the right of the king to forbid the remarriage of baronesses, within reason)
  • Protected debtors from having their lands seized, so long as they had other means with which to repay their debt
  • Prohibited lords from levying an “aid” (a one-time tax levied solely for the benefit of the lord) on their freemen, except to ransom themselves, pay for their oldest son to be knighted, or pay for their oldest daughter’s wedding.
  • Established a permanent location for the kingdom’s court of law (instead of having court wherever the king wished it)
  • Defined the authority and frequency of county courts.
  • Set standard measurements for wine, ale, grains, and cloth
  • Forbade the trial of anyone based solely on the word of a royal official
  • Forbade the sale of justice, its denial, or its delay
  • Guaranteed the safety and right of free entry and exit to foreign merchants
  • Permitted freemen the right to leave England for short periods of time (wartime being excepted)
  • Encouraged the lower lords to adhere to the same laws as the king

And compare our Constitutional Amendments with these from Magna Carta:

Articles 28, 30, 31: No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this. No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent. Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner.

Amendment 3 and 5: No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law. …[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Article 39: No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

Amendment 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Article 20: For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.

Amendment 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

As part of the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, all four remaining copies of the original 1215 version will be on display at the British Museum this year.



Agincourt is the battle which features in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

When Henry V came to the English throne, he made a claim to the French throne as well–as most of his predecessors had done. And, like his predecessors, he was willing to waive his claim to the throne in exchange for money, recognition that English holdings in France were indeed English, and, in his case, a marriage contract with Princess Catherine (which included a hefty dowry). But when the French countered with a marriage contract at half the amount of dowry asked for, no payment of gold, and no recognition of any English lands beside the Aquitaine, Henry was insulted and his Council and Parliament granted his request to declare war against the French.

In the middle ages, wars were almost exclusively waged in the summer when the weather allowed armies to move, food was readily available, and there was little for men to do on their farms. Campaigns generally ended in the fall when it was time to allow the men to go back to their land to get in their harvests. But Henry’s campaign into France didn’t start until rather late in the summer–August–and it began by besieging the port city of Harfleur. The city held for a little over a month, and by the time the English army had come to terms with the city and broke camp, it was October 8. But Henry couldn’t be sure that Parliament would grant him war taxes again the following year for another campaign–especially as taking only one city was hardly the sort of stuff to inspire people to endure another year of war and taxes. So instead of returning home, he headed towards Calais, seeking a richer prize before winter.

But the siege had created disease in his army (as sieges often did, mainly due to poor sanitation), and his army–which had never been terribly large–lost a lot of men along the way to dysentery, poor rations, and the hard marching conditions in increasingly bad weather. In fact, many of the men were so plagued by “the runs,” they stopped wearing underwear and rolled their hosen down to their knees or ankles so that they could squat on the side of the road and go without impediment.

Henry’s army had only 6,000-9,000 men when they were stopped by 12,000-36,000 French soldiers in a narrow strip of farmland between two forests and the road to Calais. There was nowhere for the English to go and there were even more French troops on the way. There was nothing for them to do but fight.

But, while it initially looked like the French had bottled up the English–giving them no choice but to stand and fight while still weak–the terrain actually worked in favor of the English, because–like the Spartans holding Thermopylae–the great numbers of French troops were funneled into a relatively small front, keeping them from outflanking the English army and negating their superior numbers.

Also, Henry’s army was made up primarily of longbowmen–anywhere from 3/4ths to 4/5ths of the soldiers were archers. The French were forced to come at the English while under constant arrowfire. The average English archer was capable of shooting up to 10 rounds per minute. Imagine, if you will, some 48,000 arrows flying through the air every minute, and you will understand why medieval witnesses to such battles said that the sky was darkened by arrows.

The French sent in their cavalry (as in most medieval battles, the bulk of the French knights fought on foot, so the cavalry was just a small portion of their army), but they found the English archers were well-protected behind a wall of sharpened stakes, which kept the knights from mowing down the lightly-armored archers. The French horses, however, were also lightly armored, and it was they who took the brunt of the archerfire. Wounded, the horses panicked, and the ones who didn’t go down, taking their riders with them, bolted back towards the French lines, where, instead, they mowed down their own troops as the first line of French infantry were moving up.

The horses also tore up the ground–which had been plowed post-harvest–and made even muddier by heavy fall rains. The French infantry found themselves trying to slog through mud said to have been knee-deep in places–all while under a constant rain of arrows. Then, to compound matters even worse, additional French foot soldiers were sent in too soon behind the first wave. The first men, slowed by the mud and their own dead and wounded, were soon joined by even more men trying to walk through even worse mud and even more dead and wounded. The press of the living and the dead slowed them up even more and sapped them of their strength. The heavily-armored French knights began to literally drown under the weight of their own armor as they were knocked down or struck by an arrow and found they were not able to get out of the mud under their own power. Contemporary French chroniclers said that there were knights who drowned in their own helmets because they became stuck, face-down, in the mud.

Those who survived the 300 yard death march found themselves in a meat grinder–engaging the English men-at-arms at the center of the English lines while the longbowmen on the edges of the line continued to fire at their flanks at near point-blank range. At such a short distance, the arrows were able to pierce all but the hardest and thickest pieces of armor (typically the helmet and breastplate), making the armor all but useless.

When the English archers ran out of arrows, they switched to their side swords, axes, maces, etc. hand weapons, and pushed in to the fray. Their light armor made it easier for them to cross the muddy fields and the French were so exhausted by this point, it was easy for the archers to hack down the flower of French chivalry.

The battle lasted approximately three hours. In that time, it is estimated that 7,000-10,000 French soldiers were killed while only 112 Englishmen were said to have died. And a portion of those dead were the members of the baggage train, who were attacked by a small French unit which managed to get behind the English army.