Almost Done . . .

final-cover-v3-for-ebookI finally got off my ass and uploaded The Flames of Prague and its cover to CreateSpace. Now I have to wait for their review. If they don’t see any obvious issues (like page numbering or margin issues–both of which I had to wrestle with before I submitted it), then I can order a proof copy.

Fingers crossed that the proof copy will look good. I’ve already had one that was almost perfect, so there wasn’t a lot of tweaking that was needed. If it looks good, the paper copy will go on sale immediately. Meanwhile, I’m going to start the process of stripping all the formatting out to turn it into an ebook.

I hope to have all formats published by next month.

Update!

Okay, so I’ve said several times that I’m going to start blogging regularly again. But I’ve fallen off that wagon faster than I’ve fallen off diets. But things are sort of starting to calm down in my life, meaning I ought to be able to give up a lunch hour or two every week to make a blog post.

So, where am I and what have I been up to?

Firstly, my husband and I bought a house in January and moved to beautiful Polk County, TN, within sight of the Cherokee National Forest and the Appalachian Mountains, and 15 minutes’ drive from the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater kayaking course.

559-white-rd-se-oldfort-tn-37362-1

Not the actual view from our house, but just down the road from our place. We’re actually so surrounded by trees, you can just barely see a little mountain peak from our front porch.

It’s everything we’ve wanted in a house: no visible neighbors, a creek, plenty of woods, and more. It even has a shed on the back of the garage that’s just what my husband has always wanted for a blacksmith’s shop.

Unfortunately, it has no internet. But, unlike many of our unfortunate neighbors in the area, we actually have the ability to get cable internet–if we only pay to have it run to the house. We’re over 900 feet from the road, so that’s no small expense, but we’re hoping to have it done in the next month or two.

And, of course, there are a lot of other projects and improvements to do around the house. We’re actually still trying to get unpacked and figure out where everything goes. (Although I did make good progress on my craft room recently; it will be ready to use soon.)

Secondly, I’ve finished the proofreading of The Flames of Prague. I just need to order a proof copy, check the new cover and the formatting, and format the print book for ebook. We’re going to a big event in a couple of weeks, but after that, I should be able to get the final formatting done. So the publishing date for Flames is no later than July 31st!

Thirdly, I’ve been hard at work on medieval stuff, including finishing my illustrated medieval history! So look for me to start posting those again. I’m also going to start blogging more about my medieval projects because I want to showcase what I’m working on. And I’ve about been talked into doing some YouTube videos of 14th century hairstyles. (I just started teaching them as a class at our SCA events.) IMG_20160321_143701_889

Fourthly, we have a dog now. We were planning on getting one once we got fully settled at our new place, but she found us first. (Someone apparently dumped her out at the storage place on a night that was too cold for a short-haired pup and far too close to the highway. She now has our sunroom as her very own room and a 5 acre yard to play in.) Based on her coloration, confirmation, and temperament, we believe Zorra to be a black lab/smooth fox terrier mix. Her hobbies include finding trash we didn’t even know we had in the yard and bringing it up to the house, chasing cats, and barking at the cows, horses, and donkeys in the field next door. She loves fetching a ball more than anything. She’s about 6 months old.

Fifthly, I finally started that garden that I wanted to do X number of years ago (and had given up as a pipe dream). All of our stuff is looking good and we’re just waiting for our first tomato to ripen. Biting the bullet and actually doing the work necessary to have even a small garden was hard, but now that we’re over that hump, I don’t think it will be so hard to get started in future years. Even though we haven’t harvested anything yet, we’re really into watching our herbs and plants grow. I mean, I’m counting blooms daily just to see where we stand. I think once we start eating what we’ve grown, we’ll be well and truly hooked. I already have plans for expansion next year! (Not to mention we want to start planting fruit and nut trees this fall.) Up next: chickens!

So, now that we have our own place, we can settle down and start working on long-term and outdoor projects. It’s a lot going on, but it’s a lot to share, too.

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).

Jerusalem

 

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.

sholom.regular

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.

kohelet.regular

 

 

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.

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).

Whydunit

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!)

Institutionalized

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.

Superhero

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.

How Does This Thing Work? Do I Remember?

chattanooga

Chattanooga: The Scenic City

Hey, look, it’s a blog! Someone just left it sitting here idle….

So, finally, some good news on the personal front. For those of you who don’t remember what happened nine months ago, when the radio went silent here on… whatever I call this blog… Kinky Vampires Sniffing Potpourri, or something like that–I got a new job at my old company, which entailed a move to Chattanooga. Except that we had a house 140 miles away that we needed to get rid of, and the only way we could afford rent in one town and pay a mortgage in the other was if I had a small studio apartment that wasn’t big enough for two people. So my husband stayed at home and worked on packing, cleaning up, and making repairs, and I had the fun task of working all week, then driving the 140 miles home on the weekend to pack, clean, and make repairs. Every weekend. For nine months.

Except, partway through, I: 1) got a small promotion and my own office (yessss!); 2) the husband got a temp job in Chattanooga (that we’re hoping will become permanent); 3) since we couldn’t both fit into my studio, we got a nice house (we moved upstairs from the basement where I was living, actually; it worked out great); and 4) we SOLD THE HOUSE THIS WEEKEND!

So, hopefully, the closing will go through in 30-45 days, we will make one more run to Eagleville to empty our barn-garage, and then we’ll have our weekends back! (And, if we ever finish unpacking, we’ll have our evenings back, too!)

Okay, so now it’s confession time. You may think that with all this packing and commuting and general crazy-don’t-have-a-life situation that I haven’t had time to write. Well, I have been writing… fan fiction, of all things.

Oh, it started innocently enough. I was vegging out, playing some Legend of Zelda, when I thought to myself, this game is telling a story. And, frankly, it could be better; they’re a bit hazy on the back story–to the point that parts don’t quite make sense… like you’re missing a bit of information.

And I thought to myself, “Pfft, I could write a story for a game.” So, that’s what I set out to do.

I must admit, the project has gotten a lot bigger than I originally intended (isn’t that always the case?), but it does have an end, and I’ll eventually reach it. LOZ_CircleofDestiny2.jpg

I’ve learned some things along the way that have made the effort worthwhile. One, I had to plot the story in advance. For a story like this (any quest-type story, actually), you have to know where you’re going in advance so that you can put the people/weapons/magic thingamabobs in place before your character(s) need them. As you may remember from earlier confessions, I’m a pantser; I rarely have anything more than a vague idea for a plot in my head when I begin to write; I make it up as I go. So plotting each. and. every. chapter. in. advance. was a unique experience for me. At first, I didn’t like it, because I felt like it was stifling my creativity; I didn’t like having to stick to a script. But, eventually, I figured out that, while I really can’t take away chapters, I can add them. So, if I want to get off on a tangent, I can, so long as it fits between the chapters I’ve already written and the ones that I must write. (This is why it’s gotten a bit long; I got a little crazy with going off script.)

I think I’m going to apply this new-found knowledge of pre-plotting to The Bloodsuckers, since pantsing a serial novel is pretty damn hard. I think it would be easier on me to meet regular publishing deadlines if I took the time to sit down and plot my chapters in advance, and then write them. If I get a brilliant idea along the way, then I can just insert an extra chapter.

The other thing I learned is that I write relationships. Whatever the action or mystery, at the heart of any story I write, there must be people having at least some sort of relationship. I think this is why my idea for a dystopian novel has floundered. I think it’s a good idea, but it just doesn’t want to write. And I think that’s because the main character is alone and he stays alone (aside from a brief relationship). Dialogue has always been my strong suit and I just can’t do dialogue with only one person (or with people who don’t readily communicate with one another.)

I think the other thing I’ve learned is that you can really get your ego stoked publishing fan fiction. I’ve only had one bad review out of 229 (and that was someone who was complaining that Link was too much of a goody two-shoes. I can’t help that; I didn’t invent him; he’s always noble and self-sacrificing in the games) and I’ve had over 53,000 reads, which is a median count of about 500 reads per chapter. That’ll make any author feel better about themselves. (Which is good, because I’m not exactly racking up huge sales figures for my published stuff.)

Speaking of published stuff…. Now that I’m soon to have time again, I’m going to try to salvage my publishing schedule for The Flames of Prague and, hopefully, get it published by the end of this year. I’ve read through it and have marked up the printed copy with my first round of grammatical edits (it’s already had a major structural edit). I just need to make those changes to the electronic file, then print another copy and do another grammatical edit (or three).

I read somewhere that if you have to proofread your own stuff (which, of course, is never a good idea, but when I looked at the price of professional proofreaders, it was going to be $1,000+ for Acceptance; I’m a long way away from affording that), you should start at the back of the book and read forward. If you read from front to back, you get caught up in the story and your eyes read faster and skip more; they will naturally fill in what’s missing. But, if you read from back to front, that doesn’t happen nearly so much and you can take it one sentence at a time.

But, let’s not talk about proofing, because that’s boring and everyone hates to do it. Let’s talk book covers. Yes, you know I’m a Photoshop junkie who can’t leave well enough alone. This weekend, I got a wild hair and started to play around with Photoshop (it had been so long since I used it, too, I had almost forgotten how).

This is my original idea for Flames, which I was never quite happy with:

Final-Cover-for-WebI mean, I liked the back and the layout, but I just wasn’t digging the front cover. It looked a little too ‘shopped. And, despite the fact that it’s a legitimate, Pre-Raphaelite piece of art, I thought that the naked woman was a little risque. Yes, it’s a romance novel, but it’s not erotica, for God’s sake.

So, here’s the alternative that I came up with, which I already like much better:

Cover-(Alternate)You can see that I left the formatting pretty much the same, but I went with a different type of flame and a very different picture (although still a Pre-Raphaelite piece; I can’t help it; they did a lot of romantic medieval pieces).

What do you think? Better than the first one? And yes, it’s supposed to look like they’re being burned at the stake. That’s in keeping with the threat they’re facing.

The only thing it doesn’t have going for it is any hint of a city, but, actually, Jakub and Alzbeta not only meet in the woods, but they flee to them, too, while the city is on fire.

Medieval History in Books, Part II

This is a continuation from a previous post….

If You Were Cold… 

Too bad.  If you were in Northern Europe/England, we’re talking like, really cold.  There was a what’s known as the Little Ice Age smack in the middle of the Middle Ages, but even without that, castle and village life was pretty cold.

Of course, they had really warm blankets. Furs.  And rooms were small, to conserve heat.  Rugs or tapestries covered the walls and helped a little.  And, of course, there would be a lot of people there with you to help spread the heat.  But still, it’d be cold.  Really cold.  Yet we rarely see the heroine performing her morning toiletry by plunging her hands through the layer of ice that’s formed in the water bucket overnight.

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This weeper on Thomas and Catherine Beauchamp’s tomb in Warwick, England is wearing a bulky (probably fur-lined) sleeveless coat.

Yep, it was cold. At one point, Jakub rides to Prague during the winter and there is a long list of clothes that he’s wearing: a linen undershirt and braies, two pairs of woolen hosen, leather boots up to the knees, a woolen doublet lined in linen, a woolen cotehardie lined in linen, a woolen coif lined in linen, a wool hood lined in linen, a woolen cloak with hood lined in fur, fur split-fingered mittens, and a fur cover thrown over the saddle to help keep his rear-end warm.

But I don’t think a lady of any means would have willingly put her hands into ice water. Common women might have had to suffer that (although, if they’re going to have a fire to cook breakfast on, they’re going to have heat to warm up water, too), but a lady would have been woken by her maidservant in the morning with a pitcher and/or bowl of warm water for washing up.

If You Were Sick…

Bring on the leeches. 

I have never, ever seen a hero in a romance get ‘hung with leeches.’ (That’s what what they called it.  Is that not bad enough?)  I’ve never seen a romance heroine hung with leeches.  It’s probably not going to happen much, at least not on-screen.

I have to admit, while Jakub is injured and Alzbeta has to take care of him, leeches are not applied. (Although her father, a doctor, does explain to her that when there is a bruise full of blood under the skin, it needs to be lanced or, preferably, drawn out using leeches.)

Interestingly, leeches are now being used in modern medicine. They have anti-inflammatory and numbing properties in their saliva, which can actually be used to ease joint pain. They also encourage circulation and have been used to save the feet and legs of diabetics, which notoriously suffer from poor circulation. And, most commonly, they are being used on digits that have been reattached. Their saliva also contains a blood thinner (which is why they work well on hematomas) and, as I mentioned, they help increase circulation as they suck blood. The number one cause of failure in digit reattachment is poor circulation (it’s impossible to reattach every tiny blood vessel; a doctor can only hope to attach enough that the digit will survive long enough to heal the ones he can’t reattach).  Personally, if I ever have to have a digit or limb reattached (God forbid), I won’t rest until they give me leeches. They have a great rate of success. I’ll suffer some leeches if it means keeping my fingers or hand.

Medieval amputees.

Medieval amputees.

Body Parts Strewn

Seriously.  People would have a lot of missing body parts.  Teeth, arms, ears.  Malnutrition, battle, tournaments (especially the early ones) and a multitude of bad accidents with various implements of destruction/farming/milling, populated the medieval town or castle with a motley-looking crew.  Still, we rarely see our heroes missing arms or eyes.  Unless they’re a pirate, of course, with the patch and all.

Jakub has led a fairly charmed life. While he has bad knees and some scars—including one running through his right eyebrow and just missing the outside corner of his eye—he is otherwise whole and healthy. As he spends some time thinking about proposing marriage, he goes through his list of good qualities, which include having good teeth, no bad breath, no pockmarks or warts or other disfigurements, and only the minor facial scar.

He is forty years old, though, which is pretty unusual for a romantic hero (but not terribly unusual for a first-time bridegroom in the middle ages).

I will note, however, although Jakub is more-or-less unmaimed, there is a good deal of maiming and general slaughter that happens during the course of the book. Jakub is witness to the attack on the Jews of Prague, and there are people burned alive, and hacked into pieces, and a few hundred lie dead of suicide. Even Jakub is not above hacking a few people up (all for a good cause, of course).

The moral of the story is: the middle ages could be quite violent, depending on where you lived and who you were.

thumbs_778-hand01

A 16th century prosthesis–one of several still in existence.

But I have to admit I am now intrigued by the idea of a maimed hero. My husband and I were recently discussing prosthetic hands in the middle ages; I think I might need a future hero who is missing a hand.

 

The Frequent and Varied Uses of Urine

Urine was a very useful agent in the middle ages.  It was used for everything from working wool to building plaster.  They used it as a cleaning agent and to diagnose illnesses.  And it keeps the hands nice and soft!  Mmmm. 

Yep. Muslim doctors were the first to discover a link between sweet-tasting urine and health problems. While they didn’t understand diabetes, they did understand that it could be bettered through diet.

I can’t confirm that people used urine on the hands, but I do know that stale urine turns into ammonia, which was indeed used to clean and process wool, to bleach fabric, to whiten leather, and, if memory serves, it was an ingredient in whitewash (but don’t worry–the cob-walled houses were made with a mixture of mud, clay, and cow manure; what’s a little urine going to hurt?)

The ‘Facilities’

Not a pretty thing.  When privy chambers were inside a castle, there was simply a chute that ran to the outside, and straight down the wall.  Some of the refuse might make it into the moat or other defensive ditch surrounding the castle.  Some would stick along the way.  Even today, centuries later, many castle walls are still stained.

And then there’s the accoutrements.  We have toilet paper.  They had . . . straw.  Or moss.  Or soft leaves.  Sometimes in richer homes, there’s been a linen cloth.  Or . . . your hand.

In my antiquated collection of printed photographs, I actually have a picture of a privy in Chepstow Castle (Wales). You can see through the toilet hole down to the moat about thirty feet below. (It was a pretty blustery March day then; I can’t imagine trying to sit on that drafty hole and doing my business–much less in the dead of winter.)

The Museum of London digs found a lot of fabric scraps in the medieval latrines in London. It seems that the leftover scraps of fabric that were too small to use for clothes were turned into toilet paper and sanitary napkins.

I don’t discuss toilet paper in my book, but Jakub does use a chamberpot in one scene. (Yes, he is wealthy enough to have both a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out of.)

Food was highly colorful and wildly spiced…

Often to disguise the fact that the meat was rancid. Fortunately, if you were a peasant, you wouldn’t be getting much meat.

I disagree with this—although it’s often repeated.

The first thing it assumes is that medieval people were somehow immune to food poisoning. While people’s immune systems and digestive tracts can adjust to quite a bit (for example, native people in India do not usually suffer from horrible diarrhea when they drink their water, whereas Westerners are doomed if they just brush their teeth with it), I don’t think medieval people were able to eat rotting meat with impunity. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out a cause and effect relationship between eating something stinky, getting an upset stomach, and grabbing the chamberpot.

Medieval food was spiced, but I think that’s because they liked it. I have eaten many medieval dishes and have never been put off by the spice level (not even some garlic spread which was so strong, it burned—but then, I like garlic). In fact, I won’t even eat a modern beef roast; they’re far too bland. Actually, most meat these days is far too bland. Once you go medieval and start using things like cardamom and star anise and coriander, you’ll never want to go back to just salt and pepper.

Medieval recipes almost never have any sort of measurements. We know what spices they used, but rarely do we know how heavily they spiced things. Of course, a lot of that depended on the cook; was she a heavy hand or not? Did the master like things strong or mild? Was the dish being cooked for a sick person (mild) or for a regular meal (stronger)? How expensive was the spice?

Jakub and Alzbeta get a spice box at one point in the book and it’s mentioned that the saffron and cinnamon in the box are worth nearly their weight in gold. One does not heap spices like that onto food willy-nilly.

So it’s impossible to say they put a lot of spice on food to cover up the bad taste, because we don’t know how much they actually used. A little bit of several spices is still relatively mild.

butcherAnd medieval people understood meat preservation. Large animals—i.e. those which will generate leftovers—were slaughtered in the winter. Once they were processed, the meat could be hung up in a cellar or outbuilding, where the cold temps (remember those?) would keep the meat frozen all winter. So, it was no different than us keeping meat in a deep freezer, only there was probably less chance of freezerburn.

Secondly, medieval people smoked meat, which also preserves it. Fireplaces in a lord’s kitchen were typically large—large enough for at least a good-sized child to get inside. Hooks would be set inside the chimney and, using a ladder or pole with a hook, meat would be suspended from the chimney hooks. Then the smoke from the cook fire would smoke the meat. (How’s that for multi-tasking?) Even in peasant houses (and earlier in the middle ages, before the invention of chimneys), meat could be suspended from rafters around the smoke hole to take advantage of the hearth fire..

medieval-woman-cooking-with-cat-nearby

You can easily hang meat up to smoke inside this type of chimney.

Finally, modern scientists are starting to understand something that our ancient ancestors probably figured out long ago: some spices help reduce spoilage. Two spices that help preserve meat are cloves (commonly used in Europe during the middle ages) and hot peppers/chiles (commonly used in India and South America). Was medieval food spiced not because it was spoiled, but to keep it from spoiling?

We can’t say for certain, but I recently cleaned out some Indian leftovers which had been in my fridge for at least three weeks (okay… maybe a month). But, despite the fact that it wasn’t hotly spiced, it was still almost good—there was only a tiny bit of mold on it in one spot and it didn’t stink at all. If I noticed that my chili-spiced lasted a lot longer than usual, don’t you think that medieval people would have noticed that too?

I will add this caveat: have you ever opened a package of sandwich meat or a container of leftovers and sniffed it and hesitated? There comes a point when something smells stronger than normal, but doesn’t actually smell “bad.” Modern people tend to play it safe and toss it, but medieval people would probably have eaten it; it was too expensive to waste.

Medieval Cookbooks and Free Recipes: Gode Cookery

The Good News:

Drinking ale was good for you.

The medieval person didn’t get a lot of vitamins, particularly A, C, and D, and in general, especially amid the lower classes, they didn’t get a whole lot of calories either.  No, this isn’t the good news.  The good news is that, as a result, drinking ale fortified you, especially with calories. 

Yep (although the body makes Vitamin D naturally when it’s exposed to sunlight; medieval people would have gotten plenty of that). Ale was the everyday drink of choice. Jakub serves it to his common folk when he hosts them for dinner, and Alzbeta’s father gives him some when he is visiting. Wine was the preferred drink of the nobility, although it was usually reserved for mealtimes (ale was still used to quench thirst). Jakub and Alzbeta’s parents both serve wine with meals.

Medieval wine and ale/beer was not as alcoholic as modern varieties. Whereas modern beers are allowed to ferment for a few weeks, then bottled and allowed to “rest” for at least another week or two, medieval ales were considered ready for drinking after a few days. (The longer the yeast sits, the more alcohol it produces.) Even wines were only left in barrels for a few weeks instead of the months to years that modern wines sit.

This is the reason why people could drink upwards of a gallon of ale a day without falling down drunk; it was just alcoholic enough to kill any bacteria living in the water, but no stronger.

But that’s not to say that every ale and wine was weak; they were certainly capable of making stouter stouts. And people were certainly capable of drinking enough to get drunk, if they wanted to. But the average daily consumption of wine/ale probably produced no more buzz in a medieval person that our coffee/cola habits do today.